Tag Archives: history

Book Review: Unravelled

unravelled

I just finished reading the historical novel Unravelled by M.K. Tod. It has an interesting premise summed up by its log line: “Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage.”

The novel opens in 1935. Canadian veteran Edward Jamieson has received an invitation to go to France to commemorate the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Edward has struggled to overcome what we now call PTSD and later hidden his memories of the war from his wife Ann. So, he’s not eager to return to the place where he survived such horror. Yet, something else from his past—the memory of a passionate love he lost during the chaos of wartime—compels him to make the journey. What he finds in France leads to a marital crisis nearly as destructive as a battle.

Flash forward a few years to the eve of World War II. Although his age and permanent lung damage from the first war prevent Edward from signing up for active duty, he finds another way to serve his country—a way that must be kept secret from his family. Ann, in turn, finds herself struggling against loneliness, resentment, . . . and unexpected temptation. Is the Jamieson marriage strong enough to survive so many external stressors? That is the central question at the heart of this book.

The writing makes it evident that Tod did her research meticulously, yet she is judicious in her choice of details. Not once in the course of the book did I feel that she was piling on interesting facts just to show off her hard-earned knowledge. Tod also is unsparing in portraying the effect of war on families, but she avoids melodrama or maudlin sentimentality.

My biggest regret about the story is that I wanted to see what Ann and Edward were like together in happier times, before the decade of turmoil portrayed in this novel. In some of the conversations where they discuss their problems, they refer to what their relationship has lost. And they think things like, “I miss Ann’s sense of humor.” As a writer, I imagine that, in dealing with such an epic story, Tod had to make difficult choices about what to include in the plot. However, as a reader, I would have liked to have briefly glimpsed that more ideal time through a dramatic scene or two instead of having the characters tell me what they lost. Such scenes would have given me a sharper sense of the damage and raised my emotional stakes in the survival of the marriage.

I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t care about the characters. I did, and I felt compelled to continue with their story because I wanted to know what happened. Despite an exceptionally busy work schedule, I read the book in less than a week. It was also interesting to read a novel from the Canadian point of view. Most of the other novels I’ve read set during the two world wars have been told from a U.S., European, or Asian perspective.

Lovers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the two world wars, will find this a captivating story. The novel will also appeal to readers who like to explore the inner workings of a marriage. For these reasons, I recommend Unravelled without hesitation.

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19th Century Life: Visiting Cards

Yesterday, as I was making breakfast, I found myself thinking about the 19th century custom of leaving visiting cards. I’m not an expert, but as I understand the custom, when two people had a mutual acquaintance or perhaps met casually at a social function, the visiting card was a way to check out whether they might develop a relationship. The scenario went something like this:

Mrs. Hopewell called on the home of Mrs. Fotheringale and left a card with a servant.

If Mrs. Fotheringale was interested in pursuing the acquaintance, she would call on the home of Mrs. Hopewell and leave a card.

Then Mrs. Hopewell would know that if she called on Mrs. Fotheringale during visiting hours, she would be admitted into the house.

And Mrs. Fotheringale could call on Mrs. Hopewell.

Thus, a social acquaintance was established.

I see a contemporary parallel in blogging, don’t you? I stop by a new blog, and “like” a post. The blog owner might then come by here and “like” a post. I visit his blog again and leave a comment. He might return the favor. Then we decide to follow each other’s blogs.

As they say, the more things change, the more  they stay the same, n’est-ce pas?

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This Date in History: October 12, 1809

At the beginning of the French Revolution, most European nations were shocked by the the events in France and considered it appropriate to try to restore the French king to his throne. It goes without saying that all those other countries had monarchy in some form or another. However, by January 1793, Louis XVI was dead. The execution of the Bourbon king only intensified international opposition to the idea of a republican France. In 1793, Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, Spain, and the United Provinces of the Netherlands formed a coalition to oppose both the French government and the spread of revolutionary ideas to their own lands.

