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Posts Tagged ‘history’

06 MARCH, 2014

Wondrous Beauty: How Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte Pioneered the Ideal of the Independent Woman


How an American who married into the most powerful family in Europe became a model of empowered womanhood in the nineteenth century.

Nineteen-year-old naval officer Jerome Bonaparte was on the run. During a minor skirmish in the Caribbean, he had fired a warning shot over a British ship but accidentally hit the rigging. To avoid an international incident, he had to lay low for a few months. Under a pseudonym, he made his way to America, where a friend said that if Jerome liked women, the most beautiful women lived in Baltimore.

But this is not simply the story of a beautiful woman, explains historian Carol Berkin in Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (public library) — this is the story of Elizabeth Patterson, a Baltimore belle who turned three years of marriage to the youngest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte into an extraordinary life of independence that would characterize the new American woman of the nineteenth century. For one thing, it was highly unusual at the time for a woman to leave her father’s house, let alone travel to Europe alone several times over the course of her life. Berkin writes:

What prompted her to cross the Atlantic Ocean was the promise of opportunities an American woman could not hope to enjoy if she remained in her native land: intellectual freedom, the chance to establish an individual identity, and the right to exist not as a bundle of female duties or behaviors, but as a unique person.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte in 1804, the year she married Jerome Bonaparte. A year later, he left to visit his brother and never returned. Triple portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1804. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It is unknown where Jerome and Betsy met — some say a ball or a social call — but the intensity of their affair was rooted in the baser instincts of two teenagers. Betsy was seventeen, ambitious, and eager to leave Baltimore. Jerome was flirtatious, flighty, charming, and desired the most beautiful possessions. An unknown admirer of Betsy would later describe her:

She possessed the pure Grecian contour; her head was exquisitely formed, her forehead fair and shapely, her eyes large and dark, with an expression of tenderness that did not belong to her character; and the delicate loveliness of her mouth and chin, the soft bloom of her complexion, together with her beautifully rounded shoulders and tapering arms, combined to form one of the loveliest of women.

While Betsy may have appealed to Jerome as a delicious American bon-bon, Jerome for Betsy was a way out of a dreary American marriage. “I would rather be the wife of Jerome Bonaparte for an hour than the wife of any other man for a lifetime.”

Portrait of Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard

The American Revolution had hardly been a revolution for women. The United States that Betsy was born into remained a conservative place for its daughters, housed by fathers who expected obedience. If America was a new country of self-sufficiency, it was for men alone, tended to by their wives. (While Benjamin Franklin turned an apprenticeship into a business, and a business into a political career, he wrote often to his younger sister Jane, who apologized for her erratically spelled letters — she had not been taught any better. Only one Franklin had the opportunity to transform his American life.)

Betsy’s father, William Patterson, was part of the generation of American merchants who bet their capital on independence and won. During the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the nineteenth century, America still may not have been able to define who it was on the world stage, but instead the country was able to define itself by what it was not: the aristocratic “Old World” of Europe.

Elizabeth Patterson’s wedding dress when she married Jerome Bonaparte in 1804. The dress was the height of European fashion, but Americans called her 'an almost naked woman.' (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The marriage was an international incident, a suggestion that America and France might be allied. Betsy and Jerome instantly became the most famous couple in America, and their news began to spread. As the pair began their honeymoon in Washington D.C., tended to by Dolly Madison, Napoleon first heard of his brother’s elopement and immediately declared it null and void. The emperor had passed a law requiring anyone under the age of twenty-five to have parental consent to marry, and he declared the pair “no more man and wife than any other couple of lovers who united themselves in a garden, pledging their vows at the altar of love, in the presence of a witnessing moon and stars.”

It was a lovely scene, but legally invalid. Napoleon had built his empire by installing his brothers and sisters in the courts of the newly-conquered: His older brother Joseph was made King of Naples and Sicily, his brother Louis the king of Holland. Only brother Lucien would stand firm, marrying his housekeeper’s sister rather than a Bourbon Spanish Princess. “When we marry we are to consult our own happiness and not that of another,” he wrote. “It matters not who else is or is not to be displeased.”

