Features

History with a human face

"History with a human face" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

But neither man is particularly religious. This could doubtless be said of many men in the early 19th century, but not of Matthew Hervey, the young cavalry officer in the books by Allan Mallinson, who is arguably Patrick O'Brian's successor in the field of historical fiction.

Mr. Mallinson cites both the inspiration and the tangible advice and encouragement of the late O'Brian. Mr. Mallinson's knowledge of what O'Brian in his warm endorsement called "horse-borne warfare" is not just from books. He himself is a cavalry officer-yes, the English still have such things-and he presently serves as the British military attaché in Italy, a position that apparently gives him plenty of time to write novels.

What O'Brian did for ships, Mr. Mallinson does for horses. Their care and feeding, veterinary issues, how much work they are-as cavalry troopers have to stay up later and get up earlier than infantrymen to take care of their horses-but also what it is to ride them, and the bond that grows between a cavalryman and his charger.

Mr. Mallinson is a master of battle scenes, but he also evokes the social climate of 19th-century England, from regimental politics to the troubles of the Irish and the desperation of the Luddites and their anti-industrial riots. And he is also a master of what is most difficult in fiction, creating characters that come alive.

Matthew Hervey begins as a minor officer fighting Napoleon, and we follow his career and his life from book to book. In one of the historical notes that have become obligatory in this genre, Mr. Mallinson quotes a writer of the day commenting on Wellington's army that "a very appreciable number of men were of a religious turn."

Young Hervey, son of a country parson, regularly prays and reads his Bible. In the heat of battle, he remembers his faith. He struggles against temptation and tries to do what is right, even when it lands him into trouble, as it often does.

Hervey's faith comes across as natural and not at all self-conscious; it lacks the preachiness that sometimes makes Christianity in fiction unbelievable. His Christianity is a part of him. It is also a part of his times. We see Hervey's father embroiled in the theological controversies of the time, as he is influenced by the High Church conservatism of one of Hervey's friends and thus is called on the carpet by his bishop, who threatens to take away his parish. (The friend, John Keble, is an actual historical figure, considered the founder of the "Oxford Movement" associated with John Henry Newman.) Hervey's sister, in the meantime, throws herself into the evangelical "compassionate conservatism" of the day, by ministering to the poor. Then there is the devout Methodist sergeant who lays down his life so that Hervey can complete his mission.

When his brother who was studying for the ministry dies, Hervey wonders whether he should resign his commission and enter the ministry himself. He realizes, with the help of his father, that his God-given vocation is to be a soldier.

The first book, A Close Run Thing, culminates in the Battle of Waterloo, a thrilling and historically accurate blow-by-blow account of the bloody combat that saved the world from Napoleon.

The second book, Honorable Company, has Hervey in India. In this exotic clime, so different from everything he had known in England, he faces serious sexual temptation, but overcomes it. He also discusses his faith with a Hindu Raja-as well as rescuing his elephant and saving his realm from a horde of Muslim invaders-and we also see how British colonialism, through the private enterprise of the East India Company, was able to take over much of the world.

In the third book, A Regimental Affair, out just this year, Hervey is in England during peacetime. His unit is assigned to put down the social unrest, including that of the Luddites, the craftsmen displaced by the industrial revolution, who went on violent rampages, destroying factories, machinery, and the homes of those who owned them. Hervey is troubled by the government's practice of using the army against its own citizens, and he is torn by his sympathy for the people and yet the necessity of quelling anarchy. In the meantime, he has to deal with an incompetent commander and the dark side of regimental politics.

This book also brings the romantic subplot developing throughout the first two books to a conclusion in Hervey's marriage. The Rev. Keble himself gives the wedding sermon, printed in full, setting forth a frank and utterly biblical understanding of sexual love within marriage. Hervey and his bride Henrietta-a formidable character herself, who pulls strings to free her husband from the predicaments he gets in because of his moral integrity-indeed have a strong marriage. Before long-following Rev. Keble's injunctions in a frank, but never explicitly described way-they have a baby.

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