Catherine Harcourt

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Captain Catherine Harcourt, by Shyangell
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Captain Catherine Harcourt, by Shyangell

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Character Profile

Name: Catherine Harcourt
Date of Birth: c.1785
Service: Aerial Corps
Rank: Captain
Nationality: British
Billets: Loch Laggan covert, captain to Lily


Biography

Catherine Harcourt was a tall, slender young woman with a wide, pleasant face, a snub nose and long red hair, which she usually wore in a braid.

Her mother was a woman from Plymouth who died of a fever when Harcourt was but one year old. Her father, Jack Harcourt, was a member of the Aerial Corps and served as a lieutenant aboard Fluitare. He died in 1802, by which time he already knew that his daughter had been assigned as captain to a yet unhatched Longwing egg and that her future was assured.

Lily's hatching and training, 1805

The egg hatched five years earlier than expected, so early that Harcourt had not even thought of a name and ended up naming the dragonet Lily instead of one of the more usual Latin names given to British dragons. Longwings, with their acid spray, are naturally the leaders of their formations. The other dragons are trained to fly patterns which give the Longwing the greatest sweep over the ground while retaining the protection of the rest of the wing around it. However, Lily had hatched so early that Harcourt was unusually young to be not only the captain of a heavy-weight but also the lead captain in the formation.

Because of her youth, Harcourt was at first sometimes a bit shy and awkward in dealing with men in the Corps, especially those such as Jeremy Rankin who seemed to make a point of drawing attention to her sex. However, she was quick to speak up in defense of her own rights, as when William Laurence made the mistake of addressing her as "Miss Harcourt" rather than Captain Harcourt.

She also told Laurence and Berkley about an occasion, when she was 16, when she was harassed while attending a concert. She had worn skirts for the occasion, which she was not accustomed to and found a great deal of trouble to arrange when she sat down. So rather than stand up again and hit the fellow who was bothering her, she borrowed a pot of hot coffee from a passing waiter and poured it into his lap.

Besides illustrating Harcourt's character, this incident gives some insight into the sartorial difficulties of female aviators. At the time, it was not merely shocking for women to wear what was perceived to be "male clothing" by the public - it was actually illegal. Female aviators were able to wear trousers and coats only by a special exemption from the laws. On the occasions when they left the coverts, they had to wear long dresses or at least cover their uniforms with long cloaks.

Laurence, when he met Harcourt for the first time, was rather shocked by what he perceived as her "immodest" attire: "breeches that showed every inch of her leg, with a shirt held closed only by a neckcloth" (i.e. exactly what he was wearing himself). He dealt with the situation by addressing "the unalarming top of her head." However, once Temeraire began training with Lily's formation, Laurence rapidly became more used to Harcourt's presence, even addressing her as simply Harcourt in post-practice discussions.

English Channel, 1806

In August 1806, the French Admiral Villeneuve and his fleet were caught at Cadiz and penned there by Admiral Nelson. The Longwing Mortiferus and his formation were sent to Cadiz to assist, while Lily's formation was sent to the Dover covert to take Mortiferus's place in the Channel formation, alongside Excidium's formation. Due to Harcourt's lack of experience, at this time Celeritas gave formal command of the formation to Captain Sutton of Messoria, instructing Sutton to consult with Harcourt as far as possible.

Shortly afterwards, while Lily's formation was on patrol along the Channel, they were ambushed by the French. Lily was badly injured by a Grand Chevalier nearly twice her size. The British formation was able to escape the French only after Captain Jean-Paul Choiseul and Praecursoris, who had gone on ahead of the others, returned to help, apparently because he had only just then caught sight of the battle.

