Kelly Bowen’s current series, The Devils of Dover, centers around a finishing school for girls in the evocative coastal setting of Dover. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that secondary themes of the books are the Napoleonic Wars and their effect on people at all levels of society. A near-constant backdrop in the era, the continental conflict is almost never explored in depth in Regency romance beyond giving a titled aristocrat a reason to brood. Here, Bowen tells us why the wars were all the things we don’t associate with the Regency—chaotic, socially disruptive and for some, liberating.
It is often unusual to come across more than a passing mention of the Napoleonic Wars in British Regency-set novels. Yet there are extraordinary real-life accounts of courage, hardship and bravery that can’t be overlooked and offer inspiration for my own tales. The hero in my new novel, Last Night With the Earl, is a veteran of this conflict and is finally returning to England. As an officer and the son of an earl, Eli Dawes’ experience on the battlefield has disabused him of any romantic notion of war and his homecoming has opened his eyes to the struggle to survive beyond his privileged world.
The wars that engulfed almost the entire European continent for nearly two decades cost 2.5-3.5 million soldiers their lives. And even though the battles were not fought on British soil, they still had a huge impact on the lives of those British citizens left behind. Massive taxes to fund the war effort were levied. At the same time, food prices and unemployment skyrocketed due to wartime trading restrictions and increased industrialization. Many desperate men—and women—faced with starvation enlisted in the military. But at the war’s end, circumstances did not get better.
For those soldiers who did survive to return to Britain, there were no war memorials or recognition. Many were weakened, crippled or severely maimed. They, like the widows and families of fallen soldiers, were left to fend for themselves as best as they could, reduced, in many cases to stealing or begging. Or, in Kent, where the Devils of Dover series is set, smuggling.
Over the centuries, the smuggling trade flourished along the Kent coastline with its proximity and easy access to the continent. The practice was not without its risks, yet after the wars, the illicit trade became even more dangerous with the reassignment of the Crown’s soldiers from the battlefields of Europe to the coastlines of England. Their directive was to bring order to the lawless coasts and end smuggling for good.
Rose Hayward, the heroine in this novel, is well-acquainted with this quandary. Living in Dover, she is familiar with those who so valiantly served their country and are now hunted by the law for surviving the only way left to them. Her position at the elite finishing school managed by her sister, Clara, has allowed her to run interference with the law more than once to protect these individuals. The sudden arrival of Eli Dawes provides her with a fierce ally and champion she wasn’t expecting. If there was a silver lining in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was the resulting political, economic and social unrest helped ignite the beginnings of reform.
Eli isn’t the only character I’ve written who served on the front lines of the Napoleonic wars. Harland Hayward—baron, surgeon and the hero of the next book in the series (A Rogue by Night)—is also a veteran. And so is the heroine, Katherine Wright. An estimated 4,000 women accompanied the British army, working and sometimes fighting alongside husbands and lovers, brothers and fathers. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention their contributions here.
The Napoleonic Wars were huge in scope and their direct and indirect effects were profound. Writing about some of these effects—real facts woven into my own fiction—seems not only justified but essential. The men and women who faced impossible odds and prevailed offer an author no end of inspiration.
Kelly Bowen attended the University of Manitoba and earned a Master of Science degree in veterinary physiology and endocrinology. Her infatuation with history and weakness for a good love story led her down the path of historical romance. When she is not writing, she seizes every opportunity to explore ruins and battlefields.