Over the course of the next 23 years, France was almost continuously at war, and in all probability, the only thing that kept it from being defeated at an earlier date was the military genius of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s leadership was a double-edged sword, if you’ll forgive the pun. His brilliant victories defeated Austria and kept Britain at bay time and time again. However, after he became First Consul in 1799 and  emperor in 1804, the other rulers of Europe viewed him as an upstart and a usurper, and they adopted the goal of defeating him at any cost. It became a vicious no-win situation for Napoleon. He felt that he had to use his leadership and military skills to keep his country safe, yet he became one of the primary reasons his country was being attacked.

Which brings me to October 12, 1809. By this time, the Allies had formed not one, not two, but five coalitions to defeat France. The Fifth Coalition essentially fell apart when Napoleon trounced the Austrians. France and Austria negotiated a treaty to end the war at the palace of Schönnbrunn in Vienna. While this was going on, a seventeen-year-old German named Friedrich Staps decided to assassinate Napoleon to bring an end to his rule. Staps entered the palace grounds on October 12 while Napoleon was viewing a military parade and tried to approach the emperor. One of Napoleon’s aides found the young man suspicious and had him arrested, and a knife was found to be hidden on his body. Under questioning, Staps admitted his plans. When Napoleon asked if he would be grateful for a pardon, Staps declared that he would still try to assassinate Napoleon anyway. A firing squad executed Staps on the 17th.

It was not the first attempt to assassinate Napoleon, and such attempts on his life only made him more obdurate in pursuing his goal to build a French empire. He greatly feared what would happen to France if he should die without a clear succession plan in place. After this attempt, he took decisive action that I will discuss in my next blog post.

Schloss Schoenbrunn Gloriette

Schönnbrunn Palace, via Wikimedia Commons

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Betsy’s Circle: Germaine de Staël

Laugier de Stael

Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël by Jean Nicolas Laugier, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy’s literary friends was Germaine de Staël, who was a colorful and controversial figure on the European scene.

She was born Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker to Swiss parents in Paris in 1766. Her father was a Genevan banker who became Louis XVI’s finance minister. Like Betsy, she exhibited the qualities of wit, intellectual curiosity, and lively conversation as a child. She was married at the age of twenty to Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, the Swedish ambassador to France. It was not an affectionate marriage but gave her status as the wife of a diplomat.

Madame de Staël first gained literary fame by publishing Letters on the Works and Character of J.-J. Rousseau in 1788. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, her work exhibited a “mixture of Rousseau’s enthusiasm and Montesquieu’s rationalism.” Despite the Revolution, she remained in France until 1793, and then she moved to England to be with her lover, Louis de Narbonne, who had been one of Louis XVI’s ministers.

After the Reign of Terror ended, she returned to Paris and began the most illustrious stage of her career. She alternated between living in Paris and at her chateau in Coppet, Switzerland. Madame de Staël held a noted salon, where intellectuals could converse about important ideas of their day, and she published several essays. She also took a new lover, the politician and writer Benjamin Constant, who introduced her to German romanticism.

Madame de Staël wrote two novels, Delphine and Corinne, that were infamous in their day because they exposed the limits imposed on independent and creative women. Napoleon disapproved of her work—he was a traditionalist in his views of women’s roles. As a liberal, Madame de Staël opposed him politically, so that deepened his dislike. In about 1803, Napoleon exiled her to a distance of at least 40 miles from Paris. During the remainder of his reign, Coppet was her home base.

In 1810, she published her most important work, a study of German culture. She returned to Paris after Napoleon’s downfall, but lived only a few more years, dying in 1817.

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19th Century Life: Madeira

One of the most popular wines during the early years of the United States was the wine called Madeira. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed it, and according to some reports, the wine was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. Madeira comes from the Portuguese island of the same name, which has a rich volcanic soil. The early United States had no vineyards, so all wines had to be imported, and Madeira has special qualities that allowed it to survive the long, precarious ocean crossing.

