Wednesday, August 01, 2007

In Praise Of The Amelia Peabody Books

I was introduced to Amelia Peabody about 5 years ago by my dad, who inhales books like nobody else I've ever known. Amelia Peabody is one of the most interesting literary characters I've ever loved and I think that she would appeal to many of my Dear Blog Readers, especially you Objectivists.

Let's to describe Amelia Peabody...she's a proper churchgoing Victorian gentlewoman who wears trousers on archaeological digs, wields a parasol like a saber, cheerfully excavates Egyptian sites despite the heat and other inconveniences (she especially loves pyramids) alongside her husband "the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age, Radcliffe Emerson," and courageously solves murder-mysteries on the side. You know, just for something to do.

She is daring and brave, never backs down from a challenge, and to her husband's unending chagrin, never takes "no" for an answer. She is passionately devoted to Emerson (so-called because he hates his given name) and is genuinely confused by the Victorian notion that women ought not to enjoy sex too much. Peabody (as she is affectionately called by Emerson who only uses "Amelia" when he's annoyed with her, which is rare) and Emerson are parents to a precocious son nicknamed Ramses.

Emerson is quick-thinking and courageous, does not put up with nonsense of any sort, has a horrible temper but believes he doesn't, is openly atheist (to his wife's chagrin), is passionately devoted to his wife, is ridiculously sentimental where children and animals are concerned, seems to know everyone in Egypt (in particular some of the more unsavory characters), and uses profanity with such fluidity and creativity that he is known in Egypt as the "Father of Curses."

I was hooked from the very first book, Crocodile on the Sandbank (where Peabody and Emerson meet, hate each other, solve a mystery, and fall in love).

The author of the series is Elizabeth Peters (a pseudonym) who is an Egyptologist by training. Peters' strength as an author is characterization. Peabody, Emerson, Ramses (and others who come later: Nefret, David, Sethos) are compelling to me because they are strong, honest, uncompromising and funny. (Peabody especially has some laugh-out-loud one-liners.) And oh! Abdullah! How could I forget Abdullah!

Peters is also very adept at weaving into the stories her own vast knowledge of Egyptology as well as her knowledge of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the English women and men who typify those time periods. Since Emerson is supposed to be a well-respected archaeologist, she introduces Peabody (and us) to real archaeologists of the time, such as Flinders Petrie and Howard Carter, and refers to actual discoveries, etc. Howard Carter (who later discovered the lost tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen) figures prominently in several of the books. The character of Emerson is partially based on the real-life Petrie, inventor of many modern archaeological techniques (and who had a patron named Amelia Edwards); Peters gives joint credit for the development of excavation techniques to Petrie and Emerson, who doesn't like Petrie but will begrudgingly admit (under pressure) that Petrie is an adequate archaeologist.

The plots of a few of the books get a little clunky and formulaic, but for the most part are well worth sticking with if only to learn how the characters develop and handle the situations thrown at them. Most of the books are quite good. In addition to the first one, I've especially enjoyed The Last Camel Died At Noon, The Hippopotamus Pool, and The Falcon At The Portal.

These books are just great fun. I think something Emerson says at the end of the first book (when he and Amelia declare their love) really sums it up very nicely:
"Archaeology is a fascinating pursuit, but, after all, one cannot work day and night. . . . Peabody, my darling Peabody--what a perfectly splendid time we are going to have!"
They do have a splendid time--and so have I!

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