The Big Idea: Katherine Cowley
Napoleon is many things: Emperor, exile, enemy. And in Katherine Cowley’s newest novel, The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception, he is one other thing: Inspiration. Although, as Cowley explains in this Big Idea, not exactly in the way one might think.
After Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from his confinement on the Isle of Elba, it took several weeks for the news to spread across Europe. As I combed through 1815 newspapers while researching for my novel, I observed many reactions to the event: fear, anger, resignation, speculation, warmongering, and celebration, depending on the country and the political leaning. None of these surprised me. What did surprise me was the existence of Elba-inspired poetry.
Three British newspapers—The Morning Post, The Star, and The Lancaster Gazette—published a poem credited to J.M. titled “Adieu to Elba.” The poem adopts Napoleon Bonaparte’s perspective and reads as the antithesis of an ode—it’s an invective, attacking Elba. It’s also rather satirical, and in my opinion, quite delightful.
Adieu! lonely Elba! thou eye-sore to me!
Thou cold stony prison, firm-fix’d in the sea!
The moss-cover’d rocks on thy wave-beaten shore!
Shall echo my imperial footsteps no more!
I hate thee, thou ill-boding island of woe!
With pleasure I leave thee—enraptur’d I go!
Glory calls me from Elba, her voice I obey,
And Austerlitz’ sun shall again cheer the day!
Thou check to ambition, thou bar to my fame,
Thou blast to my fortune, thou slur to my name,
I hate thee, thou rock! by ill fortune I’m driven
A wreck on thy shore, by the mandate of HEAVEN!
Those fools who could dream I would dwell on thy shore,
Shall be wak’d from their dream by their folly once more;
My hatred to them and to thee I proclaim,
And raise on their ruin my footsteps to fame!
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as strongly about a rock as the character of Napoleon feels in this poem.
Napoleon Bonaparte is one of those historical figures who had a mythos around him even when he was alive. Over two hundred years later, he continues to capture hearts and minds: adoring fans still venerate him. The facts of his legacy, though, paint a stark picture. Historians generally agree that his actions led to the deaths of both millions of soldiers and millions of civilians through battle, displacement, and famine.
In many ways, despite never personally interacting with any of my other characters, Napoleon Bonaparte is the most important character in my Mary Bennet spy trilogy. He impacts every single character. He influences the mystery and the unravelling of the mystery in the first two novels. All of my chapters include epigraphs that are excerpts from newspapers, and a number of them trace the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The third book in the trilogy, The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception, begins with the characters finding out that Bonaparte has escaped from Elba. My main character, Mary Bennet, heads to Brussels, where the Allied forces are preparing to fight against Bonaparte’s forces.
While everything revolves around Napoleon Bonaparte, as a reader you only physically see him once on the page, and when you see him, it’s from a distance, through a telescope. I considered creating a scene where Mary actually interacts with Napoleon Bonaparte but decided against it, both for historical reasons and because I wanted him to remain a force apart.
In 1815, you didn’t need to personally know Bonaparte for him to make or ruin your life.
Individuals, organizations, and governments constantly made choices that derived from their perceived relationships to Napoleon Bonaparte. The Duke of Wellington had affairs not with one, but with two of Napoleon’s former mistresses, which makes these relationships seem like rather deliberate conquests. A whole British newspaper (The Anti-Gallican Monitor) arose that was dedicated to being anti-French and rallying the forces against the French, while the Liverpool Mercury asked, “With infinite risk and trouble you at last succeeded in catching a royal tiger and shutting him up in a cage. Q. Why did you not keep him there?….Q. What right had you, in the first instance, to lock him up in the said cage?”
Across Britain, “aliens” (aka foreigners) had to register themselves with their local magistrates and receive licenses and provisional licenses, or risk being thrown in jail. There was rampant speculation that James Madison would try to conquer Canada because of the United States’ friendship with Napoleon. And finally, we have the Battle of Waterloo. According to some estimates, over 190,000 people fought in the Battle of Waterloo; around 20,000 were killed, around 20,000 went missing, and tens of thousands were injured.
For this novel, the big idea is what individuals and groups were willing to do—for good and for bad—because of their imagined, constructed, and often conflicting views of Bonaparte. My heroine must decide how much she is willing to do for her country: what lines is she willing to cross in assisting Britain to stop Napoleon? And what consequences will arise from her choices? As she attempts to solve a series of murders, she must figure out each of the suspects’ metaphorical relationships to Bonaparte and how that is impacting their decisions.
The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception was my favorite book in the series to write because there is no easy answer for Mary and her fellow characters. There are no clear paths when our imagined, constructed, and conflicting views have such real-world consequences.