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Author Archive

Napoleon, Egypt, and the Unfortunate Savants

As any Regency romance lover knows, Napoleon loomed large over most of the era, from his rise to power at the turn of the century to his downfall, spectacular return, and second downfall in 1814-5.

But if you’ll allow me to indulge in a bit of modern slang, I’ve got to say that I’m in love with reading about him because he’s so totally cray-cray. The dude is a big reason why we all learned from The Princess Bride to “never get involved in a land war in Asia”. He was a total megalomaniac who had some spectacular military successes, but was also able to fall back on constant conscription of one of the largest populations in Europe to fuel his war machine. He would do things like invade Malta, rewrite their entire constitution and judicial code and establish a bunch of schools, and then sail away a week later (leaving behind some French troops who were almost immediately besieged by the British and later forced to surrender). And his maddened love for Josephine, a woman who sometimes seemed to despise him, was truly epic; the British intercepted and gleefully published letters from him excoriating her for cheating on him while he was gone, which shows that the tabloids of the 1800s and the tabloids of today are more related than you’d normally guess.

In 1798, though, Napoleon’s cray-cray moments were mostly ahead of him. He was just a young, hugely ambitious military man with dreams of glory and enough steely-eyed insanity to drive him forward. The French Directoire had him by the tail – he was too popular and too valuable to get rid of, but too powerful and dangerous to have around. So, they allowed him to pursue the course he’d asked for – to mount an invasion of Egypt, overthrow the Mameluke government, and gain control of the Suez trade between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

Napoleon didn’t intend to be satisfied with Egypt. For him, Egypt was a stepping stone toward his real ambition – rivaling Alexander the Great by ruling India. He wanted to claim Egypt and use it as a base for building ships and transporting troops from the Middle East to India, striking a critical blow to the British in the East. The British, of course, were highly suspicious when they found out Napoleon was headed for Egypt, and they did everything in their power to thwart his India ambitions.

But I digress. My favorite thing about the story of Napoleon going to Egypt wasn’t how many troops or ships he controlled, or how much he wanted to be Alexander, or how he sent those scathing (intercepted) letters to Josephine while also sleeping with the wife of one of his officers. It was that he decided to take 150 scientists, engineers, artists, and other men of learning with him on a voyage of war.

This group, called Napoleon’s ‘savants’, were enlisted to go to Egypt and help build a new society of learning there. Napoleon was in love with science, so much so that he claimed later that if he had not become an emperor, he would have been one of the best scientists of his day (ahem). So he convinced a bunch of the leading young minds of France to set out with him on a grand adventure across the sea and into the desert.

The Destruction of L’Orient at the Battle of the Nile by George Arnald [wikimedia commons]

Unfortunately for them, the emphasis was on ‘adventure’ instead of ‘grand’, and it was not a pretty voyage. The preeminent scientists spent the outward journey dining with Napoleon and engaging in philosophical discussions under the Mediterranean moon; the lower savants were stuck in other, more overcrowded ships being taunted by the soldiers and sailors they berthed with. When they got to Egypt, conditions were much bleaker than they had anticipated – and everything became more bleak when Nelson showed up and destroyed most of the French ships in the Battle of the Nile, taking out all of the scientific instruments and other possession they had yet to unload (not to mention most of Napoleon’s money, which blew up along with his flagship L’Orient when the powder magazine exploded).

Still, the savants spent the next three years making the first modern Western study of Egypt. They founded their own institute, set up the first printing press in Egypt, and put on programs and lectures even in the face of uprisings and major battles. In between more militaristic tasks like scouting for water and making maps, they drew landscapes and took engravings of ancient artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone. And all their findings would later go into a gigantic 23-volume publication that wasn’t finished until 1828.

Napoleon, of course, ultimately abandoned them (and the entire French army) when it became clear that his dreams of an Eastern empire had been thwarted. After a failed attempt to invade Syria, Napoleon retreated to Cairo, where he got word that the Directoire in France was on the verge of collapse. Not wanting to miss his chance at effecting a coup, he spirited himself out of Egypt without telling his troops, his mistress, or his savants, leaving them all to find out when his second-in-command announced it after his departure.

