Hortense Bonaparte

I have a special treat this week. The lovely and fabulously talented Lauren Willig will giveaway two copies of The Temptation of the Night Jasmine and one audio copy of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily to commenters on this week’s post. If you haven’t yet discovered Lauren’s wonderful Pink Carnation Series, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. And if you’re already a devotee of the series, as I know many readers of this blog are, this is a great chance to have a copy autographed by Lauren.

Thinking about the inimitable Pink Carnation and Lauren’s other flower spies got me thinking about the Scarlet Pimpernel, an influence for Lauren (actually mentioned in the series) and for me and for countless other writers. My forthcoming The Paris Affair features a Scarlet Pimpernel type character coded named the Kestrel. I thought I would combine Lauren’s giveaway with my October teaser, an exchange between Suzanne/Mélanie and Raoul that introduces the Kestrel.


She stared at him. She used to be quicker. She’d been too absorbed by her own concerns. Now she saw the strain in the set of his mouth and the worry at the back of his eyes. “Who?”
“Who what?” He took another swallow of wine.
“You’re worried about someone new. Someone who’s been proscribed? Or is about to be. I should have seen it.”
She sat back against the bench, hit by the reality of how much things had changed. “You don’t trust me.” It was as though a well-worn cloak had been lifted from her shoulders on a cold day. “Can you honestly think I would betray one of our comrades—”
“I trust you with my life,” he said in a low, rough voice. “I’m trying to keep you from the intolerable burden of divided loyalties, my darling idiot.”
“It’s a bit late for that. You let me marry Malcolm. Not that I’m sorry you did.”
He kept his gaze on her face. “And I’m trying to avoid doing more damage to your marriage.”
“Since when have you been so driven by personal concerns?”
“Perhaps since personal concerns became all that are left to us. Or perhaps you had a somewhat exaggerated view of my ruthlessness.”
“You’ve quite neatly managed to change the subject.” She leaned forwards.”I won’t let you wrap me in cotton wool any more than I’ll let Malcolm do so.” That had become doubly important to her since she had left the work that had been the focus of her life for so long. “Who are you worried about now?”
Raoul released his breath in a harsh sigh. “Manon Caret.”
Suzanne drew a sharp breath. “But she’s—”
“No longer untouchable. She may still reign over Paris from the Comédie-Française, but that won’t hold much weight with Fouché.”
Suzanne swallowed. “Fouché knows Manon was a Bonapartist agent?”
“More to the point, others do and have denounced her. He’ll look soft if he doesn’t move against her. With the Ultra Royalists claiming he’s too moderate—God help us—he can’t afford any hint of softness. And I suspect he’s worried about what she knows.”
Suzanne shook her head at the idea of Manon Caret, the celebrated actress who had kept Raoul apprised of the doings of Royalists for years, facing arrest. “She’s on the proscribed list?”
“No, and I doubt she ever will be. Too many embarrassing questions. I doubt there’ll even be a trial. But Fouché’s planning to take her into custody. She’ll quietly disappear, probably never to be seen again.”
Suzanne nodded. Spies were rarely dealt with through official channels. “When?”
“According to my sources we have a week at most.”
Suzanne stared at the candlelight flickering in the depths of her wineglass. They had drunk Bordeaux the night she first met Manon Caret. Suzanne had been sixteen, raw from the dubious results of her first mission. Raoul had taken her along when he went to meet with Manon at the theatre late one evening. They’d watched the last act of The Marriage of Figaro, joined the throng of Manon’s admirers after the performance, then lingered on in her dressing room. Suzanne still recalled Manon going behind a gilt-edged dressing screen and emerging in a froth of sapphire silk and Valençiennes lace, despite the frivolous garment somehow transformed from charming, imperious actress to hardheaded agent. Hardheaded agent who had been remarkably kind to a sixteen-year-old girl still feeling her way in the espionage business, far more uncertain than she would admit to anyone, even herself.
