Amelia Peabody series
First edition cover for Crocodile on the Sandbank
|Genre||Historical mystery, Thriller, Satire, Comedy|
|1975 – 2010|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback) and
The Amelia Peabody series is a series of nineteen historical mystery novels and one non fiction companion volume written by Elizabeth Peters, featuring Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson, for whom the series is named. The novels blend satire (mostly of the adventure novel, such as written by H. Rider Haggard), mystery, romance, and comedy. The series spans a thirty-eight-year period from 1884 to 1923. Most of the books are primarily set in Egypt, with some installments including scenes set in England and Gaza. Of the books in the series, only two do not take place in Egypt at all: Deeds of the Disturber, set entirely in England, and A River in the Sky, set mostly in Ottoman-era Palestine.
The first installment, Crocodile on the Sandbank, was first published in 1975. By the late 1990s, new books were published at the rate of one annually, with many of the later books in the series appearing on the New York Times Bestseller List for fiction. The last installment in the series to be published, A River in the Sky, was released in 2010. It is the 19th novel in the series, which also includes a non-fiction companion book, Amelia Peabody's Egypt: A Compendium.
The series was primarily written in chronological order, with the exception of Guardian of the Horizon and A River in the Sky, which were the 16th and 19th books to be published, but 11th and 12th in the chronology. Prior to her death, Peters suggested that she might continue the series with new installments written out of sequence, since the series took place in real time and the aging of the characters precluded extending the series much further than the point at which it ended, in 1923.
The earlier books in the series were written entirely as first-person narrative, with the novels purporting to be edited versions of journals kept by Amelia. According to the series mythology, the initial cache of journals that provided the narrative for the Amelia Peabody series were discovered in the attic of the ancestral home of the Tregarth family in Cornwall, England, into which Amelia's unnamed granddaughter eventually married (see the Vicky Bliss series final installment The Laughter of Dead Kings).
Beginning with Seeing a Large Cat, Amelia's narrative is interspersed with excerpts from "Manuscript H," a third person narrative that follows the adventures of the younger generation of the family, the author of which is eventually revealed to be Walter 'Ramses' Emerson. On occasion, other points of view are introduced in the form of letters and additional manuscripts.
Amelia Peabody is introduced in the series' first novel, Crocodile on the Sandbank as a confirmed spinster, suffragist, and scholar. She inherits a fortune from her father and leaves England to see the world, with the side benefit of escaping various suitors and family members who were neither aware that she would be the sole beneficiary of her father's estate nor that he had amassed a small fortune over the course of his lifetime.
In Rome, Amelia meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a young Englishwoman of social standing who has run off with (and subsequently been abandoned by) her Italian lover, and the two make their way to Egypt. There they meet the Emerson brothers, Egyptologist Radcliffe and his philologist brother Walter. Over the course of the first book the couples pair up: Amelia marries Radcliffe (referred to throughout the series by his last name "Emerson"), and Evelyn marries Walter.
Following the birth of their son Ramses (né Walter) Emerson ("as swarthy as an Egyptian and as arrogant as a Pharaoh"), the Emersons initially settle in Kent, from where Emerson commutes to a job lecturing in Egyptology at university in London. Despite Amelia's suggestions that he resume seasonal digs in Egypt, Emerson insists on staying in England with his family while Ramses is too young to travel.
Peabody and Emerson return to Egypt at least once without Ramses (The Curse of the Pharaohs) in 1892 before deciding to bring him along on their annual digs (The Mummy Case), beginning in the 1894-95 season. Amelia's desire to explore pyramids is countered by Emerson's refusal to be diplomatic with the Egyptian Service d'Antiquites, resulting in the loss of their firman (permit) to excavate at Mazghuna, a minor pyramid field southwest of Cairo.
While the Emersons are excavating at Mazghuna, they encounter an enigmatic criminal mastermind who runs an illicit underground antiquities trade, stealing artifacts from tombs, which puts him at odds with the Emersons. Amelia initially calls "The Master Criminal," although his nom de guerre is eventually revealed to be Sethos. Sethos is initially presented as a rival to Emerson for Amelia's affections, but later becomes an important part of the Emerson's large circle of friends, allies, and acquaintances in later books when it is discovered that he is Emerson's half-brother, Seth.
The Emerson family expands during the 1897-1898 season while on an archaeological expedition to Nubia. The family encounters a hitherto unknown civilization in a remote wadi in the desert (The Last Camel Died at Noon), becomes embroiled in turbulent politics, and discovers Nefret Forth, the daughter of a long-presumed dead explorer. Nefret returns to England with the Emersons and becomes their ward.
The family expands again in the 1899-1900 season when the family encounters David Todros, the son of Abdullah's estranged daughter and her Christian husband. David is living in a state of semi-slavery, working for a forger of antiquities. He is taken in by Evelyn and Walter Emerson as a ward. David later marries Evelyn and Walter's daughter Amelia (known as Lia to avoid confusion with her aunt).
Nefret's introduction initiates a running story arc of sexual tension between her and Ramses. This becomes an important part of the plot in the subset of books beginning with Seeing a Large Cat in which the younger generation of the family begin a parallel narration to Amelia's through the introduction of "excerpts from Manuscript H" (eventually revealed to have been written by Ramses). Among the pitfalls in this story arc is the arrival of Sennia, a young girl initially suspected to be Ramses' illegitimate daughter with a local prostitute. Sennia's arrival, and the suspicions about Ramses that it raises, precipitates Nefret's brief marriage to another man. Sennia is revealed to be the child of Amelia's nephew Percival, first seen in Deeds of the Disturber, who is reintroduced as an adult in a villainous role for several volumes beginning with The Falcon at the Portal. Sennia is adopted by the Emersons, who take her back to England at the conclusion of the volume.
