Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic by Charlene M. Boyer Lewis (review)
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Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Jerome Bonaparte, Women's roles, Early American republic

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic. By Charlene M. Boyer Lewis. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. 280. Cloth, $34.95.)

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was utterly extraordinary, and the people around her knew it. Although she came of age in a republic that lauded [End Page 373] dutiful daughters and virtuous wives, she transcended the constraints of conventional domesticity by defying her father to marry Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's dashing and somewhat unruly youngest brother. The daughter of a Baltimore merchant, she was a consummate pleasure-seeker, a great beauty who wore the latest (and most revealing) Paris fashions and who ambitiously pursued celebrity both in Europe and in America. Later, as a divorcée, she lived abroad for two decades, unsuccessfully seeking a royal match for her only son. She disliked republicanism because, she believed, it relegated women to the margins of public life. She preferred the company of elegant European aristocrats to that of insipid Americans, but she won the admiration and friendship of socialites, intellectuals, and statesmen on two continents.

At the same time, she was notably unsuccessful in her most intimate personal relationships. Charlene Boyer Lewis refers to her subject as "Elizabeth" because she despised her father and her brothers in Baltimore, as well as her husband, who, under pressure from Napoleon, abandoned her in England shortly before their son was born in 1805. French courts annulled the marriage, and Jerome became king of Westphalia and married a German princess. Elizabeth got a divorce from the Maryland legislature. She never remarried, embracing the independence that divorce (and Napoleon's pension) afforded. Between 1815 and 1834, she lived with her son in Europe, where she relished the social life and the company of learned women. She spent most of the rest of her life in Baltimore, where she died in 1879.

Although it might be tempting to dismiss Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte as a curiosity—a gorgeous woman in a tiara and a see-through Paris gown—Charlene Boyer Lewis persuasively argues for her significance in this thoughtful and engaging book. As someone who was neither a republican mother nor a female politician, or even a stylish political hostess like her friend Dolley Madison, Elizabeth provides an alternate model of how women could be political before suffrage. Like her more conventional countrywomen, she benefited from improvements in the education and status of elite and middling females, but her reading and experiences led her—like some other American women who left for Europe—along a sharply different path from most of her contemporaries. Her choices and people's reactions to them, Boyer Lewis maintains, "illustrate how much gender roles were in transition" (3) in the early American republic. Her protagonist is worth rediscovering, both for her remarkable personal story and for the perspective it offers on the continuing debates over [End Page 374] gender, aristocracy, and trans-Atlantic culture in post-Revolutionary America.

This book is not a conventional biography. Boyer Lewis focuses primarily on the period between Elizabeth's first encounter with Jerome in 1803 and her last trip to Europe in the 1860s, when her ex-husband's nephew ruled France as its second emperor. There are five chapters, each of which explores a role Elizabeth played: celebrity, aristocrat, independent woman, femme d'esprit (a woman of intelligence and wit, a salonnière), and family member (daughter and mother). This format causes some repetition—each chapter, for example, considers fashion and its uses—but it also facilitates the sort of deep analysis that is rare in traditional biographies.

The interplay between gender and celebrity is at the heart of that analysis. Boyer Lewis observes that men acquired celebrity via military or political service (one might add religious leadership), while female celebrities were known chiefly for their "beauty, fashionable clothing, special talents, or bold manners" (22) or, more typically in the early American republic, as the wives of famous men. By contrast, because Elizabeth concluded that aristocracy—with its emphasis on sociability, fashion, and wit—offered elite women more than a republic that idealized male...