The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte
By Carol Berkin
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307592781, 256pp.)
Publication Date: February 11, 2014
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From the award-winning historian and author of Revolutionary Mothers (“Incisive, thoughtful, spiced with vivid anecdotes. Don’t miss it.”—Thomas Fleming) and Civil War Wives (“Utterly fresh . . . Sensitive, poignant, thoroughly fascinating.”—Jay Winik), here is the remarkable life of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, renowned as the most beautiful woman of nineteenth-century Baltimore, whose marriage in 1803 to Jérôme Bonaparte, the youngest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, became inextricably bound to the diplomatic and political histories of the United States, France, and England.
In Wondrous Beauty, Carol Berkin tells the story of this audacious, outsized life. We see how the news of the union infuriated Napoleon and resulted in his banning the then pregnant Betsy Bonaparte from disembarking in any European port, offering his brother the threat of remaining married to that “American girl” and forfeiting all wealth and power—or renouncing her, marrying a woman of Napoleon’s choice, and reaping the benefits.
Jérôme ended the marriage posthaste and was made king of Westphalia; Betsy fled to England, gave birth to her son and only child, Jérôme’s namesake, and was embraced by the English press, who boasted that their nation had opened its arms to the cruelly abandoned young wife.
Berkin writes that this naïve, headstrong American girl returned to Baltimore a wiser, independent woman, refusing to seek social redemption or a return to obscurity through a quiet marriage to a member of Baltimore’s merchant class. Instead she was courted by many, indifferent to all, and initiated a dangerous game of politics—a battle for a pension from Napoleon—which she won: her pension from the French government arrived each month until Napoleon’s exile.
Using Betsy Bonaparte’s extensive letters, the author makes clear that the “belle of Baltimore” disdained America’s obsession with moneymaking, its growing ethos of democracy, and its rigid gender roles that confined women to the parlor and the nursery; that she sought instead a European society where women created salons devoted to intellectual life—where she was embraced by many who took into their confidence, such as Madame de Staël, Madame Récamier, the aging Marquise de Villette (goddaughter of Voltaire), among others—and where aristocracy, based on birth and breeding rather than commerce, dominated society.
Wondrous Beauty is a riveting portrait of a woman torn between two worlds, unable to find peace in either—one a provincial, convention-bound new America; the other a sophisticated, extravagant Old World Europe that embraced freedoms, a Europe ultimately swallowed up by decadence and idleness.
A stunning revelation of an extraordinary age.
Carol Berkin received her A.B. from Barnard College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. She taught at Baruch College from 1972 to 2008 and has taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York since 1983. She is currently Baruch Presidential Professor of History. Berkin is the author of Civil War Wives, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Loyalist, and First Generations: Women in Colonial America, and numerous articles and reviews. She lives in New York City and Guilford, Connecticut.
Praise for Carol Berkin’s
“Assured and compelling…Wondrous Beauty is a fascinating and perceptive account of love and scandal.”
-William Dietrich, New York Journal of Books
“An extraordinary story…Berkin has researched the primary sources diligently and quotes judiciously throughout.”
-Sara Wheeler, The New York Times Book Review
“With an easy, empathetic style, Berkin (Revolutionary Mothers) follows Betsy from her frivolous youth in post-colonial Baltimore through her devolution from a sparkling ingénue to a popular and witty European party guest into lonely spinsterhood, eschewing romantic love or compassion as she continued to sue her erstwhile in-laws decades after her brief marriage ended.”
“Berkin renders a fascinating portrait of a determined woman who defied convention.”
“Betsy Bonaparte, the beguiling belle of early Washington, disappears from most histories after she takes the fledgling capitol by storm. Carol Berkin tells us the rest of the surprising and fascinating story of the American girl whose rejection both by her Baltimore merchant father and by the European royalty she married into caused Betsy Bonaparte to become one of the few ‘self made women’ of the 19th Century. “
-Cokie Roberts, author of Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty
“Carol Berkin’s Wondrous Beauty reads like a fascinating novel, with a heroine whose intriguing life and trans-Atlantic travels practically defy belief. Betsy Bonaparte emerges as a complex, charming, and brilliant woman, courageous enough to defy her brother-in-law—the French emperor—astute enough to increase the value of her Maryland estate to more than one million dollars, and determined enough to sue the state in the Supreme Court. Berkin provides her trademark combination of meticulous research, original ideas, and elegant prose.
-Douglas R. Egerton, author of The Wars of Reconstruction
“A meticulously researched, accessible and fascinating account of a young, headstrong but naive beauty who led an extraordinary life first as a young bride, then an abandoned wife, a mother and finally a fiercely independent, entrepreneurial nineteenth century woman. Berkin brilliantly combines storytelling and scholarship, anecdotes and insights in this vividly written biography.”
-Barbara Winslow, author of Shirley Chisholm and Sylvia Pankhurst
“A wonderful story of a woman who managed to achieve independence and leave her mark on a world not quite ready for her.”