Georgette Heyer is probably best known for her Regency romances and her knack of capturing an era and bringing it to light-hearted life. She also wrote detective novels and the two works for which I admire her the most… An Infamous Army, which is an account of the Battle of Waterloo and The Spanish Bride, about the Peninsula campaign of the Napoleonic wars. In both cases, the author builds her story around the lives of individuals, making the trials of the campaign personal and engaging the reader’s emotions.
In The Spanish Bride, Heyer tells the romantic and true story of Juana María de los Dolores de León, a child just out of the convent who was brought to the battlefield and consigned to the care of the British troops by her sister when their home was sacked after the fourth siege of Badajos. Fourteen year-old Juana was married a few days later to Harry Smith, a young officer with the 95th Rifles. It was no marriage of convenience, but a love-match and, refusing to be sent to England, Juana ‘followed the drum’, accompanying her firebrand of a husband on almost all of his campaigns.
In spite of the romance of Juana and Harry Smith’s tale, the books are exceptionally well crafted. Heyer draws upon historical documents and journals such as John Kinkaid’s ‘Adventures in the Rifle Brigade’ to capture the small details and atmosphere of the army on campaign. The books were responsible for an early fascination with the people who had lived and died during those wars and I spent a good deal of time as a teenager trawling through reference libraries to learn more about them in their own words.
It is impossible, without delving back through those forgotten tomes, to say with any certainty which parts are dramatised fact and which are pure invention. One phrase that had a ring of truth came to mind, however, when we were discussing the spiritual teachers, genuine and otherwise and how they gather a following in spiritual circles.
“The men say there are only two kinds of officers; the go-ons and the come-ons.”
Harry Smith in The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer.
The ‘go-ons and the come-ons’… it is an evocative phrase. In battle, it refers to the difference between those officers who lead the charge, inspiring their men to follow their example and those officers who stand safely behind the lines, urging the men onwards from the rear. There are practical considerations that may excuse the latter… but for the men in the field, risking their lives, it was clear that it was the ‘come-ons’, those officers who led from the front and shared the dirt and danger, who inspired the troops and gained their respect and loyalty.
It struck me how apt this phrase could be for describing some of those who become spiritual leaders and teachers. Most of them genuinely try to lead from the front… accepting their own role as no more than one amongst many, with just as much work to do as everyone else, teaching only that which they attempt to put into practice in their own lives. But there are undoubtedly a few ‘go-ons’… those who seem to sit safely ‘behind the lines’, raking in money and/or adulation from their followers, yet seeming to feel themselves above the need to adhere to their own teachings. Sadly, they can be very plausible too, presenting themselves as immaculate examples of humanity clad in souls of purest white.
Where does that leave the seeker trying to find a guide for those first steps on a spiritual journey? Myself, I think it leaves them in need of the very first of the ‘magical weapons’ with which he or she will have to gird themselves… wielding common sense in one hand and discernment in the other.
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