Harcourt was quite distraught over Lily's injuries, and Choiseul took the opportunity to get close to her at this time, bringing food for her to Lily's side and taking it in turns to watch over Lily so that Harcourt would agree to sleep. It turned out that there was more to Choiseul's intentions than simply admiration for a brave and attractive young woman. He had been sent by the French to retrieve the Celestial egg sent to Napoleon by the Chinese, as the French did not yet know that Temeraire had already hatched. When Choiseul learned this, he first considered killing Temeraire, then instead decided to bring Lily to them by seducing Harcourt, taking her hostage and using her to enforce Lily's cooperation.

Choiseul's plan failed because Laurence overheard what was going on and intervened. While Laurence and Choiseul were wrestling on the ground, Harcourt retrieved an iron bar from Lily's equipment and used it to knock out Choiseul with it. Afterwards, she asked Choiseul if he had arranged the ambush in which Lily was injured (so that he could make use of her distraught state), but he would not answer. Choiseul was executed for treason and Praecursoris was sent away to the breeding grounds in Canada.

Harcourt and Lily fought bravely and skillfully during the Battle of Dover. Shortly afterwards, Harcourt was given command of the formation.

The Dragon Plague, 1806-1807

Lily's formation came to the aid of Temeraire and the HMS Allegiance during the Valerie engagement in the north Atlantic Ocean, late 1805 or early 1806. Harcourt first met naval captain Tom Riley on this occasion. However, at the time she was in uniform with her flying hood covering her braid. When Riley invited the other aviators to dinner, Harcourt pled sea sickness so that the naval officers would not have an opportunity to observe her closely. Riley assumed at the time that Harcourt was a man.

Later in the voyage, when he discovered that Emily Roland was a girl, he tried to refute Laurence's explanation that Longwings require female captains by referring to the leader of Laurence's formation with "his" Longwing, i.e., Lily. Temeraire corrected Riley's misassumption.

Lily, Harcourt, and the rest of their formation returned to England from the Valerie engagement on the dragon transport HMS William of Orange, which was bringing a male Dakota dragon from Canada. The Dakota had been assigned to the Canadian breeding grounds in Halifax, but was now being sent to the British breeding grounds in exchange for Praecursoris. The Dakota was later identified as the original carrier of the Dragon Plague from the Americas.

Harcourt was in command during the action that occurred in late 1806 when a French convoy tried to get past the British Channel blockade and make a run for Le Havre. By the end of that year, Lily and all the other dragons of the Aerial Corps were struck by the Dragon Plague, but this news was kept secret from the French, and even from England's European allies.

The Dragon Plague was particularly hard on the female officers of the Corps. A male officer might buy himself a cavalry commission if the Corps were forced to disband, or at least make shift to live on the half-pay given to retired officers. But there simply was no place in the society of the time for a retired female military officer.

Africa, 1807

After Temeraire's return from China, Admiral Jane Roland sent Lily's formation to Cape Town on the Allegiance, hoping to find and identify the herbal medication which had cured Temeraire of the plague.

Laurence initially agreed to act as the liaison officer between the aviators and Riley, out of concern for the latter's social qualms. After the two men quarreled, Harcourt took up the duty, which would normally have been her function as the formation leader.

During the three-month voyage, Harcourt would have been beset by deep anxiety for Lily as well her own uncertain future. Riley was only a few years older than Harcourt, with a similar military rank; compared to her fellow aviators, he had far more social awareness of her as a woman rather than as a fellow officer. Riley later suggested that she was the one who initiated their personal liaison.

By the time the the aviators disembarked from the Allegiance at Cape Town, Harcourt was pregnant, with frequent bouts of nausea. When asked by Berkley, Harcourt freely told her fellow aviators that Riley was the father, but Laurence was the only one of them who thought that perhaps Riley should be informed.

She continued to act as formation leader and forbade any "fuss" over her condition, for example by attempting to dissuade her from expeditions into the continental interior. On the advice of Keynes and the other dragon surgeons, she decided which dragons would first receive the still scant supplies of the curative mushroom. Harcourt was determined to make such decisions fairly and reasonably, even though it meant that her own Lily would be the last one to receive the cure.

