Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic

Synopsis

Two centuries ago, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was one of the most famous women in America. Beautiful, scandalous, and outspoken, she had wed Napoleon's brother Jerome, borne his child, and seen the marriage annulled by the emperor himself. With her notorious behavior, dashing husband, and associations with European royalty, Elizabeth became one of America's first celebrities during a crucial moment in the nation's history. At the time of Elizabeth's fame, the United States had only recently gained its independence, and the character of American society and politics was not yet fully formed. Still concerned that their republican experiment might fail and that their society might become too much like that of monarchical Europe, many Americans feared the corrupting influence of European manners and ideas. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte's imperial connections and aristocratic aspirations made her a central figure in these debates, with many, including members of Congress and the social elites of the day, regarding her as a threat.

Appraising Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte's many identities--celebrity, aristocrat, independent woman, mother--Charlene M. Boyer Lewis shows how Madame Bonaparte, as she was known, exercised extraordinary social power at the center of the changing transatlantic world. In spite of the assumed threat that she posed to the new social and political order, Americans could not help being captivated by Elizabeth's style, beauty, and wit. She offered an alternative to the republican wife by pursuing a life of aristocratic dreams in the United States and Europe. Her story reminds us of the fragility of the American experiment in its infancy and, equally important, of the active role of women in the debates over society and culture in the early republic.

Excerpt

Early in 1867, at the age of eighty- two, something drove Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte to pull out her large cache of letters and clippings and read through them again. One can easily picture her: dressed in outmoded Parisian finery, carefully opening the fragile documents with their faded ink, and peering closely at the words and images that surely conjured up memories of more brilliant scenes and glittering occasions. Intriguingly, while she reviewed her life, she also rewrote it. Though she could not change the past, as she probably longed to do, she could analyze, explain, and comment on it; indeed, Elizabeth became the first historian of her life. As she had done in recent years, she added copious comments in the margins of letters, newspaper clippings, and even published works. Like any good historian, she provided biographical details on some of her correspondents and inserted approximate dates for some of the undated letters. But she devoted much of her time to assessing the character and motivations of many of the people who had written to her or were mentioned in her papers. Her goal seems to have been to understand better and to explain how her life had unfolded as it had. She hoped to correct the historical record, at least in her personal archives, by documenting her view of her own life story, filling in the gaps with her own explanations and reasonings. If posterity ever read her saved papers, she wanted no misunderstandings about how she had been treated by the world or why she had made the choices she did.

But, by this point in her life, Elizabeth was an embittered, lonely woman with dashed dreams— and her comments show that clearly. the past haunted her. “Ah! the irrevocable past! the present stagnation & the inexorable future,” she penned in the margins of one account book; “ah! Could I only shake . . .

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