In her novel of Englandís Peninsular War against Napoleon from 1812 to 1815, Tillyard focuses on the lives of particular characters to capture the tense atmosphere of the era. Men engaged in a great endeavor against a serious threat to their country leave behind the women, who endure waiting with the noblest of intentions. Perhaps the most sympathetic is Harriet (Harry), new bride of James Raven, a soldier about to discover firsthand the damages of war.
Daughter of a scientist, at twenty Harry is attracted to the calm and dignified demeanor of Dorothy Yallop, wife of Major Yallop, Ravenís superior officer and mentor. Most inspirational of Tillyardís characters is Kitty Wellington, wife of brilliant military leader and serial adulterer Lord Wellington. Kitty adores her husband, her affection gradually tarnished by his abuse of their marriage vows and the distance between them by virtue of his position. Kitty takes a particular liking to the impulsive Harry Raven, who struggles to retain the intimate memories of her beloved James despite the passionate letters he pens.
Alternating between scenes of war and carnage and the experiences of the women on the home front, Tillyard explores the effects of a military campaign on those left behind. The scenes of battle are vivid and detailed, especially in contrast to bustling London society, where each wife deals privately with her individual challenges. Harry exemplifies the faithful wife waiting for the return of her soldier husband, her yearning sublimated over time to more immediate concerns, science ever her comfort. As expected, Harry finds work a welcome panacea to loneliness, though here hides another temptation, channeling her energy toward the betterment of mankind. Like James, Harry is generous and spontaneous, a helper by nature. Her friend, Kitty Wellington, makes life-altering decisions, maturing to fit her position in society and her aspirations as a woman.
Other historically important characters in Regency England are introduced into the novel, notably Nathan Rothschild, a prescient student of finance who builds a fortune and includes Kitty Wells as a favored client. The bloody chaos of war is artfully captured by the genius of Francisco Goya, whose paintings stand as a testament to the horrors of the conflict. Assorted others people the battlefields and a London society held in thrall by the fortunes of war, each woman dealing with the direction of her own future and expectations. Through contrasting the two arenas, the scenes of war and the home front, Tillyard mines the conflicts that arise through separation, experiences and divergent needs.
Personalizing the Peninsular War through her female characters and the men they support, Tillyard paints a broad historical picture but humanizes the war and its effects on families through the very personal dramas of individuals. Her enthusiasm for the subject is apparent, especially in Harriet Ravenís awakening, but this is an ambitious undertaking, a vast drama that perhaps cannot be so easily reduced to the size of a novel that shifts from battle scenes and death to the romantic inclinations of societyís insulated ladies.