She had drunk in the talk of the seasoned spies that night, as they sat round a branch of candles and a bottle of wine, surrounded by costumes and feathered masks and the smell of powder and greasepaint. She had met Manon a handful of times in the next two years, though Suzanne’s work had been on the Peninsula. And then, in 1811, Suzanne had been called upon to assist Hortense Bonaparte, the Empress Josephine’s daughter and Napoleon’s brother’s wife, who found herself with child by her lover. Suzanne had thought they were safe when Hortense delivered the baby safely in Switzerland and gave it into the care of her lover’s mother. But returned to Paris, Suzanne had learned that evidence about the child had fallen into the hands of Fouché, who wouldn’t hesitate to use it against Hortense or her mother. Suzanne had stolen the papers from the ministry of police before Fouché could make use of them. But she had had difficulty slipping out of the ministry. With a knife wound in her side and one of Fouché’s agents on her trail, she had sought refuge at the Comédie-Française with Manon. If she’d been caught with the stolen papers in her possession, she’d have faced prison and very likely execution as a spy, no matter that she was working for the French. Manon had dressed her wound between scenes, bundled her into a costume, and hidden her in plain sight onstage as one of Phèdre’s ladies-in-waiting. All at considerable risk to herself.
Suzanne snatched up her glass and took a sip of wine. “Manon probably saved my life. I’ve never forgot it.”
“Nor have I.” Raoul’s mouth turned grim.
One would almost think he blamed himself for her predicament that night, save that that was so very unlike Raoul. Suzanne pushed aside the thought. “What are you planning?”
“You must have a plan.”
He hesitated a moment. “I’ve made contact with the Kestrel.”
“The who? One of your former agents?” It wasn’t like Raoul to go in for fanciful code names.
He shook his head. “Not one of mine. Or anyone’s. He works for himself. For some years he wreaked havoc by rescuing Royalists from our prisons or from certain arrest.”
“And now he’s rescuing Bonapartists?”
“He claims to deplore wanton killing.”
“And you believe him?”
“I don’t have many other options. He was behind the rescue of Combre and Lefèvre’s escape.”
She leaned forwards. “I can help you.”
“No.” His voice cut across the table with quiet force.
“Since when have you been one to refuse aid? I assure you, I haven’t let myself grow rusty.”
Raoul’s gaze darkened. “For God’s sake, Suzanne. You have a husband, a son, a life. To be protected, for all the reasons you so cogently explained when you told me you were stopping your work.”
“This is different. Stopping my work doesn’t mean turning my back on my comrades.”
“The risk is still there.”
She gave a laugh, rough in her throat. “We live with risk.”
“You don’t have to anymore.”
She stared at him across the geraniums. “This isn’t like you.”
“Perhaps Waterloo changed me. Or perhaps I’ve always been less Machiavellian than you were inclined to believe.”
She pulled her wineglass closer. She’d loved Raoul, but she’d always known she couldn’t trust herself to him. Had her judgment of him been a form of defense, a way of protecting herself from disappointment? “I need to help. I need to do this.”
“Querida—” His gaze turned soft, in that way that always disconcerted her. “You don’t owe anyone anything. Least of all me. And Manon would tell you she knew the risks.”
Suzanne drew a harsh breath. For a moment, the table and the wineglass, the bottle and the vase of geraniums swam before her eyes. She saw Manon’s daughters, asleep on the sofa in the room that adjoined her dressing room. Then she saw Colin, eating a boiled egg with concentration when she had breakfast with him before she left the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré this morning. “I have to help, Raoul. Or I’ll go mad.”
“Because I’m safe. Or safer than most of us. Because I live in luxury, with the man I love and my child. Because I dine and dance with the victors and even count some of them as friends. Because for hours together I forget who I am and what I fought for. I forget that we lost.”
“All the more reason—”
“I wanted to stop betraying my husband. I didn’t want to lose myself.”
“You’d never—”
“You told me when you first recruited me that it was my decision, my choice what risks to run.” She saw them in the cramped, gaudy room in the brothel in Léon where he’d found her, surrounded by gilt and crimson draperies. “You always let me make up my own mind.” She swallowed, holding his gaze with her own. “It was one of the reasons I loved you.”
He returned her gaze for a long moment, his own steady and unreadable, then sat against the bench. “The Kestrel has a plan to get Manon out of Paris. Getting her out of France will be more difficult.”
Suzanne released her breath. “You’ll need travel documents. If I get you Castlereagh’s seal can you forge the rest?”
“It’s far less dangerous than half the things I did in Lisbon or Vienna. Castlereagh’s fond of me. I help smooth the waters with Malcolm.”
He took a drink of wine, as though still deciding. Then he gave a crisp nod, transformed back into the enigmatic spymaster. “I’ll be at the ball at the British embassy tonight.”
She nodded. “If you bring me the papers, I can add the seal, then return them to you. It will be simple—”
A faint smile crossed his face. “Don’t say it, querida. It’s like wishing an actor good luck.”


