One of my favorite aspects of writing Jane Austen-inspire fiction is the research. I’m a huge, unashamed history nerd. I love diving into books on every aspect of regency life, learning about everything from the clothes people wore to the foods they ate to the way they heated their homes and the carriages they drove. But there’s a more serious aspect to learning about life during the Regency era, one that I encountered when doing the research for my second Pride and Prejudice inspired novel, which centers around the Battle of Waterloo.
Although Jane Austen herself rarely mentions it in her novels, England was at war with France through almost the whole of her life. She even lived through periods when Britain was under serious threat of invasion by Napoleon’s forces.
As part of my own research, I stumbled on a real-life, first-hand account of the Napoleonic wars called The Recollections of Rifleman Harris. Benjamin Harris was a young shepherd from Dorset who joined the British army in 1802. He fought against Napoleon’s armies in Portugal and suffered terrible hardships during his years of campaign. By the time he finally returned to England, Harris wrote of his fellow soldiers that: “Our beards were long and ragged; almost all were without shoes and stockings; many had their clothes and accoutrements in fragments, with their heads swathed in old rags, and our weapons were covered with rust; whilst not a few had now, from toil and fatigue, become quite blind.”
But for me the most heart-breaking and poignant passages in Harris’Recollections are those that speak of the experiences of the women who traveled with the British army.
On any campaign, a certain number of the men were permitted to bring their wives and children along, those who were to receive this privilege being chosen by lottery. (It really was a privilege, since those wives unable to accompany their husbands were not given nearly enough of a stipend to house, feed, and support themselves and their children while their men were gone. Military wives left behind in England faced the very real possibility of starvation, the workhouse, or being forced into prostitution). On the campaign Harris writes of, though, the suffering of the women and children who ‘followed the drum’ as the contemporary expression went, is absolutely heart-wrenching.
At one point, the British forces were forced to retreat from the enemy across snow-covered mountains. Harris recalls, “I remember passing a man and woman lying clasped in each other’s arms, and dying in the snow. I knew them both; but it was impossible to help them. They belonged to the Rifles, and were man and wife. The man’s name was Joseph Sitdown. During this retreat, as he had not been in good health previously, himself and his wife had been allowed to get on in the best way they could in the front. They had, however, now given in, and the last we ever saw of poor Sitdown and his wife was on that night lying perishing in each other’s arms in the snow.”
Harris also writes of another episode that– as a mother myself– sounds unimaginably tragic: “About this period I remember another sight, which I shall not to my dying day forget; and it causes me a sore heart, even now, as I remember it. Soon after our halt beside the turnip field the screams of a child near me caught my ear, and drew my attention to one of our women, who was endeavouring to drag along a little boy of about seven or eight years of age. The poor child was apparently completely exhausted, and his legs failing under him. The mother had occasionally, up to this time, been assisted by some of the men, taking it in turn to help the little fellow on; but now all further appeal was in vain. No man had more strength than was necessary for the support of his own carcass, and the mother could no longer raise the child in her arms, as her reeling pace too plainly showed. Still, however, she continued to drag the child along with her. It was a pitiable sight, and wonderful to behold the efforts the poor woman made to keep the boy amongst us. At last the little fellow had not even strength to cry, but, with mouth wide open, stumbled onwards, until both sank down to rise no more.”
Other stories, though, had happier endings. During this same retreat, Harris recounts: “One of the men’s wives (who was struggling forward in the ranks with us, presenting a ghastly picture of illness, misery, and fatigue), being very large in the family-way, towards evening stepped from amongst the crowd, and lay herself down amidst the snow, a little out of the main road. Her husband remained with her; and I heard one or two hasty observations amongst our men that they had taken possession of their last resting-place. The enemy was, indeed, not far behind at this time, the night was coming down, and their chance seemed in truth but a bad one. To remain behind the column of march in such weather was to perish, and we accordingly soon forgot all about them. To my surprise, however, I, some little time afterwards (being myself then in the rear of our party), again saw the woman. She was hurrying, with her husband, after us, and in her arms she carried the babe she had just given birth to. Her husband and herself, between them, managed to carry that infant to the end of the retreat, where we embarked. God tempers the wind, it is said, to the shorn lamb; and many years afterwards I saw that boy, a strong and healthy lad.
Recollections such as Rifleman Harris’ are the real reason I love and respect history. Through accounts like his, we can hear authentic voices from the past, spanning the centuries to give us a sometimes gritty, sometimes heartbreaking, but always vibrant glimpse into the Regency world.