Jerome was far more easily swayed, especially when threatened with disinheritance. As the newlyweds embarked in Lisbon to meet the family, Jerome would travel ahead to meet his brother. Betsy would not see him again for at least thirty years. She gave birth to their child, Jerome “Bo” Bonaparte, and after waiting a year for news, heard that Jerome was to be made King of Westphalia and married to a local princess.

Marriage of Prince Je?ro?me Bonaparte and the Princess Fre?de?rique Catherine of Württemberg, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1810.

In spirit, Betsy was far more like Benjamin Franklin than his his sister, using a marriage and a misadventure to propel her into the world she desired, rather than sink back into a life that was expected. Now the mother of a Bonaparte, she petitioned Napoleon for a pension: “Tell him that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family.”

Divorced from Jerome, Betsy vowed never to marry again. Over the next five years she would negotiate with Napoleon’s ambassadors about a place for her son in the succession as well as a monthly pension. In 1810, she received the second request, but not the first. Recognition would become one of the furious goals of her life. One of the most famous and beautiful women in America would not remarry and she would not deny her name.

Daguerreotype of Jerome 'Bo' Bonaparte, son of Betsy and Jerome, nephew of Napoleon. The exiled Bonapartes were curious about this American relative who resembled his uncle.

The American attitude towards single women at the turn of the nineteenth century was hardly forgiving, but the woman who could live independently was now at least the subject of debate. A young Massachusetts woman wrote to her cousin in 1800:

I do not esteem marriage absolutely essential to happiness, and that it always does not bring happiness we must every day witness in our acquaintances.

Betsy recognized what could be achieved outside of marriage. She would invest her small pension in stocks and real estate, forgoing a household, and spending the interest on her son’s education, first in Geneva, and then at Harvard. She would live for long stretches in London, Paris, and Switzerland among women that she admired as peers, such as Madame de Stael.

The European woman, Betsy found, was assessed for her conversation, her charm, and her wit. (Qualities Voltaire prized in the Marquise du Châtelet, along with her mathematical genius.) The American woman, Betsy amended, was only prized for her obedience. She would remain herself among these women, a beautiful and essential member of society into her fifties and sixties. It broke Betsy’s heart when her son, and later her two grandsons, married Americans. She had raised them to love European women, whom she found superior in education. The American women they chose, she felt, as pocketbooks. It was an affront to her very existence.

Betsy Bonaparte around age thirty-two in 1817, by François Kinsoen, formerly the court painter for her former husband Jerome, King of Westphalia.

Gradually independent women like Betsy would become more visible in the nineteenth century: astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer Margaret Fuller, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, the women who fought as men during the Civil War. Betsy Bonaparte would live for 94 years between two worlds that didn’t quite know what to make of her equal talents for American commerce and European civility. At her death in 1879, she had grown her small pension from Napoleon into $10 million in today’s currency.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was a self-made American who refused to dim her love for the old world. Wondrous Beauty is the story of a woman who entered the nineteenth century far before her time — it was America that would have to catch up.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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03 MARCH, 2014

An Illustrated Field Guide to Mythic Monsters, from Gremlins to Zombies to the Kraken


A vibrant dance across the global spectrum of the popular imagination.

“Legendary lands … have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief,” Umberto Eco wrote in his illustrated meditation on imaginary places. But as much as fictional lands might hold enduring allure, what captivates our shared imagination even more are the fictional and mythic creatures of our cultural folklore, both ancient and modern. That’s precisely what writer Davide Cali and illustrator Gabriela Giandelli explore in Monsters and Legends (public library) — a vibrant and whimsical volume from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, which also gave us the illustrated chronicle of Shackleton’s historic expedition. From mermaids and unicorns to Cyclops and giant squid to vampires and zombies, Giandelli’s breathtaking illustrations and Cali’s illuminating stories about the origin of each mythic creature bring to life the beings that haunt our collective conscience, as well as those we secretly fear — or hope — exist in some mystical corner of what we concede is reality.