What do you think is responsible for the enduring appeal of the Scarlet Pimpernel? What are some of your favorite books and movies inspired by it?

I’ll post the winners of the contest nest Tuesday, 16 October.

I’ve also just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Jane Chase to Mel/Suzette.

Lattes and Napoleonic spies

One of the highlights of Mélanie and my trip to New York last week was the chance to see the wonderful Lauren Willig. While Mélanie napped, Lauren and I spent two plus hours catching up over lattes at Pan Quotidien. We talked about research and revisions, current and future projects. With Lauren’s inspiration and suggestions, the next Malcolm/Charles and Suzanne/Mélanie book began to take shape in my imagination.

Lauren was also nice enough to agree to giveaway a copy of her wonderful new book, The Garden Intrigue, on my blog. I found The Garden Intrigue very hard to put down – despite the fact that I read it in the midst of trying to finish writing The Princess’s Secret. I kept wanting to sneak away from Malcolm/Charles and Mélanie/Suzanne in 1815 Paris to visit Lauren’s characters also in Paris about a decade earlier. Garden Intrigue’s heroine is the delightful Emma Delagardie, American ex-patriate and girlhood friend of Hortense Bonaparte. The hero is Augustus Whittlesby, who provides comic relief in earlier volumes of the series with his atrocious poetry but who proves to a brilliant agent living behind a persona much as Percy Blakeney does in The Scarlet Pimpernel. You can read an excerpt from The Garden Intrigue here and one commenter of this post will win a copy.

What’s your favorite Scarlet Pimpernel-type hero or heroine in disguise?


I just got back from a lovely few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Among the highlights were a superb Measure for Measure, a very fun, exuberant Pirates of Penzance, and a brilliant new play called Ghost Light. Ghost Light was conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone (Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater) and Tony Taccone (Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep), written by Taccone and directed by Moscone. It explores the 1978 assassinations of Moscone’s father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk by Supervisor Dan White. But rather than being a docudrama that recreates historical events, Ghost Light focuses on Jonathan Moscone’s response to the loss of his father, both as a fourteen-year-old boy and as an adult man, struggling to direct a production of Hamlet.

The story that emerges is rooted in historical events (events that I remember vividly, as a twelve-year-old at the time of the assassinations) yet at its heart it is an intimate look at coming to terms with the loss of a parent. As such it is both specific to the characters involved and wonderfully universal. We all struggle to understand our parents as individuals. Loss of a parent is a haunting fear, and losing a parent is never easy, at any age.

Ghost Light is a haunting play, beautifully acted and directed. It was the first play we saw on the trip, and I thought about it and talked about it a great deal afterward. Among other things, I found myself mulling over what it is to write historical fiction. Real events form the framework in my books (particulary my recent books), but within those events, the arc of the book focuses on the personal journey of the characters. Both the fictional characters and also the real historical characters, such as Wilhelmine and Dorothée in Vienna Waltz and Hortense Bonaparte in The Mask of Night. Hopefully there’s something universal in those character arcs, at the same time the story is rooted in a specific time and place. It’s a tricky balancing act, that I struggle with constantly when I’m writing. Often in the first draft I’m focused on just having, the historical narrative in place, and a lot of my work in subsequent drafts involves adding layers to the character arcs. My own struggles made me appreciate the brilliant writing in Ghost Light all the more.

