Author Diana Quincy was inspired to write Spy Fall in part by Madame Sophie Blanchard. Madame Blanchard was described as a nervous person who was afraid to ride in a carriage and who was terrified by loud noises, but she married a balloonist during the height of the balloon fad that swept Europe. Beset with financial troubles, her husband thought people might pay more to see a woman fly. Madame Blanchard found riding in a balloon to be a “sensation incomparable,” and from that moment she was as fearless in the air as she was timid on the ground.
Madame Blanchard was born in 1778 and married balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard sometime around the year 1800 (the date is unknown).
Blanchard died in a fall from a balloon in 1809. While he had never been able to manage his money, Madame Blanchard raised enough money through balloon flights to clear her husband’s debts and achieve financial security.
She was very frugal in her choice of balloon. Using a hydrogen-gas balloon as opposed to a hot-air balloon meant that the balloon needed less fabric, and she could use a basket about the size of a chair. Some people described her as “beautiful” and some as “ugly,” but all described her as “small” which allowed her to use less gas to power the balloon.
Madame Blanchard was not the first woman to ride in a balloon, but she was the first to pilot a balloon on her own, and she was the first to fly professionally. She loved to fly at night and sometimes slept in her balloon basket while flying. She flew across the Alps and across much of Italy, and did exhibition flights in France. Napoleon made her “the aereounaught of the official festivals”. She must have been immune to politics, because when Louis XVIII was restored to the throne he named her “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration”.
Tragically, she was also the first woman to die in a balloon accident. One thing she was famous for was pyrotechnic flights in which she would throw fireworks from the balloon basket while in flight. In 1819, the fireworks set fire to the balloon. Madame Blanchard was able to slow the descent and land on a roof, but she was tangled in ropes and fell from the roof to the ground. Despite the large number of men who had died in balloon accidents, including Blanchard’s husband, many saw Madame Blanchard’s death as proof that women should not fly.
For more information about Madame Blanchard, check out these websites:
Historic Wings: “Sophie Blanchard – First Woman Balloon Pilot”
University of Oxford: “The Surprising Balloon Mania of Romantic Literature”
Side note: Diana Quincy was also inspired by Elisa Garnerin. I wasn’t able to find much information about Elisa Garnerin, but she certainly sounds amazing. Her uncle, Andre-Jacques Garnerin was the inventor of the frameless parachute. Her aunt, Jeanne Genevie Labrosse, was the first woman to use a parachute. Garnerin herself made her first jump on November 10, 1798. Apparently, Elisa’s aunt and uncle were not over-protective.
An entry at “Women in Sports” states the following “Elisa Garnerin learned to fly balloons at age 15, made 39 parachute descents from 1815 to 1836 in Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany and France.”