Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part III: the Forgotten Conflict

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

The novel opens in 1813 Virginia and rather quickly references the ongoing war against the British (which naïve patriot Merry calls The Second War for American Independence). The heroine's brother and father are directly involved in the war effort and her brother occasionally involves her in a bit of espionage on behalf of her country.

The Windflower can be classified as a Regency-set historical romance (since it takes place during the Regency and its hero is a British aristocrat). I did not realize in 1984 how unusual it was for such a book to deal with the War of 1812 in a substantial way. It is usually seen as a sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars (which, from the British point of view, it rather was).

Very few Americans know much about it; most believe that it was an aggressive attempt by the British to re-take her former American colonies, and that the British lost (as documented in Johnny Horton's classic pop tune "the Battle of New Orleans").  In reality, it was part trade war, part labor dispute (over the shortage of able-bodied seamen) and part land war between the U.S. and Canada.  Both sides sustained a great deal of damage, and in the end everyone agreed to return to the status quo antebellum.

There are many reasons why the average American school textbook presents such an oversimplified (to the point of being misleading) version of the War of 1812, and they all have to do with cultural propaganda. As a nation, we are uncomfortable talking about the wars that did not end in glory for the American military and new territory for the United States. Also, during the first half of the 20th century, Britain was an important ally during both world wars, helping to strengthen the "special relationship" between our two nations. We did not care to dwell on the spats early in that relationship.

In the 1990s, I read a book by Donald R. Hickey called The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.  I found it to be fascinating.  When I started re-reading The Windflower, I wondered if the war would be portrayed superficially and/or inaccurately.  Much to my surprise, the historical references seem pretty accurate (given that 20 years has elapsed since I read that scholarly tome about the war).  Characters hear news about actual battles.  Merry's brother eagerly declares that, if the coming campaign in Canada is successful, the British will soon be driven out of North America (taking Canada from the British was a major motivation for the American war hawks to pursue the war in the first place). The New York merchants grumble about the ruinously expensive war disrupting trade. Devon muses about the poor decisions by the Madison administration.

I have read a great many historical romances that really skimped on the historical research.  The Windflower isn't one of them.

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