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.
By Michelle Legro
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published March 6, 2014