Historygasm: Letter to Martha Jefferson Randolph from Marie Jacinthe de Botidoux

The wonderful Megan Brett did me and my co-author a solid last weekend and went to UVA to help us find a letter in which one of Patsy Jefferson’s suitors is mentioned. One William Short. I started to get excited when I saw this.

Then the hairs on my nape started to rise when I saw this. OMG, a real letter from 1789, the autumn after Patsy Jefferson and her family left Paris, at the start of the French Revolution. So awesome. So cool. I want to touch it. I want to TOUCH IT….

Then reality struck me. It’s in French! And I can’t read French. Anyone out there want to help us translate?

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There are more pages to this letter, but I figure beyond ten, if Marie hasn’t mentioned William Short, we’re in trouble :P

Why I Write What I Do

I usually shy away from talking about my writing process (except on Facebook or when I’m teaching a class) because it seems self-indulgent. But many thanks to the bright and shiny Christy English for reminding me that readers want to know, and for asking me a few questions about my writing.

1) What am I working on?

Right now, I’m deeply immersed in the 18th-19th century world of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, daughter of the third President of the United States. Together with my co-author Laura Kamoie (aka NYT Bestselling author Laura Kaye), I’m writing about the woman who shaped his legend, and thereby, defined our nation’s legacy. Though it’s a departure from my usual time period, it’s deeply satisfying to be writing about some of my favorite things all at once: important women that history has overlooked, government, and controversial turning points in human history. I post almost daily excerpts and comments on the research I’m doing, so if you’d like to follow along, please do chat me up on Facebook.

Of course, I’m also jotting down notes for other projects including a full-length adult treatment of the life of Arsinoe II (to accompany The Princess of Egypt Must Die) and a follow-up to the Nile books that will center on the life of Cleopatra Selene’s children.

The Princess of Egypt Must Die slide

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Until recently, I would have said that what distinguishes my work from others in my genre is my inclusion of fantastical and religious elements in my Nile books. But now that I’m moving a bit away from fantasy, I would say that what distinguishes my writing is that it is always intensely emotional, introspective, and dramatic. I don’t write quiet little stories–there are always fireworks of some kind or another because the subjects I choose to write about tend to have very soapy lives!

3) Why do I write what I do?

Understanding history helps us understand who we are now. How we got here. If we’re moving forward or if we’re sliding back into past mistakes. That feels important to me and I love discovering just how very human these historical legends really were.

4) How does your writing process work?

For historical fiction, it always starts with a timeline. I need to understand the big historical beats–what we know, and where there is room for speculation on my part. Because I love filling in the blanks! (To visualize all this, I use Aeon Timeline, then I start mapping out the scenes that have to be in the book using Scrivener.)

I’ve decided to pose the same questions to some other writers including Eliza Knight and Kate Quinn, so check back here on the 24th and I’ll link back to their answers!

Update: Eliza Knight’s post is here. And Kate Quinn’s post is here.

Would Cleopatra Selene Really Have Considered Herself Egyptian?

Cleopatra Selene is unlikely to have dressed like this...

One of the criticisms most often leveled at my Nile series is that because the Ptolemaic Dynasty considered itself Macedonian Greek, the emphasis I place on Egyptian culture–and Cleopatra Selene’s awareness of it–is somehow historically inaccurate or anachronistic.

I believe this criticism is made primarily by people who correctly understand that Cleopatra the Great, Selene’s mother, was not a black African queen in the tradition of the Kandake of Meroe. And by people who also correctly surmise that Cleopatra the Great  is unlikely to have appeared to her subjects wearing exotic Old Kingdom garb in the fashion of Elizabeth Taylor in the Hollywood movie.

But to attempt to disassociate Cleopatra VII and her children from the Egyptian kingdom they ruled is to overlook a great deal of historical evidence. First of all, to characterize a woman whose family had not only lived in Egypt for nearly three hundred years, but ruled over it all that time, as somehow not Egyptian strikes me as absurd. (Pity poor Americans who identify as such with so much less history.) But even if one were to grant the argument that the Ptolemaic Dynasty held themselves apart from the subjects over which they ruled (because they did), that trend took an abrupt turn with Cleopatra the Great, who took affirmative steps to identify as Egyptian.

Cleopatra Selene’s mother was the first in her line to learn the native language. She identified herself not simply as philopater (lover of her father) but as philopatris (lover of her nation). She participated in native Egyptian religious rituals and had herself carved in relief in the old Egyptian style at Dendera. There is a chance, as explored in Professor Duane Roller’s excellent biography, that Cleopatra the Great herself may have had some small admixture of native Egyptian blood in her heritage. And even if she did not, evidence exists that Cleopatra Selene herself had a dearly loved cousin, Petubastes, who was half Ptolemaic and half of the native Egyptian priestly caste. (Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography, p. 166).

Cleopatra Selene is more likely to have dressed like this...

The fact was, times were changing, and Selene spent her childhood in a war-torn court where a national identity as Egyptians was important as it had never been important before. Her mother called upon Egypt to help her in her fight against Octavian’s Roman forces, and sought out Eastern allies even over more obvious Macedonian-Greek ones. While Cleopatra the Great certainly portrayed herself on coins as a Hellenistic queen, she was not averse to costuming, whether it was to portray herself as Venus, or Isis, or a pharaoh…an Egyptian title that she wanted, and took, for herself. Selene’s mother was, in short, a woman who always remembered her audience, and appeared as would most benefit her under the circumstances.

All this means that Selene did not grow up in a Macedonian bubble. The influences that show themselves in the city Selene built and coins she minted are a carefully cultivated mix of Macedonian-Greek and Egyptian.

There can be no question that Cleopatra Selene identified strongly with her Macedonian heritage. That she would have considered herself a champion of Hellenism. That she was desperate to maintain her tie to a dynasty that went back to the days of Alexander the Great and claimed kinship to him. All of that is in the books.

But so too did Cleopatra Selene see herself as the Queen of Egypt in exile.

Reasonable people can debate the extent to which Cleopatra Selene may have personally identified with the Egyptians, their religion, and their motifs. But there is no question that she did.

If that had been something I made up for the books, I would have acknowledged it as such in the author’s notes at the end.