Tag Archives: Betsy Bonaparte

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: Shipwreck

This is the fifth and final of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. After their marriage, Betsy and Jerome made several attempts to sail to France to obtain Napoleon’s approval of their impulsive marriage. This scene occurs shortly after they and Betsy’s aunt, Nancy Spear, board an American merchant ship bound for Spain:

     Toward evening, clouds massed over the land to the west, gusts of westerly wind blew with increasing force, and the temperature dropped. Betsy saw heightened activity among the crew as they worked to keep control of the ship, which was listing to port. As rain began to fall, Jerome hurried her below to their cabin.
For hours, the gale lashed the ship, causing it to buck and roll. Betsy lay in the bunk, clinging to its railing to keep from being tossed about. Jerome sat beside her in the cabin’s single chair. Betsy’s stomach heaved along with the sea, and she vomited several times into the washbasin, which Jerome had moved onto the bed beside her. He did not get sick, in spite of being shut up with a retching wife, but he looked pale and agitated. Finally, after an hour, he said, “Elisa, do you feel well enough for me to leave you for a short while? I feel uneasy about Miss Spear.”
Betsy felt guilty that, in her distress, she had not thought of her aunt. “Yes, please go inquire how she is.” A wave of nausea rolled over her again, and she pressed her fist against her mouth. Her diaphragm ached from the constant heaving.
Jerome made his way out of the cabin, touching the wall as he went to keep his balance. He was gone for several minutes. When he returned, he said, “Ta pauvre tante. Elle est plus malade que toi.
“Oh, dear,” Betsy said. If Aunt Nancy was worse than this, she must feel as though she were at death’s door. Betsy tried to push herself to a sitting position so she could go to the older woman, but the ship abruptly rose and then descended with a sickening plunge. She lay back down. “What can we do for her?”
“Nothing, my love. I told her to drink a little water, but she would not. There is nothing else to do but ride out the storm.” He pushed Betsy’s sweat-soaked hair back from her forehead.
After a while, Betsy ceased retching because her muscles were too exhausted to contract anymore and her stomach had nothing left to expel. Jerome carried the vomit-filled basin away. Then he carefully crawled into the bunk and pressed his body to Betsy’s back as she lay on her side. His nearness helped her relax, and she fell into a fitful sleep, broken several times during the night by the ship’s wild movement.
Toward morning, Betsy awoke and listened to the crashing of the waves pounding the side of the ship. She wondered how long the gale would last. When she shifted her position to lie closer to Jerome, she marveled at how much her abdomen ached from the bout of seasickness. Then the hull of the ship jolted and shuddered. Betsy heard a sharp splintering sound. The ship began to sway like a very slow rocking chair, up and back, up and back.
“Jerome!” He woke quickly, and she told him what had happened.
Sainte Mère, I think we have run aground.” He crawled over Betsy, being careful not to press his weight on her, and climbed down from the bunk. When he stood, Betsy realized that the floor of their cabin inclined from the outer hull to the exit. Jerome pushed hard to open their cabin door and left her.

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: On the Way to Niagara

This is the fourth in a series of excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. During the first year of their marriage, Jerome and Betsy traveled to Niagara Falls, which was still a little-visited wilderness. They are believed to be only the second honeymooning couple to visit the falls. In this scene, they are camping out for the first time. Note that Elisa was Jerome’s pet name for Betsy.

