- Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic by Charlene M. Boyer Lewis
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1785-1879) is the kind of juicy historical character biographers long to discover and readers delight to encounter. For scholars, she is well sourced, with ample documentation to, from, and about her. For readers, the rich, beautiful, elite, spirited Elizabeth seems almost more historical fiction than fact. She is also possessed of a personality and wit that anyone could appreciate. Who can resist someone who, as an ardent critic of the new United States and the republican experiment, characterizes her fellow citizens as the "low names & lower natures [that] make up [the] motley race of this Bastard republic" (223)?
The problem with such an irresistible character is that her chronicler runs the risk of rendering her as just that—a character. It would be easy to fall into the story of well-born Baltimore native "Betsy" Patterson, who is swept off her feet by Napoleon's brother Jerome (the future king of Westphalia), marrying him only a few months later, on Christmas Eve 1803. The whirlwind courtship, the dazzling marriage, Jerome's eventual abandonment of his bride and young son, and Elizabeth's subsequent transcontinental life captured the imagination of her contemporaries, making her one of the most famous women in the United States and Europe. Any writer might be excused for presenting her fascinating life merely as a narrative.
Fortunately, in the beautifully written Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic, Charlene M. Boyer Lewis not only avoids the narrative trap but uses Elizabeth's admittedly exceptional life to forward our knowledge of women's history and the culture [End Page 225] of the early nineteenth-century United States. To begin, Boyer Lewis performs the first and still primary mission of women's history by restoring Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte's life and voice to the record. For someone as famous as Elizabeth was during her long life, it is surprising to realize that, until Boyer Lewis, she has merited almost no scholarly attention and none of it modern. When she is mentioned in recent literature, often old misunderstandings and prejudices persist, with one scholar, as late as 1993, identifying this gentry woman and legal wife of Jerome Bonaparte as "a prostitute" (88).
While performing this act of recovery, Boyer Lewis presents a model for future scholars with an interest in women's lives. Hers is not a traditional "life and times," which for women's biographies often becomes a "wife and times," focusing on the traditional roles of daughter-mother-wife. While Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte is roughly chronological, Boyer Lewis structures her five chapters around themes or analytic lenses. Through these lenses—"The Celebrity," "The Aristocrat," "The Independent Woman," "The Femme d'Esprit," and "The Mother and Daughter"—Boyer Lewis offers and extends several historiographic conversations. (As the theme of the last chapter indicates, Boyer Lewis does not ignore female roles, but she does incorporate them into her larger analytic approach to Elizabeth's life. In this case, she discusses Elizabeth as an adult daughter and mother to an adult child.)
In her first chapter, Boyer Lewis reconceptualizes female existence in the early Republic. The "celebrity" is as good a way as any for understanding Elizabeth's renown on both sides of the Atlantic. The author differentiates "celebrity" from "fame," which came from public service, usually from military or political achievements. Aside from the occasional exception, such as a postinvasion Dolley Madison, women tended not to be famous. A woman could, however, become a celebrity, the crucial element being, in Boyer Lewis's definition, the capacity to attract public attention, to be popular. For example, special talents in arts and writing, a prominent marriage, or an attractive appearance could garner celebrity.
Elizabeth gained celebrity through her marriage to the brother of the ruler of France and the birth of a potentially royal son. While the marriage was short-lived, Elizabeth extended her celebrity through her own manners and family connections and...