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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

The Capel Letters 1814-1817; Being the Correspondence of Lady Caroline Capel

The Capel Letters 1814-1817; Being the Correspondence of Lady Caroline Capel and her daughters with the Dowager Countess of Uxbridge from Brussels and Switzerland. Edited by The Marquess of Anglesey (with an introduction by Sir Arthur Bryant). Jonathon Cape, London, 1955. 248 pages, some black and white illustrations. Hardcover. (Out of Print.)

The Capel Letters cover

What happened in Brussels while Wellington fought at Waterloo? "...Every hour teems with reports of various kinds....[the French] would not dare discover themselves with such British & Hanoverian Force in the Town and Neighbourhood." So wrote Lady Caroline Capel (1773-1847) from Brussels on the 17th of March, 1815. Napoleon was still on the loose somewhere in France and the outcome of his daring escape unclear. These might well have been famous last words, but of course we know now they were quite prophetic - Napoleon did dare to enter the neighbourhood —some 3 months later— with disastrous results for himself.

Of course they weren't her last words, rather they are part of a wonderful collection of letters that spanned 1814-1817 and including a wonderful series of them describing life in Brussels leading up to and following the Battle of Waterloo.

I stumbled across this book first in a dusty corner of my local library. I had just finished the 7th Marquess of Anglesey's biography of his famous ancestor, the 1st Marquess, who, apart from leading the cavalry at Waterloo, led an exceptionally interesting life complete with elopements, duels, and some 17 children to show for it —but that is another story. While searching under his name I turned up this absolute treasure of a book edited by the 7th Marquess.

While the first Marquess of Anglesey was busy sorting out the cavalry at Waterloo, his sister, Lady Caroline, had long been resident in Brussels, forced to retire there rather hastily because of her husband's unfortunate propensity for gambling. Perhaps it is just me, but Ive noticed there is a tendency to confine our discussion and analysis of Waterloo strictly from the point of view of military observers — civilian life is left to the embellishing touches of fiction with authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Georgette Heyer. Yet many of the accounts from non-military observers of events are as compelling as the battle itself. There is also a wonderful letter written by Lady Caroline to her mother on the 18th of June —she has no idea that 10 miles down the road the battle is in full swing— she only knows that something must happen.

I have tracked down various accounts of life in Brussels during those famous "Hundred Days" and the Capel Letters rate as one of the best. Perhaps because they are a collection of letters not just from Lady Caroline, but also from Lady Caroline's three daughters as well; all of whom were young adults at the time. Or maybe because the letters themselves have an almost "Hollywood" tension. Lady Caroline was pregnant with the baby due sometime in June, a brother actually in the battle. Then there is the careless discussion during the days leading up to Waterloo and the rather fraught nature of the letters written after the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the 15th. It all makes for gripping reading.

Reviewed by Anne Woodley, editor of the Regency Collection On-Line.