In a Twitter thread unrelated to the books, I was introduced to the Amelia Peabody mystery series through her umbrella and a reference to whacking someone, who shall remain nameless, in the shins with it. This was in 2018 in the middle of July. I immediately checked the first five books out of the e-library and began my adventures. And that was that. No more books were available. And then recently, I was informed that all New York residents were eligible for an e-library card from the New York Public Library. And thus begins a new chapter in my reading material. I discovered to my delight that they had all but one of the books and I was able to read the rest of the twenty book series in a ridiculously short period of time.
And then I read them again.
Since the end of October, I have been in constant touch with Amelia Peabody and her family. I am currently finishing the last in the series (chronologically) for the third time and each reading brings with it notices of new things, new insights, new critical looks: at the Emerson journals, at the time period, at the caste system and bigotry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
My first read through was in publication order; my second was in chronological order. I read some excerpts from the later books to witness more of Ramses and Nefret’s relationship and in my continuing reading I realized how much I have in common with Amelia, both to my satisfaction and my chagrin.
I wanted to share some of my thoughts today on National Umbrella Day as well as during the month of February when so many things occurred after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun: the opening of the burial chamber in 1923 (February 16), the raising of the sarcophagus lid in 1924 (Feb. 12), and the suspension of the excavation (for a year) in 1924 as well, returning to work at the end of January of the following year.
The books have many moments of repetition. I blame this on Amelia Peabody and not on the writer, Elizabeth Peters. The books are approached as editing for publication of Peabody-Emerson’s journals and she (Amelia) spends entirely too much time talking about her husband, the greatest Egyptologist in this or any other era with his sable, ebon, black, dark locks and his sapphirine orbs and of course his amazing musculature while at the same time disparaging herself a little more than she deserves. She ranges in age from 32 in the first book through 70 in the eighteenth book, which is the last chronologically. According to a Compendium written in 2003, she was still living in 1939.
She refers to her son and his best friend as boys even at the ages of 35, and despite knowing they’re no longer children, I can’t help but think of them also as boys and not much older than my own children, the oldest of whom is in his twenties. It is odd that I feel as though I can identify with both Amelia and her children. This has always been a thing for me – I am simultaneously in my fifties and my thirties and I am equally interested in the stories of Amelia and Emerson and Ramses and Nefret.
If I had to describe the books in one word or hyphenated phrase, I would say that they are:
All of the above?
It is definitely mutli-genre, and follows its own formula. Winter trip to Egypt, robbery and/or murder, romantic interludes (with euphemisms), parenthood, and social engagements, all of which gives us an inside look into the British Empire’s colonialism, racism, and class status as well as the monied class of the aristocratic Victorians. It is quite a lot to take in, and in its historical elements offers more questions and opportunities for research and internet searching as well as a deluge of archaic and colloquial language that is usually understood within context but also calls out to be explored further.
In reading Peter’s (writing as Barbara Mertz) non-fiction book, I found it easier to understand and picture the history because of how much I was informed by the fiction. The only other time I’ve felt this sensation was in reading Sharon Kay Penman‘s novels of historical fiction. I have even invited my son to the movies with me to see the upcoming Death on the Nile just so I can see the scenery on the big screen.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the books to me is its use of history at the time of Amelia Peabody; from it’s incorporation of current events like World War I and the British Protectorate of Egypt to its liberal sprinkling of real life Egyptologists and archaeologists of the time. When I first saw Howard Carter‘s name, I thought I recognized it and with a quick Google discovered that I must have heard his name mentioned during the 1970s global tour of King Tut’s artifacts. Harry Burton, Theodore Davis, George Reisner and others turn up frequently and lend itself nicely to the story as a whole. I love the appearance of historical people in my historical fiction and not only time and place. This is also something that Penman (mentioned earlier) does quite well.
One thing I have difficulty with although I am sure it is accurate to the time period is how Amelia works with the servant class and thinks of many of them as friends and part of the family, but yet has no qualms of putting them to work. It’s a bit jarring, but I also realize that this was the reality of the times. The family must have had gobs of money for her to be able to travel to Egypt, live, hire servants and excavation workers, and keep up a home – two homes in fact including the one in Kent, England – and to do this yearly. Even by the standards of the late 1800s they must have been ridiculously wealthy. And of course, as in any fiction, there is the suspension of disbelief.
One thing I mentioned earlier in the week was the influence of feminism and the rights of women. While I found it somewhat anachronistic, I also found it reasonable that a woman of Amelia’s age, who’d been raised alone by her father in her father’s world, who was unmarried, and had to fight for her inheritance, would not succumb to feminine frailty as was expected of her. She had to be tough with her brothers and independent with her father. And while she was an independent thinker, she still relied on the proprieties of the day. Not being alone with a member of the opposite sex. Dressing modestly with corset and petticoats, only wearing bicycle skirts once they were nearly in fashion. Her move to trousers was less startling because she had the younger generation to accompany that change of clothes. For Amelia, utility was everything. Including her famous parasol.
In addition to the parasol and her belt of accouterments, there were other things that were so Amelia that they occurred in all the books without fail.
There is an abundance (some might say an overabundance) of tea and cucumber sandwiches and meals; an almost constant sitting down and eating throughout all the books. A hearty breakfast, a small repast at the excavation site, luncheon, tea, supper, coffee, and of course, drinks before bed. Amelia’s fondness for the “genial beverage” is both mocked and beloved. Although for Amelia, the genial beverage could refer just as often to whisky (with or without soda), brandy or wine as it refers to tea.
Over the years they’ve also had a plethora of cats which they have given the names of Egyptian gods.
She is in a constant state of ratiocination or speculation, and she keeps track of her mind’s wanderings with her lists. Lists of meals, lists of suspects, lists of questions to ask, list of suspicious events, lists of to-dos, to buys, etcetera and so on. Any of my readers know that I am a chronic list maker, both of to-dos, to writes, and even as listicles for publishing. In my opinions, like water, lists are life. She is full of aphorisms, verbatim, paraphrased, or simply made up that her husband hates and her son both hates and emulates. She works quietly behind the scenes and bullies to get her way or really the proper way a thing should be done whatever that thing may be.
There is also her second best hat, which often doesn’t survive the encounter.
And of course, there is her parasol – a stout, heavyweight, utilitarian umbrella with a pointy tip for walking, poking, and smashing across the shins and over the head. It was once used as a splint. Ever useful.
I love the character development although some of their antics and language could be referred to as parody or exaggerated especially in reference to Emerson’s physical prowess, Ramses’ hearing, the cats’ supernatural abilities, but it is all in good fun and gives another layer of dimension to the stories as a whole.
I will now finish this book and immerse myself with them in my head for a few months or longer, but I do know that I will be reading them again. They are fun and I feel that the characters have become like a family that I will adore and appreciate perpetually.