Thursday, April 10, 2014

Blog Tour Interview: Ruth Hull Chatlien, Author of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

Please join me in welcoming author Ruth Hull Chatlien to Let Them Read Books! Ruth is touring the blogosphere with her debut historical fiction novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, the story of American Betsy Patterson and her marriage to Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome. (It's very good! Click here to read my review!) I recently got the chance to sit down and ask Ruth a few questions about Betsy. Read on and enter to win a copy of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte!

Hello Ruth! Thank you for taking the time to appear on Let Them Read Books!

When did you first encounter Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, and what inspired you to write a novel about her?

My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series that was shown on A&E 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’ve worked on history textbooks for 25 years), 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.

One of things I wanted to do with the book was to portray Betsy in all her complexity. She’s someone who’s easy to dismiss as a stereotype. Older interpretations of her life focused on the romance and the injustice of Napoleon’s opposition to her marriage, while some modern historians disparage her because of her vanity, ambition, and obsession with rank. I think either interpretation is too simplistic. I wanted to create a more nuanced portrayal that showed both her flaws and her strengths, the qualities that make people want to shake her and the qualities that make people want to give her a hug. Even when I disagreed with her choices, I felt that it was my task to show why she made the decisions she did and how they grew out of her own values and goals, not mine as the writer.

Could you tell us a bit about the research you did to prepare for this novel? Did you come across anything that surprised you?

I used six different biographical sources for Betsy alone, some of which contained excerpts from her letters (which are held by the Maryland Historical Society). I also read about Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, the Caton sisters, the War of 1812, Baltimore architecture, period clothing, and an early explorer’s expedition to Niagara Falls. My husband and I traveled to Baltimore to visit the historical society, period homes, a 19th-century ship, and Fort McHenry.

I learned a lot of interesting things while researching. One thing that surprised me was when my editor asked me to flesh out the scene in Chapter XI in which Jerome and Betsy attend the theater in New York. After spending a whole afternoon online, I was able to find out the name of a play being performed the month they were there, locate an online copy of the script, and discover that the plot had remarkable parallels to what was going on in their lives. Finding that play was a marvelous bit of serendipity.

If you could travel back in time and spend a day with Betsy, what would you do while you were there?

I would choose the time period when she was living in Washington. First, I think I’d bring her a little present. Betsy faced so much opposition in her life that she was always deeply moved by simple acts of kindness. Then I think it would be fun to go shopping. Betsy was known for her exquisite taste in clothing—although I’m not sure I’d be comfortable wearing her revealing French fashions! After that, I’d ask if we could have tea with her friend Dolley Madison or visit one of Mrs. Madison’s receptions held at the President’s Mansion. Finally, I’d want to have supper with Betsy and her son Bo because I grew nearly as fond of him as I was of Betsy.

Your novel is likely to be many readers' introduction to Betsy. What do you hope they take away from the story and your representation of her?

First of all, I hope they enjoy the many twists and turns of Betsy’s life as much as I did. I hope they would admire her strength and determination, even if they don’t agree with all of her choices. On a more serious level, I hope the story prompts readers to think about themes like the restrictions placed on women’s lives (both then and now) and the damage created by the abuse of power (in both families and nations). Perhaps reading about the struggles of Betsy—and her poor mother—will help remind women not to be complacent about our own rights.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the research stage of another historical novel based on the true story of a woman taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history. Her story will be very different from Betsy’s, but the two women share the quality of being fiercely determined survivors.

Thanks, Ruth! We'll look forward to your next novel!

This giveaway has closed and the winner has been selected.
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Wanna win your won copy of'
The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte?
Simply leave a comment on this post with your email address, and you're entered!

This giveaway is open to residents of the US and Canada and ends at 11:59pm Wednesday, April 23, 2014. Winner will be selected at random. Thanks, and good luck!

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is on a blog tour!


  1. Replies
    1. You're very welcome! I enjoyed the book and getting to know Betsy, and I'm looking forward to the next one!

  2. This is so cool. I had no idea that there were Bonapartes in America. What a great story to tell. Thanks. carlscott(at)prodigy(dot)net(dot)mx

  3. This novel sounds intriguing and unique. Thanks for this giveaway. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  4. What a fascinating feature and interview. Many thanks for this chance. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  5. I never realized, that Jerome Bonaparte married an American. I was lucky to see a Napoleon exhibit at our local art gallery. There were items from different family members. If I remember correctly, there were items of furniture and guns, that belonged to Jerome. Thank you for the giveaway.

  6. I'm another one who had no idea that Jerome Bonaparte's wife was American. The book sounds intriguing. And, I would like to know more about the work-in-progress about the woman taken captive.

  7. I just read another historical fiction title on this woman's life and would love to follow up with this read! Cheers, and thanks! --K

    shamy at post dot harvard dot edu


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