This is the story of a guy who fits the classic Regency hero mold, and who could have had a classic Regency romance—if only real life worked like romance novels. But it doesn't. In real life, even the smartest, best-intentioned people make stupid, life-altering mistakes. And in real life, some promises are better broken.
I can’t recall when I first ‘met’ Arthur Wellesley, but it was long before I read my first Regency. I’ve been into British history since I was in junior high, and I’ve always been fascinated with the Napoleonic wars in general, the Peninsular War in particular, and Wellington particularly in particular.
He’s been portrayed on TV in the exceptional Sharpe’s series, as well as in countless movies, but few depict him in his younger days, when he cut a dashing figure. One of his nicknames was “The Beau,” because he was so fastidious in his dress and grooming.
He’s a constant, if often unseen, presence in Regency romances. Sometimes he gets speaking roles. According to Georgette Heyer, every line spoken by Wellington in An Infamous Army was uttered by him in real life. He’s certainly one of the more quotable figures of British history.
You’ve heard the phrase “Publish and be damned”? That was Wellington. The famed courtesan Harriette Wilson, writing her memoir in order to pay off her debts, offered to leave his name out of it in return for a hefty payment. But a whore’s blackmail threats couldn’t scare the famously unflappable victor of Waterloo.
That’s not my favorite Wellington quote vis à vis Harriette, though.
When he first received permission to call on her—she charged potential “protectors” just for an initial interview—she was not impressed with his skill at small talk. That’s not surprising, given that he had none. Wellington (he was merely Sir Arthur at this point) was your typically laconic military man, not inclined to flattery or witty repartee. Harriette was soon exasperated. When she complained that she thought he’d come there to make himself agreeable to her, and that he wasn’t doing a very good job, he replied, “What, child! Do you think that I have nothing better to do than to make speeches to please ladies?” (Hibbert, 47 – see below.) Any soldier who served under him would’ve recognized the impatient bluntness; he was there to do something, not to stand around talking about it.
But Harriette's not always the most trustworthy of sources. Here’s a description of Col. the Hon. Arthur Wellesley, of His Majesty’s 33rd Regt. of Foot, at about the age of 30:
“He was not considered to be conventionally handsome; but he was alert and vital, attentive and eager; his body was lithe and strong, and the lingering gaze of those ‘clear blue eyes’ was pleasantly unsettling.”
That passage wouldn’t be out of place in one of the better Regencies. It’s actually from a biography by the eminent, and eminently readable, historian Christopher Hibbert (Wellington: A Personal History, HarperCollins, 1997). Recently, as I was reading more about Wellington the man, as opposed to Wellington the military leader, something kept nagging at me. I had a persistent feeling that I’d met this guy before.
It wasn’t until I started reading Elizabeth Longford’s Wellington: The Years of the Sword (Harper & Row, 1969) that it finally hit me: he’s a classic Regency hero. If you’ve read more than a few samples of the genre, you’ve met his type.
He had an unhappy childhood. Arthur was the fifth of eight surviving children of a titled, but impoverished, Irish Ascendancy family. A loner, he was eclipsed by his eldest brother, Richard, the family’s golden boy. Neither of his parents, nor his teachers, nor other adults who knew him, saw much potential in the somber young boy. His cold, remote mother observed that her “‘ugly boy Arthur’ was ‘food for powder’ [i.e., cannon fodder] and nothing more.’” (Hibbert, 6.)
As a youth he had a dreamy, artistic nature, but he turned himself into a man of action whom other men would follow to the death. Arthur had a gift for the violin, but he put it aside when he joined the military. Elizabeth Longford says he burned it:
Now he must take negative action, destroy everything that stood in the way of his military vocation. First, the card-playing in the Dublin clubs. Next, the violin.
He burnt it in the summer of 1793 with his own hands: burnt the hours strolling beside the little waves at Coolure, the bouquet of wine at Angers, the dozing in Brussels, the mooning by the Thames at Eton and the lingering on the ancient bridge over the Boyne at Trim; burnt all the dreams and poetry going back to his childhood when he had listened enraptured to his father’s playing.
[Longford, Wellington: The Years of the Sword, 34].
Now that, my friends, is the stuff of romance. (If Lady Longford says he burned it, I believe her. But Wellington would’ve scoffed—witheringly—at the sentimentality of the account.) Plenty of military men pursued musical hobbies—what would make a young man burn the instrument he’d so enjoyed, and so excelled at, all his life?
Love, of course.
He suffered an early broken heart. While in his 20s, newly commissioned in the Army and living in Dublin, Arthur courted Catherine “Kitty” Pakenham, the pretty and vivacious daughter of Baron Longford. (Elizabeth, Lady Longford, the historian quoted above, married a descendant of one of Kitty's brothers). Kitty’s family was more prosperous and more prominent than Arthur’s. When, in 1792, he applied to Kitty’s older brother for her hand in marriage, he was refused. His prospects at that time were uncertain, and Tom Pakenham thought his younger sister could do much better. It must have been a serious blow to Arthur’s pride as well as his heart.
He told Kitty that his feelings would not change and that, once his prospects had improved, he would propose again. A man like him would’ve considered this a binding promise—but they might both have led happier lives had Arthur not been a man of honor.
More on that in a minute.
He had a dry wit and a careless insouciance. When the ship in which he sailed to Portugal encountered a furious gale off the Isle of Wight, his aide-de-camp ran into General Wellesley’s cabin to tell him they were about to sink. “‘In that case,’ said the General, ‘I shall not take off my boots.’” (Hibbert, 81).
And in a letter to his brother Henry, he wrote, “I believe I forgot to tell you . . . I was made a Duke.”
At least one historian thinks Wellington was the source of “the myth of British imperturbability, the famous stiff upper lip that would come to be identified as the national characteristic of Britain as the century wore on.” (Dancing Into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo, Nick Foulkes, Phoenix, 2006, p. 117–119).
He was a man's man. Despite his fastidious grooming, he wasn’t a dandy and he didn’t care for the soft luxuries of life. He was perfectly content with plain food and cheap wine. He slept in a narrow bed all his life, even as a wealthy old man at Walmer Castle. When asked about it, he would shrug and say “When it's time to turn over, it's time to turn out.”
He was fiercely self-disciplined, and demanded discipline of his men.
He was far more humane in his treatment of the people he governed or conquered than many leaders of his time. Although he didn’t think very highly of the native inhabitants of India (he was humane, but not particularly enlightened), he wouldn’t stand for them being abused, physically or financially, by men under his command. Similarly, even though he was a staunch Anglican, he insisted his soldiers respect the religious beliefs of the devout Catholic inhabitants of Spain and Portugal, and he executed them for looting and pillaging. (The British army didn’t live off the land, commandeering food and livestock, as the French did, which was another reason the Spanish and Portuguese people rallied to the British side against Napoleon).
And a ladies' man. Like any decent Regency hero, he was a man of strong sexual appetites. Arthur dug the ladies, and the ladies dug him. “‘He had a ‘very susceptible heart,’ a fellow officer thought, ‘particularly towards, I am sorry to say, married ladies’.” (Hibbert, 38).
Reprinted courtesy of Kinsey Holley