Today I welcome a guest to the salon once more as David Ebsworth joins us to to tell the tale of the remarkable women of Waterloo and how two in particular inspired him to set pen to paper and write The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour.
On the bloody fields of Waterloo, a battle-weary canteen mistress of Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard battalions must fight to free her daughter from all the perils that war will hurl against them – before this last campaign can kill them both.
I enjoy telling stories that I wish somebody else had written for me but which have so far been overlooked. They are therefore generally set outside the most “popular” periods of historical fiction. Yet, with the bicentenary of Waterloo coming up – and the Napoleonic era remaining one of my personal favourite periods of history – it was inevitable that I would be drawn towards setting my fourth book around this most famous and important of battles.
But from which angle? I like the view that the role of historical fiction writers should be to “identify the gaps” and then fill them.
So it became instantly obvious to me that, while there have been several famous novels with Waterloo settings written by foreign writers (Les Misérables and The Charterhouse of Parma, to mention just a couple), I wasn’t really aware of any English-language tales of the battle from a French perspective. And yes, I know that this will probably invite a whole pile of brick-bat responses to correct my ignorance, but such was my perspective – that there was a “gap” for readers wanting to know how the Hundred Days campaign might look from a French viewpoint. I was personally intrigued by this too, and it didn’t take me long to realise that the perspective is very different indeed. For one thing, even the best of our English-language historians pay scant regard to anything except the three “main” battles, at Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo itself. But what about the other battles fought by the French armies over the same four or five days? At Charleroi, Gilly, Genappe and Wavre? Barely a word.
Similarly, there are plenty of classic novels that put women at the centre of their Waterloo stories. These are typically plot lines about English camp followers, or aristocratic lovers of Wellington’s officers. Nothing wrong with any of that, but hard to see a “gap” that might need filling. Yet what about French women who may have actually fought in those battles? How might they have seen things? In the wake of French Revolution, for example.
Hence the basis on which I began writing The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour.
And I love this story. It was really inspired when I read a factual account of French Napoleonic cantinière, Madeleine Kintelberger, who served with Bonaparte’s 7th Hussars during the Austerlitz campaign and was caught up in fighting against the Russian Cossacks while protecting her children who were also with her on the battlefield. Her husband had been killed by cannon fire and Madeleine held off the Cossacks with a sword that she had picked up, losing her own right arm in the process, being slashed and speared by lances on several occasions, and being shot in each leg. She was pregnant with twins at the time. The Russians took her prisoner and she eventually returned to France with her children, where she was received in person by the Emperor and awarded a military pension. Yet the most astonishing aspect of all this was the fact that Madeleine was simply one of hundreds of women serving in such positions in the French army’s front lines, many of them with similar incredible tales and yet largely ignored in fiction and non-fiction alike. Madeleine did not serve at Waterloo, but other cantinières, like Thérèse Jourdan and Marie Tête-du-Bois certainly did so.
And then, almost immediately afterwards, I also came across the real-life exploits of Marie-Thérèse Figueur who had joined the French revolutionary army in 1793 in her own right as a woman and who served with distinction in various Dragoon regiments through most of Bonaparte’s major campaigns until 1814 when she retired and opened a table d’hôte restaurant in Paris. Once again, her story was not particularly unusual. She also did not fight at Waterloo but we know, for example, that at least one or two women soldiers died on the battlefield – including the unidentified “beautiful” woman whose body was found in the aftermath of the fight by Volunteer Charles Smith of the 95th Rifles.
So the proposition was simple. What if two fictional women, but based on the real-life characters of Kintelberger and Figueur, were brought together by something more than a simple twist of fate during Bonaparte’s final campaign, in June 1815, that culminated in the Battle of Waterloo? And what if that “something” had a mystical element that would have been very typical of the age’s flirtations between the scientific and the spiritual?
In addition, since I was thinking about the battle from a French perspective, I began to consider bringing into the tale some of those characters from French literature, as I’ve already mentioned, who also have a Waterloo connection. So you may find the Thénardiers (from Hugo’s Les Misérables) or Fabrizio del Dongo (from Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma) wandering through these pages also. I hope you can forgive their intrusion and my presumptions! Indeed, if you should notice any other cameo appearance that may or may not resemble an additional literary figure or two, I hope you might forgive that also.
David Ebsworth has published three previous novels: The Jacobites’ Apprentice, Finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s 2014 Indie Award; The Assassin’s Mark, set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War. Each of these books has been the recipient of the coveted B.R.A.G. Medallion for independent authors.
More details of David’s work are available on his website:
The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour is due to be published on 1st December. As an indie author, David uses a crowd-funding platform, Pubslush, to help finance his projects. His campaign page contains lots more information about his own background and information on the novel itself. It’s possible to pre-order copies, to support the crowd-funding process, gain some special rewards, or simply become a fan.
Written content of this post copyright © David Ebsworth, 2014.