Thursday, May 22, 2014

by Carol Berkin

A beautiful woman by the name of Elizabeth Patterson from Baltimore, Maryland, married Jerome Bonaparte in 1803. He was the youngest brother of Napoleon. She thought Jerome was a prince charming: dashing, handsome, and worldy. Their courtship was a whirlwind. Her father opposed the marriage but Elizabeth didn't care. She wanted to get out of the United States and leave it all behind. In her eyes, American society was too narrow and empty where women were tied to their children and always had to accommodate their husbands. Europe, on the other hand, was aristocratic, cultured, sophisticated, and would eagerly welcome someone like her who had such wit and intelligence.
In due time (about two years), Napoleon who was infuriated with the union, refused to allow Elizabeth to enter any European port, and threatened his brother that if he remained married to that American, he would forfeit all of his wealth and power. Jerome dumped her and was made king of Westphalia. The marriage was annulled and Elizabeth, who by that time was pregnant, went to England and gave birth there to her only child, a son. Eventually, she would return to Baltimore but not permanently. Elizabeth would become a self-made woman and would be quite well-off financially. The investments she made in both real estate and government bonds made her a millionaire. Elizabeth would return to Europe and be welcomed with open arms.
Wondrous Beauty is a very well-told story of a woman caught between two worlds. She really never finds true happiness in either one. Shunned by her father and abandoned by her husband, Elizabeth had to reinvent herself. And as she amassed her fortune, she never saw the contradictions. Elizabeth was constantly berating American men for their obsessive focus on making money, yet she was meticulous with her instructions for both real estate and financial agents for buying and selling and making the best transactions.
This is a slice of history that is pretty much unknown and fascinating to read about. What I find amusing, though, is the word "beauty" that is used throughout this book. On the cover, is a portrait of Elizabeth Patterson, with her son. Her hair is cut quite short and is very close to her head. I don't find her beautiful at all; in fact, she isn't even attractive. There's two other color paintings of her and it's the same thing. It's interesting to see what people considered beautiful in that time period.
Nonetheless, Carol Berkin has great research skills (she has written other books on women during the Civil War, Colonial America, and the American Revolution) and it shows here. It's most definitely a fascinating read.