I find it rather amazing to think through all the steps that go from the first idea for a book to publication. I remember distinctly when I got the initial idea for my latest Malcolm & Suzanne (Charles & Mélanie) book Imperial Scandal, which was released last week. I was driving along the reservoir near my house, and I realized that the book would begin with Malcolm meeting a contact, an ambush, and a woman killed in the crossfire, a civilian who seemingly had no place in their world of espionage.
A great deal of "what if" followed. But I knew from the beginning that this book would begin in the frenetic whirl of Brussels after Napoleon's escape from Elba and would take Malcolm and Suzanne through the Duchess of Richmond's ball, the news that the French were on the march, and the battle of Waterloo.
In March 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from his exile on the island and Elba and landed at Frejus in France with a thousand men. A number of soldiers deserted the restored King Louis XVIII to join Napoleon. Louis XVIII fled, and Napoleon marched on Paris and resumed power. His escape threw the Congress of Vienna (where I left Malcolm and Suzanne at the end of Vienna Waltz) into chaos. They declared Napoleon at outlaw and prepared for war.
In Belgium, an Allied Army of British and Dutch-Belgian soldiers defended the frontier, at first under the command of the Prince of Orange, the twenty-three-year-old, British-raised son of the King of the Netherlands, then under Wellington himself, who left his position as ambassador at the Congress of Vienna to take command. A number of British ex-patriates also flocked to Brussels that spring. While Wellington, with many of his best troops still in America, tried to put together a credible army to face Napoleon, soldiers and civilians filled their days with picnics and military reviews and their nights with balls and royal receptions and nights at the opera.
In June 1815 he British, the Dutch-Belgians, and the Prussians were spread out along the border between Belgium (part of the Netherlands after Napoleon’s downfall) and France, the British and their Dutch-Belgian allies, under the Duke of Wellington, to the west of the old Roman road from Bavay to Maastricht, the Prussians, under Marshal Blücher, to the east. Eventually, when their Austrian allies were ready, they would advance into France to take on Napoleon, returned to power after his escape from Elba. But if Napoleon, as seemed likely, crossed the border first they would close in and trap him. Only of course it was a long border and there were any number of ways the master strategist Napoleon Bonaparte could move. Together, the Allies and the Prussians outnumbered the French. But if he could separate them, Napoleon would have the advantage.
On 15 June one of the most prominent British ex-patriates, the Duchess of Richmond, gave a ball at the house in the Rue de Blanchisserie that she had her husband had taken in Brussels. Among the guests were many officers in the Allied Army along with a gilded assortment of diplomats, Belgian royals, and dignitaries. Of course the Duke of Wellington. He was an old friend of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond, looked on as a sort of indulgent uncle by their large family of children. Three of the Richmonds’ sons were in the army.
The ballroom was a converted carriage house, where the Lennox children played battledore-and-shuttlecock and the youngest members of the family did their lessons. The duchess draped the rose trellis wallpaper with swags of crimson, gold, and black, the Royal colors of the Netherlands. Ribbons, wreaths, and flowers garlanded the pillars. It was a warm evening ,but the younger Lennoxes threw open the French windows that ran along one side of the room, letting in a welcome breeze. The duchess, a daughter of the Duke of Gordon, had engaged kilted sergeants and privates from the 92nd Foot and the 42nd Royal Highlanders to entertain the company with sword dances.
Rumors that the French were on the move swirled throughout the ballroom. Wellington was late, adding to the talk. By the time he arrived with a group of his aides-de-camp, as skilled at waltzing as they were at war, the duke had known for some hours that Napoleon has crossed the frontier from France. But he believed the reported attacks to the east were a feint. He thought the real attack would come from the west, to separate them from the sea and their supply lines. He needed confirmation before he could order the army to march. Meanwhile, he needed to forestall panic and also to confer with a number of his officers, who were conveniently gathered together at the ball.