     Toward evening, they halted just before a wooden bridge that spanned a stream cutting across their route. Betsy noticed a rank smell in the air. Jerome gestured to the right, where an opening in the trees looked like the beginning of a trail. “I am going to explore that path and search for a clearing where we can camp.” He dismounted, tied his horse to a sapling beside the road, and headed into the trees.
     Betsy pressed her lips together and peered after him until a bend in the trail took him from sight. Her horse moved restlessly, so Betsy patted it and murmured, “Whoa.”
     As the minutes passed, she stared down the road, first in one direction and then the other. The smell was making her ill, and being alone made her uneasy. The undergrowth beneath the trees was so thick that it was impossible to tell if anything was hiding there.
     When Jerome returned, he said, “There is a clearing. I think someone might have started to build a house here, but they did not progress very far.”
     He helped Betsy dismount from her sidesaddle, and she walked a ways to stretch her sore legs. As she glanced down to check where she was stepping, she saw a long cylindrical object ringed with dark jagged bands lying across the road. Following it with her eyes, she realized it was a snake that had been run over by a wheeled cart; the body was smashed near the head and the dirt showed traces of blood. Betsy stepped back, even though she knew it was dead, and then looked for the snake’s tail. It had rattles.
     “Jerome, we cannot stay here. There are rattlesnakes.”
     He came up beside her to stare at it. “Zut! So that is the source of the stink.” Putting an arm around her, he squeezed her shoulders. “The serpent is dead and can do us no harm.”
     “There may be others. Robert once found a whole nest of copperheads at Springfield.”
     Jerome looked up at the sky. The sun had sunk behind the treetops, and shadow completely covered the road. “It is too late to go farther. If this region is infested with snakes, the danger will exist wherever we go. We should set up our camp now while there is still light.”
     Betsy wanted to argue with him, but he grabbed their horses’ reins and began leading them down the trail he had discovered. Tears pricked Betsy’s eyes as she lifted her skirts and followed him. The trail was barely six inches wide. Ferns, small shrubs, and saplings encroached upon it from either side, and she disliked having them brush against her as she passed.
     After a few minutes, they emerged into a small clearing. Betsy halted and looked around. The rocky stream ran along one edge of an open area dotted with stumps. Someone had chopped down several trees and dragged them to the far side of the clearing, which was higher than the ground beside the stream. Betsy could see that the axeman had cleaned the logs by stripping their branches. As she wondered why he had abandoned the site so soon after starting construction, a sense of foreboding settled on her.
     Near the center of the clearing was a circle of rocks surrounding a shallow fire pit. Glancing into the woods, Betsy saw several mossy outcroppings of stone. The stench of dead snake was no longer noticeable; instead, she could smell leaf mold and resin.
     As Betsy stood pensively, trying to imagine sleeping out of doors, Jerome went to his bags and found his hatchet. Then he removed his coat and began to chop some of the discarded branches for firewood. He told Betsy to gather kindling and tinder. When she started toward the edge of the clearing to look for dried grasses and bits of peeled bark, a movement caught her eye.
     She halted and found herself facing a fox that stood just inside the first line of trees. The animal had frozen with its head slightly lowered. A tree blocked part of its body and ferns hid its feet, but Betsy could see its red fur, upright ears, and pointed snout.
     “Jerome!” she said in a loud whisper. She turned her head to catch his attention.
     He was in the midst of swinging his hatchet. After finishing the stroke, he wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. “What?”
     Betsy looked back toward the woods, but the fox had gone. “Oh,” she said in disappointment. “It left.”
     “Elisa, what are you talking about?” After leaning his hatchet against a log, he walked toward her.
     “I saw a fox over there.”
     Jerome bent to kiss her. “A pity I did not have my pistols to hand. I could have gotten you a fur collar.”
     “I am glad you did not. It was beautiful, and foxes do not hurt people, do they?”
     “No.” Jerome returned to his chopping. As Betsy gathered up twigs and leaves for tinder, she wished she had brought a basket on their journey. Then her mind returned to the fox. She had rarely been so close to a wild creature. The experience had unnerved her at first, but then she had felt a kinship with the animal, which after all was only trying to make its way in the world.
     Dusk fell before they finished making camp, and mosquitoes began to bite. Jerome built a large campfire, and its smoke helped drive away the troublesome insects. Then he went down to the stream to fetch water.
     As Betsy unpacked the bread and cheese they brought for their supper, she heard a loud half-snarling cry from somewhere in the woods, followed by a terrible, almost human scream. Too frightened to move, she stared into the darkness and waited. After a few moments, she heard something heavy moving in the brush, and she started to tremble. “Jerome?” she called, but her voice was too weak to carry. Betsy pressed both hands against her stomach and swallowed hard.

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: Stalked by British Warships

This is the third of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. After their marriage, Betsy and Jerome needed to sail to France to obtain Napoleon’s approval of their impulsive marriage, but they had to be careful. The British navy was eager to capture Napoleon’s youngest brother. Shortly after the Bonapartes board a French frigate in New York’s Inner Harbor, they are shown to their cabin. (Note that Elisa is Jerome’s pet name for Betsy.)