Napoleon went on to become Emperor. Everyone else on his expedition was stuck in Egypt for another two years, suffering from plague and disease and constant Mameluke attacks, until eventually surrendering to the British. The savants had a particularly hard time of it, since the French soldiers hated them and the British wanted to take all of their artifacts and work, but 80% of the savants survived the campaign and eventually made it back to Paris with most of their notes and drawings intact. It was their work that fueled the European fascination with ancient Egypt, kicking off the last two centuries of tomb raiding/scholarship/forgeries/archaeology.

If you want to read more about this, I highly recommend Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern. Also, (shameless plug for my own book), my latest novel, The Earl Who Played With Fire, has a tangential connection to Napoleon’s savants, since it features a (fictional) cursed dagger that one of them found on the Egyptian campaign. If you have a favorite Napoleon story, I would love to hear about it in the comments!

Sara Ramsey is a Regency romance writer with great taste in Champagne and bad taste in movies. Her latest book, The Earl Who Played With Fire, is out now. Learn more at www.sararamsey.com.

Tea and the East India Company

I drink tea by the gallon, as any Regency heroine worth her salt does. Hot or iced, plain or with milk and sugar, standard Starbucks teabags or elaborately spiced masala chais – I love it all, day and night. For me, it started when I read ‘The Secret Garden’ over and over (and over) again as a child. To really get into Mary’s world, I felt that I needed to drink tea [editor's note: I also felt that I needed to wear a big floppy hat, white gloves, and rhinestone earrings - clearly I was born to be a duchess]. Granted, the only tea I had was Lipton’s, and I put so much sugar in it that it was more like simple syrup than tea – but I’ve been addicted ever since.

Given my fascination with tea, it’s little wonder that I keep researching merchants; the hero of my third book, The Marquess Who Loved Me, spent ten years in India, and shipping also plays a role in my next book, Duke of Thorns. But I’m not following tea on a whim – during the Regency, tea was vitally important to the British economy and to the everyday lives of millions.

The East India Company dominated this space with their near-monopoly on trade with Asia. They also dominated large swathes of the London economy with their warehouses and docks, employing over three thousand people in London at their height – but that’s a story for another time. But as I learned more about the tea trade, I was surprised to learn that during the Regency, the East India Company’s most important trading wasn’t in India, as their name implies – but with Canton (now Guangzhou).

Tea had been so in demand in the previous decades that Parliament had passed the Commutation Act in 1784, which substantially reduced the duties on tea and required the East India Company to keep at least one year’s supply of tea in its London warehouses at all times. With the decrease in taxes, demand kept growing. The East India Company sold ~10 million pounds of tea in 1784, but that doubled to 20 million pounds in 1795, and would reach over 50 million pounds by 1850.

I visited this tea plantation in Sri Lanka in 2006 - that trip was one of my all-time favorites.

I visited this tea plantation in Sri Lanka in 2006 (amazing!), and the hotel we stayed in that night felt like it was straight out of an Agatha Christie novel – v. imperial British with a slight chance of being murdered.

In the early 19th century, nearly all of Britain’s tea came from China – to the point that two-thirds of all the goods sold by the East India Company between 1800 and 1810 came from Canton, not India. This included porcelain, silk, and other luxury goods, but tea was the primary driver of the EIC’s revenues. India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) weren’t major tea producers yet, and they wouldn’t become tea producers until British merchants engaged in a bit of corporate espionage and took plants from China to cultivate tea plantations elsewhere – a plan with far-reaching consequences, since former British colonies like Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, and others now account for the majority of the world’s current tea production (although China is once again the single largest producer).

So if most of the East India Company’s revenues came from China, why were they still messing around with India? India was expensive and difficult to manage (because they weren’t exactly thrilled with being managed), with constant wars and skirmishes throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (including the campaign against Tipu Sultan in 1799, where Arthur Wellesley, whom you may know as the Duke of Wellington, overthrew the leader of Mysore as a bit of practice in the lead-up to offing Napoleon). But China wasn’t exactly thrilled to trade with Britain either – they found the British annoying (that’s probably putting it lightly) and thought that their gifts and trade goods were inferior. So the Chinese demanded to be paid in silver for tea, which was all well and good – until the British economy risked collapse due to the outflow of millions in silver bullion.

