Book review: Tides of War by Stella Tillyard

There is much to enjoy in Stella Tillyard’s sweeping Regency romance ... but think more the subtlety of Jane Austen than the treacle tones of Georgette Heyer.

Tides of War, longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012, is Tillyard’s first novel and, as one would expect from an acclaimed historian, this is an absorbing history lesson as well as an epic story set against early 19th century England and the battlefields of the Peninsular War.

She creates a vivid, credible panorama, a superbly detailed and atmospheric portrait of a tumultuous period when the Age of Enlightenment was opening new doors and giving Europeans a taste of hitherto unknown freedoms – the opportunity for men and women to push boundaries and reach out to the future.

The focus is on the final three years of the Napoleonic wars and a fictional couple, Captain James Raven and his new wife Harriet, whose lives are changed not just by the conflict in Europe, but by a world teetering on modernity.

Their evolving relationship – its temptations and challenges – plays out against the darker diversions of war, the birth of banking, advances in gas lighting, and the work of battlefield doctors who experimented with the likes of blood transfusion as they fought to save critically injured soldiers.

While the Duke of Wellington, taut, alert and calculating, gets to grips with defeating Napoleon in Spain, and his long-suffering wife Kitty quietly invests her spare cash with the founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty in London, other progressive names of the period – lighting pioneer Frederick Winsor, Spanish artist Goya and astronomer William Herschel – also make memorable appearances.

Lively, outspoken and free-spirited, Harriet has a penchant for science inherited from her father and a quote from Shakespeare for every occasion. Husband James is far more conventional and is leaving to join the Duke of Wellington’s troops in Spain where his regiment is helping to win back Badajoz from Napoleon.

James is invigorated by the perils of war and admits that his life in England now appears ‘dull and insignificant.’ ‘Fighting suits me,’ he observes to a friend. ‘I am busy here, and my service to the army valued.’

Meanwhile, in London, Harriet is lodged with her aunt and taken under the wing of Lady Wellington who, in Tillyard’s seductive hands, becomes an early feminist determined to gain financial independence from her womanising husband.

While the women plunge into the new worlds of politics, finance and science, the men face the bloody reality of the battlefield, testing their endurance to the hilt. For Harriet and James, pursuing their destinies brings hope and heartache, and with betrayals on both sides, it is uncertain whether their love can endure...

Tillyard’s entertaining and ambitious novel has a huge cast of characters, some real and some imaginary, and its reach is impressively wide. Fact and fiction intertwine in a compelling network of plotlines which impress with their scope and enchant with the human realities of war, love and separation.

She brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of 200 years ago – Seville’s mantillas, clicking palms and streets like ‘torrid canyons,’ London alive with ‘redoubtable women with slabs of folio sheets over their arms, who shouted the news... milk-and-fruit-sellers, beggars and old soldiers, the slap of metalled boots on the flags, the screech and creak of laden carts.’

A thrilling and confident new voice in the ever expanding world of historical fiction.

(Vintage, paperback, £7.99)