The Tides of War opens in England with the recently married, charmingly unconventional Harriet (Harry) preparing to say goodbye to her husband James as he leaves to join the Duke of Wellington’s troops in Spain in the company of his friend, a young pioneering doctor.
Harry and James’s interwoven stories of love and betrayal propel this sweeping and dramatic novel as it moves between Regency London on the cusp of modernity–a city in love with science, the machine, money–and the shocking violence of war in Spain. With dazzling skill Tillyard explores not only the affects of war on the men at the front but also the freedoms it offers the women left behind. As Harry befriends the older and protective Kitty, Lady Wellington, her life begins to change in unexpected ways. Meanwhile, James is seduced by the violence of war, and then by love in Seville.
As the novel moves between war and peace, Spain and London, its large cast of characters includes the serial adulterer and war hero the Duke of Wellington, and the émigrés Nathan Rothschild and Frederic Winsor who will usher in the future, creating a world brightly lit by gaslight where credit and financial speculation rule. Whether describing the daily lives and desires of her strong female characters or the horror of battle, The Tides of War is set to be the fiction debut of the year.
‘Dazzling – I love this book. It’s beautifully written, the characters are deeply involving and the historical settings so right – in short, Tides of War is a triumph.’ SIMON SCHAMA
You are known as a writer of non-fiction. Is this your first novel? How did the decision to write fiction come about?
Yes, it is the first novel I have written; but I was trained in English Literature, and have always thought of my books as stories first and foremost, so I suppose it was quite a logical step, as well as something I had longed to do for some time. When I took the plunge my thought was, if not now, then when? I wanted to have time to make a new writerly identity, and time to write other novels.
What is Tides of War about?
For the characters in it, Tides is about the progress of their lives, the changes they undergo in their relationships and sense of themselves in the very turbulent times of the Napoleonic Wars. It is a story with a lot of people (as well as animals) in it: a young couple, Harriet and James Raven, who are divided by the war; James’s servant, an out of work weaver called Thomas Orde, and his family; the Duke of Wellington, who commands the British army in Spain, and his wife Kitty who is left at home; the émigré financier Nathan Rothschild; a gentleman volunteer with a mysterious past, Robert Heaton; the army major George Yallop and his exuberant wife Dorothy, as well as many others.
The themes of the novel came out as I wrote the story and the characters met one another and changed. Tides is about what happens to women once they are married (which is the point at which most romantic novels end), and what happens to people from all walks of life in war, at home and on the battlefield. War profoundly alters human relationships and outlooks.
From underneath my characters’ stories other themes emerged as I wrote. The Napoleonic wars, and the Regency period in Britain between 1811 and 1820, were very unsettled and uncertain times that seem to mirror our own. The economies of all the warring powers were in crisis; the British government had to turn to the banks to fund the war, and, once it was over, faced unemployment and unrest at home. Rapid industrialisation was, at the same time, throwing skilled artisans out of work. All those strands seemed to emerge from the characters who made up my story. So I hope that Tides gives a picture of the times that is coherent and unexpected in its modernity.
What were you trying to do in this book?
I was trying to tell a human story, set in a particular time and in particular places, but full of emotions and events that will find an echo in our own time and lives. The excitement of seduction, the pain of loss, the satisfactions of day to day love, the love of a father for his child: these are the sorts of feelings that underpin my own life, and are more important to me than any belief system. They are what I have always tried to transmit in my work, whether it is non fiction or not. However, non-fiction that is based on empirical research has some duty to adhere to reason and logic. Fiction can go in the direction that passions and events take its characters. So I can start from the idea of showing feeling and the way feeling intersects with history, events, places and ways of thinking at the time. How does that work? Well, for instance, I would like the reader to feel with the Duke of Wellington the loneliness of command, not to tell the reader that it was so.
So I think the important thing is that I don’t write fiction, or historical fiction, in order to understand the past or describe it, but rather show, and therefore sympathise with, people and their emotions and motives in particular situations and at a particular moment in history.
So did you plan Tides of War very carefully?
Not at all! A few characters – the Ravens, the Duke and Duchess of Wellington – were there from the beginning, but all the others, including Racket the dog, introduced themselves. The same was true of events. I planned to write about the siege of Badajoz and about industrial unrest at home, but the plot emerged with the characters. I let the characters talk and act in their own way. I did not really have any rules for writing, except that I was determined that the characters would not use any words that were not current at the time, and that their speech would have the cadence of the time as well. Of course dialogue in fiction is not the same as ordinary speech (and we can’t know what that sounded like anyway), so I have used an approximation, or a hunch.
