Sunday, April 15, 2012

Michelle Styles: Uncovering An Author's Inspiration -- Elizabeth Peters and Flinders Petrie

I have been a fan of Elizabeth Peters  and her Amelia Peabody stories ever since the first one came out back in the late 1970s. I discovered her because one of the librarians at my local library wrote to various authors asking recommendations. Phyliss Whitney wrote back suggesting both Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters. In blue ink, the librarian scrawled I wonder if she knows that they are the same person. As I already liked Barbara Michaels, I figured to give Elizabeth Peters a go and was not disappointed.

Through out the intervening years, I sometimes wondered where Elizabeth Peters had the kernel of her story from, but then a couple of weeks ago, the BBC showed a documentary on Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie aka  Flinders Petrie,  the man who founded Modern Egyptology and indeed modern archaeology and I knew I had found at least one of her inspirations.  In her other life, Peters is the Egyptologist Barbara Mertz and indeed her first published book was not a romance, mystery or gothic but a book on The Daily Life in Ancient Egypt.

Petrie was wonderfully eccentric. Despite having no formal education, he was the first man to accurately measure the pyramids. Born in 1853, he first became interested in Egypt after reading a book on the Great Pyramid. In 1880 he first went to Egypt to survey the pyramids. Because it was hot and to keep the curious away, he wore his faded red long underwear. Apparently it looked like he was naked — dreadfully shocking to the Victorians who flocked to Egypt’s many monuments. His research still provides most of the basic data for pyramid study today.

When he returned to England, he came under the patronage of Amelia Peters, a novelist,  journalist and patron of The Egypt Exploration Fund now known as the Egypt Exploration Society. After her death in 1892, he became a professor at the University College of London as she had endowed a chair of Egyptology.  He developed the systematic approach to archaeology and applied stratification or seriation to the subject. Stratification was pioneered by William “Strata” Smith  who noticed layers of sedimentary rock followed the same pattern. Petrie reasoned rightly that objects found in the same layer belonged to the same time period, and if you can date the pottery shards, you can date the entire layer. He was also the first person to really apply the notion of context to an archaeological dig  — everything was important, including where and how the object was found. One of his most famous pupils was Howard Carter who found King Tut. Excavating in both Egypt and Palestine, he is responsible for more major discoveries than practically any archaeologist. Unfortunately he was also a believer in eugenics and it is this distasteful part of his personality which means that he remains a hugely controversial figure. He married a former UCL pupil in 1896.

But I was tremendously fascinated to learn about Amelia Peters and Flinders Petrie because of Elizabeth Peters’ books and the echoes with her characters. I find it truly interesting the various bits of inspirations  other authors might have. If you have not read any of the Amelia Peabody books and are interested in intelligent and strong late Victorian heroines, I really recommend them.  They do withstand the test of time.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty, and intimate historical romance for Harlequin Historical. Her next novel His Unsuitable Viscountess will be published in August 2012. One of her inspirations for her heroine Eleanor was  the great Regency businesswoman Eleanor Coade. You can read more about Michelle’s books on


emaginette said...

I have read about Amelia and Radcliff (don't tell him I said said) for years. teehhe She also has a Victoria Bliss series you might like. I love both. I do admit I haven't read much of Barbara.

Oh well, maybe later. :-)

marybelle said...

I fell in love with Amelia Peabody way back when.

Michelle Styles said...

It is good that other people like Amelia Peabody!
I have read Victoria Bliss. One of the Victoria Bliss's is set in Rome and the first time I went to Rome, I had to find the church with the skulls. Unfortunately it was closed, but it was on my to do list because of that book.