I didn't make it to Mysore while I was in India, so you'll have to settle for the ruins of Golconda Fort (near Hyderabad) - famous for the diamond mines that produced the Hope Diamond and the Koh-i-Noor.

I didn’t make it to Mysore while I was in India, so you’ll have to settle for the ruins of Golconda Fort (near Hyderabad) – famous for the diamond mines that produced the Hope Diamond and the Koh-i-Noor.

To keep the tea pouring, the East India Company ended up developing a very successful (for them) triangle trade – sending textiles and manufactured goods to India, picking up opium and smuggling it into China (since opium was the easiest thing to sell there if they didn’t want to pay in silver), and then buying tea to bring back to Britain. That tea then got sorted and sold to the tea merchants, who peddled it to houses across all strata of British society. It was all a very delicate balance with little room for error given the huge sums of money at stake – all of which led to such consequences as the brutally repressed India rebellions (read Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran if you want a romance novel that explores a bit of that awfulness) and the Opium Wars with China.

I could go on for ages about this, but I think I’ll dash off and have another cup of tea instead. If you want to read more about the East India Company’s tea trade, I recommend Monsoon Traders (available in paper on Amazon, although I got mine from the library). You can also read The East India Company’s London Workers, which is a fascinating look at the lives of the dockworkers and clerks who worked for the EIC in Britain (although at $100+ on Amazon, you might want to try interlibrary loan first). Or hit me up in the comments and I’ll see if I have the answer to your questions!

Alternatively, if you prefer your tea in your belly instead of in your research notes, I highly recommend ordering from Gong Fu Tea in Des Moines (yes, Des Moines) – their Queen’s Blend black tea is the best thing ever, and I order it in bulk. And no, they didn’t sponsor this post ;)

Sara Ramsey is a Regency romance writer with great taste in Champagne and bad taste in movies. Her latest book, The Earl Who Played With Fire, is out now. Learn more at www.sararamsey.com.

Regency Hoarders + Duchess Release: The Earl Who Played With Fire

Art collecting has been going on since the first cavemen figured out how to draw horses (although their drawings weren’t very portable). But the Regency collectors took their efforts to new extremes. Some of this was borne out of a necessity to fill the walls of their lavish new townhouses and country estates. Some stemmed from a more serious interest in antiquities – the Georgian period, and the Regency period in particular, saw the early precursors to what we would consider serious historical study (although their archaeological methods left much to be desired). And some, of course, was the result of vast shifts in wealth that created in a newly-rich upper class that wanted all the trappings of aristocrats’ homes even if they would never have their titles.

Drawing of Soane's sarcophagus room, 1864

Drawing of Soane’s sarcophagus room, 1864

Any Regency house party worth its salt would have the opportunity to peruse the owner’s art collections, often in picture galleries. The biggest houses might have a purpose-built ‘museum’ to house their collections.

Because of this interest in antiquities and art, some of the best homes built during the Regency were designed as showcases for their owners’ hoardings. Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, is a prime example (one that you can still visit in its original state today! It’s a must-see for any Regency-lover who visits London).

Soane started off as the son of a brewer, but he became a highly skilled architect and designed the Bank of England, his own homes in London and the countryside, and a wide variety of other public and private buildings. His house, which is really three townhouses that he combined over the span of thirty years, was constantly remodeled to accommodate his growing collection. He wasn’t above knocking out a wall to be able to get a statue into the house. And when he acquired the sarcophagus of Seti I, he held a three-day party with almost nine hundred guests to celebrate his triumph.

Soane, like many of his contemporaries, opened up his home for public viewings. His collection is a jaw-dropping hoard of some 3000 catalogued objects spanning an insane variety of styles and time periods. He collected vases, urns, sculptures, paintings, a whole series of famous images by Hogarth, spoils taken from the fall of Seringapatam in India, a whole bunch of memorabilia related to Napoleon (including a lock of Napoleon’s hair in a gold ring), first editions of books by Shakespeare and Milton, two copies of the Decameron from the 16th-century, and tons of other stuff. Soane, disappointed that his son was a reprobate who didn’t care for architecture, got an Act of Parliament passed to disown him and donated  his house and its contents to the nation as a museum upon his death.

