Welcome to Ruth Hull Chatlien! She has a new historical fiction book out this month called The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. I really enjoyed reading about her inspiration for the book, and I know you will too. She also has blogged extensively about the process of writing it and developing the characters, so be sure to go to her site and check it out.
I was honored when Melinda invited me to write a guest post—and pleased that she suggested I talk about the inspiration for my recently published historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. My husband and I were big fans of the Horatio Hornblower series that ran on A&E in the 1990s. Several years later, my mother-in-law told us that an additional four episodes had been aired in the early 2000s, so we watched them. The final episode featured an encounter between Horatio Hornblower and a mysterious young couple he rescued at sea—a couple who turned out to be Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte trying desperately to reach France.
I had never heard of Jerome or Betsy Bonaparte and wondered if there was any historical basis for the storyline. Had Napoleon’s youngest brother really married an American girl, and did Napoleon oppose their impetuous marriage? By searching on the Internet, I learned that those basic facts were true—but the real Betsy Bonaparte’s story was far more complex, dramatic, and moving than the one the scriptwriters portrayed. Immediately, I decided to explore the subject further to see if it might make a good historical novel.
The first thing I discovered was that many books about Betsy already existed, but almost fifty years had passed since a novel was published about her. That was encouraging news. I ordered a book of her letters, published in the 1800s, and a fairly recent biography. Once they arrived, I began to read the biography and immediately took a strong dislike to it—it was a peculiar mixture of nonfiction and speculation with glaring anachronisms and overwritten descriptions throughout the text. My interest in the topic waned.
Then Amazon emailed me in 2010 to say that another biography of Betsy Bonaparte had just been published. Although skeptical, I ordered the book, and it turned out to be a much better source of material. Once again Betsy seized my imagination. I still wasn’t sure about spending the next couple of years with her because parts of her personality were not entirely likeable. The more I thought about it, however, the more convinced I became that Betsy had the potential to be the same kind of emotionally compelling yet exasperating character that Scarlett O’Hara is. In some ways, Betsy was thoroughly a woman of her time period, yet in other ways, she was an early feminist. That combination fascinated me.
I gathered even more books—six biographical works on Betsy’s life, in all, plus additional works on Jerome, Napoleon, and many aspects of the time period. During the two years it took me to write the novel, I grew to respect Betsy deeply and to feel very close to her. My goal in writing this book was to show why she made the choices she did and how she interpreted her life while she was living it—not through the lens of the eventual consequences, but as any person experiences her life, making the best choices that she can, never know what the outcome will be yet hoping to achieve certain goals. Above all, I wanted to be fair to a woman who faced much opposition. I hope that Betsy herself would think I accomplished that purpose.
My website: http://ruthhullchatlienbooks.com