Wellington confessed to the duchess’s daughter, Georgiana Lennox, that the army was off tomorrow, but he gave every appearance of sang-froid. As the company moved into the hall on the way to supper, a mud-spattered officer, Harry Webster, pushed his way through the crowd. He had a message for the Prince of Orange. The twenty-three-year-old prince, commander of the Dutch-Belgian army based on his birth not his experience, tucked the message away unread, but Wellington asked to see it. Wellington read the message and at once ordered Webster to summon four horses for the Prince of Orange’s carriage. The message, from Constant de Rebecque, whom the prince had left in charge at his headquarters, revealed that Bonaparte had crossed the Sambre river at Charleroi. He was attacking not from the west but on the Allies’ eastern flank, trying to separate them from their Prussian allies.
Wellington maintained a cheerful demeanor through supper, laughing with young Georgiana Lennox and his Brussels flirt, Lady Frances Webster. But after supper, he asked the Duke of Richmond if he had a map of Belgium in the house. In the duke’s study, Wellington stared down at the map spread on the desk and declared that “Napoleon has humbugged me by God!” He said he had ordered the army to concentrate at the crossroads of Quatre-Bras, but they wouldn’t stop him there. “In which case,” Wellington is reported to have said, “I must fight him here,” pressing his thumb down on the village of Waterloo.
Meanwhile in the hall and ballroom, the illusion that they were at an ordinary ball had well and truly broken. The front door banged open and shut. Soldiers called for their horses, girls darted across the floor shouting the names of their beloveds, parents scanned the crowd for sons. The musicians had begun to play again in the ballroom, but the strains of the waltz vied with the call of bugles from outside. Georgiana Lennox slipped off to help her eldest brother, Lord March, pack up his things. She thought the young ladies still waltzing were “heartless,” but for many of them it would be the last chance to dance with husbands, sweethearts, and brothers.
The Duchess of Richmond’s ball has been dramatized by many novelists, including Thackeray in Vanity Fair, Georgette Heyer in An Infamous Army, and Bernard Cornwell, in Waterloo, part of the Richard Sharpe series. I wrote about the ball myself in one of my historical romances, Shores of Desire. Even though this is the second time I’ve approached the ball, I was a bit intimidated by such an iconic historical event. I wrote the ball scenes in layers. The historical details, the physical setting–from the glitter of the ball to the chaos it dissolved into–the more intimate emotional landscape of my characters, real and fictional, saying farewell to loved ones. It was particularly interesting to have both Suzanne/Mélanie and Raoul O'Roarkel there, with the complex emotions both are feeling. Malcolm/Charles surprised me by turning into something more of an action hero in this book that he’s been before. He ended up being at the battlefield much of the time and carrying messages for Wellington. I was relieved to in my research that Wellington, with many of his aides-de-camp wounded, did apparently press civilians into service to carry messages at Waterloo.
The Allies fought the French, under Marshall Ney, at Quatre-Bras on 16 June. The results were inconclusive, but on 17 June the the Allies had to fall back north toward Brussels to keep close to the Prussians, who had been driven back by Marshall Grouchy. The retreat took place in torrential rain, thunder, and lightning. Wellington and the other senior commanders and their staffs spent the night of the 17th in quartered in the village of Waterloo. The battle took place the next day, 18 June, on a nearby stretch of ground between two ridges on which each army assembled.
In my first draft of Imperial Scandal I was preoccupied with getting down the logistics of the battle, weaving in the plot developments that needed to happen and getting my characters in the right place at the right time for the historical chronology. Not to mention making sure I had details of uniforms and weapons right. I was reasonably happy with how the battle sequence turned out in the preliminary version. In subsequent drafts I layered in more texture and emotion. And sheer horror. Waterloo was a particularly bloody battle with some 47,000 soldiers killed or wounded. At the end of the day, the field, a relatively confined stretch of ground, was strewn with dead or dying men and horses. The 5th division was reduced from four thousand to little more than four hundred. General Cavalié Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery reported that “of the 200 fine horses with which we had entered the battle, upwards of 140 lay dead, dying, or severely wounded.”
The battle of Waterloo has been dramatized brilliantly by a number of writers. Two of my favorite depictions, both brutal and heart-rending, are Heyer's in An Infamous Army and Bernard Cornwell in Waterloo.I had to remember that I was telling my version of the battle and the surrounding events, through the lens of this story and these characters.
Labels: Bernard Cornwell, Georgette Heyer, Imperial Scandal, Napleon Bonaparte, Teresa Grant, Thackeray, Tracy Grant, Waterloo, Wellington