Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
Before reading this biography of Betsy Patterson Bonaparte I didn’t realize Napoleon Bonaparte had a Baltimore connection, but it’s a fascinating story, well told in here, that encompasses both European and early American history and culture. Betsy met Napoleon’s younger brother Jérôme in 1803 while he was in Maryland avoiding military service and the two teenagers fell in love and married within that year, against the wishes of their families and governments.
Betsy’s strict controlling father did not trust the aristocratically unemployed foreigner, but Betsy was eager to escape the limiting and prosaic social strictures she felt awaited her if she was forced into a more conventional match. Because Betsy and Jérôme were courting during the unsettled period while Americans debated whether to choose sides or remain neutral in the conflict between France and Britain their romance became a political event monitored closely on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the early days of their marriage Betsy and Jérôme enjoyed mingling with the major political players of Washington, where Betsy scandalized party goers with her risqué French fashions, but their happy days did not last long. Napoleon wanted to further his empire building ambitions by arranging a royal marriage for Jérôme, so when the young couple arrived in Europe Napoleon declared their marriage annulled. Unable to stand up to his older brother Jérôme abandoned Betsy, then pregnant with their child, and married the highly titled but much less scintillating Princess Catherine Fredericka Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg to become the king of Westphalia.
Betsy still managed to live a fascinating and intellectually rich life, spending as much time as possible in the great cities and salons of Europe where she was welcomed by luminaries that included Madame de Staël, Madame Récamier, and the goddaughter of Voltaire Marquise de Villette. She taught herself to be a shrewd manager of what fortune she had to support her chosen lifestyle and had high expectations for her son’s future, goals he unfortunately for her did not share.
Author and history professor Carol Berkin treats Betsy with sympathetic but clear eyed respect by not downplaying her shortcomings. For me one of the most interesting aspects of this very readable book is the way it highlights the evolving differences between European and American cultures.