What appeals to you most in historical fiction? The historical narrative or the personal stories of the characters? Both? Writers, if you write historical fiction how do you balance historical context and character development?

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Raoul to Mélanie/Suzanne, reacting to the news of Charles/Malcolm’s imprisonment.

I blogged on History Hoydens last week about the historical background to The Mask of Night, so this seemed like a good time to post another excerpt. Following up on the historical background, here’s Mélanie’s first meeting in the book with Hortense Bonaparte (the Empress Josephine’s daughter, Napoleon’s stepdaughter and his younger brother’s wife). It takes place at the masquerade ball given by Oliver and isobel Lydgate.

I’ve also just added a letter from Evie to Quen to the Fraser Correspondence.

Have a great week and let me know your thoughts on the excerpt!

A hand closed on her arm. She turned round and found herself looking into a pair of clear, bright blue eyes, behind a gilded half-mask. The rest of the woman’s face was covered in white paint, bright lip and cheek rouge, dark brow blacking. A remarkably realistic imitation of Queen Elizabeth completed by a red wig, a crown that glittered with real diamonds, and a stiff cloth of gold gown.
“I must speak to you, Mélanie.”
Mélanie nearly dropped her fan.
“It’s me.” The woman’s fingers bit into her arm. “Please.”
Without wasting time on further speech, Mélanie led the way through the crowd to the far end of the ballroom—ducking behind a statue of Apollo to avoid Lady Jersey—and opened a door onto a small circular ante-chamber hung with cinnamon-striped silk. A fire and two lamps had been lit in case any of the guests wished to retire, but the room was empty and the curtains had been drawn across the French windows to the terrace.
Mélanie closed the door and put her back to it. The woman turned to face her. In the lamplight, the blue gaze was unmistakable, as was the soft, crimson-painted mouth beneath the mask.
“I know this sounds absurd in the circumstances,” Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte said. “But it’s so very good to see you.”
“You too.” And she meant it, even as another part of her brain screamed that she was about to be sucked into a maelstrom.
Hortense gave one of her sudden smiles. “But you’re wondering what in God’s name I’m doing here.”
“On the contrary. I can hazard a very good guess what you’re doing here.”
Hortense drew a shaky breath. “Have you seen him?”
“I could scarcely avoid it. Though he hasn’t been in London much since his marriage.”
Hortense’s fingers tightened on the stiff folds of her gown. “How is he?”
Mélanie saw the Comte de Flahaut as she had glimpsed him in the three years they’d both been in Britain. Sitting beside Margaret Mercer Elphinstone in a box at Drury Lane. Standing by the pianoforte to turn the pages of Miss Mercer’s music. Waltzing with her this evening. Smiling the smile that had dazzled women across the Continent. “Trying to find his way in a hostile world. Like the rest of us.”
“They have a child.”
“Yes. A little girl.”
“I’m glad. I always knew he’d make a good father.” Hortense hesitated, her gaze filled with ghosts. “His wife—does he love her?”
“Oh, chèrie. It’s difficult enough to know if one’s in love oneself let alone if someone else is.”
“His father pushed him into it. He never approved of me, and now he wants Flahaut as far away from the taint of Bonapartism as possible.”
She meant not the late comte, Flahaut’s legal father, but the man widely assumed to have fathered him, his mother’s former lover Talleyrand. Talleyrand had navigated the dangerous waters of the French Revolution to serve as Napoleon’s Foreign Minister and had survived Napoleon’s first exile to represent the French at the Congress of Vienna. He had managed a to survive yet again after Waterloo in the restored Bourbon government.
“M. Talleyrand’s own position is precarious,” Mélanie said.
“As are all of ours. I know I was mad to come here.”
“You want to see Flahaut—”
“On, no. That is, yes of course I do, but I wouldn’t run such a risk for so selfish a reason. Not now.” Hortense sank down on a gilded settee. “I’m not that girl anymore. The girl who tumbled so blindly into love when I should have been old enough to know better. I told Flahaut it had to end after Waterloo. He had to protect himself. I had to protect my children.” She looked up at Mélanie with a gaze as raw as a bullet wound. “I have no right to ask this, but I need your help.”
Mélanie’s fingers tightened round her fan. The plea had been inevitable from the moment she recognized Hortense, but that made it no easier to answer.
“I know it goes beyond any call of friendship,” Hortense said. “I know you can’t afford for your husband to know the truth–”
“My husband does know the truth.”
“Sacrebleu. How—”
“I told it him last November.”
“You told him—”
“That I’ve been a French agent since I was sixteen, that I married him to gather intelligence, that everything he thought he knew about my past was a lie.”
“But– You’ve been married for seven years. Why—”
“The past intruded when I least expected it. Our son was in danger. The whys and wherefores don’t matter. Suffice it to say, I saw no alternative.
“And your husband—”
“Charles is a remarkable man.”
“He must adore you.”
What Charles felt for her and she for Charles was too private to be shared, even with Hortense. “Charles was a spy himself. That helped him understand.”
Hortense stared at her as though she’d claimed Charles Fraser was possessed of magical powers. “I can scarcely imagine what Louis would do in such a situation. He’d be furious–”
“I didn’t say Charles wasn’t furious.” The sound of Charles’s fist smashing through the wall of their salon echoed in Mélanie’s head. “At first I couldn’t imagine we’d ever be able to carry on a civil conversation, let alone maintain any semblance of a marriage. Even now– It isn’t easy for him. It’s never going to be easy.”
“I told Charles I stopped spying after Waterloo. Which is the truth. And I promised him I’d indulge in no more intrigues behind his back. I owe it to him to keep my word” And yet she could not deny the pull of that older loyalty, the plea in her friend’s eyes, so like her mother’s. “If you didn’t come to England to see Flahaut, then why?”
Hortense leaned forward. “Believe me, Mélanie, I wouldn’t ask this of you were the situation not dire. I didn’t have anyone else to turn to. Two months ago– Mon Dieu, was that an animal?”
Mélanie had already sprung to her feet. Years of listening for the telltale footsteps of an enemy sniper or the stir of a woken child had trained her to hear sounds beneath the general din. The noise had come not from the ballroom but the garden. And it hadn’t been an animal. It had been a scream that was all too human.