During the Age of Exploration, ships often stopped by Madeira to stock up before a long voyage, so the wine makers began to add spirits to the wine during the fermentation process to help preserve it. The other interesting feature about Madeira happened by accident. An unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands and the wine makers discovered that the heat and movement the wine had been subject to during its travels had actually changed its flavor. Manufacturers wanted to recreate this quality, so they began to heat the wine  and expose it to oxygen. The resulting wine’s ability to withstand the rigors of lengthy voyages made it perfect to ship to the American market.

There are many styles of Madeira, made from different grapes. Some are dry, and others are sweet. The most popular variety in Baltimore, Betsy’s hometown, was a variety called Rainwater. It was a pale, delicate variety usually made from Tinta Negra Mole grapes. There is an interesting story about how it got its name. According to legend, some casks were left out on the dock and became diluted when it rained. The unscrupulous dealers sold the wine anyway, and lo and behold, their American customers liked it.

Rainwater Madeira is difficult to find now as it has fallen out of fashion. I’d love to try it sometime, though, just to taste something that Betsy must have tasted.

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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: Channeling Your Character

fort mchenry

One hundred ninety-nine years ago today, a fleet of British ships spent a full day lobbing mortars and Congreve rockets at Fort McHenry (shown above) in an effort to capture Baltimore during the War of 1812. The British viewed the city as a “nest of pirates” because it was home to many of the privateers that had been preying on British shipping.

When I first started writing my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to portray the Battle of Baltimore. By then, I had read five different biographies of Betsy Bonaparte. None of them answered the question of whether she was in her hometown of Baltimore or in Washington, D.C., when the attack took place.

Then in November 2011, my husband and I traveled to Baltimore, so I could do some research. One place we visited was Fort McHenry. We were lucky enough to be able to hear one of the National Park rangers tell the story of the battle. At one point, he described how many of the residents of Baltimore climbed to their roofs so they could watch the attack and see how it was going. As he spoke, a strange thing happened.

An unexpected wave of fear washed over me, and suddenly I was no longer sitting in the bright November sunshine, listening to a ranger spin a lively tale. I was Betsy, standing on the roof of her childhood home, gripped by the dread of what would happen if the British captured the city. During the early years of her marriage, Betsy and her husband Jerome had often been threatened by British warships who wanted to make a hostage of Napoleon’s brother. Now, she feared for her beloved nine-year-old son. He was a Bonaparte, the nephew of the man the British had been fighting for more than 15 years. As I imagined Betsy’s terror, I began to cry right there in the crowd of tourists. The emotion was so powerful, so icy cold and unsettling, that I couldn’t help myself. After that, I knew with absolute certainty that I had to include the battle in the novel and that I had to portray Betsy’s desperate if somewhat irrational fears that if the British conquered Baltimore, her son would be in danger. It was exactly what I needed to make sense of what had up till then been an impersonal event.

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Betsy’s Circle: Scandalous Pauline Bonaparte

Pauline Bonaparte 2
Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre, Image from Wikimedia Commons

Betsy was often told that she looked like her sister-in-law Pauline Bonaparte, shown above in one of her revealing gowns. Pauline, however, had a much more scandalous reputation than Betsy.

As a young woman, Pauline fell in love with Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron, the proconsul of Marseille, but her mother objected to the match. Napoleon then married off his fifteen-year-old sister to one of his officers, General Charles Leclerc. However, Pauline couldn’t be happy with any man for long. She had a voracious sexual appetite (a trait that several of the Bonapartes shared). While she and LeClerc were stationed in Saint-Dominque, she took several lovers—despite the fact that she was plagued with illness. Pauline had an exasperating personality: arrogant, willful, capricious, narcissistic, and promiscuous.

