Considering how much we know women were tethered to their husbands, children, and homes in centuries past, it is exhilarating to watch Felicity Jones' Amelia Wren soar above it all in The Aeronauts (in theatres this week, on Amazon December 20). What an inspiration she must have been, piloting hot air balloons through English skies the 1860s!
Except Amelia Wren was never, sadly, a real person. Already we've heard some grumpy old men grouse about Hollywood being overly politically correct by writing a woman into the movie to replace the real-life balloon pilot Henry Tracey Coxwell — who did fly a balloon to insane heights so that his passenger, scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), could test his theories about weather.
Why Henry Tracey Coxwell Became Amelia Wren
Sorry, Henry old chap, but director Tom Harper realizes how tired we are of watching all-male, all-white casts.
The Other Real People Amelia Wren Is Based On
They did not, however, have to invent Amelia Wren out of completely thin air. She's mostly inspired by some real women who flew balloons decades before Glaisher and Coxwell's fateful flight.
"The woman I play is inspired by Sophie Blanchard, who was a French aeronaut in the 18th century," Jones told USA Today in the same interview. "She was the first woman to fly solo and fly at night and she used to set off fireworks from her balloon. So I very much had her in my mind as I was making it."
Hot air balloons became quite the rage in the 1780s, after their invention by French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier. According to Atlas Obscura, the first woman to fly in an untethered balloon was a widowed opera singer named Elisabeth Thible, who replaced a count who'd chickened out on his flight at the last minute in Lyon in 1784. In 1785, English actress Letitia Sage accompanied scholar George Biggin on a flight through London. They were supposed to be flown by Italian balloonist Vincent Lunardi, but the balloon wouldn't rise with three passengers, so he stepped off, leaving the inexperienced duo on their own. When Sage bent down out of sight at one point to tie part of the gate that had been left open, dirty-minded onlookers decided she was doing something else for Biggin.
Back in France, Andre-Jacques Garnerin began making it a habit of taking women into the air. His wife and student, Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin, was actually the first woman to make a solo ascent (sorry, Sophie) in 1798, and she also was the first to jump with a parachute. Their niece Elisa later joined their acrobatic air shows.
Jean-Pierre Blanchard made his name as one of the first men to cross the English channel in a balloon (in 1785) and the first to fly a balloon in the United States (in 1793). He liked to make spectacles of his flights, launching fireworks from his balloons and dropping dogs wearing parachutes (as Amelia does in Aeronauts) to please the crowds. He invited his second wife Sophie onto his balloon in 1804 as a publicity stunt. Though she was a very timid person on the ground, she fell in love with flying immediately and piloted her first solo flight just a year later. When Jean-Pierre suffered a heart attack in the air and fell to his death in 1809, she kept on with their career.
Blanchard pushed a lot of boundaries during her career, flying at night, flying to such altitudes she passed out or almost froze, flying in a tiny boat-like basket whose sides barely reached her knees. Clearly this woman had zero fear of heights. Napoleon Bonaparte named her the Aeronaut of the Official Festivals, for which her duties seemed to be pulling off commemorative stunts for his wedding and the birth of his son. She even stayed on as Official Aeronaut of the Restoration when the monarchy took back the country.
Blanchard's lack of fear did eventually mean her demise. She set up an elaborate fireworks display for a flight from Tivoli Gardens in Paris in 1819. Shortly after she lit them, something went wrong and her balloon caught fire. Her basket landed on a nearby rooftop and tipped, tossing her to the ground and her death.
Fictional Amelia Wren made her flight more than 40 years after that horrific accident, and for a more noble purpose than entertainment of the masses (hi, Weather Channel!). Still, it's good to know her bravery and sheer love of adventure wasn't some Hollywood invention, but a spirit embodied by many women who wouldn't keep their heads out of the clouds.