Publisher / date: SPCK, 1957
genre: biography (letters)
Although purchased a while ago, I am immensely engrossed in this book and wish I had cracked it open for a much longer on first receiving it. (But: there are many books in that boat…)
This book came to my attention through Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 [see my Two Teens in the Time of Austen post on that book]. She utilized many period personalities – including Mary Hardy and Betsy Fremantle.
William Harness, however, was a new name to me. The full title of this book supplies a LOT of information about the contents: Trusty and Well Beloved: The Letters Home of William Harness, an Officer of George the Third. The editor, Caroline M. Duncan-Jones has provided excellent (not too much; not too little) information linking the various letters, which begin in the period before the engagement of Captain William Harness to Miss Elizabeth Bigg of Aylesbury (they finally married, after a lengthy engagement, in 1791).
The romance of the couple accounts for the existence of the letters – but it is the fascinating picture that William paints while abroad which I find so captivating. The places he was posted to include a wind-swept island; a pricey Cape Hope; a savage yet tranquil Ceylon. It tears at your heart whenever he writes of soon ending a present tour – and his looking forward to seeing his wife and children. Readers know the end of the story, which the participants never could have done.
The two years spent in Ceylon read with such genuine storytelling ability (few of Elizabeth’s surviving letters are included), and the narrative of how long it took for letters to arrive – and how that came about – is as interesting. It is unimaginable to think of being so long torn from family, all in the hopes of a better future, especially for the children.
William Harness’ letters also make you long to know about what he did NOT write to his wife.
The Harness papers exist! At the Bodleian, you can search for more information on William’s brother, John Harness – a naval surgeon (and probably the medical man who treated Nelson when he lost is eye).
There are a few glimpses and the family in England, but you mainly travel along William. You feel his amazement at the mountain views, his disgust of the cruelties of man, and his longing for his family – and the family life he believes his sacrifice (and ‘Bessy’s’ sacrifice, too) will bring them in the future.
The cover illustration includes a depiction (also inside the book) of an Officer of the 80th Regiment of Foot, one of William Harness’ regiments. His regimental history is briefly outlined on the Napoleon Series website. And, of course, there is Uglow’s new (2015) book.
Currently, there are several copies of Trusty and Well Beloved at exceptionally reasonable prices. Heartily recommended.