The Mapiguari

In South America, we meet the stinky Mapiguari, a giant nocturnal animal with long arms and claws, the skin of a reptile, and bright red hair, believed to roam the Amazon jungle. Legend has it, the creature avoids water, which might account for its smell. Some locals and other believers think it’s a giant sloth — a species that disappeared more than 10,000 years ago. Skeptics, meanwhile, consider it the mistaken mashup of a regular sloth and an armadillo, which terrified nighttime travelers in the jungle somehow remixed in their frightful imagination.

The Dragon

But one of the most common species-mashups is the dragon, a mythic being that appears in various incarnations in many cultures, with powers ranging from the destructive to the divine.

In every culture, there is a creature resembling a Dragon. It often appears as a symbol of life and power, a creative or protective spirit closer to a god than an actual animal. That’s certainly true in the case of Huang Long in Chinese mythology, or Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs’ feathered serpent.

Commonly depicted with a snake’s body, lizard’s legs, eagle’s talons, crocodile’s jaws, lion’s teeth and bat-like wings, the Dragon is a combination of several different animals. Among the Dragon’s many portrayals is the Hydra of Greek mythology — a vicious sea monster with seven heads. Two of the most famous Hydras are the Lernaean Hydra, which was killed by Hercules, and Scylla, which was rumored to live in the depths of the strait in Messina.


In Africa, we find a legendary 20-foot-long Nile Crocodile that haunted Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, for years. Named Gustave by the locals and alleged to have eaten at least 300 people, the giant croc lived for sixty years and survived countless capture attempts, until hunters managed to slay him in 2005. Once measured, Gustave turned out to be just a regular Nile Crocodile, 13 feet long — not that unusual for a species that can grow up to 16 feet in length.

In the same region, the dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe awaits us:

The Mokele-Mbembe

800 kilometers north of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, is a vast, swampy area where rumors tell of a frightening creature — the Mokele-mbembe. Described for the first time by a French missionary in the 18th century, he claimed the Mokele-mbembe was as big as an elephant, with a small snake-like head, a 2 to 3 meter long neck, hippopotamus feet and a crocodile tail.

The description sounds remarkably similar to the Sauropods, a group of animals that disappeared 65.5 million years ago! From 1913 onwards, expeditions set out in search of the Mokele-mbembe. But they returned with little more than a few pictures and some vague footage. According to some theories the Mokele-mbembe might be an unknown species of monitor lizard.

Others say it’s a softshell turtle whose long neck, small head and aggressive attitude match the description of the monster. The softshell turtle isn’t as big as the legendary Mokele-mbembe but skeptics still argue that it is possible that Pygmies, terrified of an animal that they didn’t know, got the measurements wrong. They claim that this situation is far more likely to be the case than that a dinosaur is living quietly in Africa without anybody ever having taken its picture.

Then comes a mythic creature that has enjoyed a resurgence as a visual meme of the social-web era:

The Kraken

The Kraken is a gigantic legendary sea monster. Its name comes from the Norwegian word krake, meaning “a twisted or crooked animal.” The origin of the Kraken myth goes back to the 13th century, but it’s not until the 18th and 19th centuries that sailor stories about the Kraken really start multiplying! Stories were told of ships being attacked and destroyed by a creature with tentacles over a kilometer long. Carl Linnaeus … mentioned the Kraken in his first book in 1735, under the scientific name of Microcosmus marinus, but it doesn’t appear in his following books, as he couldn’t prove its existence.

Roald Dahl's Gremlins

One of the most charming entries highlights a tiny mischievous creature from Irish folklore, the Gremlin, brought back into the popular imagination by beloved children’s book author Roald Dahl. In 1942, long before he made a name for himself with this children’s stories, Dahl was a pilot in the Royal Air Force, flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber. A mechanical malfunction on one of his flights resulted in a forced landing, after which Dahl took it upon himself to inform the unsuspecting public that Gremlins had been terrorizing the Royal Air Force for months — pilots had created their own folklore, blaming the legendary creatures for the high rate of breakdowns. The myth, of course, was just a sandbox for Dahl’s imagination as a storyteller — the following year, he published The Gremlins, his first children’s book.

