As a clever girl in stodgy, mercantile Baltimore, Betsy Patterson dreams of a marriage that will transport her to cultured Europe. When she falls in love with and marries Jerome Bonaparte, she believes her dream has come true—until Jerome’s older brother Napoleon becomes an implacable enemy.
Based on a true story, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is a historical novel that portrays this woman’s tumultuous life. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, known to history as Betsy Bonaparte, scandalized Washington with her daring French fashions; visited Niagara Falls when it was an unsettled wilderness; survived a shipwreck and run-ins with British and French warships; dined with presidents and danced with dukes; and lived through the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Yet through it all, Betsy never lost sight of her primary goal—to win recognition of her marriage.
Stephanie: Hello, Ruth! Welcome to Layered Pages and thank you for chatting with me today. What are Betsey’s strengths and weaknesses?
Ruth: I think Betsy’s greatest strength was her incredible determination. She overcame things that might have crushed someone with less fortitude. But as with most people, her greatest strength was also one of her greatest weaknesses. She wasn’t a flexible woman, and she clung to a particular, narrow vision of what her life should be long after most people would have reevaluated their goals.
Stephanie: Historically how does Jerome’s role play a part in Napoleon’s ambitions?
Ruth: To understand the role that Jerome played in Napoleon’s ambitions, it’s necessary to recall that Europe in the 1800s was very different from today. There was no Germany as we know it but rather a number of independent German states. These were part of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of states in Central Europe that had existed since the 900s. In Napoleon’s time, it included Austria (France’s great enemy) and was ruled by the Austrian emperor, Francis II. Part of Napoleon’s grand design was to woo German states away from the Holy Roman Empire and into a new Confederation of the Rhine—thus strengthening his empire and weakening that of Francis. Napoleon wanted Jerome to aid in this plan by marrying a German princess and becoming the ruler of a German kingdom. After defeating Austria at Austerlitz, Napoleon did succeed in creating his confederation and bringing about the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the Germans’ loyalty to Napoleon never ran very deep, and the confederation fell apart after the disaster of the Russian campaign.
Stephanie: Is there a particular scene you found a challenge to write?
Ruth: The shipwreck scene was a challenge because I’ve never lived through anything like that. I read several accounts of shipwrecks—looking especially for incidents caused by ships running onto sandbars—before I felt confident enough to construct the sequence of events.
Stephanie: What was the research involved?
Ruth: I started by reading five nonfiction books about Betsy Bonaparte. I also read biographies of Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, and the Caton sisters. A number of books helped me acquire information about Baltimore architecture, an excursion to Niagara Falls in 1800, period dress, the War of 1812, and forms of transportation. And I traveled to Baltimore to visit historic homes, Fort McHenry, a 19th century warship, and the Maryland Historical Society.
Stephanie: What do you like most about writing historical fiction?
Ruth: I love finding out more about the context of historical character’s lives and imagining how both the details of their daily routine and the great events of their time affected them. And I love finding that perfect detail that serves my story in ways beyond what I imagined. For example, one day, I stumbled across the story that the 15-year-old Jerome had emotionally manipulated his older brother into giving him the sword used at the Battle of Marengo. That sword became an invaluable prop in my story.
Stephanie: What interested you most about this period?
Ruth:It was fascinating to see how relatively unsophisticated, uncultured, and disrespected the United States was in that time period. We tend to look at the past through our present lens of being a great superpower and a far-reaching cultural influence. But in the early 1800s, Europeans considered the United States to be an insignificant backwater. That was one of the reasons Napoleon refused to consider that Betsy might be an appropriate wife for his brother.
Stephanie: What are some of the fictional aspects to this story?
Ruth: I didn’t make up any of the major events of Betsy’s life, but within the broad sweep of those events, many specific episodes are fictionalized. For example, Betsy and Jerome did really travel to Niagara when it was still wilderness, but there are no recorded details of that journey. I had to research what their likely mode of travel would be, and I invented all the encounters they had during the excursion. Similarly, I knew that Betsy claimed to have received a prophecy as a child, but I found no record of what the exact prophecy was. I made up the content to suit the needs of my story.
Stephanie: What book project are you currently working on?
Ruth: My writing has taken a backseat the last four months while I’ve undergone treatment for Stage 1 breast cancer. Now that I’ve completed radiation, I’ve started to research my next novel, which is based on the true story of a woman who was taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history. Her world is a far cry from Betsy’s, but the two women share the quality of being fierce survivors. Now that I’m a survivor myself, that theme has a strong meaning for me.
Stephanie: Is there a message you would like to give to your readers?
Ruth: I love hearing from readers, and I’m open to doing call-ins with book clubs who are reading the novel. People can contact me at the following sites:
my blog: ruthhullchatlienbooks.com
my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ruthhullchatlien
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About the Author
Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her specialty 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 is 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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