Talking with Ruth Hull Chatlien about Betsy Bonaparte, Women in History, Writing, and Dream Vacations

Hi Ruth! Thank you for joining us today at Oh, for the Hook of a Book! We are happy to have you. Hopefully spring is around the corner for all of us, at least here in Ohio, we are hoping. How has 2014 treated you and your book, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, so far?

Ruth: To be honest, 2014 got off to a rough start for me. Not only was it the coldest winter in northern Illinois’s recorded history, but I was also diagnosed with early stage breast cancer on New Year’s Eve, so for the first three months of the year I had to undergo surgery and radiation. But I’m finished with all that now, and as an official cancer survivor, I’m looking forward to the future. The book has been one bright spot in all of this. It’s been well received by readers, which gives me great joy.

Erin: Oh, Ruth, I am so sorry to hear that you went through that, and so recently as well.  We have dealt with that with some of our family members and in the previous two years I was President of the Board of a local Cancer Association where I live and we worked and assisted many patients, more than half with breast cancer. I know what a struggle that can be and I am glad to hear you made it through. Best wishes to you to continue on your road to recovery. What a joy to have your book launched and well-received! I certainly enjoyed it!

It’s a bit chilly here, so I’ll still opt for a pot of tea. Would you like some tea or coffee? Then we can have a seat and discuss your novel and your writing. Let’s show the cover first, which I believe you helped illustrate.

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

Ruth: Coffee would be great as long as it’s decaf. Oh what the heck. Since it’s virtual coffee, maybe I can splurge and have the caffeinated kind.

Erin: That is so true about it being virtual, that said, why not throw in a scone or cookie as well. No calories on the computer screen! Let’s get started then!

Q: The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, your debut novel, is about the American wife of Jerome Bonaparte. Being that your specialty in your non-fiction work is U.S. history and world history, it was interesting that you were able to tie the two together. How did your idea for your book come about?

A: I first learned about Betsy and Jerome from watching the Horatio Hornblower series that showed on A&E in the 1990s and early 2000s. The young couple’s struggle to get to France to obtain the emperor’s approval of their marriage was portrayed in the last episode. When I googled their names to find out if the episode was based on historical fact, I learned that Betsy’s story was far more complex and interesting that the snippet shown in the TV show.

Erin: Yes! I forgot that. That was a great series….cool!

Q: I have never heard much about Betsy Patterson Bonaparte. How much has she been spoken about in the history books? For non-readers (who haven’t yet read your book), how well-known is her story?

A: Betsy was a well-known celebrity throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s, and there were several biographies and even novels written about her. After the 1960s, her story fell off the radar, but her reputation is making a comeback. Two academic biographies have been published about her within the last few years (one of them after my novel came out).

Q: What kind of research was done for your novel? Did you have any challenges or find out anything extremely interesting?

A: I used six different biographical sources for Betsy alone, some of which contained excerpts from her letters (which are held by the Maryland Historical Society). I also read about Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, the Caton sisters, the War of 1812, Baltimore architecture, period clothing, and an early explorer’s expedition to Niagara Falls. My husband and I traveled to Baltimore to visit period homes, a 19th-century ship, and Fort McHenry.

Erin: Very interesting. My son just did his historical research project on Dolley Madison. I would love to visit Baltimore, exciting.

I learned a lot of interesting things while researching. For example, Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach, so theoretically, she could have used it there.

Erin: Oh my goodness, too funny!

Q: Betsy Bonaparte seemed like an extraordinary woman. What types of things do you think that women of today can relate to in regards to her? Does she teach us any lessons or hold admirable qualities that should be remembered more fully?

A: I think some of the forces Betsy fought against haven’t gone away completely. We still have religions that teach women to be subservient to men. We’re still seeing attempts to limit women’s ability to plan the size of their families. Perhaps reading about the struggles of Betsy—and her poor mother—will help remind women not to be complacent about our own rights. In addition, women can learn from Betsy’s example about prudent financial planning. (I know I could learn a thing or two from her in that regard!) I also think women of today can learn a negative lesson from Betsy. In my opinion, the friends who urged her to try to use her talents to find happiness were right, and her life might have been more satisfying if she had focused on doing some type of meaningful work instead of seeking after rank.

Erin: That is such a wonderful answer, thank you!

Q: What kinds of struggles did the wives that married into the Bonaparte family have?

A: To be honest, I haven’t done much research into the other wives who married into the Bonaparte family. I’m planning to write a non-Bonaparte book next, so I’ve been away from this subject for a while. I do know, however, that Napoleon tried to impose political alliances on many members of his family. Josephine’s daughter Hortense, who married Napoleon’s emotionally erratic brother Louis, was very unhappy in her marriage. There were even rumors that her son, who became Emperor Napoleon III, wasn’t a Bonaparte at all.

Q: How long did it take you to write this novel? Are you a plotter or a pantser (write by the seat of your pants)?

A: It took me a little over two years from the beginning of research through the final edits before publication. I’m mostly a plotter, although I will deviate from my outline if my characters insist on taking the story a different way. (For instance, in one chapter, Bo has a tantrum, which came as a complete surprise to me.) With this book, the events of Betsy’s life were already laid out for me, but I did fill in the known events with a lot of fictional episodes. I decided most of those ahead of time, but a few came to me as I was writing.