The Chupacabra

As we move closer to the present day, we meet the Chupacabra, a creature that preys on chickens and goats, named after the Spanish for “goat sucker.” Witness accounts from Latin America and Florida describe it as a hairless kangaroo with the head of a dog, which acts like a vampire coyote that sucks its prey dry of blood. Some suspect it was the progeny of genetic experiments, while others abandon all attempts at plausibility and say it came from outer space. The Chupacabra is also believed to possess several paranormal superpowers, such as the ability to change color and hypnotize its prey via telepathy.

Mythic as this sounds, certain species of real animals have recently been found to employ a kind of “mind control” over their prey — perhaps proof that all myth, including religion, for that matter, is a tapestry woven of our greatest immaterial fears and hopes, with a few threats of material reality.

Indeed, Cali takes care to balance the mythology with a healthy dose of myth-busting that would make Carl Sagan proud. Each myth is followed by a “What We Know” section that grounds us with reality-based evidence:

The videos of the Chupacabra, often blurry and hard to follow, and the pictures, usually faked, don’t help much with identifying the creature. But if you trust the descriptions, the Chupacabra looks a lot like a rare species of Mexican hairless dog called Xoloitzcuintle.

DNA tests on dead specimens have proven that it is an ordinary dog with nothing extraterrestrial about it at all.

And of course no taxonomy of modern folklore would be complete without everyone’s favorite pop culture meme:

The Zombie

Zombies, or Walking Dead, [are] regular actors in horror movies… But Zombie stories, like Werewolf stories or Vampire stories, have their roots in reality. Well, almost… In Haiti people practice a religion called Voodoo that holds magic and superstition in high regard. It is thought that a Bokor — a Voodoo sorcerer — can steal someone’s soul, wake him or her from the death and turn them into a slave — a Zombie.

Cali once again contrasts the myth with the empirical evidence:

A study conducted in the 1980s found that the Bokor probably controlled people using a neurotoxin created from the poison of the fugu, a type of pufferfish. The neurotoxin causes a state of apparent death and the supposed complete obedience of the “exhumed corpse.” In reality, Zombies are just drugged slaves forced to work in sugar plantations. Obedient workers that never go on strike!

Monsters and Legends is bound to tickle the imagination and poke a friendly stick at superstition, all while enchanting us with irresistibly gorgeous illustrations. For a different octave of the siren song of the mythic, complement it with Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands and Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most bizarre and beautiful encyclopedia of the imaginary.

Images courtesy of Flying Eye Books

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26 FEBRUARY, 2014

Shackleton’s Journey: A Lovely Illustrated Chronicle of History’s Most Heroic Polar Expedition


“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

From the funding and recruitment of the famed expedition, to the pioneering engineering of the Endurance ship, to the taxonomy of crew members, dogs, and supplies, Grill traces Shackleton’s tumultuous journey from the moment the crew set sail to their misfortune-induced change of plans and soul-wrenching isolation “500 miles away from the nearest civilization” to their eventual escape from their icy prison and salvation ashore Elephant Island.

As a lover of dogs and visual lists, especially illustrated lists and dog-themed illustrations, I was especially taken with Grill’s visual inventories of equipment and dogs:

Despite the gargantuan challenges and life-threatening curveballs, Shackleton’s expedition drew to a heroic close without the loss of a single life. It is a story of unrelenting ambition to change the course of history, unflinching courage in the face of formidable setbacks, and above all optimism against all odds — the same optimism that emanates with incredible warmth from Grill’s tender illustrations.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

Shackleton’s Journey is an absolute treasure. Complement it with Rachel Sussman’s journey in Shackleton’s footsteps.

Images courtesy of Nobrow

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