The third part of Hardy's giant (19 act) epic drama starts in 1812 and goes right through to the end of the Battle of Waterloo. It is long and has to convey a lot of history and is consequently a little dull for considerable stretches. Unsurprisingly, the Battles of Borodino and Waterloo (which is given suitably detailed coverage, taking up the entire final act if one includes news of Napoleon's approach and the aftermath) are highlights, but so also are the brief returns to the British Parliament and Wessex. Whilst any Hardy fan knows of the author's skill with Wessex dialect and ability to create brilliantly drawn, lively characters from the region, there is little in the prose fiction to indicate that Hardy would have a talent for turning political debate into impressive oratory. If only the present reality matched Hardy's vision of parliament! It sometimes happens that the climax of a work makes up for earlier slow pace or dullness and certainly Hardy raises his game in the last act, from the ball in Brussels where news of Napoleon's advance was broken to the allies' leading officers, through the skirmishes prior to the main battle to the valiant, stoic resistance of the British as they stood their ground long enough for the decisive arrival and intervention of the Prussian army to an aftermath where Napoleon is taunted by the Spirits who have been our narrators and chorus through-out, to a final metaphysical scene discussing the mechanics and purpose of God's will in the playing out of history.
That there is such an ending, philosophising about history, confirms for me that when, in Hardy's preface, the author says that the work was provoked by recent publication of work about the Napoleonic Wars that underplayed the contribution of the British, Hardy was refering to War and Peace. (For those who don't know, Tolstoy greatly weakens his otherwise triumphant novel by continuous harping about the nature of history during the last third or so.) In that book the British are rarely mentioned and then only to be dismissed. This must have been taken as a serious snub by many contemporary British readers since the Royal Navy stood between Napoleon and world domination throughout, allowing them to land an army that fought against Napoleon in Spain in 1812, the year the Emperor chose to fight on two fronts and was roundly defeated on both, as well as other, earlier land campaigns and the undeniably crucial part played at Waterloo where the direly outnumbered British forces endured all day.
Taken as a whole The Dynasts is an unbalanced work. The greatest concentration of interesting, well written scenes comes in Part 1 which is substantially shorter than the subsequent two. From the end of the Battle of Trafalger (the best treatment of any of the major Napoleonic battles) to the Battle of Borodino, matters move slowly and with little interest apart from the occassional scene here and there. The remainder of the Russian 1812 campaign is surprisingly weak and things only improve consistently in the very last act, as described above. Overall the Dynasts gets three stars: It certainly justifies the description "epic drama" but it is hard to follow when the history is unfamiliar as I mentioned in my review of part 2 and the project is very ambitious, its scope being much greater than that of War and Peace at least in terms of time and area covered (the whole Napoleonic era, the whole of Europe). The form itself, which quickly mutated into that of the film script (see my review of part 1), is not one that was mature at the time either, so Hardy was well into unexplored territory in terms of technique: this represents Hardy's one true literary experiment and deserves to be more widely known and read - but if I ever tackled it again I would read the whole of Part 1 and only the highlights of the second two volumes.