The tension between Ramses and Nefret is finally resolved in He Shall Thunder in the Sky, with their marriage taking place at the end of that book and recounted in flashback sequences in the next. The two eventually have three children: a set of fraternal twins (a son, David John, and a daughter, Charlotte, or "Charla"), and an unnamed daughter born after the current conclusion of the series. It is through the youngest daughter that John Tregarth, a character in Peters's Vicky Bliss series, is descended from the Emerson-Peabodys.
Additional characters in the series include members of the large Egyptian family who support the Emersons in their digs. The head of the family is Abdullah ibn al-Wahhab, Emerson's reis or foreman, who supervises their archaeological digs. Abdullah has several children, among them his youngest son, Selim, who, originally assigned as a bodyguard of sorts for Ramses (The Mummy Case), eventually replaces his father as reis.
A number of prominent figures from the time appear in the novel as characters, including Howard Carter, William Flinders Petrie, Gaston Maspero, and E. A. Wallis Budge, whom Emerson considers an arch-rival (even if the feelings are not mutual). Another recurring character is that of Cyrus Vandergelt, an American entrepreneur who finances a number of archaeological expeditions in the Valley of the Kings (with little success) and becomes a close friend and confidant of the Emerson clan. The Vandergelt character is at least partly based on Theodore Davis, the American entrepreneur who first hired Howard Carter to dig in the Valley of the Kings, and who himself appears in The Ape Who Guards the Balance.
Most of the archaeological achievements attributed to the Emerson-Peabodys were, in reality, accomplished by many of the archaeologists who pass through the novels as supporting characters. For example, the excavations that Emerson and Walter are undertaking at Amarna in 1884 (in Crocodile on the Sandbank) are based on those conducted by Sir William Flinders Petrie in 1891. Peters has indicated that the character of Radcliffe Emerson is based in part on Petrie, whose meticulous excavation habits were legendary and set a new standard for archaeological digs.
Amelia herself was partly inspired by Amelia Edwards, a Victorian novelist, travel writer, and Egyptologist, whose best-selling 1873 book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile is similar in both tone and content to Amelia Emerson's narration. The character was also semi-autobiographical: pressures on Amelia to marry and abandon her Egyptological career in the first book were based on Peters's own experience in academia.
In other instances, fictional accomplishments are ascribed to Amelia and Emerson. For example, the tomb of the 17th Dynasty Queen Tetisheri, whose discovery and excavation form the basis of the plot in The Hippopotamus Pool has, in fact, never been found. Most scholars suggest that the tomb - assuming that it still survives - would be found in the general area where the Emerson-Peabodys discover it. The intact Old Kingdom burial found in The Falcon at the Portal is also fictional; in fact, no intact burials from the Old Kingdom period have ever been found.
This list includes the year a story takes place, the location, and the title of the book. The archaeologist's "season" generally begins in the fall and concludes in the spring, so each story spans parts of two years.
- 1884-85, Amarna, Crocodile on the Sandbank
- 1892-93, Valley of the Kings, The Curse of the Pharaohs
- 1894-95, Mazghuna, The Mummy Case
- 1895-96, Dashur, Lion in the Valley
- Summer 1896, London and Kent, Deeds of the Disturber
- 1897-98, The Lost Oasis (Sudan), The Last Camel Died at Noon
- 1898-99, Amarna, The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog
- 1899-1900, Dra' Abu el-Naga', The Hippopotamus Pool
- 1903-04, Seeing a Large Cat
- 1906-07, Valley of the Kings, The Ape Who Guards the Balance
- 1907-08, The Lost Oasis, Guardian of the Horizon (published out of sequence)
- 1910, Palestine, A River in the Sky (published out of sequence)
- 1911-12, Zawyet el'Aryan, The Falcon at the Portal
- 1914-15, Giza, He Shall Thunder in the Sky
- 1915-16, Giza, Lord of the Silent
- 1916-17, Gaza and Deir el-Medina, The Golden One
- 1919-20, Children of the Storm
- 1922-23, Valley of the Kings, The Serpent on the Crown
- 1922-23, Valley of the Kings (tomb of Tutankhamun), Tomb of the Golden Bird
In a 2003 book talk at the Library of Congress, Elizabeth Peters revealed that her overall plan for the Amelia Peabody series was to continue the series chronologically through World War I and end with events surrounding the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. This stated goal was accomplished with the publication of Tomb of the Golden Bird in 2006. The events of that book wrapped up most of the series' loose plot lines, although it did not include a definitive ending to the series itself.
In the same talk, Peters suggested that any future installments after this point would "fill in the gaps" in the series' chronology, as she has done with Guardian of the Horizon and A River in the Sky which fill part of the four-year gap between The Ape Who Guards the Balance and The Falcon at the Portal.
In the final volume of the Vicky Bliss series, The Laughter of Dead Kings, the fictional editor of Amelia Peabody's journals makes a cameo appearance while looking for more of Amelia's journals. By the end of the book, she has acquired at least three more of the "missing journals" to document the adventures of the Peabody-Emersons.
While this appeared to suggest Peters's intention to continue the series (which was by far her most commercially successful), only one additional volume was published before her death in 2013.
-  A Thousand Miles up the Nile, (see  Newsletter #50, p. 3)
- Maps and timelines of the Emersons' travels at the official Amelia Peabody website