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CARPRE LIBRUM: Luck be a lady with strength and principles in Victorian-era escapist novels

Amelia Peabody is a Victorian-era spinster who, upon suddenly inheriting a fortune, declines all offers of marriage and instead decides to go to Egypt to seek adventure.

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

crocodile“Crocodile on the Sandbank”
Book one of Amelia Peabody Mystery series
By Elizabeth Peters
262 pgs., Warner Books
“Have you read all these books?” It is a question I get asked almost constantly, at the book store—where the answer is, “No, I have read many of them, and I read an average of a book a day, but I have not read all the books in here”—or at the bed and breakfast, which houses our family library—where the answer is, “Every book in this house has been read by some member of the family. Many have been read by all of us, but not all have been read by all of us. But yes, these books have all been read by someone.” In other words, they are not for show and picked out by a decorator to make us look smart by having them on color-coordinated shelves. Because of that, they do not all look perfect; they look like books that actually get read.

So my father’s books have pages marked up for the last research project he was working on. The coverless books my grandmother brought home from Kressgue’s for my dad are still there—even though, now, we could easily afford to replace them with more substantial copies if the objective were for everything to look pretty. But, no, not everyone in the family has the same taste, and, therefore, not everyone wanted to read all the same books. Many of my father’s books on the history of rhetorical theory are beyond boring to me. He scorned most of my mother’s escapist fiction.

As I am now spending a lot of time at the bed and breakfast, I have begun reading my way through the library in earnest—specifically, through my mother’s novels. I say “in earnest” because, clearly, I have always read from the library in the house. But I also have added to it for a very long time. Now that so much of the last few years has been devoted to moving, storing, cleaning, and reshelving books, my relationship with it has changed.

I have spent a lot of my adult life purchasing, moving and sorting books from other’s people’s estate sales. I learn a lot about a person or family from their books. Frequently, I can tell which books were never read at all (either given as gifts to someone who had no interest or purchased by a decorator—see above). I can tell the well-loved, well-thumbed, much-underlined books—the books for school classes and family heirlooms, like bibles yearbooks, scrapbooks, etc.

My parents’ library-building began in college, so most of the classics were acquired in paperback editions and have their notes and underlining from classes inside. There are parenting books they began buying when they decided to start a family and then found themselves completely bewildered by me. Home improvement guides and cookbooks are obvious acquisitions about the time I entered high school, my mother turned almost exclusively to escapist fiction (I can’t imagine why…).  She had three writers she was pretty dedicated to; one was Elizabeth Peters.

In real life Peters was Barbara Michaels, an Egyptologist who struggled with the restrictions and expectations of academia. She was, in short, too smart and accomplished to fit into the little box everyone wanted to put her in. After publishing two books on Egyptology, she turned her hand to fiction and wrote the first Amelia Peabody Mystery. My mother has every book Michaels published prior to 2009.

While Mommy was alive, I admit, I never read Peters’ work. Now, I am hooked. Like Tony Hillerman’s books, set in the American Southwest that teach Native American culture and history, while solving crimes, Peter’s books actually teach a tremendous amount of Egyptian history. They also involve the pursuit of an extremely charismatic heroine around the Middle East in the late 1800s.

Amelia Peabody is a Victorian-era spinster who, upon suddenly inheriting a fortune, declines all offers of marriage and instead decides to go to Egypt to seek adventure. She has been described in print as the female Indiana Jones, but that is selling her short.  She is smart, she is sassy, she has common sense and capability, and she refuses to wear a damn bustle in the desert while excavating a tomb. I adore her.

She does find a man who is a match for her: one Radcliff Emerson. Eventually, they have an incredibly precocious child named “Ramses.” The series continues through the opening of King Tut’s tomb in real life. Along the way, a variety of famous and not-so-famous archeologists appear in the books, and discussions of the procedures of archeology and how they change as new technology becomes available are worked into the text.

I have to hand it to my mother: It is nothing short of brilliant. Also, it is possibly the best way to teach your daughter. She can be the woman you want her to be—a lady with principles and strength.

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