Using Information Lag in Historical Fiction

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

My forthcoming historical novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, is based on the true story of Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte, the American beauty who married Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, while he was visiting the United States in 1803. As I was planning the plot, one of the things I had to deal with was something I call information lag. In our current age of instantaneous communication, it can be 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 Betsy’s hometown of Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. 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. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometime amused themselves during long journeys by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

Sometimes I had documentary evidence in the form of letters and news articles that told just exactly how long it took for specific pieces of news from Europe to reach the United States and vice versa. At other times, I had to dig around to find out what typical travel times might have been. Another complicating factor was that stormy weather made sailing the Atlantic in winter very difficult. Mail from overseas tended to slow down in the rough-sailing months.

As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel. Once Jerome and Betsy realized they wanted to marry, they had to decide whether to seek the blessing of the Bonapartes before they proceeded. At the time, Napoleon had not yet become emperor, but he was the First Consul, the chief executive of France, and he believed he had the right to direct his sibling’s lives. Betsy’s father wanted the marriage delayed while they waited for Jerome’s aide to travel to France to find out Napoleon’s reaction—or at least, gain the blessing of Jerome’s mother. Jerome vehemently opposed the idea.

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 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?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure the information lag was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for it because it added considerable tension to the plot. The delay in learning the Bonaparte reaction to the marriage, the months it took to learn the astonishing news that Napoleon had become emperor, and the lag in communication between the lovers once Jerome returned to naval service—all these played a significant role in my characters’ ability to make good decisions and chart the course of their lives. If Betsy and Jerome had better means of communication, their lives might have turned out quite differently than they did. But then again, if that had been the case, I probably wouldn’t have written my novel.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been known as a leading market for historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish historical fiction as well as nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
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