The Angel of Waterloo

Written by Jackie French
Review by Marina Maxwell

The Battle of Waterloo has spawned many historical novels, but few can have such an appealing female protagonist as Henrietta (Hen) Gilbert. The daughter of an army surgeon, she has acted as her father’s assistant across the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe. Undeterred by the horrors around her, she saves the life of Lieutenant Max Bartlett. They form an instant emotional bond that culminates in a hasty wedding before coming under cannon fire and losing sight of one another in the ensuing chaos.

Hen seeks to find out what happened to Max. She arrives in the convict colony of New South Wales, where the fortune bequeathed to her by her father enables her to start a new life in which her medical skills complement her ambitions to be a property owner. As “Auntie Love”, she tends the ill and poor and, as the rich widow of a Waterloo hero, she is equally welcome in the higher ranks of Sydney society.

Although fiercely independent, Hen must deal with unreliable convicts and others of unscrupulous intent, only learning whom she can trust through trial and error. She also risks censure when she develops a special bond with a group of Aboriginal women. Following a chain of violent events and a disturbing encounter with her past, Hen has to confront her illusions about love and truth.

This could be classified as a romantic novel, yet the romance component is less important when set against the dynamic story of this lone woman making tough decisions in a pioneering environment. The sunset ending is not at all what the reader might be expecting yet is an honest conclusion in keeping with its pragmatic sweep of early Australian history.

A vivid and engrossing novel from one of Australia’s best historical fiction writers.