Cara/Andrea here, welcoming a new month . . . and a new book! Yes, yes, I know I was talking last month about a new release too, but that was while wearing my romance hat, and today I’m tipping my Deerstalker cap at a jaunty angle as I give you a little backstory on RECIPE FOR TREASON, the third book in my Lady Arianna Regency-set mystery series. Actually, I should be wearing a heavy fleece-line sheepskin helmet because the story involves balloons. Not the modern-day birthday kind of helium-filled orbs, but the mammoth flying balloons that launched the very first generation of aviators or—as they were called in that era—aeronauts.
The book involves several aspects of Regency-era science. The era was a time of great advances in the understanding of chemistry, and a great many discoveries were made in the field—the precursor of anesthesia, the first early batteries for energy storage, the first high-powered explosives, to name just a few. My husband-and-wife sleuthing duo reluctantly undertake a clandestine mission to Scotland to investigate whether university professor there is working on a deadly new formula that may fall into the hands of the French. His death, and the disappearance of his notebooks send them back to London, where they become involved with the Royal Institution, which at the time was led by the charismatic Humphrey Davy.
I won’t give away how ballooning figures into the plot, but I will mention that along with mentioning a few actual people like Davy, I feature a real-life aeronaut as one of the secondary characters in the action.
James Sadler is a historic figure in British aviation history. He was the first Englishman to fly, ascending from Oxford’s Christ Church meadow on October 4, 1784, in a 170-ft hot air balloon that he made out of silk lined with paper. (He was the second man to launch a balloon in England—the first being the legendary Italian, Vincent Lunardi.) Here’s how the Oxford Journal recorded his feat:
Early on Monday Morning the 4th instant, Mr. Sadler of this City, tried the Experiment of his Fire Balloon, raised by means of rarefied air. The Process of filling the Globe began at three o’clock, and about Half past Five as all was complete, and every Part of the Apparatus entirely adjusted, Mr. Sadler, with Firmness and Intrepidity, ascended into the Atmosphere, and the Weather being calm and serene, he rose from the Earth in a vertical direction to a Height of 3,600 Feet. In his elevated Situation he perceived no Inconvenience; and, being disengaged from all terrestrial Things, he contemplated a most charming distant View. After floating for near Half an Hour, the machine descended, and at length came down upon a small Eminence betwixt Islip and Wood Eaton, about six Miles from this City.
Sadler was born in Oxford, where his father owned several pastry shops. Baking apparently did not leave a sweet taste in his mouth—his passion was science and he went to work in one of the university’s chemistry laboratories, where he began experimenting with small gas-filled balloons. The exploits of the Montgolfier brothers and other French aeronauts inspired him to dream of being the first Englishman to rise above terra firma.
Through his professional work as a chemist, Sadler was appointed n 1796 to a position within the the newly created Naval Works Department, and served under Sir Samuel Bentham. He invented a table steam engine, but he didn’t get along well with Bentham and his career stalled—which was probably just as well because his real passion was flying.
He was something of a daredevil, and performed a number of feats that left other aviators in awe—he was the first to land a balloon in the ocean and then manage to relaunch it from the churning waves. On another occasion when he landed in the drink, he directed a passing ship to come maneuver its bowsprit through his rigging to prevent his
balloon from sinking. (Among the other aeronautical feats he has to his credit are setting a speed record in gale-force winds in 1811, when he traveled over 100 miles in 80 minutes.) He also experimented with the idea of oceanic air currents, and thought they could possibly be mapped and used for navigation, just like sea currents. Despite the tragic death of his son Windham—also an avid aeronaut—in a balloon accident, Sadler remained fascinated by flying until he passed away of natural causes in 1828.
As you can see, Sadler is just the sort of swashbuckling character to help Arianna in her quest to capture a cunning traitor. Are you wondering what exploits he performs? Well, you'll just have to read the book!
So, how do you feel about having real-life people make a cameo appearance in historical fiction? Do you feel it adds realism to the times? Or is it distracting? And have you a favorite example of a book that features a real historical person as part of the story? I’ll be giving away a copy of RECIPE FOR TREASON to one lucky reader who leaves a comment here between now and Tuesday evening.