     They followed the sailor down a narrow path between hammocks, past a partition, and into a corridor that ran between cabins. “Voilà,” the sailor said, pointing to a door. Then, after touching his cap in a gesture of respect to Jerome and swiftly running his gaze over Betsy’s figure, he hurried away.
     As Jerome opened the door, he warned Betsy that it had a raised sill. She carefully stepped into a cramped closet of a room with a single bunk, small writing desk and chair, and washstand. A whale-oil lamp was mounted to a bracket on the wall. Although her father earned much of his fortune through shipping, Betsy had never been on a vessel before and was shocked by the tight spaces and the pervasive odors of pine tar, mildew, and worse.
     Jerome ducked to enter the low door. Straightening again, he laughed when he saw Betsy’s expression. “Oh, my poor Elisa. You did not expect anything so Spartan, did you?”
     He took her into his arms and kissed her. “A frigate was never meant to house such a fine lady as you.”
     They ate supper in the wardroom that evening, and as they dined on beef, fresh bread, fruit, and cheese, the officers teased Betsy that she was lucky they had just victualed the ship. “If we had been at sea for many weeks, we would have had to serve you ship’s biscuit riddled with weevil worms.”
     At the end of the meal, when the Bonapartes rose from the table, Captain Brouard told Jerome that he was sending a pilot boat out the next day to see if the coastal waters were clear.
     “An excellent precaution.” Jerome answered.
     “What did the captain mean?” Betsy asked Jerome once they were alone in their cabin.
     He knelt on the bunk to open their porthole and get some fresh air. “My sojourn in the United States is no secret, Elisa. For weeks the New York newspapers have been publishing accounts of our plans to sail.”
     “And the British would like nothing better than to capture Napoleon’s brother,” she said with a shudder.
     Her frightened tone caused him to turn and peer at her. “Sois tranquille. You are in experienced hands. If we should be attacked during our journey, I will place you in the most protected part of the ship, and if the worst happens and we are forced to surrender, you will be sent to your family. Not even the British would use a woman as political hostage.”
     Betsy went into his arms. “That would be little comfort to me if you were made prisoner. I would rather share your fate.”
     “I would never allow that.” He stroked her hair. “But have no fear. The Didon is our navy’s fastest frigate.”
     The next afternoon as they waited for news, Jerome gave Betsy a tour of the main deck of the ship, showing her the enormous ship’s wheel, the compass, the bell, the masts, and the rigging. As he explained the various sails and their uses, he noticed the pilot boat returning from its scouting mission. They waited impatiently as the boat’s skipper made his report. Finally, the captain summoned them to his stateroom.
     “The scout brought grave news,” Brouard said. “Two British warships, a corvette and a frigate, are lying off Sandy Hook just south of the place where we must enter the lower bay.”
     “A corvette is not much threat. How many guns has the frigate?” Jerome asked.
     “Forty-four.”
     “Then taken together, the Cybèle and the Didon outgun them.”
     “Yes, but our maneuverability will be limited. I take it you have not sailed the Narrows before. We will be in single file as we pass between Staten Island and Long Island, while they will have the advantage of being in open water. And our scout saw more ships on the horizon.”
     The news terrified Betsy, and she bit her lip. Jerome had a glint in his eyes that made her think he relished the idea of fighting their way free, but seeing her fear, he said, “Perhaps they have nothing to do with us. Let us wait a day or two and see what action they take.”

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: At the President’s Mansion

This is the second of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. While on their honeymoon, Betsy and Jerome Bonaparte traveled to Washington to visit her uncle, Senator Samuel Smith, and mingle with high society:

