I had heard good things about The Belles of Waterloo and was looking forward to getting stuck into it. Of course it helped that I have an interest in the Regency period in general, but I had hopes of this focusing on the more social aspects of a time we often understand as being full of war. In both respects I wasn’t to be disappointed.
The Belles of Waterloo tells the story of the Capel family who have had to move to Brussels a year before the Battle of Waterloo because of their father’s gambling debts. The narrative particularly focuses on the lives of the three eldest daughters named Harriet, Maria and Georgy, as they adjust to their new lives and loves. Little do they know that within months of their arrival that the war against Napoleon would be right on their doorsteps. This does give the reader an expectation of things to come.
Whilst this book is a work of fiction, Alice Church makes it clear that their story is a true one. I found it rather refreshing to know that the majority of the story told was based on letters that exist of the family. By using these letters as a basis, I found this gave the book a unique feel of authenticity. Whilst this meant that there was a risk that the story could have become dull, the opposite is true in fact. This meant that the real emotions felt throughout the family’s many highs and lows during this period are acutely portrayed. The reader easily becomes sucked in and emotionally involved with all that goes on, for good or ill.
The book had a very Bridgerton feel to it in that it portrayed a close knit large family trying to navigate life and for the girls in particular, that means trying to understand the first feelings of love and romance. I feel that even if you hadn’t watched Bridgerton, but liked the late Georgian/Regency period, you would find this as equally compelling. If you have any understanding of the period, you would expect to see lots of balls and house calling. The reader is definitely not disappointed in that. By attending balls and accepting house calls, the Capel sisters find lots of potential suitors and family friends alike. These particular scenes were written with great grandeur and it was easy to imagine the glitz and glamour of those events, most famously the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, where war with Napoleon was declared once more. The writer strikes a good balance between explaining the atmosphere of these large gatherings, but also focusing on the personal experiences of the Capel girls and the relationships they form whilst there.
Whilst all three of the Capel girls did have some experience of love, I do find that it did seem to be more focused on the romances that Maria has. Whilst of course it was necessary to show Maria’s romances, I would have lived to have seen more exploration of the other two girls experience. There are some mentions of this, but I feel it would have added to a greater understanding of the sisters by doing so. Whatever may be the case, there is no denying that the girls’ relationships are shown in a way that indicated that the girls are inexperienced in love, which is only to be expected, when they came out in society after they first reached Brussels. In many ways, this was a stark contrast to the heavy realism of the relationship of their parents, which has been tarnished by their father’s gambling.
By the end of the book, the Capel siters had grown in many respects and I think this was one of the best selling points of the book (beside the historical attention to detail of course!). It showed that just like any of us, the characters had become shaped by what they had gone through, even if in reality it was a short space of time. Whilst this meant it was more of a philosophical ending in some ways, it felt very apt and was the right choice to make. It also helped that there was an end note explaining what happened to the real people mentioned within the book and how this influenced what had been written.
Whilst I did enjoy the development of the characters within the Capel family, I found I had a soft spot for General Barnes. Barnes had become a friend to the family after first meeting some of the girls early on in their move to Brussels. He was a kind man and easily befriended the entire family, although he did have a particularly soft spot for Maria. I must admit I was very keen to find out his fate when towards the end of the book, he, as well as all the other military men that the family had grown to know and care for went off to war. There are also some descriptions of the injuries and horrors of war when the timeline reaches the Waterloo campaign, but these are actually necessary in the context they are portrayed in.
In general, I felt that this book, whilst primarily a novel, felt like it was about real people who you could easily relate to. It held its authenticity in a way that showed the research and passion the writer had for the topic. The historical attention to detail made it easy for the reader to imagine being within the events being described, but also like a fly on the wall for the more intimate and gossipy moments as well. It was this engaging narrative that made it very hard to put down and I was sad to finish this, which is always the sign of a good book! I would very much recommend giving The Belles of Waterloo a read as it was just the tonic and escape that I needed.