Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Philadelphia Story

Meet Cordelia Frances Biddle

Today we're visiting with one of our very first friends on Jungle Red, Cordelia Frances Biddle.

Cordelia is the author of the Martha Beale series set in 19th century Philadelphia, and if there's anyone who knows Philly, it's Cordelia. There have been Biddles in Philadelphia since the 1680's.

I had a chance to catch up with Cordelia when I was in town for the Flower Show and she was taking a break from touring for her latest novel, Without Fear. This latest installment of the Martha Beale series was inspired by a serendipitous conversation at one of her talks.

"I was speaking at the Union League when a gentleman asked me if I knew about the headless corpse that had been found on an ice floe in the Delaware River during the 19th century." That research lead her to the Joseph Bonaparte estate just outside of Philadelphia.

"Without Fear is not that particular story, but that was the start of my research. Of course, I've added a corpse or two!"

In Without Fear Martha Beale is exposed to the grandiose – albeit sinister - realm of the former Comte de Survilliers, Joseph Bonaparte, at his estate Point Breeze on the Delaware River while also drawing her into the dangerous world of Philadelphia’s textile workers. The time is March, 1843; the city (“the Athens of America”) is a place divided between the heights of culture and sophistication, as epitomized by the Bonaparte family; and the depths of squalor experienced by the mill hands and other common laborers. When a headless corpse is discovered on the Bonaparte estate, Martha is drawn into a world of mistaken identities, vanished wives and thwarted desires.
Cordelia's scrupulous attention to detail is one of the things that really sets her books apart. She can routinely be found at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Founded by Ben Franklin in 1731, the Library Company houses 400,000 books, including first editions of Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass. It's also home to centuries of old newspapers which Cordelia pores over looking for that snippet of information which will add yet another layer to her prose.

"You can tell as much about the time by the advertisments, the shipping news and the weather as well as the articles."

As a direct descendant of Nicholas Biddle, Cordelia is also fortunate enough to have access to a treasure trove of legend and history in both the family archives and in the reminiscences of relatives.

"I can remember one elderly relative telling me that the secret to a successful marriage was to make one's husband think he's smarter than you. And she believed it."

That may still be true but it does show how times have changed. With all research, it's important to know when to stop. A former actress, Cordelia frequently gives talks in an elegant period costume, but she is not one to be trapped in her hoopskirt.

"There are no exhaustive footnotes necessary in my books.." And that's true, the research is there but it is seamlessly tied into her compelling stories.
Cordelia is also (with her husband Steve, a playwright) the author of the Nero Blanc crossword puzzle series, and she is currently working on a biography of one of her illustrious ancestors.

Cordelia will be here today and tomorrow to chat and answer questions. You can also visit her on her website


  1. We met at the Bouchercon in Baltimore--and I worked for years at HSP, next door to the Library Company. Between them, what an incredible treasure trove of material (which I'm plundering for my new Museum Mystery series)!

    Am I correct in remembering that Nicholas Biddle had one of the simplest and sweetest wills on record? Something like, I leave everything to my beloved wife? And that was all.

    I look forward to reading your book.

  2. Hey Cordelia! Welcome!

    What biography are you working on? Can you share?

  3. Sheila, What a fabulous notion. A series set in a museum/ historical society atmosphere. Heaps of dark secrets, vanished documents, and familial intrigue. I love it!

    As to Nicholas, I'm sure you're correct. For a poet and editor of the Journals of Lewis and Clark, he could be surprisingly succinct.

    Let's meet up in Phila. for a coffee. I'd love to hear about your new series.

    Hey Hank, and kudos on your continued success!
    The bio is of Saint Katharine Drexel, a relative as well as a... gulp... saint. Her story is remarkable. She renounced her considerable fortune in order to found an order devoted to education the poorest of the poor. Xavier University in New Orleans was one of her crowning achievements.

    She also was courted by European royalty, so her story has romance AND vision.
    To say I'm in awe of her is putting it mildly.

  4. Hi, Cordelia -

    I am in awe of a writer who does as much research as you do and uses it to artful effect. And it seems like research has its own built in pitfall - how do you know when to stop?

  5. Hi Hallie.

    I LOVE research - all those unexpected twists and turns that ultimately put "flesh" on a period in history. Knowing when to stop - for me - is a matter of taking a long hard look at what I've written, and then asking myself if the "fascinating facts" are true to the characters' interaction, or do they seem like footnote material. If it's the latter, I push delete.

    In the case of WITHOUT FEAR, I discovered how intertwined Philadelphia's textile industry was with the slave trade. I used those painful facts and allowed Martha Beale her own horrified revelation.

  6. I have just put this series on my To-Read list. I love historical fiction if it's done well, and having just read Laurie Halse Anderson's Fever 1793, I am intrigued by Philadelphia, about which I know very little. I'm going to be in Philadelphia in about five weeks, so I'm thinking I should start this series Pretty Darn Quick(ly).

    I look forward to it!

  7. Hello Susannah, and welcome to Philadelphia in advance. When you arrive the city should be gorgeous; azaleas and wisterias in all their glory. Do email me through my website if you need hints for interesting tourist spots.

    One place that is seldom visited and is a standout is the Athenaeum on Washington Square, a "private" library in an elegant building that houses many of Joseph Napolean's objets d'art. He built a chateau on the Delaware (now gone); I set several scenes in WITHOUT FEAR there.

    I promise my research is exacting and correct. Hopefully you'll learn a bit of Phila's history while have a good read...