Q: You’ve written a long time for your day job. What other types of interesting people do you speak of in your educational materials? Who else might make an interesting book?

A: One interesting project that I did a few years back was a young adult book that included the biographies of several modern American Indian leaders, both men and women. I really enjoyed learning about their different ways of leading their people. I also did a fascinating unit on Magellan’s voyage a couple of years ago. It’s one of the most amazing adventure stories I’ve ever come across and would make a fantastic novel, but it won’t be written by me. I’m more interested in writing about women who live during times of conflict or change.

Erin: I am interested in reading book about the women too. I hope you write more! So many stories to tell!

Q: Who do you feel are the most instrumental women in U.S. and/or world history?

A: The word instrumental throws me a bit because it seems to imply someone who was a major player in leading the nation. However, as a writer, I’m not especially drawn to people in the political sphere, so I’m going to take this in a different direction. Some of the women who stand out for me in U.S. history are the ones who really tried to make a difference in the lives of others: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (fighting for women’s rights), Harriet Tubman (leading hundreds of slaves to freedom), Jane Addams (working to educate immigrants and help them adapt to their new communities), and Eleanor Roosevelt (helping the disadvantaged and promoting equal rights). A similar figure from world history is Florence Nightingale with her work to improve hospital care. Each of these women fought to make the world a better place.

Erin: Yes, I feel these women were instrumental. Elizabeth Stanton has come up in so many interviews lately, I think she needs some attention! I do think that the legacies all these women left behind were instrumental in making American culture what it is today or where it still need to go. And Eleanor is a personal favorite of mine, as I am from the same family tree as she and very proud of her work.

Q: What is your best advice for writers? Maybe name three important things.

A: I think the first thing all writers should decide is why they want to write. Some people want to gain commercial success, while others write primarily for self-expression or to create art. Either goal is fine, and the two can overlap, but usually one dominates. A writer needs to be clear about his or her primary goal because the career strategies and standards of evaluation for each will differ. The second piece of advice I’d offer is to listen to the work. You have to pay attention to what’s going on in the story and be willing to change your preconceived ideas about it if they aren’t working. Finally, find a support network because writing can be lonely and difficult. I was fortunate; I met my husband in a writer’s critique group, so we provide great support for each other because we know what the process is like. Even so, I still seek support from other writers I’ve met through blogging and online discussion groups.

Q: Do you have plans to write any other books in the near future? If so, what will they be about?

A: Yes, I’m in the research stage of another historical novel based on the true story of a woman taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history. Her story will be very different from Betsy’s, but the two women share the quality of being fiercely determined survivors.

Erin: I love stories such as these, I would really like to read that when you complete it.

Q: For fun, what is your dream vacation? Maybe a perfect writing spot?

A: That’s easy. Seven years ago, my husband and I took a month-long writing sabbatical by renting a beach cottage on Amelia Island, Florida. It’s in the northeastern part of the state, and there’s a quaint town called Fernandina Beach. We love it there. I’ve been itching to go back lately, but it will have to wait. Our next vacation is going to be a research trip for the novel I’m working on.

Q: What books have you read lately that you enjoyed? What are some of your favorite all time books?

A: I recently read Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle and was very impressed with the book. It tells the story of Henry VIII’s last wife. And I’ve recently become hooked on Louise Penny’s Inspector Armande Gamache mystery series. My favorite all-time books are Little Women, Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Lord of the Rings. Nothing too out of the ordinary there I’m afraid.

Erin: Ah, yes, but classics. I love all of those. I liked Queen’s Gambit too, I reviewed it here. She has a new one coming out looks good too.

Q: Where can readers and writers connect with you?

A: I’m on Twitter using the handle @RHChatlien, I’m on Facebook at, and I blog at

Erin: Thank you so much Ruth! We certainly enjoyed you stopping by for a hot cup of coffee with us. We wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors.

Ruth: Thank you, Erin, for putting together such a comprehensive and interesting set of questions. I enjoyed spending time with you.

Erin: Feel free to come by anytime!

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, Synopsis~

The Ambitious Madame BonapartePublication Date: December 2, 2013
Amika Press
Paperback; 484p
ISBN: 978-1937484163

As a clever girl in stodgy, mercantile Baltimore, Betsy Patterson dreams of a marriage that will transport her to cultured Europe. When she falls in love with and marries Jerome Bonaparte, she believes her dream has come true—until Jerome’s older brother Napoleon becomes an implacable enemy.

Based on a true story, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is a historical novel that portrays this woman’s tumultuous life. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, known to history as Betsy Bonaparte, scandalized Washington with her daring French fashions; visited Niagara Falls when it was an unsettled wilderness; survived a shipwreck and run-ins with British and French warships; dined with presidents and danced with dukes; and lived through the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Yet through it all, Betsy never lost sight of her primary goal—to win recognition of her marriage.

Watch the Book Trailer



Buy the Book

Amazon (Paperback)
Amazon (Kindle)
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Barnes & Noble (Nook)

Author Ruth Hull Chatlien, Biography~

Ruth Hull ChatlienRuth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her specialty is U.S. and world history.

She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey.

When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

Connect with Ruth Hull Chatlien at her website or on Facebook.


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