Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Love, My Enemy: The War of 1812 through the Lens of WWII

I recently finished Jan Cox Speas' classic novel My Love, My Enemy. Set during the War of 1812, it has several plot elements in common with The Windflower. Both novels feature a naïve 18-year-old American heroine who becomes entangled with an aristocratic British spy and becomes a pampered prisoner aboard a privateer's ship, where she befriends the captain and crew.

The two books are very different, however. The Windflower is a 1980s genre romance of the bodice-ripper era, filled with graphic (if occasionally unrealistic) sensuality. My Love, My Enemy is much more like a traditional regency romance, with only a few kisses and hints of thoroughly-repressed passion. It violates other romance genre expectations as well. The hero and heroine are apart for much of the time. The heroine receives her first kiss not from the hero, but from a rival for his affections. In fact, I found myself wondering which man she was really going to choose toward the end. I wonder if the author had a first draft somewhere with a different ending (like the original cut of the movie Pretty in Pink, where Darcy ended up with Ducky rather than Blaine).

Jan Cox Speas obviously did her research for My Love, My Enemy. The big events of the war are accurately portrayed. The antagonism between the Americans and British however, is continually undermined by the text. Although the story is mostly told through the point of view of American Page Bradley, Speas repeatedly tells us of the discipline and effectiveness of the British soldiers fighting in the peninsula under Wellington. American privateer Daniel Mason (who rather reminds me of Han Solo) takes Lord Hazard prisoner but comes to like and respect him very much, even though they are not only enemies in war but also rivals in love. The New Englanders dislike the British but distrust the French more, and many think the Madison administration chose the wrong side in the Napoleonic wars.

This grudging respect for the British and distrust of the French in an American novel about the War of 1812 makes a lot more sense when you realize it was written in 1961, by an author who came of age during World War II. Page Bradley's experiences and impressions during her globe-trotting misadventures would have held special resonance for readers who lived through another trans-Atlantic war.

The account of the privateer ship Caprice harassing a convoy and picking off merchantman one by one while their inadequate British navy escort looked on helplessly immediately reminded me of my grandfather's stories about a disastrous North Atlantic convoy that was destroyed by the Germans in July of 1942 after the British Admiralty ordered the military ships to scatter.

When Page and her chaperone are left at the house of an elderly Breton woman until the men's immediate wartime duties are discharged and safe passage can be arranged, the account of her wait is poignant and realistic. They are a house full of women awaiting the return of a British officer and an American sailor. Marie-Therese, the village girl who cooks for the household, laments that she will never marry, for Napoleon has conscripted all of the local men, and most of them will never come home. Fortunately for her, she ends up going to America as the bride of an American sailor, like a great many Frenchwomen did in the 1940s.

There is also a moving description of the English countryside, in which Page observes that the people there never experienced the harsh realities of the war. Their fields and hedgerows were undamaged, and they had plenty to eat. In this particular section, England stands in for America. While the Napoleonic wars were fought entirely outside of England, World War II was not. British cities were heavily damaged during the Blitz, and British civilians suffered hardships that Americans (outside of Hawaii) never knew.

Speas' characters discuss the relative strengths of the British and American navies in a way that foreshadows the eventual shift of superpower status from the former to the latter. That shift finally occurred during World War II. At the beginning of the war, Britannia still ruled the seas. By the end, American shipbuilding capacity (much of it located in the mid-Atlantic states where Speas lived and set her novel) allowed the USA to rule its own worldwide empire.

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