Waterloo Fact and Fiction
Two hundred years ago Wednesday (March 25, 1815), Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia signed a formal defense treaty against Napoleonic France called the Seventh Coalition. They all agreed to hurry troops into Belgium. Wellington had already left to take up leadership. Napoleon had escaped his exile on Elba less than a month before and the need to contain him overrode all their other concerns, conflicts, and rivalries. In less than three months this effort would result in the Battle of Waterloo and l’empereur’s final defeat.
As we rapidly approach the two hundredth anniversary of the battle new books, blogs, and twitter accounts have sprung up like spring grass in advance of the celebration. A quick search on #Waterloo2015 or #Waterloo1815 will produce reams of facts, thoughts, graphics, and opinions. A spectacular reenactment is planned for June. I’ve written in my personal blog about why Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna mattered so much. The history of Europe for the next one hundred years took shape from it. The battle itself marked an entire generation of men and women.
Something else has begun to interest me lately, however. I recently attended an event to celebrate Beaux, Ballrooms, and Battles, a collection of Waterloo-related stories by nine different authors. It struck me that, in the lead up to the anniversary fiction related to Waterloo has also flourished. The OCLC Worldcat catalog of library holdings lists 84 such fictional works published since January 2014. They range from military sagas, to romance, to out and out fantasy inspired by the battle. Obviously, titles cataloged for libraries aren’t the entire universe of fiction, but that list is a good start.
Fiction inspired by Waterloo didn’t begin with the anniversary, either. Authors as varied as Arthur Conan Doyle, Winston Graham, and Georgette Heyer have covered it. Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharp series reveled in it. Susanna Clarke’s magical take on it is being made into a BBC series. Romance writers can’t resist it. The heroes of both of my own published novels, Dangerous Works and Dangerous Secrets, are veterans of the great battle. It is impossible to write about the Regency Era and not mention the Napoleonic Wars at least tangentially.
I began to speculate what other great events inspire such an outpouring if story telling. The American Civil War does certainly, as witnessed by entries in this blog. The American West has its own subgenre of fiction. Ancient Rome is another. The cataclysms of the twentieth century will, without a doubt, bring yet more.
War brings more than its share of fiction, but immigration, exploration, and economic disasters also inspire stories. Story telling, I suspect is how we make sense of chaos, how we cope with pain, and how we understand human frailty. In the matter of Waterloo many histories give us various versions of the facts. Fiction, as always, gives us other, sometimes greater, truths.
What events to you think spawn as much fiction as Waterloo? What is your favorite?