As I read 'A Visible Darkness' I was fascinated by the act of collecting amber. Michael G Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio, who write under the pseudonym Michael Gregorio, were kind enough to answer my questions plus give a bonus teaser about the next Hanno Stiffeniis novel already in the works...
Q. There is, it seems, a rich history surrounding Baltic amber. How much did you know about the amber trade before embarking on your novel? How did you research this?
A. We were looking for an original setting for the third story in the series, and the Baltic coast seemed the ideal place, given that amber has been collected on the shore for many centuries. It was a dangerous job. You could be swept off your feet, drowned or maimed. We were fascinated by the bravery and the desperation of young girls working in the sea, searching for precious amber deposits, sometimes stealing what they found, often being murdered for it. There was plenty of scope for a novel based on the world of amber.
We knew very little when we started, but it's surprising what you can discover. We read books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, notably "Succini Prussici" by Phillip Jacob Hartmann, and the ancient laws which governed the gathering of amber in Prussia, and the punishments for stealing it. There were no milestones on the Baltic shore, but there was a gallows every mile!
The social history of amber was equally interesting. It had been sold in ancient times as "Baltic gold" to the Romans and the Greeks, yet it had enduring phallic and religious implications. In the early nineteenth century, many Prussians believed that Prussia was the original Garden of Eden, and amber "insertions" (these creatures from a lost world) provided "visual proof" of the fact. In this period, "natural philosophers" (a.k.a. scientists) such as Linnaeus and Lamarque were working on pre-Darwinian theories of evolution, and they regarded amber as vital evidence of the changes which animals and vegetables undergo in the course of many aeons. And yet, at the time our novel takes place, Biblical calculation suggested that the Earth was no more than ten thousand years old!
Q. You did have Herr Stiffeniis speculate that it was predominantly young women who harvested the amber because the pay was too low for men. Is that so or were there other reasons these dangerous jobs were better suited to or attracted young women?
A. By the early 1800s it had become traditional for women to gather amber from the sea, working with nets and long-handled digging tools. Men worked there too, but we decided to make it an exclusive province of women for dramatic purposes. The women in our book are preyed upon by just about everyone: the French soldiers, the Prussian amber traders, jewelers and thieves. But it is the women who survive, and thrive on the Baltic coast. We portray them as a tribe of Nordic Amazons. At the same time, questions of pay and the availability of young working men (most of whom were in the army, or had been invalided out of it) make it likely that women did most of the work. Men in the Napoleonic age were too busy fighting for or against the Emperor. Continue reading
Prussia was a former state in north-central Germany that existed, with varying borders and territories, from 1440 to 1918 (maps). At the height of its power, Prussia comprised over two-thirds of the German empire, occupying more than half of present-day Germany, plus parts of the neighboring countries - from The Netherlands and Belgium in the west to Lithuania in the east. After Germany's defeat in World War I, Prussia was abolished as a state and its territory was divided, broadly speaking, among Germany, the Soviet Union, and Poland.
The Hanno Stiffeniis series to date consists of three books, Critique of Criminal Reason set in 1804, Days of Atonement set in 1806, A Visible Darkness set in 1807, and Unholy Awakening. The period covered by the three most recent books was a low point for the Prussian empire. Reacting to France's decision to return the Kingdom of Hanover* to the British king in exchange for peace, Prussia went to war with France in 1806 and suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Napoleon's army at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt, losing half of its area and reducing it to a second rate nation under the thumb of the French. Prussia returned to power in 1815 when its troops provided a crucial contribution at the Battle of Waterloo, which saw Napoleon finally defeated. Prussia's reward was the recovery of its former territory and the addition of new territories including the Rhineland, which allowed it to become the dominant power in Germany and the newly formed German Confederation.
*Hanover was the former family seat of the British Hanoverian monarchs, starting with George I in 1714 and ending with Victoria in 1901. When Victoria's son, Edward VII, finally took over as monarch he started a new line named after his father, Prince Albert - the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha dynasty.
When Edward died in 1910 he was replaced by his son, George V, who, in 1917, expediently changed the family name to Windsor. Apparently, George was reluctant to make the change but in light of the ongoing war with Germany (led by his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II) and the increasing resentment against the royal families of Europe, he was persuaded that it was the sensible thing to do if he wished to keep his crown. The decision became particularly pressing when bombs started to drop on London which were delivered by the first bomber airplane capable of crossing the English Channel - unfortunately named the Gotha G.IV. The British royal family are still known by Windsor today.
Another notable to renounce his German title in favor of an Anglicized version was Prince Louis of Battenberg. Louis's grandson, Philip, would later marry Elizabeth II, becoming Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
This article was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the
April 2011 paperback release.
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