Monthly Archives: September 2013

Betsy’s Circle: Marianne Caton

In last Thursday’s post, I mentioned that Betsy Bonaparte’s older brother Robert married Marianne Caton. Marianne was the granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of four Marylanders and the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. The family was wealthy and prominent.

Marianne was three years younger than Betsy. Beautiful, well educated, and sweet-natured, she was the oldest of four sisters: Marianne, Bess, Louisa, and Emily. (You can see all four of them on the book cover below, with Marianne’s portrait being the largest.) Betsy Bonaparte and Marianne Caton were the Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian of their day, international celebrities known for their looks and their loves.

And like our contemporary “famous-for-being-famous” cultural icons, both women had both private and public struggles. Marianne, who is my main focus today, struggled with poor health, particularly asthma. And to her deep regret, she was never able to have children.

In the late 1810s, Robert Patterson and the three oldest Caton sisters travelled to Europe, partially to see if the climate would help Marianne. Known as the Three American graces, they became the toast of English society. In a strange twist of fate, the Duke of Wellington — the very officer who had defeated Betsy’s brother-in-law Napoleon — fell in love with Marianne Caton Patterson, even though she was married. Opinions differ as to whether the two became lovers or simply affectionate friends. They did exchange portraits to remember each other by.

Back in the United States, Marianne became a widow in 1822 when Robert died of cholera. Three years later, she remarried, not Wellington, who still had a wife, but his older brother Richard, the Marquess Wellesley. It was a strange choice that I don’t completely understand — would you marry the brother of the man you loved but couldn’t have? — and the marriage was not particularly successful.

For more information on Marianne and her three sisters, I recommend reading the nonfiction book Sisters of Fortune by Jehanne Wake. It’s well written and meticulously researched, and it was one of many helpful sources I used in the writing of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. I enjoyed reading it even though I thought the author was unduly harsh in her views of Betsy Bonaparte. (There were problems in the relationship between Betsy and Marianne, but I think Betsy was a much more nuanced person than Wake portrays.)

sisters of fortune

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Writing Historical Fiction: Researching Period Furniture

The following photographs are pictures I took of period furniture displayed in the Maryland Historical Society. During the writing of the novel, I had to do a lot more research than this, but it gave me start.

bed and bed steps

Notice that the bed steps open up to reveal a potty seat — for when nature calls in the middle of the night. (I seem to be pursuing a theme this week!)


Bejamin Latrobe designed this chair for Dolley Madison to use in the drawing room of the President’s Mansion. (It wasn’t called the White House until after the War of 1812.)


Charles Pinkney, U.S. Attorney General, used this inkstand to write a draft of the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.


I didn’t use anything like this particular piece of furniture in the novel, but I love the exuberance of this dressing table. The figures on the upper doors represented Commerce and Industry.


This armchair inspired me to choose teal upholstery for the furniture Betsy’s parents had in their drawing room.


I love the color combination on the Grecian couch. It helped me to realize that the color palette from Betsy’s time period wasn’t quite as somber as I might have assumed.


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Of Home Maintenance and Copy Editing


Why on earth is there a photograph of a messy paint can on a writing blog?

Yesterday, we had two important pre-winter maintenance jobs done on our house: we hired a handyman to paint the trim and sealcoat the driveway. We live in a climate with both hot and cold extremes, which can be very hard on buildings and pavements. The repainting usually has to be done every five years or so. The sealcoating every other year.

Neither my husband nor I are particularly handy with home repair jobs, so unless it’s something on the order of hanging a picture, we usually have to hire someone else to do it. This time we used a man who’s done a lot of odd jobs for one of our neighbors, so we felt confident that he did quality work. And we weren’t disappointed. He inspected the wood trim of the house carefully, caulked any cracks he found, replaced one piece of trim from which a piece had rotted away, and then applied two coats of durable paint. He was equally meticulous with the sealcoating.

It occurs to me that this process is a lot like what’s going on with my novel right now. The manuscript has started coming back from the copy editor for me to review. In terms of grammar, spelling, usage, and mechanics, the corrections are very light. I’ve worked in publishing for 24 years, so I made sure to send him the cleanest copy that I could. However, he is still finding little cracks and holes in the narrative—places where I could crank up the tension a bit with an appropriate action or gesture and dialogue where choosing a slightly different word might enhance the period feel.

Part of me is impatient to get this stage over with and move on to the production process to send my baby out into the world, but yesterday as I worked through some of the editor’s comments, I realized that I can’t rush this important step. Once the book is published, I will have lost my chance to do any further “maintenance” on it. As with the house repairs, I have a skilled workman performing this task to make up for any deficiencies I might bring to the project. I need to trust him. I need to listen.

In many ways, the important thing about writing is the process, not the end product. Yesterday, I had to learn that lesson all over again. Somehow I suspect that this won’t be the last time.


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19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore for research, my husband and I toured the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. (You can see it in the third image on this page.) The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my special interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so unexpectedly encountering her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than just a hazy historical figure.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun (Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome gave it to Betsy after they married—or bought it for their home.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six, so theoretically, she could have used it there.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp sense of humor, I feel certain she would have been amused.

