cover image Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo

Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo

David Crane. Knopf, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-307-59492-1

While taking an hour-by-hour look at the Battle of Waterloo, which was fought June 17, 1815, British historian Crane (Scott of Antarctica) focuses less on the conflict itself than on what came to be called “the age of Waterloo” in Britain. Crane’s account of Napoleon’s defeat is somewhat disjointed, but he more than compensates with his superb, kaleidoscopic look at domestic life of the period. He introduces readers to the lives of such noteworthy figures as the poet Lord Byron, who, at the time, was in an unhappy marriage and heavily in debt after an affair with his half-sister. Readers also meet lesser-known but culturally significant individuals, including Benjamin Haydon, a painter of monumental historical scenes; prize-fighter Jack Shaw, who was killed in a cavalry charge at Waterloo; and writer Caroline Lamb, who that day was “putting the final touches on the longest suicide note in history.” Particularly interesting is the case of suspected, and possibly framed, murderess Eliza Fenning and the way it was used politically by Whigs and Tories alike. Crane accents his well-paced, fluid style with nice poetic touches, and he succeeds admirably in showing both the socioeconomic fissures in early 19th-century Britain and the ways that Waterloo inaugurated a sense of the county’s “manifest destiny” of becoming the 19th century’s leading imperial power. Maps. (May)