Betsy Bonaparte: More than a Pretty Face


Dorcas Spear Patterson and her daughter Elizabeth by Robert Edge Pine, c. 1786, Maryland Historical Society, Photograph by Ruth Hull Chatlien, 2011

As a young girl, Betsy Patterson loved to read, and she enjoyed showing off her quick mind. One book she savored was the Maxims of the Duke de La Rochefoucauld—a collection of more than 500 sayings. La Rochefoucauld was a French aristocrat who had lived during the 1600s. His maxims were insightful, cynical, pragmatic, and sometimes scornful. It seems an odd choice of literature for a young girl, yet something in it spoke to Betsy. By the time she was ten, she had diligently memorized each saying. As I was writing the novel, I had fun having her recall maxims that were appropriate to what was happening in her life during various periods. To give you a sample of La Rochefoucauld’s outlook, some of the maxims I didn’t quote in the book are listed below:

We are never so happy or so unhappy as we suppose.

Great names degrade instead of elevating those who know not how to sustain them.

We always like those who admire us, we do not always like those whom we admire.

We may bestow advice, but we cannot inspire the conduct.

In a time when many children memorized psalms, this was the view of the world that shaped young Betsy’s consciousness. One of the many things that made this woman distinctive.


Filed under Extra Tidbits

6 responses to “Betsy Bonaparte: More than a Pretty Face

  1. I love the painting too. The way the artist contrasted the chubbiness of the child with the long, thin lines of the mother.

    • Yes, I’ve always thought the two figures look almost like different pictures. I love the tenderness it shows. Betsy was their fourth child, but their first daughter, and they must have been so glad to have a girl, or why would they have painted this portrait?

  2. Hi Ruth! Stopping by to check out your blog. Glad I did 🙂 Very interesting post and I’ll certainly be back for more. Hello from a fellow AWer 😀

  3. Ginni

    I can’t help but think, “Poor Dorcus.” I won’t say more so as not to give anything away! 😉

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