     They were also invited to dinner at the President’s Mansion. Beforehand, Uncle Smith told Betsy that in a perverse display of neutrality, President Jefferson had invited both the French minister and the new British ambassador, despite the war between their two countries.
     For the occasion, which would begin at 3:00 in the afternoon and last until late evening, Betsy wore a sheer gown bedecked with gold embroidery that would sparkle in the candlelight. This would be her first visit to the home of a head of state, and she wanted to demonstrate to Jerome that she knew how to dress for such occasions.
     As the Smith carriage drove up to the north entrance, Betsy stared avidly at the details of the building and wondered how it compared to the palaces she would someday live in with Jerome. The President’s Mansion was an imposing light-grey stone structure, wide enough that eleven windows stretched across its upper story. The center block of the mansion was decorated with four Doric columns crowned by a triangular pediment. A small pediment also topped each window, but Betsy was surprised to see that they were not all the same. Rather, triangles alternated with rounded arches.
     Following the Smiths, Betsy and Jerome climbed the stone steps and walked through the front door into the entrance hall, a marble-floored space that was wider than it was long. On the far side of the room, four Doric columns marked the boundary between the entryway and the central cross hall.
     Servants came to take their outer garments, and after Betsy handed over her cloak, she noticed that the entrance hall was cold despite having facing fireplaces on the east and west walls. She hoped that she would not be covered in goose skin by the time she made it through the receiving line into the oval drawing room where the president stood greeting his guests. As they stepped through the central columns into the cross hall, she glanced left to see if she could catch a glimpse of the East Room—infamous as the vast unfinished space where Abigail Adams had once dried laundry. Betsy had heard that, even though it was intended to be a public reception room, the East Room was still unplastered. Just last year, Aunt Margaret had written that the first attempt at installing a ceiling in the room had collapsed. Now a piece of canvas stretched across the doorway, so Betsy could not see a thing.
     When she and Jerome were presented to President Jefferson, Betsy was amused to see him in the characteristically plain dress he wore on republican principle: an old blue coat, dark corduroy breeches, dingy white hose, and run-down backless slippers. “Madame Bonaparte, allow me to welcome you to Washington. I hope your father was well when you left him.”
     “He was, Mr. President, and he particularly charged me with thanking you for the very kind letter of reference that you wrote.”
     “It gave me great pleasure to do whatever I could to further an alliance that will cement relations between the United States and France. As you know, I spent several years as ambassador to France and I retain great fondness for our sister republic.”
     From the corner of her eye, Betsy saw a distinguished-looking man in formal diplomatic dress shoot the president a frosty glare. After Mr. Jefferson moved to another guest, Uncle Smith introduced Jerome and Betsy to the irate gentleman, who was the British ambassador Mr. Anthony Merry.
     “Citizen Bonaparte.” Mr. Merry gave a curt nod. “I greet you as a fellow guest of Mr. Jefferson and not as the enemy of my country.”
     Betsy answered before Jerome could, “Sir, how wise you are to know that for tonight, we must draw blades against the roast and not the person opposite.”
     Merry smiled grudgingly. He then introduced them to his wife, Elizabeth Death Merry, a fiftyish woman with heavy eyebrows and a long nose in a horsy face. Despite her plain looks, Mrs. Merry was dressed as a beauty with rouge on her cheeks and a chandelier necklace of sapphires around her throat. Her blue velvet gown was cut so low that her enormous bosom, restrained only by a film of lace, threatened to pop free. As soon as they were out of earshot of the Merrys, Betsy whispered to Jerome, “Law, she displays those melons as though she were a market.”
     When it came time for the meal, President Jefferson further offended his English guests by leading Betsy from the drawing room into the dining room instead of following protocol and honoring Mrs. Merry. Betsy could not resist glancing back over her shoulder to grin triumphantly at Jerome.

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Betsy’s Circle: Her Son Bo

Betsy and Jerome had one child, a son, whom Betsy  named Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte. Among his mother’s family, however, he was known as Bo.

I haven’t said much about him before because I don’t want to give away any spoilers. However, I ran across this letter the other day when I was checking something else, and I found it amusing. As it doesn’t relate to any of the events I cover in the novel, I decided to share it here. Betsy wrote it from Europe to her father and describes events that took place when her son was merely sixteen:

Bo was very much attended to by all hands in Europe, and admired by every  one. Some ladies in Rome ran after him so much that I feared his being spoiled, although he seemed quite unconscious of it, supposing probably that women old enough to be his grandmother could not be foolish enough to fall in love with him. It is certain that his beauty attracted great attention; a German princess told me that she had followed him once in Geneva, at a ball, from room to room, to look at him, and that he was the handsomest creature she ever saw. He certainly is the handsomest boy I ever saw  of his  age, and in all respects the finest creature possible. His modesty and good sense alone prevent his being spoiled, for I assure you he received attentions sufficient to have turned much older heads.