205 Bourdalou mit Blumenmalerei Frankenthal c1756-1759
A Sample Bourdelou (not Betsy’s), Photograph by Austin Towers, via Wikimedia Commons


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Characters Who Speak a Foreign Language, Part Two

My post on foreign language dialogue Tuesday sparked a conversation in the comments with another writer about the subject—a conversation that reminded me of another technique I used in The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. This technique doesn’t indicate that someone is speaking in another language; rather, it shows that a speaker has an accent. Rather than alter the spelling of English words to indicate that, I played with word order based on what I knew of the character’s first language. Here’s an example of what I mean:

I have a scene where a ship is being refused admittance to the port at Amsterdam:

As the boat turned back, the old Dutch pilot slapped his forehead. “Verdomme! Idioot!” He snatched the salt-stained cap from his head and wrung it between his hands.

“What is wrong?” Captain Stephenson demanded.

“Three weeks ago, a notice I read describing this ship and forbidding us from guiding her. Now, Jezus Christus, I will be hanged unless my age and bad memory they excuse.”

Just a hint of this can go a long way toward making a speaker sound foreign, and it’s much less phony than writing something like “Tree weeks ago, a notice I ret tescribing dis ship,” etc.


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Writing Historical Fiction: 19th c. Information Lag

While I was planning the plot of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I had to deal with what I call information lag. In the current age of instant communication, it’s hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometimes amused themselves by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious that you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice? Especially knowing that the letter might be lost and you’ll have to start all over again six months from now?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure it was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for the information lag because it helped to add considerable tension to the plot. The specifics of how that tension plays out will not be revealed until the book is published. (That’s my contemporary version of information lag.)



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Writing Historical Fiction: Foreign-Language Dialogue

Although the first part of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is set in the United States, one of my main characters is European. Jerome Bonaparte’s first language was Italian, and his second was French. Betsy had studied French from an emigré when she was a schoolgirl, and her lifelong dream was to live in France, so it only made sense to assume that the two of them spoke French to each other quite often.

The problem is that many of my readers won’t know that language. So how does a writer tackle this issue? I took a variety of approaches.

One tactic is to write the dialogue in English but to say that it was said in French, as in the following example:

The two young men were speaking in French and, apparently assuming that Americans could not understand the language, spoke at full volume even though their comments were far from discreet. Betsy, who had learned French from Madame Lacomb, heard one of them say, “Bonaparte, I think the young lady before us is the one whom Mlle. Pascault described, the girl called the Belle of Baltimore. Certainly, I have not seen anyone else who fits the description.”

A second tactic is to sprinkle the text with small phrases that are either well known or similar enough to English that they are easy to figure out:

Pardonnez moi.” Jerome bowed, sweeping his arm elegantly to one side.

A third tactic—and this one is my favorite—is to plant context clues in the surrounding text, so the reader won’t feel lost even if they don’t understand exactly what the characters are saying:

Jerome lowered his voice. “Je rêve du jour quand je te présenterai à Napoléon. Il verra que j’ai choisi un femme aussi élégante que Josephine.

Although Betsy felt gratified that Jerome would compare her favorably to Josephine, she could not allow him to assume their marriage was a certain thing.

Because a large part of Betsy and Jerome’s story concerned the interaction between and comparisons of two different cultures, I wanted their dialogue to show that. These three techniques allowed me to accomplish that goal.


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Preparing for Publication

Exciting news, at least for me. I just entered a new stage of getting The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte ready for publication.

Stage One occurred earlier this summer when my editor completed his first review of the manuscript. I spent a couple months this summer working on a revision, and then I sent it back to  the publisher on August 31.

In the meantime, the book designer and I have been emailing back and forth about the typeface, chapter openings, scene breaks, and cover design. All of those pieces are coming along well. I guess we could call that Stage Two, even though it overlapped  with Stage One.

Today, we begin Stage Three. The editor just sent me his copy edits for the first 100 pages of manuscript. He promises a steady stream of chapters throughout the coming week. I have to go through and review each of his suggested edits and make the final decisions.

Once I finish that, the manuscript will be out of my hands for a while as the layout / production work is done. Last, the designer and I will have two sets of proofs to review.

But that’s enough looking ahead. For now, I have plenty to do responding to the copy edits.


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Writing Historical Fiction: Researching Historic Ships

These are just a few photographs of the USS Constellation, which I took when I was on my research trip to Baltimore two years ago. It was built after the time period of my novel, but I still found the tour of the ship helpful. Clicking on each image will make it larger.



ship's wheel

cable tier


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Betsy Bonaparte: Her Venomous Tongue

According to people who knew her, Betsy Bonaparte had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. One of the amusing aspects of portraying her in the novel was allowing her to rebuke her foes with stinging insults that I would never dream of using myself.

One acquaintance who wrote about her was James Gallatin, son of Albert Gallatin — who was the Secretary of the Treasury and later the Minister to France. When Betsy was in Paris, she dined with the Gallatins often. In his memoirs, James Gallatin recorded the following story. I wasn’t able to use it in the novel, so I will quote it here:

[Madame de Staël] had given a dinner at her house in Geneva, to which Madame Bonaparte was invited. Arriving very late, she delayed serving the dinner for over half an hour. On one side of her was a Mr. Dundas, a great gourmand, who was much put out at having to wait. After the soup had been served he turned to Madame Bonaparte and asked her if she had read the book of Captain Basil Hall on America. She replied in the affirmative. “Well, madame, did you notice that Hall said all Americans are vulgarians?”

“Quite true,” calmly answered Madame Bonaparte, “I am not in the least surprised. If the Americans had been the descendants of the Indians or the Esquimaux there might have been some reason to be astonished, but as they are the direct descendants of the English it is perfectly natural that they should be vulgarians.” After this Mr. Dundas did not open his mouth again and left at the first opportunity.

The Diary of James Gallatin


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