Reviews: Fiction

The Romance of War or the Highlanders in Spain

Grant, James (1822-1887). The Romance of War or the Highlanders in Spain. London: Sands & Co, 1907. 502 Pages. Hardcover.

(First published in 1848[1] this review uses the 1907, 2nd edition.)

James Grant was a prolific author of over fifty novels, short stories, articles and miscellaneous historical works. The Romance of War or the Highlanders in Spain (1848) was the first of his numerous historical novels and is set in Scotland, Spain and Belgium in the years 1811 to 1816. It tells the story of Ronald Stuart, the son of an impoverished Highland  Laird, who becomes an officer in the 92nd Regiment (Gordon Highlanders) and his adventures in the Peninsular War and the Waterloo campaign. Ronald's best friend, Louis Lisle, also becomes an ensign in the regiment and joins Ronald in Spain where they fall out over a misunderstanding about Ronald's betrothal to Louis' sister Alice. There is an element of the Romeo and Juliet in this story as both fathers have been feuding for many years and conducting costly court cases.

James Grant was born in Edinburgh in 1822. His father John served with the Gordon Highlanders during the Peninsular War and James probably drew heavily on his father's and fellow officers' memories for his book[2]. James himself served briefly from 1839 (for 2 years) with the 62nd Regt. He was a founder member of the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights which sought to gain more Parliamentary time for Scottish affairs and correct breaches in the Treaty of Union[3].

Although James is a competent author his writing is not great literature. He writes in the style of a Sir Walter Scott novel (to whom he was distantly related). It was an immensely successful book when published. His portrayal of the nationalities is stereotypical and bigoted, but it was probably what his audience expected. British officers are all brave and foolhardy with a liking for drink, even on duty[4]. There is the Major that bores everyone with his continual stories of his time serving under Abercrombie in Egypt. The Scottish soldiers are brave and fiercely loyal. The Germans are loud. The Spanish are mostly sneaky and devious, especially his bitter enemy Narvaez Cifuentes. Although one or two are noble. The French are of course a courageous enemy but not really proper gentlemen. There is a scattering of romances with dusky senoritas and a whole host of coincidences that allow him to continually get entangled with his various adversaries. He only just makes it in time for Waterloo where he is wounded which allows him a chance of another romance with a Belgian nun who nurses him back to health. He cannot believe it is right for such a beautiful young girl should closet herself away and tries to save her from her chosen vocation, if she had been fat he probably would have cared less. After a time with the army of occupation in France he returns home, and there are vivid descriptions of the rapturous welcome for the regiment, to marry his childhood sweetheart – no surprises there.

In his time Grant was considered a military expect who was consulted by the British Government and his book is full of historical minutiae. But there are errors and it is fun spotting them. All the French cavalry in Spain seem to be cuirassiers and the infantry all bear-skinned Imperial Guardsmen. However I fail to do the book justice because every now and then out of the melodrama there is a sudden jolt, often quite shocking, to the reality and horror of war whether the rape of a Spanish lady or the horrific mutilation in battle.

There is one section where he describes the discomforts of a wet bivouac without the benefits of tents[5].

"It became fair about daybreak, and Ronald, unable to remain longer on the ground, where the water was actually forming in puddles around him, arose; and so wet was the soil, that the impression made by the weight of his body was almost immediately filled with water. His limbs were so benumbed and stiff he could scarcely move, and his clothing was drenched through the blanket and cloak in which he had been muffled up."

And those of you who have ever slept out, especially in the days before wicking thermal underwear, will surely appreciate this part

"Ronald wrung the water from the feather of his bonnet, and kept himself in motion to dry his regimentals and underclothing, which stuck close to his skin."

Near the end of the book there was one particular episode which amused me. Ronald's elderly and dying father loses his castle in his final and ultimately futile court case with the Lisle family. He emigrates to Newfoundland with his clan (James Grant spent several of his boyhood years in Canada when his father served with the Newfoundland Regiment).They are shipwrecked and there is only one boat. The loyal retainer claims the boat for his dying laird leaving women and children to drown – James Grant seems to think this is reasonable and acceptable behaviour!

A novel can sometimes tell you things that memoirs or history books cannot but this book did not give me the insight into the minds and real attitudes of the officers and men of the period that I was hoping.  Having said that I did find the book a worthwhile read and would be inclined to try another of his Napoleonic period novels.

Notes:

[1] An 1850 edition is available on Google Books at http://books.google.com/books?id=6FgJAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=James+Grant+%2B+romance+of+war#PPP7,M1

[2] Gardyne, Lt.Col. C. Greenhill. The Life of a Regiment. Vol I. 2nd Edition, 1929 (Naval & Military Press reprint), p.255.

[3] I have obtained these brief biographical details on James Grant from the following websites:

http://www.geo.ed.ac.uk/scotgaz/people/famousfirst2582.html

http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/Scotlit/ASLS/Salute_to_an_Adventurer.html

http://www.tollcross.org/PostCalendar-11-05-2008-event-805.htm

[4] Maybe the drunkenness that plagued the British army in the 1790’s and described by Fortescue (History of the British Army, Vol.IV, p. 297) had not been totally eradicated from the officer corps.

[5] It seems Grant made a habit of interspersing his novels with interjections on the unnecessary hardships experienced by British soldiers, and the lack of tents gets several mentions in this book.

Reviewed by Peter Thorn

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2008

 

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