As I mentioned in the Week in Books, I spent a fair bit of time last week (and now this week too) re-reading Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series, but that’s not quite the whole story. During lockdown, Him Indoors and I actually started listening to the audiobooks of the series together. He’s never read the books before, and I have, some of them a lot of times, and it’s been a lot of fun rediscovering the series through his (fresh) eyes. I’ve mentioned the series a few times before as part of round-up type posts, but it’s been a few years and I thought it was probably time to give Amelia a post of her own.
Anyway, the set up: at the start of the first book it’s 1880-something and Amelia is heading to Egypt after the death of her father. She’d been the dutiful stay at home daughter until his death, but has decided that she’s now ready for adventures of her own (much to the disgust of her brothers) and heads for Egypt (via Rome) to see some ancient ruins. On her way she picks up a companion – Evelyn – who she rescues from the clutches of a fortune hunter and then heads off to look at some archaeology in action. The archaeologists she meets are grumpy Radcliffe Emerson and his brother Walter, who are excavating a tomb in Armana. Radcliffe emphatically does not want Amelia around, but soon they’re competing to solve a mystery. And by the end of the first book, well, it’s a a spoiler (but I think that’s unavoidable in a 20 book series) they’re married with a baby on the way.
Each book in the series covers a different archaeological season, and across the course of the series, the Emersons age and develop a little gang – including their son Ramses and his friends. The first books in the series are all written as Amelia’s diaries – introduced by an editor – but once Ramses grows up, the narrative is supplemented by extracts from the “recently discovered Manuscript H” which follows the younger members of the family. One of the things that Him Indoors has enjoyed the most about the series is the shift in how you view Amelia and how cleverly Peters moves the series on as it moves through times from Late Victorian through to the 1910s. Amelia is a feminist for her times and is wearing divided skirts and later trousers when it was still a bit of a scandal – but as her family grows up you see her grapple with the fact that the generation below her are doing things that she thinks scandalous – and have freedoms that even she never allowed herself. We’ve reached the 1911 season on our listening (book 11) together and I’m hopping with glee at all the fun he has to come. To be honest, books 10 to 13 are among my favourites in terms of character development and I couldn’t help myself in getting a little ahead of the audiobooks and reading ahead to get to all my favourite parts.
There are catchphrases – “another shirt ruined” and describing her husband as “the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other time” and variants thereof – and running stories like Amelia’s obsession with “the so-called Master Criminal” who they (first) encounter a couple of books in to the series. And Elizabeth Peters is a pen name for Barbara Mertz, who was an Egyptologist in real life and so there’s lots of proper archeological detail. She’s cleverly woven the exploits of the Emersons in with the activities of the real-life archaeologists who were working at the same time – like Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. As well as being a feminist, Amelia is also quite forward thinking when it comes to what she things about Empire and her attitudes to the local people that she meets. It’s hard to categorise the series, but they’re basically historical mystery romances with a side order of parodying Victorian-era adventure novels. I’ve previously described them as a Victorian female Indiana Jones, but funnier and I stand by that. As I’ve mentioned before, if you like series like Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell, then you should be reading Amelia Peabody. And if you’ve already read them, may I suggest Peters’ Vicky Bliss series – which is modern-set and has a link back to the Emersons as well.
If this has given you an urge to read the series, definitely start at the beginning, and the first book is only £1.99 on Kindle and Kobo at the moment. I’ve discovered/remembered in re-reading that first time out I borrowed a bunch of them as physical copies from the library (well it was 2012!), so I have gaps in my e-book collection, which I suspect I will be filling in shortly.