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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

The Ambitious Madame BonaparteWritten by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Published by Amika Press

Review by Tracey Skeine

5 quills

 

I love novels about strong women characters who have the courage to be themselves despite what everyone else tells them. I also love reading historical novels about times or events I’m not familiar with. With her first novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, author Ruth Hull Chatlien delivers on each of those points.

Betsy Patterson wants to rise above her station, and she is ambitious indeed. Her severe father is a merchant in Baltimore, and that life isn’t enough for Betsy. These are the years of the early 19th century, and women were supposed to get married and have children and otherwise get out of the way of the menfolk. But Betsy has other intentions, and she is determined enough to see those intentions through, even when they cloud her judgement. She is not impressed by the young country, the young men, or the fashions of America.

When Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, comes to town, Betsy seizes the opportunity and marries him. But big brother Napoleon isn’t playing, and Betsy, now Madame Bonaparte, isn’t accepted into society.

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte has all the historical details I love in historical novels, the kind of details that make you feel like you’re there in the early 19th century alongside Betsy. Betsy is a strong woman at a time when it wasn’t acceptable to be a strong woman, and she has to fight many battles to follow her dreams. It was an engrossing story about something I didn’t know about (Napoleon’s brother marrying an American), and it held my attention the whole time. I’d recommend it for people who love strong women characters in historical fiction. And also for readers who are interested in historical fiction about Napoleon, the War of 1812, and early 19th century America.

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Tracey Skeine received her B.A. degree in English Literature in June 2012. She is still working on her first novel set in Caesar’s Rome.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien

The Ambitious Madame BonaparteRuth Hull Chatlien is the author of the historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Here’s her take on writing historical fiction.

Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

Ruth Hull Chatlien: I started my first novel when I was ten years old—so long ago that I don’t remember why I did it beyond a love of stories. That first novel was historical fiction about forbidden romance and patriotic spies during the American Revolution. I finally finished the 120-page manuscript when I was in high school. In college, I majored in literature, and influenced by that experience, I spent the next 30 years writing literary fiction. I managed to get a few poems and short stories published. Finally, a few years ago, I decided to go back to my first love: historical fiction.

M.A.: What inspired you to write The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte?

R.H.C.: My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series in the late 1990s. Then in the 2000s, we discovered an additional four episodes that we had never seen because they were produced much later. The last of those featured Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte. Despite my familiarity with world history, I didn’t know that Napoleon’s brother had married an American. When I looked up the facts on the Internet, I discovered that Betsy’s real life was far more interesting than the snippet shown (and distorted) in the television show.

M.A.: Tell us about The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. How would you describe it to potential readers?

R.H.C.: The book combines romance, action adventure, and a tale of family dysfunction. Betsy Bonaparte was a heroine as beautiful and headstrong as Scarlett O’Hara, but unlike Scarlett, she was a real woman. She led a tumultuous life because of her belief that a woman had as much right to exercise her talents as any man.

M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like? What can you tell us about the joys and the challenges of being an author?

R.H.C.: Originally, I sought traditional publication for the novel. I spent about six months shopping it around to agents without success. The original version of the book had two problems; it was longer than what publishers wanted to see from a first-time author, and because I had tried to keep it short, it wasn’t descriptive enough. Then in February 2013, through a mutual friend I met the man who had founded Amika Press in Chicago. He was excited about the concept of my book, so after taking some time to consider whether I was ready to give up on New York publication, I submitted the manuscript. The publisher and editor at Amika both read it, liked it, and agreed to take it on. My editor was fantastic and really helped me make it the book I dreamed it would be. To my surprise, he wanted me to make it even longer by adding the descriptive details I had left out. We went through one major revision and one copy edit, and then the novel came out in December 2013.

M.A.: For me, researching historical fiction is always the most challenging part. What is your research process? Do you travel for research? How do you incorporate the facts of the era with your fictional story?

R.H.C.: I researched the novel by reading several biographies of Betsy as well as books about Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, the War of 1812, Baltimore architecture, period clothing, and an early excursion to Niagara Falls. I also took a research trip to Baltimore to visit historic homes, Fort McHenry, a 19th century warship, and the Maryland Historical Society.

Even after gathering all those facts, I still had to deal with areas where details have been lost to the historical record. One of my favorite analogies for writing historical fiction is “hanging the swags.” I think of the known factual events as brackets extending at irregular intervals along a wall. As a novelist, I had to make up scenes and bits of dialogue to connect those known events—like draping material to connect the brackets.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

R.H.C.: I owe a tremendous debt to Graham Greene for showing me that it’s ok to write about deeply flawed characters. I very much admire historical novelists such as Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, and Sarah Dunant for the way they have made the past come alive in their work.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write and publish historical fiction?

R.H.C.: Tell a good story, but don’t neglect the history. I recently read a historical novel set in the same period as mine and dealing with some of the same people. The plot was fast-paced, and the characterization of the heroine was well conceived, but the book was riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies. I had a very hard time remaining in the world of the book because the mistakes kept jarring me out of the story.

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?

R.H.C.: I love hearing from readers. People can contact me at the following sites:

Blog 

Facebook 

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore to research my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, my husband and I visited 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 the 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. 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 particular 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 running unexpectedly across 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 a shadowy historical figure who existed only in the yellowed pages of old letters and biographies.

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 Bonaparte gave Betsy that particular item after they married.

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.

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 wit, I feel certain that she would have had something saucy to say about that.

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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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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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