An Author's Victorian Fancy

September 01, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Amelia Peabody Emerson and Barbara Mertz have a lot in common.

The dauntless Victorian archaeologist and the popular Maryland novelist are outspoken and articulate, and hardly shy about expressing opinions. Both are awesomely well-educated. Both are, as might be expected, passionate feminists, and both are blessed with a wry sense of humor. But the 20th century author, like the 19th century Egyptologist, is at home in feather-decked picture hats as well as pith helmets, and can preside with style over tea in the most refined of rose-patterned drawing rooms.

Many authors put themselves into their characters, but Ms. Mertz, who has written six Amelia Peabody novels (including "The Last Camel Died at Noon," which is being published this week by Warner Books), has not simply recycled her own personality traits into her feisty heroine. Amelia, and Ms. Mertz's other strong-willed female protagonists, have laid their own stamp on their creator's life, she contends.

"I used to be a very timid, very polite person," laughs the prolific Ms. Mertz, who writes historically informed mysteries under the pen name of Elizabeth Peters, and supernatural and suspense tales as Barbara Michaels. "Women were brought up in my day and age to be nice. We didn't say anything that rocked the boat, we didn't challenge people. At a certain point, maybe it was age, or because I was writing about these women who were saying all the things I always wanted to say, I thought, 'I don't have to take this anymore!' "

In addition to a dose of self-confidence, Amelia might have contributed a few decorating tips. Here and there in Ms. Mertz's home, a 19th century stone farmhouse in the countryside near Frederick, can be spotted Egyptian-style artifacts. And there's a formal parlor just like the kind in which the redoubtable Mrs. Emerson, back home in England between excavations, might have taken tea.

The house is, however, pure Barbara Mertz. Purchased 12 years ago from the proceeds of her books, it is a showcase for her wide-ranging, occasionally eccentric collections and enthusiasms.

After her divorce, Ms. Mertz was living in a "boring suburban house" in Potomac with her children, Elizabeth and Peter. But as the kids gained their independence, she decided to declare hers as well.

When she saw the classically elegant stone house, set in 10 acres of pasture and woods, she knew it was meant for her. Built, according to a plaque on the chimney, by one John Jones in 1820, it was packed with history and charm, but recent renovations had modernized and expanded the kitchen, and added a spacious modern sun room to the back.

"I can brag about this house," she says as she guides a visitor through its rooms, "because I don't claim any credit for it. The lady who had owned the house was an interior decorator, and she had done all the dirty work of remodeling."

Ms. Mertz can usually be found in the lofty sun room, which is furnished with puffy, overstuffed floral chintz couches, a grand piano and a profusion of plants. As the author acquired a taste for antiques, she also acquired unusual accent pieces, including a carousel horse and a vintage wood stove decorated with painted tiles. This latter item serves as a feeding station for the household's assortment of cats.

"This is my favorite room, of course," she exclaims. "I spend all my time here. Hot as hell in the summer, freezing cold in the winter . . . I don't care!"

Next to the sun room is the kitchen, cozy and countrified, with a flagstone floor inset with handmade ceramic tiles, matching floral tiles on the counter tops, a beamed ceiling and, at one end of the room, a huge stone hearth. The kitchen and the attic above it, she believes, were part of a cabin that predates the rest of the house.

A spiral staircase connects the sun room with the aforementioned attic, which has beams and a loft, and (to the delight of Ms. Mertz's granddaughter and other young visitors) a trapdoor concealing stairs that lead to the kitchen. This room, which is used as a sewing room, is dominated by a rack of vintage clothing -- a special passion of the author, who wears as well as collects it -- awaiting repairs or alterations.

The most formal of the downstairs rooms is the splendid early-Victorian parlor. A large portrait of Ms. Mertz's father as a child presides over red velvet sofas and chairs, a carved wooden bird cage, an oversized heirloom music box that plays metal discs and a cabinet full of frilly antique curios. The floral wallpaper is a reproduction of a paper that hung in Teddy Roosevelt's summer home.

Though it may look as if the room hadn't changed for 100 years, Ms. Mertz says, "This was the dining room. I swore after my children left that I would never again have a dining room."

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