Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (2011)

2011 Henry Holt cover. Image: goodreads.com
(image: goodreads.com)

Stella Tillyard is primarily an historian; it is therefore unsurprising that Tides of War, her debut foray into fiction, encapsulates every aspect of the Peninsula War of 1812 – 1815 from the social impact in England to the daily life of the soldiers fighting in Spain. The novel’s title is extremely fitting, though at first it may sound generically ominous. Once the reader is at least half way through the book, if that, it becomes clear that this is not simply a sensationalist historical novel written to excite our mundane selves with details of the gore and glory of warfare; rather it is a study of the ripple effect, if you will, of war. Tides influence the moon, the shape of the land, and the look of a beach; there are endless small things – both physical and abstract – that the tide can affect. In Tillyard’s novel, the Peninsula War is the same.

We begin with the newly married Harriet Raven. As Tillyard states on her website, the point at which literary heroines are married is usually when their story ends; but it is the opposite with Harriet. Once she is married to Captain James Raven, her life takes several unexpected turns. Her friendship with and interest in the work of Frederick Winsor (one of Tillyard’s characters taken from history) makes her something of a symbol of England’s desire, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, for progress in both the social and scientific arenas. This seems to have, in part, been Tillyard’s aim with the book. The activities of the soldiers’ wives left at home is an aspect of the book that reminds the reader of Jane Austen – they sit and chat, making a quilt together – but the inclusion of scientific progress and the unconventionality of some aspects of their lives means that Tillyard is taking us beyond Austen’s portrait of the Regency woman.

The novel is told in the third person (aside from a short section at the beginning of Part Three narrated by Francisco Goya, seemingly for the sake of it), but the perspective travels between a whole cast of characters. Some of these are historical figures, and some are characters the author has created and placed carefully amongst history. This can be a problem in historical novels, as ‘what actually happened’ is replaced by ‘what probably/could have happened’. However, that could lead us into a whole different issue, one of the differences between truth and fact and how that relates to the telling of history. These issues are not addressed in the novel and do not need to be. Tillyard sews together her historical and fictional characters with such ease that the reader believes everything she says – how could it have happened any other way, asks the reader. The shifts in perspective are just as seamless; Tillyard uses the Austen-like technique of free indirect dialogue to perfection. Part Three sees everything apparently become more complicated. The circumstances created by the war (in both Spain and England) are left to develop and thicken. The truths of human nature and desire come through as the social and political facades begin to fall away, broken by the sweeping effects of war. Free indirect dialogue is the perfect tool for conveying all of this. Subtle changes in the tone of the narratorial voice tell the reader so much more than an exposition could, and in so much more human a way – that is, subtle and with most of the details between the lines.

There are of course also the harsh realities of war. Several shocking and disturbing scenes strip away any romantic preconceptions about the Regency period and the unerring honour of British soldiers in their smart red jackets. These are the horrific occurrences that can only happen during warfare – rape, post-traumatic stress disorder (whilst still in a warzone) and murder. There are also the horrors of everyday life that occur in the background. The dissatisfaction, disillusionment, casual cruelty and despair of unfortunate circumstances are keenly felt, seeping through the text as the characters try to maintain their stability and positivity.

Harriet’s ongoing search for her mother is a wonderful demonstration of the undercurrent of pain running through many of these characters’ lives. Her search is a little sporadic and the limitations of her gender and status are subtly displayed. The normality of these limitations on her society is so commonplace that it is somehow even more tragic. Harriet seems to be trapped in an endless number of ways.

Tides of War is filled with many people, events and things, as well as themes for the reader; but the essence and source of all this is quite neatly summed up by one of the characters, Dr David McBride.

War never finishes, [David thought], and never will. It simply moves about the world like the ocean current that touches now one country, now another. Why? Because in the same way that a rash upon the skin is merely a symptom of a fever that rages in the body underneath, war is only the visible shape of all the forces that nature has planted in us. To declare peace; to think it is ever possible? All that is folly.


Published in 2011, in the UK by Chatto & Windus, and in the US by Henry Holt Publishing. My copy was kindly provided by Henry Holt for review.

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