Do you have books on your bookshelf that have grown shabby with wear? Those books that you read and re-read and despite the care you take, the spines become loose, the corners worn? Well, M.M. Bennetts’s book, May 1812, will become one of those for me.
Meticulously researched, richly layered, Bennetts has re-created the world as it existed in 1812, where Britain ruled the waves and Napoleon ruled everything else. We in the twenty-first century don’t realise how difficult and dangerous those times really were, how much of an analogy can be drawn with the dark days of World War II, when Britain stood alone against the forces in Europe.
In this situation, we first meet the Earl of Myddelton deep in the intricacies of the Grand Chiffre, Napoleon’s almost indecipherable code which he used to communicate with his generals. Immersed as he is in the war effort, Myddleton has let aspects of his personal life lapse and finds, to his horror, that he must marry a girl he has never met.
We follow Myddelton as he marries Jane and then learns to admire, like and maybe even love her. It’s not an easy road for either of them. The good Earl’s ineptitude is in stark contrast to Jane’s stoicism and yet both are strongly drawn, sympathetic characters. In the background, the mannerisms, the speech and the machinations of society are lovingly crafted and utterly believable. But at the same time, the war goes on. The Americans, newly independent, are restive, losses mount in Spain and then, in May 1812, the British Prime Minister is assassinated, throwing London into crisis. Myddelton is torn between his domestic problems and his duty as a member of the government.
While the main plot line appears to be a simple romance, in fact Bennetts has gathered together strand after strand of conflict into a rich, absorbing tapestry. Myddelton and his best friend, Pemberton; the society matrons who watch, aghast, as this most eligible catch slips through their fingers; Jane and her uncle; Lord Castlereagh’s demands; the assassination and the unrest on the streets; undercover operations; the list goes on.
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