Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Book review: Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin

This is how a history ought to be written. I have read two other histories lately that I didn't like at all, and I must say I went into this one with some measure of dread, but it was great. It was short, moved briskly, and was well-written in an accessible style.

It sounds a bit fairytale-like or just plan hard to believe, but in the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte's youngest brother, Jerome, who was uneducated, liked his women, and a sprendthrift, came to America in order to avoid doing hard work aboard a ship as his brother wanted. He met young Elizabeth Patterson in Baltimore, reputed to be the greatest beauty of her time, and they quickly fell in love. Despite both families opposing the marriage, they did marry. And then when they traveled to Europe for Jerome to try to make amends with his brother, he abandoned his pregnant wife.

There were political implications as the new nation of the U.S. was trying to not get pulled into the war between Britain and France (Elizabeth ended up in England where her son was born, after being refused entry to a couple of European countries as her due date approached.) And the legitimacy of the marriage and her son was also a big political factor, as he could have affected the inheritance of the empire, more than once.

Elizabeth was ahead of her time. She disliked America and preferred Europe for its more permissive and forward-thinking ways, but she was precisely what America needed. A strong, independent woman who would fight for her rights, and who was beautiful and also smart and witty, who managed her own money and whose personal life was occasionally discussed in Congress, sounds like a quintessential American today. And it took women like Elizabeth to help pull America towards her destiny and away from her more pedestrian and inward-looking point of view.

This book was very easy to read, even though it did quote extensively, but the language wasn't stilted or academic in tone. The author didn't get bogged down in might-have-beens or perhaps-this-wases, and instead just gave us the facts without wild suppositions where facts are lacking. The character of Elizabeth is well-drawn and I found myself admiring this woman who didn't let an impetuous romantic decision when she was seventeen derail her life. She could have given up so many times, but she always fought for what she believed in and for her son. She deserves to be much better known.

I checked this book out of the library.

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