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Tag Archives: Rosalie Calvert

I’m very excited to introduce Mrs. Rosalie Calvert, who in her twenty-first century existence is Katherine Spivey. Katherine has read everything I’ve read, and more (and Katherine, I still have one of your books. Sorry about that). This Saturday, Mrs. Calvert, dressed to the nines, will appear at Riversdale House Museum, MD, when we celebrate the Battle of Bladensburg, an inglorious defeat at the hands of the British that took place just a couple of miles from the mansion.

Mrs. Calvert is graciously receiving callers at her splendid house. Come on in and have a nice cup of tea and enjoy some sophisticated, witty conversation of the sort so rarely met with on these shores …

Thanks, Janet, for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I’m honored. Janet and I volunteer at Riversdale House Museum in Maryland, and we’ve co-presented on 18th- and 19th-century literature. At Riversdale, Janet’s a docent, and I’m a historical interpreter/reenactor/person who dresses up and pretends to be someone in history.

The person I interpret is Rosalie Stier Calvert, an emigre from Belgium who came to the United States in 1794. She married into the Calvert family, her parents built Riversdale, and then her family moved back to Europe. We’re enormously lucky to have as a source her treasurer trove of letters, which were discovered in Belgium around 30 years ago, translated, and published by Johns Hopkins University as Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert. Few letters have provided such a robust picture of American life from a foreign and female viewpoint. I’ve been playing her since 1995.

Since she wrote her letters to family and not with an eye to publication, she reveals many things: customs and manners in the fledgling United States (she dislikes most American women), the travails of raising a family (although a large family is delightful if the children are well-behaved), the effects of the embargo and the war (no one has any cash!), gardening and horticulture (“I am disgusted with all controversy except for politics”), politics (her low opinion of President “Tommy Jeff”), fashions, and the economy (she acted as business agent for her father and brother).

In one of her letters she describes the aftereffects of the burning of Washington in 1814. During the Battle of Bladensburg, she saw the “rockets’ red glare” from her bedroom windows. Her husband and son went to the battlefield to render aid and bury the dead. She stored the recovered rifles in her bedroom.

Before the British invaded, people had defined themselves by state, but after the burning of Washington the country united: “We are all Americans now.”

How did I get started reenacting? I met some people at a ball at Gadsby’s and started dancing. Then I started participating in civilian reenactments for the colonial period at places like Carlyle House in Alexandria and the State Department. Then I stepped in as Rosalie Calvert at one of the period dinners during Maryland’s tricentennial: three hours of being a character live. I couldn’t script the conversation; I just had to be Rosalie Calvert: say the sorts of things she might say, include topics she would introduce, betray the opinions she held. While I’m Mrs. Calvert, I don’t say favorable things about Presidents Jefferson and Madison, even though my other reenacting character is Mrs. Madison.

And what, pray tell, does reenacting have to do with romances? Specifically Regencies? I’d read Jane Austen’s ouevre by the end of middle school. I’d read all of Georgette Heyer’s by the time I finished high school. And I did graduate work at the University of Virginia on 18th- and early 19th-century British novels. I love the pace of the sentences, the graduated degrees of intimacy in conversation, the architecture of the works, and the undoubted moralism (well, Mrs. Heyer not so much).

Indeed, Mrs. Calvert’s life reads like a romance in high life–except that she had a due sense of humor and proportion, enjoyed being busy, and had an undoubted capacity for business. Included in all of this was a love of reading novels: “We have 11 novels in the house,” she says, though her mother reads them to improve her English.

The more I work with her, the more she’s begun to resonate with my own life. I’ve started gardening and getting my finances in order, and I’ve even learned to like anchovies. (Life imitates history, after all.) I may even learn to like hock. I just got back from a weekend at the beach; a reenacting event next weekend means I wore a large hat, went out only between 7-9 a.m. and 7-8 p.m., and slathered enough sunscreen to cover Almack’s. I enlisted my husband in my search for cameo brooches, period-authentic amethyst or opal rings, and long kid gloves that fit.

It’s important to remember that she loved her family dearly. She never saw any of them after they returned to Europe; Rosalie was either pregnant or prevented by war/embargo from going to Europe on a visit. She once went a year without getting a letter from her family. I’m convinced she would have been an early adopter (#federaleramomblogger) of social media and probably would have had a smartphone.

That being said, bring on the questions!

I know I should be writing something erudite about the latest Harlequin-RWA debacle but I’m also reading Terry Pratchett and I think it’s coloring my perception. Truly, this is something that belongs in Discworld. I am also in the thick of deadline hell and am about to behead Jane Austen so you can see I’m rather distracted.

So I’ll tell you instead what I did last weekend, which was to attend the Ladies Day at the federal-era Riversdale House Museum, a wonderful day of activities centered around Rosalie Stier Calvert‘s love of gardening and typical flower-related activities. Here are all the ladies in costume (once again my maid neglected to clean and iron my gown in time), with a rather beautiful golden glow that looks like candlelight but is in fact a result of the failing battery in the camera.

