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.)
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.
Sketch of Joshua Barney, c. 1800, Wikimedia Commons
As I mentioned yesterday, the man Jerome visited in Baltimore was Joshua Barney, a naval officer. Barney was born in Baltimore in 1759, and he served in the U.S. navy during the American Revolution. During that war, he was taken prisoner several times and then exchanged for British officers. In 1779, he was captured again and imprisoned in England. He escaped in 1781, and the next year, as commander of the ship Hyder Ally, he captured the much more heavily armed HMS General Monk.
After the American Revolution, he served in the French navy for a while, which is probably how he met the Bonapartes. Barney returned to the United States in 1800. During the War of 1812, he served first as a privateer and then rejoined the U.S. navy as a captain.
In June 1814, Barney’s flotilla encountered a British fleet in Chesapeake Bay. The British pursued the U.S. vessels, which retreated up the Patuxent River and then up St. Leonard’s Creek, which was too shallow for the British frigates. The British blockaded the mouth of the creek so the Americans could not escape. Rather than allow the British to capture his flotilla, Barney scuttled the ships.
Two months later, he took part in the defense of Washington and was severely wounded, taking a ball in his thigh—which could never be removed and which troubled him the rest of his life. He died in 1818 of complications from that old wound. He was only 59.
Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard, on Wikimedia Commons
What brought Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome to Baltimore of all places? Well, for one thing, Baltimore was the third largest U.S. city in the early 1800s, behind New York and Philadelphia. It was one of the country’s most important ports.
Second, a year or so earlier, Napoleon had decided that his baby brother was going to become the naval expert of the family. Accordingly, Jerome was made a lieutenant (even though he was technically too young) and sent to the West Indies. While there, he made a colossal error of judgment that might have had serious international repercussions, so his commanding officer ordered him to return home to report to his brother, who at the time was First Consul of the French Republic.
Britain and France were technically at peace during 1803, but relations between the two countries remained uneasy. French officials were understandably nervous about exposing a member of Napoleon’s family to possible danger should war break out again while he was en route. They decided Jerome should go to a U.S. port and sail on a neutral ship—and thus, hopefully, escape the notice of the British navy.
So Jerome went to Baltimore, where his friend Joshua Barney lived. Being a young man who loved amusement and pretty girls, Jerome decided to enjoy himself while he was there. He soon began to hear about a beautiful young woman named Betsy Patterson, known as the Belle of Baltimore, and grew eager to meet her. From all accounts, Jerome had a way with young women, but he never took any of his amours seriously. I’m guessing he thought he could have a fling and then be on his way with little consequence to himself. However, Betsy proved to be more than a match for the charming young Corsican. When they met, he was instantly smitten. As the saying goes, the thunderbolt struck, and any interest Jerome had in returning home disappeared.
Two hundred ten years ago, just about this time of year, American Betsy Patterson met Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s youngest brother. You would think that would be one event the historical record of Betsy’s life would be clear on, but in fact, it’s one of the murkiest. No less than three different stories about their meeting exist.
They met at the races; they met at a dinner party; they met at a ball. Which one was it? One of my first tasks as a historical novelist was to sort through these accounts and figure out which to use for my story. A biographer can say, “There are conflicting reports about their meeting, and here are the stories,” but a novelist can’t do that. A novelist has to weave a seamless tale that makes sense for the characters and the time period in which they lived.
So which story did I choose and how did I portray it? Ah, you’ll have to wait until the book is published to find out.