Earlier this week, on the Fog City Divas blog, Allison Brennan had a great post on that question so often asked of writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Thinking about my own answer, I realized my ideas often involve playing “what if…?” The question might be sparked by research (part of the idea for The Mask of Night came from saying “what if Hortense Bonaparte had secretly come to England in 1820 to see her former lover, now married to an Englishwoman?”). It might be sparked by the plot of a play, movie, opera (operas are a great source of gut-wrenching conflict), tv show, or another novel (though I didn’t realize it at the time, looking back I know that part of the idea for Secrets of a Lady came from watching the Jane Seymour/Anthony Andrew version of The Scarlet Pimpernel and saying “what if Marguerite really were a spy?”). Sometimes the question is sparked by my own characters (part of the idea for Beneath a Silent Moon came from saying “what if there was a girl back in England everyone had expected Charles to marry and thought would make him the perfect wife?”).


Happy Twelfth Night! I’m very fond of 6 January. It lends it’s name to a favorite Shakespeare play (I got to work on Viola when I was studying acting; she’s one of the Shakespeare characters I’d have loved to play in a full production–I still go over the “willow cabin” speech sometimes when I’m doing vocal warm-ups for a talk). And a number of Sherlockians consider it the birthday of Sherlock Holmes (a tradition Laurie King follows in her Mary Russell series).

6 January is also the day on which The Mask of Night begins. For the last of the excerpts from the book I’ve been posting over the holiday season, here is the prologue, which offers a glimpse of a young Mélanie and her first meeting with the Empress Josephine, whose ghost hangs over the novel in many ways, and of her daughter Hortense, who is an important character in the novel. I’ll be back to regular blogging next week, but I’ll continue to post excerpts from The Mask of Night every now and then. Suggestions of scenes you’d like to see (and thoughts on the ones you have seen) are very welcome.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers