Thursday, June 28, 2018

Romancing France

America’s alliance with France during the Revolution was a decisive factor in defeating Britain. But as is normal in the relations of nations, treaties are not so easily formed, and a whole lot of maneuvering, arm-twisting, romancing, and sleight of hand went on behind the scenes to get France on board. Today I’m going to take a brief look at the American commissioners delegated by Congress to manage the process, beginning with the first man on the ground.

Silas Deane by William Johnston
Silas Deane was born in Groton, Connecticut, on January 4, 1738. He was a lawyer, a prosperous merchant, and a delegate to the Continental Congress. On March 2, 1776, Congress appointed him as a secret envoy to France, and as soon as he arrived in Paris he began negotiating with French Foreign Minister Comte de Vergennes for financial aid and unofficial shipments of arms and munitions. His position became official when Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee arrived in Paris with congressional orders appointing the three of them as the diplomatic delegation to France.

A month after the Treaties of Amity and Commerce and of Alliance between France and America were signed on February 6, 1778, Deane received a letter from Congress recalling him. He arrived in Philadelphia to discover to his shock that reports by Arthur accused him of financial improprieties even though both Vergennes and Franklin had written letters commending him. After a long and bitter dispute over the charges, Deane was allowed to return to Paris in 1780 to settle his affairs only to discover that he was almost ruined financially because his investments had plummeted in value and ships carrying his merchandise had been captured by the British.

Even worse, the British intercepted letters in which Deane described America’s military situation as hopeless and suggested negotiating with Britain. Nicely, they forwarded them to General Clinton in New York City. The general in turn gave copies to a loyalist newspaper publisher, James Rivington, who shared them in his Royal Gazette. The result was that Deane was labeled a traitor by his fellow countrymen. Sometimes you just can’t win!

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, 1778
Benjamin Franklin was the chief American commissioner. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706, he was one of seventeen children born to Josiah Franklin, and one of ten borne by Josiah’s second wife, Abiah Folger. Over the course of his life he founded many civic organizations and became an author, printer, politician, scientist, inventor, philosopher, postmaster, and diplomat, among other things—in addition to being one of our Founding Fathers. One might say he was an overachiever. Just thinking about his accomplishments makes me tired!

Franklin lived in London for many years serving as an agent for several colonies in addition to his scientific and philosophical endeavors. In December 1776, when he was 70 years old, Congress appointed him as one of three commissioners along with Deane and Lee and sent him to France. While living in Paris, he always wore a bearskin hat and dressed in plain clothing rather than the expected elaborate court dress, a habit that contributed largely to his reputation as the premier republican from America. Since he was well known among the French philosophes for his scientific discoveries, he was welcomed with great enthusiasm, especially by the ladies, who universally adored him. Consequently he was a prime mover in securing the alliance with France in 1778 in spite of the fact that his habit of staying up late schmoozing with the French movers and shakers (and especially the ladies), and then getting up late in the day. This frustrated to no end John Adams, who rose promptly at 5 a.m. to get to work. The commission was finally dissolved in September 1778, when Congress appointed Franklin as minister plenipotentiary to France, a position he held until he negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 along with John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens, which formally ended the war.

Arthur Lee
Arthur Lee was born in Virginia in December 1740, the youngest of four notable brothers that included Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and William Lee. He was educated in medicine and law at Edinburgh and London and for several years practiced law in London, where he met Benjamin Franklin. He was critical of Franklin’s extravagant lifestyle, which was not auspicious for their relations when Congress sent him to Paris to work with Franklin as one of the commissioners. Lee didn’t get along with Deane either. In fact, he didn’t get along with most people. He was naturally suspicious of everyone and by all accounts was not liked or trusted by French officials, which, as you can imagine, didn’t help in negotiating with them. Franklin could hardly be civil to him, and John Adams was hard put to keep peace between the two men so the commission could actually accomplish its work. Although Lee persuaded Congress to recall Deane for financial irregularities, he was also recalled soon thereafter.

Interestingly, Lee was one of America’s first spies. He gathered information in France and Britain and also accused Edward Bancroft, who functioned as secretary to the commission, of being a British spy. More on him in my next month’s post. He was indeed a spy—a double agent, in fact—but unfortunately the other commissioners didn’t believe him, probably because they disliked him. As a result Bancroft continued his nefarious activities undiscovered to the end of the war. It was many years later after he and his colleagues had passed away before he was exposed.

John Adams by John Trumbull, 1792
John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts, the oldest of 3 sons of John Adams Sr. and Susanna Boylston. He’s also one of our Founding Father and served as the He was a lawyer, diplomat, politician, one of our Founding Fathers, the first vice president under George Washington, and the second president of the United States.

When Deane was recalled, Adams was named to replace him. He arrived in Paris in April 1778 only to learn that the alliance with France had been concluded in February. He found it frustrating to work with his fellow commissioners. He thought Lee paranoid and cynical and considered Franklin to be irritating, lazy, and overly accommodating to the French. He also distrusted and disliked Bancroft, though he didn’t believe Lee’s accusation that he was a British spy. In spite of not speaking French when he first arrived, Adams worked hard to impose order where it was lacking in the delegation’s finances and record keeping and soon became the commission’s administrator.

In September 1778 Congress named Franklin minister plenipotentiary to France. They sent Lee to serve in Spain, but left Adams hanging with no instructions. Feeling that he’d been slighted, Adams left France the following March. He returned in 1782 as a member of the American delegation negotiating the peace treaty with Great Britain.

We tend to idealize important figures in history like our Founding Fathers and the other heroes of the American Revolution, so it’s kind of gratifying to find out that they were very, very human, just like the rest of us. Undoubtedly it was a really fun assignment to work with this group of brilliant, but eccentric diplomats—or not so much.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Hearing 18th Century Paris

Turgot-Bretez Map, 1739

Paris is one of the settings in Refiner’s Fire, and while researching the city, I came across the fascinating video below that recreates the background sounds of the 18th century city. It was created by French musicologist Mylène Pardoen for the Bretez Project, which was presented at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in 2015. In addition to recording historically accurate sounds, Pardoen worked with experts to carefully map out the old streets of Paris and combine the audio with the city’s historical context to create a 3-D rendering based on one of the best maps of the day, the Turgot-Bretez Map of 1739. Turgot was the provost of Paris merchants who commissioned the map, and Bretez was the engineer who directed the survey of the city.

Pardoen explains that they chose the Grand Châtelet district between the Pont au Change and Pont Notre Dame bridges because in the 18th century 80% of Paris’ background noise was concentrated there. Since there was no gas or electricity available back then, many artisans of luxury items, such as jewelers, engravers, and furriers established shops in this district to take advantage of the greater natural light along the river. The tall houses and narrow streets on either side of the bridges captured the sounds, creating a dense sound environment.

The soundscape is based on documents such as Le Tableau de Paris, published in 1781 by Louis-Sebastien Mercier and on works like those of Arlette Farge, who specialized on the history of the 18th century; Alain Corbin, who researched the history of the senses; and Youri Carbonnier, a recognized authority on houses built on bridges.

Joust of Mariners in Front of the Pont,
Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet
In the video you’ll hear 70 sonic tableaux, many created by trades such as shopkeepers, craftsmen, and boatmen. You’ll recognize the rhythmic whoosh of air as a blacksmith in his shop in a Paris alleyway stokes his fire with a bellows; roosters crowing in the distance and pigs squealing as they’re driven to market; the babble of conversation at the street markets; carriages rolling along cobbled streets, punctuated by the clopping of the horses’ hooves; the rush of the Seine, and the washerwomen working under the arches of the bridge; the hum of flies at the fishmongers’ stalls; the noise of the loom in the woolen mill that stood at one end of the Pont au Change; the scraping of hides in the tanneries on Rue de la Pelleterie; and type being set at the print shop on Rue de Gesvres. Overhead are the cries of the seagulls drawn to the city’s waste heaps. You’ll also be able to discern how sounds echo beneath bridges and in covered passageways and the effect produced by the varying heights and construction materials of the buildings.

View of Paris from the Pont Neuf,
Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet
According to Pardoen, most of the sounds are natural, with machine noises, for example, being recorded using authentic antique devices. However, the sound of the Notre Dame pump, which drew water from the Seine, had to be artificially recreated. Pardoen recorded an old-fashioned water mill and reworked the sound based on the estimated size of the pump’s vanes. “It is a research project that will continue to evolve,” Pardoen says. “The next step will be to include the machines and devices that are now missing from the image, and allow the ‘audience’ to stroll freely through the streets of the neighborhood.”

One thing I’d really love to have is a version that has English captions. That would really help non-French speakers like me in doing research.

I’d love to hear your reaction. What did you like best about the video, and what do you think of the sounds, the changing scenes? Did it help you to visualize a distant time and place in a new way? Please share your feedback!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

New Look for the Blog!

Do you like the blog’s new look? I’ve been intending to change it forever but just haven’t taken the time. Today I decided to play a bit, inspired by the French setting in Refiner's Fire, and I really like this theme. (By the way, I just discovered that if you're looking at it on a smart phone, it looks somewhat different, and the image in the header doesn't show.)

A while back I happened across some wonderful paintings by Italian artist Arturo Ricci, and for the header image I decided to use one I particularly like, L’Attesa or “The Expectation”. It reflects my characters and parts of Refiner’s Fire quite nicely. I’m thinking the couple on the left could stand in as Elizabeth Howard on the arm of Lucien Bettár, le comte de Caledonne’s son and thus Jonathan Carleton’s cousin. Ideally her hair would be darker since it’s a dark auburn, but good enough. Her escort does look like I envision Lucien.


The little girl with the older woman could sure be Abby and Tess Howard, though Abby is 13 in the story so would be a bit bigger. Then the man seated behind them would be Caledonne, and the couple seated beside the doorway would be their hosts, Caledonne’s daughter and son-in-law le marquis and la marquise Cécile and Eugène de Sevieux. This is undoubtedly as close as I’m going to get to these characters.


The more I look at this painting, the more I’m thinking about using it for the Refiner’s Fire cover. It’s in public domain and I found a fairly large image on Wikimedia that Marisa might just be able to do her magic on and make work. 


I originally intended to use a naval battle painting for book 6, but what do you think? Would you like to see this scene gracing the cover of Refiner's Fire? Please leave your comments and let me know yay or nay—for both the cover and the new blog design.


Friday, March 30, 2018

Life at Versailles


Arial view of modern-day Versailles
In the forthcoming installment of the series, Refiner’s Fire, Elizabeth has been whisked off to France to keep her safe from British attacks. Meanwhile White Eagle is far out in Ohio Territory wrestling with the frustrating and tricky politics of negotiating with the Indians to prevent their allying with the British against the Americans.

My previous post gave a historical overview of Versailles, which is one of the story’s settings. One of the fun things about writing a sweeping historical saga is all the potential for intrigue on so many levels, and it’s so much better when history presents a treasure trove of factual material to work with, as in this case.

Versailles, just as every other royal court, was not only the nation’s power center, but also a hotbed of juicy rumors and delicious gossip. And there was plenty of fuel for the fire since even acts expected to be the most private—including personal bodily functions, dressing and undressing, sexual encounters, and births—were attended by courtiers and nobles who held various levels of rights of access. Naturally, the greater the Rights, the higher the individual’s personal prestige, so they were avidly flaunted. Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, developed these elaborate ceremonies in the 17th century as a way to control the nobles. By the late 1770s, when Refiner’s Fire is set, power struggles playing out on the field of etiquette were rife.

The most important nobles held Major Rights, which included things like being able to sit in the royal presence or to address the king as Monsieur instead of Monseigneur or Majesté, a privilege that indicated the highest intimacy. Lesser nobles and servants such as physicians and valets-de-chambres were granted only Minor Rights—much less impressive, but nevertheless an indication of a degree of royal favor that could be lorded over those less fortunate.

Marie Antoinette being dressed
Every day started with the ritual morning dressing, held separately for king and queen, beginning with a petit lever attended only by those who held Major Rights and followed by a grand lever open to those who held Minor Rights. The king and queen could not put on any item of clothing until it had been handed to them by whoever held that particular right. On one occasion, while Marie Antoinette waited stark naked and shivering, not to mention increasingly frustrated and humiliated, ever greater rights-holders kept entering the chamber, which meant that the person in possession of the article she was waiting for first had to hand it over to the one who outranked her. One presumes that by the time the grand lever began the king and queen at least had their underclothes on! The ritual undressing, the coucher, followed in the evening with the same formalities as the monarchs were put to bed—in separate chambers—with the assistance of the highest ranking members of the nobility.

Salon of the Grand Couvert
There was also a regular public dinner called the grand couvert, which pretty much anyone could attend to watch the royals eat. At left is the room where this took place at Versailles as it appears today. People did have to meet minimum standards for dress, such as a sword and hat for the men. If one came unprepared, however, the proper equipment was available for rent at Versailles’ gates. Surprisingly, considering the formality that reigned at the palace, the service at meals was usually haphazard, with special dishes for the royals sometimes going astray, only to be enjoyed by one of the servants later.

Marie Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste
Gautier Dagoty, 1775
At court ladies were expected to wear the cumbersome court dress like the one Marie Antoinette is wearing at left. It featured extremely wide hoops and a long train to display the expensive fabric it was made of. Men’s dress was no less ornate, and of course both men and women had to have their hair powdered. Pomatum was applied to the hair, then an enormous cape was draped over one’s clothing and powder was blown onto the hair. This made it impossible for men to wear hats, so they carried them under their arms at their sides instead! For ladies wool, tow, pads, and wire were added to their own hair to construct towering coiffures called poufs, which featured ornaments such as feathers and jewels. Imagine managing a really wide, long dress while wearing a tall monstrosity on one’s head for hours at a time! How would you sit down? Or go to the bathroom?

Madame de Pompadour
Wearing rouge was also de rigueur.
Because it was so expensive, it was seen as a badge of rank and distinction. No one outside the court was allowed to use it. There was nothing subtle about how it was applied either. You painted a precise circle of the stuff in a color pretty close to scarlet on each cheek, as shown in Madame de Pompadour’s portrait at right. (Look closely, and you can see the little case of rouge in her hand.) The effect was so…um, striking…that sensible Germans like Mozart thought it detestable and unbearable to the eyes.

Another interesting feature of the French court was that every subject traditionally possessed the right of access to the sovereign. This made security at the palace essentially nonexistent. The common people freely roamed through the palace’s salons, hallways, and chambers, and not necessarily in decent dress—which the poor certainly couldn’t afford. They even entered the king’s apartment as soon as he stepped out. Though the queen’s apartment was generally more or less off limits, the fishwives held an ancient right to address the queen on certain prescribed occasions. This eventually morphed into a general right of access for all the market women, and they would flock into the queen’s rooms and boldly admonish her and the princesses on their perceived failings.

What struck foreign visitors to Versailles in the 18th century most was the smell and the dirt. Much of it resulted from the royals’ numerous pets. Cats, dogs, monkeys, birds—you name it, they had it. You can imagine the chaos of animals bounding through the palace at will and doing their business wherever. To say nothing of the vagrants who settled into the palace’s many nooks and crannies in such numbers that they occasionally had to be routed out with spaniels. According to some reports, you could smell the place five miles out, though that seems a bit extreme!

All in all, life as a French king or queen wasn’t as glamorous as one might imagine. What’s your opinion of the “royal” life? How would you feel about having a whole crowd of people involved in your most private moments, including standing around gawking while you ate or even were in the process of giving birth?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Palace of Versailles


The palace of Versailles is going to be one of the settings in Refiner’s Fire, so today let’s take a look at the home of King Louis XVI of France and his queen, Marie Antoinette.

Versailles was the royal residence and center of political power in France for little more than a century, from 1682 until the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Now a world-class museum, this palace is famous not only as a building, but also as a symbol of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime.

Before 1038 in the Charter of the Saint-Père de Chartres Abbey, Hugues de Versailles was listed as the seigneur of the insignificant village of Versailles, whose small castle and church lay on the road from Paris to Dreux and Normandy. The population of the village declined sharply after an outbreak of the Plague and the Hundred Years’ War, but in 1575 a Florentine citizen, Albert de Gondi, purchased the seigneury, and he invited the future Louis XIII on several hunting trips in area.
Versailles on a 1652 map by_Gomboust

The young dauphin was delighted with the forest and meadows that surrounded the village and the abundance of game he found there. The location was ideally situated between his principle residence at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Paris, and after he was crowned king, he hunted there again several times, finally ordering the construction of a stone and brick hunting lodge in 1624. Eight years later, he obtained the seigneury of Versailles from the Gondi family and began to make enlargements to the lodge.

The king and his successors, Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI each renovated and enlarged the structure during their reigns, creating extensive gardens and adding numerous other buildings to the site until it became one of the most costly and extravagant palaces in the world. More than 36,000 workers were involved in construction, and when the building was completed it could accommodate up to 5,000 people, including servants. An additional 14,000 servants and soldiers were quartered in annexes and in the nearby town.

The short video below is a cool 3-D presentation showing the progression of the chateau’s enlargement and the development of the gardens and additional buildings. In all, about 37,000 acres of land were cleared to make room for tree-lined terraces, walkways, and thousands of flowering plants, with 1,400 fountains and 400 pieces of sculpture.


Versailles is most associated with the Sun King, Louis XIV, who personally took on the role of architect. He made the chateau the new center for the royal court in 1682, establishing all the power of France there: government offices and the homes of thousands of courtiers, their retinues, and all the functionaries of court. The nobles of a certain rank and position were required to spend considerable time there, which enabled Louis to solidify his control of the government by preventing them from developing their own regional powers that would compete with his. Thus the French government became an absolute monarchy.

Below is a longer and very interesting video documentary about the history and development of Versailles.


In Refiner’s Fire, Jonathan Carleton’s uncle le Comte de Caledonne brings Elizabeth Howard to France to keep her safe from British assassination attempts. While there she meets the American commissioners to Paris, among others, and is drawn into the intrigues at court.

In my next post, we'll take a look at what life was like at Versailles during the mid 18th century.

What attracts me to Versailles the most is those fabulous gardens and the works of art housed there. What fascinates or attracts you the most about this palace turned museum?