Before Laurence could tell Riley of Harcourt's pregnancy, the Tswana dragon Kefentse captured Laurence and Harcourt as part of a mushroom-hunting expedition, and brought them as captives to Mosi-oa-Tunya.

Temeraire, Lily and Dulcia rescued the party, which also included Dulcia's captain Chenery. Harcourt had begun to show enough to let out her breeches and thoroughly repented her (non-)contraceptive carelessness. One of Lily's first questions after the rescue was to ask her if "the egg" was all right, to which Harcourt replied, "Hang the egg." She was considerably happier about being rejoined with Lily.

The three dragons with their captains and crews arrived in Cape Town just in time to cover the evacuation of the European residents onto the Allegiance, where Riley quickly realized his impending paternity. Determined not to be "an outrageous scrub", he asked Harcourt to marry him, implicitly expecing her to resign from the Corps and abandon Lily.

Harcourt refused. As aviators were already outside society, she had no need to marry for respectability's sake, and any child of hers would likely find a place in the Aerial Corps, especially a daughter who could inherit Lily. Her fellow aviators regarded Riley's persistence as quixotic at best and harassing at worst, with Chenery muttering ominously about "working on" the naval captain.

Laurence explained to Harcourt that Riley's father's estates were entailed (could not be inherited by a woman), and that Riley's older brother only had daughters; thus, if Harcourt gave birth to a son, the boy could eventually inherit everything.

Riley finally accepted that Lily could not be spared from the Corps (which was true enough) and that "no one else can be found to take the beast on" (a misapprehension which Laurence did not attempt to correct). On this basis, Harcourt agreed to the marriage, on the further condition that if the child were a girl, she would be given the Harcourt name. Indeed, Harcourt rather expected that in that case, Riley would divorce her as having no further need for her or the child.

The marriage ceremony itself illustrated the gulf of understanding between Harcourt and Riley. It did not occur to Harcourt to obtain a dress, it did not occur to Riley that she would not do so, and when the minister asked for objections, Lily attempted to suggest some.

Britain, 1807-1808

By the time the Allegiance reached Britain, Harcourt was still throwing up regularly. Admiral Roland, who had her own experience of motherhood, noted that Harcourt had not gained nearly enough weight and promised to connect her with the midwife Roland had used herself.

The child was born in November 1807. The birth was a difficult one, particularly as the baby was, at ten pounds, fairly large for a human infant. To Harcourt's and Lily's disappointment, it was a boy - in Lily's view, an extremely smelly and noisy boy. Furthermore, Lily was annoyed that Riley then refused to give Harcourt a divorce. Jane Roland had once commented to Laurence, early in their acquaintance, that while marriage is not held against aviators at all in the Corps, "It is only that it is rather hard on the other person, always taking second place to a dragon."

John Granby commented to Laurence that Harcourt's reaction to the child was rather draconic, in being not conventionally maternal by human social standards. A bit more than a month after the birth, Napoleon's troops invaded Britain. Harcourt and Lily left the child with Riley and a wet nurse to rejoin their formation on active duty, even though Harcourt was still somewhat frail at the time. She told Laurence that the Aerial Corps could not spare her and Lily.

After the Battle of Shoeburyness in March 1808, Laurence's death sentence for treason was commuted to transportation and labour in order to stop Temeraire from organizing the other British dragons to obtain more rights. The Allegiance was fitted out as a prison ship to transport Laurence and Temeraire - along with many, many other less notable convicts - to Australia under Riley's command.

Harcourt thought that perhaps the boy ought to be sent with his father for the voyage. Laurence attempted to dissuade her, and Riley finally boarded the Allegiance "late, and grim, and alone" just before departure in April 1808. Approximately one year later, Riley glumly commented to Laurence in Sydney, "I suppose he will be talking by now if he hasn't been dropped from dragon-back mid-air," indicating that the boy had been left with Harcourt after all.

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