After LeClerc died of yellow fever, Pauline returned to France. Defying Napoleon’s opinion about the proper mourning period, she married again within a year to Prince Camilo Borghese. They lived in Italy. Pauline quickly grew bored with him and continued behaving as riotously as before. They say that one of her lovers was the violinist Paganini. Other rumors say that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases. While in Italy, Pauline posed semi-nude for the sculptor Canova, who created a famous statue of Pauline as a reclining Venus.

Pauline had only one child, a boy named Dermide, fathered by her first husband. Dermide died when he was six, and Pauline—true to her volatile nature—kept promising to make various nephews her heir and then changing her mind and rescinding the offers. In one area of her life, however, she did remain loyal. She stood by her brother Napoleon and was the only one of his siblings to visit him in his first exile on Elba.

Cancer was the scourge of the Bonaparte family, and Pauline was no exception. She died of the disease at the age of 44.

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19th Century Life: Gloves and Shoes

Today we return to the subject of clothing in the 1800s. In all the movies made of Jane Austen novels, we see young women attending balls wearing flimsy, lowcut, empire-waist dresses with long, elbow-length, white gloves.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I always assumed those gloves were made of cloth the way my mother’s formal gloves were. Well, I was wrong. The gloves that Betsy Bonaparte would have worn to a ball (and she loved to go to parties) would have been made of white kid. I can’t imagine how hot it must have been to dance while wearing leather gloves covering nearly the entire arm.

Speaking of white kid, the Maryland Historical Society has a pair of white kid shoes that belonged to Betsy Bonaparte in her eighties. Even as a woman of mature years, she wanted to be fashionable and wore pumps with heels.

That brings me to a final oddity about 19th-century fashion. Did you know that in the first half of the century, there was no such thing as right and left shoes? Both shoes in a pair were shaped exactly the same. The next time you have difficulty breaking in a pair of shoes, just thank your lucky stars that you didn’t live in Betsy’s day!

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This Date in History: September 10, 1813

The War of 1812, largely forgotten today, plays a significant role in my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonsparte, and today is the anniversary of a significant event in the war. Two hundred years ago on this date, the United States Navy won one of the first great victories of its existence. Let me provide a little background.

In June 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain for several reasons:

• First, the British navy had been stopping American ships and impressing any sailors it found who had been born in Britain—even if they had since become U.S. citizens. This was a violation of U.S. rights as an independent nation.

• Second, Britain was at war with France, and to weaken its enemy, the British navy was trying to stop the United States from trading with France.

• Third, there had been conflicts between the United States and Native Americans of the Northwest Territory, and many Americans suspected that Britain was egging the natives on.

• Fourth, some Americans had their eye on conquering Canada and adding it to our territory.

Even though the United States was the one to declare war, it was a young nation that was woefully unprepared for conflict. The army had fewer than 12,000 men, and the navy had roughly 20 ships. In July 1812, when an American force under General William Hull (no relation as far as I know) invaded Ontario, they were driven out of Canada and forced to surrender, thus losing Detroit.

The U.S. navy went on a ship-building spree to try to gain control of the Great Lakes. On September 12, 2013, Oliver Hazard Perry led a fleet of nine small ships into Lake Erie. Perry’s flagship was the Lawrence, which he had named after his friend James Lawrence, a naval officer who was killed in battle earlier in the war. (Lawrence’s gift to history was the saying, “Don’t give up the ship,” which he commanded his crew as he lay dying.) The other large ship of the U.S. fleet was the Niagara.

The U.S. fleet began the battle by attacking the two largest vessels of the six ships in the British fleet. The Lawrence was badly damaged, and Perry rowed to the Niagara to continue the attack. The Niagara sailed right at the British ships, raking them with broadsides. Within 15 minutes, the British fleet surrendered. Perry sent a famous message to William Henry Harrison, the army commander:

“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

The Battle of Lake Erie allowed the United States to retake Detroit, control Lake Erie, and even conquer part of Canada.

For his part, Oliver Hazard Perry became a national hero. He was promoted and given a gold medal. Six years later, he caught yellow fever while on a mission to South America and died at the age of 34.

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