A double review with A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock
by Jonathon Riley
Robin Brass Studio, Montreal, 2011
350 pp., illus., $24.95 paperback
Major General Sir Isaac Brock was a portly man, “perhaps too portly,” even “inclining to corpulency.” On this, as much else, two new biographers of the famous War of 1812 general agree — Jonathon Riley in A Matter of Honour and Wesley Turner in The Astonishing General.
By the end of each book, Brock emerges as a tall, broad-shouldered, physically powerful, forty-three-year-old man with a commanding and attractive character, a warm, sociable nature, deep senses of loyalty, duty, and honour, a remarkable ability to understand the psychology of others, a skilled capacity to lead, a sense of fairness in discipline, and a willingness to co-operate smoothly with Aboriginal warriors and militiamen. He is in every sense an officer and a gentleman. But if there is very little Richard Gere in either Riley’s or Turner’s Brock, it is tempting to see in him the robust Jack Aubrey of Patrick O’Brien’s novels.
Despite their similar takes on Brock’s essential characteristics, the books differ in their lines of enquiry and their themes of analysis. The Astonishing General is about a hero and his heroic legacy. Turner asks why was it this man at this moment in time whom a populace at war embraced as a hero? Why have Canadians (and some Americans) revered him ever since?
After all, Brock was an upper-class man who bought most of his promotions in the army. He had limited combat experience and died at Queenston Heights only five months into the War of 1812. He was, in some ways, “the most unlikely of heroes.” Yet there was that breathtakingly unexpected victory at the Battle of Detroit, which Turner attributes, ultimately, to “Brock’s leadership,” and afterwards, according to William Hamilton Merritt, “all ranks and descriptions of people placed such implicit reliance on his skill, bravery, and good judgment, that led by him, they were confident of success.”
Riley is not overtly interested in Brock as a hero, though there is heroism aplenty in his biography. Riley asks, how was it that at Queenston Heights Brock “met his death doing a captain’s job”? For it was not in a major general’s job description to lead a charge uphill, across open ground, to reclaim a redan taken by the enemy. Courageous “in the face of the enemy” he clearly was, like all good officers had to be. But perhaps, Riley suggests, Brock’s bravery, his impetuosity, and his preference for aggressive tactics “edged into bravado” that day. Perhaps the late-eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century officers’ code of conduct meant Brock’s sense of honour compelled him to lead. Perhaps death itself was “a matter of honour.”
The Astonishing General and A Matter of Honour are both good books. Their authors hold doctorates and are well- and widely published experts in the field. Riley brings the insights of his own senior command experience to his analysis, while Turner’s language has a clarity and narrative ease honed from decades in university classrooms.
Yet, each author is also largely preaching to the converted — to academics, to be sure, and also to that general audience of educated and informed individuals fascinated by the War of 1812, early Canada, and military history more generally.
Could a book about Isaac Brock do more? Heroism, gallantry, and honour are qualities ripe with promise — for instance, if they were interpreted with an eye to the historical literature on late-eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century gender and masculinity.
Moreover, it is clear in Turner’s analysis that Brock was a hero. But so was Tecumseh — and by many of the same measures. Historian Olive Dickason has shown that, after the Shawnee leader’s death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, the British worked “to enshrine Tecumseh’s memory as an icon.” Turner’s perspective on Brock’s particular brand of heroism would only be stronger if he had engaged in a cross-cultural discussion of “the hero” in a colonial war setting illuminated by First Nations scholarship.
Riley’s text would also benefit from paying consistent attention to First Nations issues. For example, and despite his general appreciation of the military impact of Aboriginals as allies, it is really not okay to describe Native people — and, more specifically, Native warriors — as members of a “still-primitive society.” This is colonialist language, and one wonders how it slipped into a book published in 2011.
The field of commemoration studies offers yet another possible historiographical context for a book on Brock. In short, as new books on Brock, both Riley’s and Turner’s might have engaged with histories beyond the War of 1812 — with histories that address the social (including the public sociability that Brock so enjoyed!), the Aboriginal, cultures of gender, and the construction of memory.
Still, that portly man emerges from each book not only as heroic and honourable in equal measure but as totally crush-worthy. Riley and Turner have done the biographer’s job well.
This review appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Canada's History magazine.
— Julia Roberts (Read bio)
Julia Roberts is a researcher at the University of Waterloo focusing on Canadian colonial society. Her first book is In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada (2009).