Soane wasn’t the only hoarder of his day. Christie’s auction house was founded in the 1760s, and by the Regency it was possible to buy many different kinds of art via public and private sales. And there were more infamous collectors circling through London, peddling artistic goods that had often been looted (see the Elgin Marbles) or fabricated entirely. So if you were living in the Regency and had a steady supply of income, you could outfit your house to look like a Grecian temple, an Egyptian fantasy, a Chinese dream, or some weird amalgamation of all those decorating schemes.

EarlWhoPlayedWithFireThe reason I’m thinking of Regency art collectors is because the fourth book in my Muses of Mayfair series, The Earl Who Played With Fire, comes out later this month. It features Miss Prudence Etchingham, a proper spinster who is responsible for some of the best antiquities forgeries in London. Read on for the description, and one random commenter will get an ebook copy of the book when it comes out!

A woman courting ruin…

No one would suspect prim, proper Prudence Etchingham of lusting after her best friend’s brother. Nor would anyone guess that she’s responsible for dozens of the best forgeries in London’s antiquities markets. But if her love for Alex is doomed to fail, she must raise enough money to escape the marriage mart. She just needs one last, daring forgery to set herself up for life…

A man evading disaster…

Alex Staunton, the rich Earl of Salford, lives a charmed existence. No one knows that he’s dangerously attracted to his sister’s best friend. Nor has he revealed that he suffers from an ancient curse — one that has given him everything, but prevents him from marrying the woman of his dreams. But when an enemy from his past takes an unseemly interest in Prudence’s future, Alex must find a way to break the curse…or risk losing her forever.

A love they’re destined for…

Every seductive encounter brings them closer together — but their secret, smoldering desires will inevitably burn them. And when Prudence’s illicit forgery collides with Alex’s desperate search, more than their hearts are at stake. Can they break Alex’s curse and save Prudence from her unwanted suitor? Or will their love become a weapon that will destroy them both?

Sara Ramsey writes fun, feisty Regency historical romances. You can usually find her in San Francisco, drinking Champagne while trying to keep her tiara on straight. Her next book, The Earl Who Played With Fire, comes out in November. Find out more at www.sararamsey.com.

Interview with RITA Award Winning Author Joanna Bourne

A proper duchess doesn’t fawn over anyone, but I shall break all protocol and shamelessly fawn over today’s guest – Joanna Bourne, the award-winning and much beloved author of The Black Hawk. She’s written several romance novels set in Regency/ Revolutionary/ Napoleonic France and Britain, and her series is packed with dashing heroes and intrepid heroines. And spies – everyone loves spies!

If you’ll allow me to fawn a moment longer, I must also mention that Jo won the 2009 RITA (Regency historical) for My Lord and Spymaster, and was a finalist for the 2009 RITA (historical) for The Spymaster’s Lady and for the 2011 RITA (historical) for The Forbidden Rose. She’s also made all sorts of reader/trade lists for best romances, and the accolades keep rolling in for her lastest book, The Black Hawk.

So it’s with great pleasure that we welcome Joanna Bourne to the blog! Onward, dear Reader, as Joanna answers all sorts of questions about her books and writing. And there’s a giveaway at the end – stay tuned!

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Duchess Debut: Leigh LaValle’s THE RUNAWAY COUNTESS

I am thrilled and delighted to host the lovely Leigh LaValle, whose debut book THE RUNAWAY COUNTESS comes out tomorrow! COUNTESS has already earned great early acclaim, including:
  • 4 stars from Romantic Times: “LaValle’s debut is exciting and action packed, with a hero and heroine who play well off each other.”
  • A blurb to die for from Tessa Dare: “Leigh LaValle weaves an enthralling tale of passion and deception, laced with charm and wit…a captivating new voice in historical romance.”
  • Another blurb to die for from Courtney Milan: “an enchanting debut, full of passion, angst, danger, and the promise of true love.”
If that’s not reason enough to send a footman to preorder the book, then ring for a glass of ratafia and read on. Duchess Leigh will share all sorts of tidbits about her writing, including a scorching excerpt. And one commenter on today’s blog will win an ebook of THE RUNAWAY COUNTESS!

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