By most accounts, Betsy was a vain woman, so I think there may be a bit of mother’s exaggerated pride here. But it still tickles me to think of middle-aged princesses trailing after her son because he was so “beautiful.”

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Betsy’s Circle: Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison

Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy Bonaparte’s more surprising friendships was with Dolley Madison. On the surface, the two women seemed to have little in common, yet they had an amiable relationship that lasted many years. For example, while Dolley was in the White House, Betsy often looked in on Dolley’s son at his boarding school near Baltimore. And Dolley Madison once gave Betsy the commission of buying her a turban or anything fashionable on her next trip to Europe because she so admired Betsy’s taste. 

Dolley Madison, born Dolley Payne, was raised as a Quaker in Virginia. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was a teenager. When Dolley was twenty-two, she married a young lawyer named John Todd, with whom she had two sons. Tragedy soon struck, however. The terrible yellow fever epidemic of 1793—which wiped out some 11 percent of Philadelphia’s population—killed both her husband and her younger son, who was only three months old.

Within a year, Dolley had met and married James Madison, a bachelor who was seventeen years older than she was. As the main author of the U.S. Constitution, Madison was an important political figure, so this new relationship thrust Dolley into a much different social sphere than she had been used to.

She proved to be more than up to the task. After Thomas Jefferson became president, James Madison became his secretary of state and Mrs. Madison served as the hostess for the widowed president. After eight years, Madison succeeded to the presidency, and Dolley Madison officially became the first lady. She was famous for her entertaining. The following description comes from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte:

Under Mrs. Madison’s direction, Benjamin Latrobe had transformed the oval drawing room into a blazingly colorful salon that was the talk of Washington. Latrobe had repainted the walls sunflower yellow, highlighted moldings with strips of pink wallpaper printed with white and dark green leaves, hung crimson velvet curtains with gold tassels, and laid a carpet with a red, blue, and gold arabesque pattern. Dolley Madison held open houses every Wednesday in the lavishly decorated room. So many people attended—sometimes as many as 400 in a day—that the regular event became known as Mrs. Madison’s “crush or squeeze.”

Dolley Madison became a beloved national hero during the War of 1812. When it became evident that the British were going to take Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and that it would not be possible to protect the President’s Mansion, Dolley stayed to oversee the removal of as many precious and important items as possible—including a full-sized portrait of George Washington. It is this action for which she is best remembered today.

Gilbert Stuart - George Washington - Google Art ProjectGeorge Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

Although Dolley and James Madison remained devoted to each other, Dolley did have one major sorrow. Her surviving son Payne Todd was an irresponsible alcoholic. His behavior was a trial to his mother, particularly after James Madison’s death. Because of Payne’s heavy spending, Dolley Madison spent much of her later years in poverty.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Using (and Faking) Old Letters

As I mentioned the other day, Betsy Bonaparte’s life is well documented. Many of the biographies about her quote extensively from her letters, and I include excerpts of some of them in my novel.

But there were also times when I couldn’t find a letter that said what I needed for the story, so some of the letters in my novel are fictional, written by yours truly. Trying to imitate that nineteenth century style was an exceptionally enjoyable exercise.

Below are two different letters written from Betsy to her son Bo when she was in Europe and he was in the United States. One is authentic, the other is one of mine. (I’m not saying which is which.)

This first one was written when Bo is still a young boy:

Being separated by the Atlantic is as disagreeable to me as it is to you, but I must do what is necessary to secure your future. Reward all my cares for you by studying as hard as you can, so that when I come home I will find that you have proven yourself worthy of the Bonaparte name. I love you, and I shall not rest easy until I can be with you again and look after you myself.

This second one was written shortly after Bo has traveled along to America to begin his studies at Harvard:

I shall go to America if you think there is the least necessity for it. Let me know everything about my finances. Do read as much as you can, and improve in every way. I ask you to reward my cares and anxieties about you, by advancing your own interests and happiness. I am very uneasy about you, and almost blame myself for not going with you to take care of you, and shall never forgive myself if you meet any accident by being alone.

If anyone cares to guess which letter is which, I’ll post the answer in the comments sometime tomorrow.

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