Friday, May 3, 2013

Nineteenth Century Heroines: Lighter Than Air

Some of you will remember a series I did a while ago at QNPoohBear's suggestion of real-life nineteenth century ladies who were inspiring enough to be heroines in a book.  We talked about Caroline Herschel’s stargazing, Ada Byron’s mathematical computing, and Mary Anning’s dinosaur hunting.  I recently stumbled upon another lady I simply had to add to the list:  the commander of Napoleon’s balloon army, Sophie Blanchard.

You wouldn’t think ballooning would be a career for a lady in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, much less leading a squadron of armed forces for a major power.  Sophie was one of a handful of women who ventured up in balloons, and one of the only ones skilled enough to go up alone.  Born in 1778 in France, Sophie was a nervous girl who disliked riding in carriages and startled at loud noises.  We don’t know a great deal about her early life, but somewhere between the ages of 16 and 26, she married one of the premiere balloonists of the day, Jean-Pierre Blanchard. 

Jean-Pierre was a showman who had already toured Europe and America, helped pioneer the parachute, and set records around the world.  Unfortunately, he hadn’t a lick of business sense and was always in debt.  In hopes of recovering, he added Sophie to his act, and the two were popular sights for coronations, royal birthdays, the opening of major buildings, and the like.  Sophie was undaunted by the dangers of balloon flight, claiming at one point that she’d rather sleep in a balloon than on land.  She flew high enough that she nearly passed out from lack of oxygen, she risked freezing at the cold temperatures aloft, and once she almost drown when her balloon landed in a swamp. 

She performed so many times for Napoleon, both with her husband and solo, that he made her the Aeronaut of Official Festivities.  Determined to reach England by any way possible, he also appointed her the Chief Air Minister of Ballooning and asked her to draw up plans for how he could fly his army over the Channel to attack.  Sophie is reported to have had little faith in the venture.  Balloons at that time had few ways to control them, and she recognized, even if Napoleon did not, that the wind generally blew the wrong way.

Tragedy struck the couple in 1809 when Jean-Pierre had a heart attack while performing and fell from his balloon to his death.  Sophie, however, continued to perform.  Despite the fact that she was afraid of loud noises, she perfected an act in which she lighted fireworks and tossed them by parachute from her balloon to the delighted crowds below.  Her vehicle of choice was a hydrogen-filled balloon with a tiny basket below.  She flew to celebrate the marriage of Napoleon to Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810 and on Napoleon’s 42nd birthday in 1811.  She flew over Paris and threw down leaflets proclaiming the birth of Napoleon’s son.  She also performed in Germany, Rome, and the Alps.

I wish I had a happy ending for you.  Unfortunately, it seems Sophie and Jean-Pierre had no children, or at least none that survived beyond infancy.  In July 1819, Sophie was performing at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris when her balloon caught fire and she too fell to her death, entangled in the cords of her basket.  All proceeds from the event were used to build her a monument in a Paris cemetery. 

But Sophie wasn’t forgotten.  Jules Vernes mentioned her in Five Weeks in a Balloon, proving that, nearly 50 years after her death, her amazing accomplishments lived on.


QNPoohBear said...

Awesome! I love reading about real life heroines. Sophie is the heroine of a novel: The Little Balloonist by Linda Donn. or at least her Sophie is based on the real Sophie. I think the real life Sophie sounds more interesting than the character in the novel. The history was great but the plot not so much.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, QNPoohBear! And thanks for mentioning Linda Donn's book. I saw it somewhere along the line when I was researching the post and forgot it before I finished! I must admit I found her fascinating--so fearful on the ground, and so fearless in the air!