Writing about this period is to set sail on a sea full of scarcely submerged reefs, some bigger some smaller, one arguably the biggest fictional reef of all. So I forbade myself from reading any contemporary literature while I was writing to be sure I didn’t end up falling into, say, the dialogue patterns of Jane Austen, or taking too many images from Keats.
But you must have done some research. How did you create a sense of time and place?
I have a good sense of the language of the time in my head, after so many years working in the period. I had to be careful not to use any anachronisms not just of language but in describing décor or clothing. For instance one of my characters wore a magenta gown at one point, until I realised that magenta was a colour produced with a chemical dye in the mid nineteenth century so that was impossible.
To create a sense of time I read a good deal of history and the literature of the period, but I tried to present it as it were through the eyes of the characters, so that it is their time rather than one I have put them in.
I did travel to a good many of the places mentioned in the book – Madrid and Badajoz, for instance. But although that is really useful to get the colours of the landscape in the countryside, which it is reasonable to think does not change much, I ended up feeling that going to cities, or walking in modern London to get a feeling of how it was 200 years ago, isn’t much use. Particular buildings may still stand, but to get a sense of what a city was like I found it better to look at the earliest photographs I could find – usually from the 1870s – and read travellers diaries of the time.
So we can assume it’s accurate – or did you make anything up?
That’s a difficult question. Obviously when I write through the eyes and heart of a person who existed in the past, I make assumptions that are based on what I have read about him or (less usually) her. I know, for instance, that Wellington and his wife adopted the son of a woman who had been his mistress in India. I don’t know – who could – whether the boy was Wellington’s son; but I do know it was rare for any aristocrat to adopt a child from outside their own family, so I have taken a leap.
There is no historical event that is made up or inconsistent with what was happening at the time. Occasionally I have used plausible rather than definite as a yardstick. For instance we know that a man called Leacock was reported as doing human to human blood transfusions in Edinburgh some years before the first published paper on the subject in 1818. I have taken that and fused it with the historical truth that army surgeons were (and are) in the forefront of surgical experiment to put my own transfusion in 1812. Historians might argue that’s a couple of years too early if they have any opinion about it, but I don’t think that will bother readers; it captures the spirit of the times.
Some questions about money. Was Lady Wellington likely to have gone to the City to find a banker to invest her money?
Yes, I think so. We have good records of Lady investors from the 1820s onwards, but the practise probably started earlier.
How did Mrs Yallop survive?
I mention the Pensions Board a couple of times in the book. Mrs Yallop would have gone there and received a pension. Then she has a house, money comes in from Lady Wellington, and I should think that the Major had probably put a bit aside. Although Mrs Yallop seems scatty she proves herself quite capable of organisation when she needs to be, so I guess she might have some savings and ran her household economically.
How easy was it for a married woman in the Regency period to commit adultery?
I think that then, as now, war suspends some of the usual conditions for behaviour. Many women must have taken lovers if their husbands were away for years at a time. Discretion was more called for by 1812 than it had been in the mid eighteenth century, but the greatest danger and fear was still pregnancy, which would certainly lead to discovery and social ostracism. I do not think guilt was nearly as big an element as it later became, though certainly a woman might have felt shame that she had compromised her husband’s honour. So prudence and morality would urge a woman to remain faithful, but loneliness and the extraordinary times would prompt her otherwise.
Nathan Rothschild plays an important part in Tides of War. How much prejudice was there against Jews in the Regency period?
The stereotypes that dominated the popular depiction of Jews were very much in evidence. As far as rights for a man like Nathan were concerned, there was religious toleration, but it was combined with disenfranchisement. Nathan could, and did, become a British citizen, but he could not sit in Parliament. Despite these rights being granted to Jews later in the century, prejudice probably increased with mass immigration of Jews from central and eastern Europe in the last decades of the century.
You have a couple of jokes about Jane Austen in the book. Are you deliberately drawing attention to her?
I don’t think any woman writing about that period can be unaware of the presence of Jane Austen, not just because she is a great writer, but because her popularity has to some extent come to define the period for so many of us. But I do indulge in a joke or two; I want to ask what happens when the heroine gets married, how does she deal with the very mundane day to day rather than the heady moments of romance and courtship, especially if there is a war. And the things that by and large Jane Austen does not write about – immigration, industrialisation, modernisation – these are things that interest me as a person and a writer, and also things that I see as characteristic of the Regency. What Jane Austen knows she writes about with supreme wit and skill, but, yes, I think there are other sides to life and other aspects of the time that also have their own force.