We made perfume using essential oils and yes, vodka, and mine has a bergamot base because I like the name rather than the smell, but I hope it improves over the next couple of weeks.

One very exciting part of the day was a lecture by Stacey Hampton, an expert on nineteenth-century hairstyles and hair ornaments. She gave us a terrific list of resources, including the website Timely Tresses.

She brought in a selection of Regency hair ornaments from her collection which we were allowed to touch, and she also gave a demonstration, on fake heads, of how to build a Regency hair style.

Also on display where these three beautiful bonnets decorated with flowers, constructed by Riversdale’s historian Dr. Ann Wass. You can see in the background the original front doors of the house, a source of great pride for Rosalie Calvert, who boasted that not even Tommy Jeff in the White House had real solid mahogany doors.

In the afternoon we had afternoon tea with scones, neither of which are period, but are just plain good; we made the scones and we also attempted to sugar petals as decorations for the cupcakes, for which we made very runny icing (those egg whites would not stiffen. I spent a long time outside in the cool air with a bowl and a whisk). Sorry about the pic blurred with greed. We had spiced pear compote made with Riversdale’s own pears and an interesting Swedish carrot marmalade for the scones.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. What are you up to? And, aargh, it’s Thanksgiving next week. Are you ready? I’m off the hook since I don’t have a working oven…

Another bit of news. You can buy my next Regency chicklit book IMPROPER RELATIONS in advance at 55% off at! Still no final cover but I know it will be pretty. The release date is February, 2010.

Blogger Madeleine Conway at That Reading/Writing Thing had some very nice things to say about A Most Lamentable Comedy, including this statement:

… her cast of secondary characters, however improbable, also have that unmistakeable air of coming from some research that amply demonstrates that old cliché about truth, fiction and strangeness.

Quite often here at the Riskies I like to explore the oddities of history that I’ve discovered and when Diane blogged earlier this week about Napoleon, I was inspired to dig into the scattered and messy files of my memory to write about Betsy Bonaparte (1785-1879), Baltimore girl who made good–for a time. She was a rich merchant’s daughter who married Bonaparte’s younger brother Jerome Bonaparte in 1803.

Big brother, who had his eyes on further conquest of Europe through his siblings’ significant marriages, was not amused and ordered Jerome back to France–without his blushing bride. Poor Betsy, pregnant and alone, took refuge in London where she gave birth to their son Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte aka Bo. Big brother Napoleon, not particularly bothered by such trifling matters as bigamy, married his troublesome younger brother off to a German princess, Catherina of Wurtemburg.

Betsy and baby Bo returned to Baltimore where she was notorious for her European connections and her fashion, which was a bit much by federal American standards. Rosalie Calvert, mistress of Riversdale House, Maryland, met Betsy Bonaparte in 1804 at a party hosted by Robert Smith, Jefferson’s secretary of the navy, and commented that she …was wearing a dress so transparent that you could see the color and shape of her thighs and more! Several ladies made a point of leaving the room and one informed the belle that if she did not change her manner of dressing, she would never be asked anywhere again.

Another guest gave a similar account: She [Madame Bonaparte] has made a great noise here, and mobs of boys have crowded round her splendid equipage to see what I hope will not often be seen in this country, an almost naked woman. An elegant and select party was given to her by Mrs. Robt. Smith; her appearance was such that it threw all the company into confusion and no one dared to look at her but by stealth.

Betsy was finally granted a pension by Napoleon, but never the title she wanted so much, and in 1815 a divorce by the state of Maryland , and set her hopes on Bo making a grand European marriage. Bo was not interested, becoming a lawyer and marrying a local heiress. Mama was not pleased.

It was impossible to bend my talents and my ambition to the obscure destiny of a Baltimore housekeeper, and it was absurd to attempt it after I had married the brother of an emperor. . . . When I first heard that my son could condescend to marry anyone in Baltimore, I nearly went mad. . . . I repeat, that I would have starved, died, rather than have married in Baltimore. . . .

In 1855, when the Bonapartes were again in power in France, Bo was offered the title of Duke of Sartene. He turned it down. Ironically, her widowed sister in law Marianne Patterson married Richard Wellesley, the older brother of the Duke of Wellington. Poor Betsy, surrounded by family members either turning down or effortlessly achieving the greatness she craved!

Betsy, disillusioned and alone (she never remarried) spent the rest of her life amassing money and at the time of her death, having outlived Bo by nine years, had an estate worth $1, 500,000. She’s buried in Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore. Her life inspired a play, Glorious Betsy, by Rida Johnson Young, which was made into a movie in 1928 and again as Hearts Divided (1936).

What are your favorite examples of truth being stranger than fiction?

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