The Belles of Waterloo by Alice Church – an excellent historical novel set in the excitment of Brussels as three young women discover life and love

The Belles of Waterloo by Alice Church

This is quite simply an excellent historical novel, one which is strongly based on historical fact, but given a fictional treatment that makes the facts come alive. It tells the story of three sisters who are seen as ready for the adventures of romance and marriage, a familiar theme for a novel set in the early 1800s at the moment. It then puts the story of Maria, Georgy and Harriet and their family in their real historical context of Brussels in 1814 – 1815, a place full of military men after the taming of Napoleon and his exile to Elba. Much like the famous younger Bennet sisters, they discover that they are much in demand, along with their still relatively young mother Lady Caroline, by the idle officers and the beginnings of a busy social scene. The impetus of the story comes from the fact that as time moves on, the political scene changes and a very real battle gets nearer. 

This novel makes use of deep research into the period and the personalities that dominated it. Quotations from letters to the girls’ grandmother head each chapter, telling of balls, gossip and the edited experiences of a family forced by the gambling of an otherwise loving father to move to a cheaper city. This is in no sense a dry narrative however; Maria and her sisters are drawn as young vibrant women, inexperienced in some senses, but quick to master the social niceties. This is a novel of their adventures, their reactions to living in a place beginning to adopt the ways of London society, and the onset of an event that will change the lives of everyone they know, as well as their own. It is filled with the small details of clothes, setting, sights and even smells that successfully bring the story alive, as well as introducing and establishing characters that are three dimensional. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful novel. 

At the beginning of the novel, the Preface introduces Lady Caroline Capel, who has the unenviable task of informing her three oldest children, the only ones of her eleven offspring to be able to understand, of their imminent departure for Brussels. She knows that it is because of her husband’s immense gambling debts, but tries to screen the three girls from the real reason for them moving at this stage. Harriet is the thoughtful eldest daughter, who considers the implications of the news. Georgy is shocked, whereas Maria threatens mutiny. All three are poised to be launched onto London society , and moving them away from their friends and contacts will not help. All three know they will probably have to make good marriages, with or without romantic love being involved, and it is later that they realise that their chances of attracting a suitable husband with no money to speak of will be slender. Nevertheless, they become caught up in the excitement of moving everything they possess to another country, especially when they meet such contemporary celebrities as European royalty and generals en route. The house they are to live in has a good address and is spacious, and they soon discover that everything they wish to buy is so much cheaper than in London. They soon encounter eligible young men, including a prince, a Lord and a general, and as other families arrive a social scene of parties and other events soon emerges. Maria in particular is taken with at least one young man, even though he is soon seen as fond of strong drink. Each sister attracts considerable interest, despite their lack of fortunes, and accordingly have romantic adventures for better or worse. News soon emerges that Napoleon is on the loose again, and is gathering support, and the girls must make up their minds what to do in the face of danger. 

This novel includes many characters that it is possible to become attached to, and who seem to come alive in the vibrant setting of a society which proves to be on the edge of battle. The author is obviously deeply immersed in the period to the smallest detail, and has found individuals who already have amazing stories to bring to vibrant and consistent life. I really enjoyed this book, and thoroughly recommend it as a wonderful read.