Tag Archives: Betsy Bonaparte

Betsy’s Circle: Germaine de Staël

Laugier de Stael

Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël by Jean Nicolas Laugier, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy’s literary friends was Germaine de Staël, who was a colorful and controversial figure on the European scene.

She was born Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker to Swiss parents in Paris in 1766. Her father was a Genevan banker who became Louis XVI’s finance minister. Like Betsy, she exhibited the qualities of wit, intellectual curiosity, and lively conversation as a child. She was married at the age of twenty to Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, the Swedish ambassador to France. It was not an affectionate marriage but gave her status as the wife of a diplomat.

Madame de Staël first gained literary fame by publishing Letters on the Works and Character of J.-J. Rousseau in 1788. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, her work exhibited a “mixture of Rousseau’s enthusiasm and Montesquieu’s rationalism.” Despite the Revolution, she remained in France until 1793, and then she moved to England to be with her lover, Louis de Narbonne, who had been one of Louis XVI’s ministers.

After the Reign of Terror ended, she returned to Paris and began the most illustrious stage of her career. She alternated between living in Paris and at her chateau in Coppet, Switzerland. Madame de Staël held a noted salon, where intellectuals could converse about important ideas of their day, and she published several essays. She also took a new lover, the politician and writer Benjamin Constant, who introduced her to German romanticism.

Madame de Staël wrote two novels, Delphine and Corinne, that were infamous in their day because they exposed the limits imposed on independent and creative women. Napoleon disapproved of her work—he was a traditionalist in his views of women’s roles. As a liberal, Madame de Staël opposed him politically, so that deepened his dislike. In about 1803, Napoleon exiled her to a distance of at least 40 miles from Paris. During the remainder of his reign, Coppet was her home base.

In 1810, she published her most important work, a study of German culture. She returned to Paris after Napoleon’s downfall, but lived only a few more years, dying in 1817.

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Artifacts of a Life

Just a few accessories that belonged to the real Betsy Bonaparte, with a portrait showing her wearing the tiara. She was 37 or 38 and living in Europe when the painting was made.


Everytime I see the photograph of this jewelry and small handbag, I think how fashionable they would have been in the 1960s!


This tiara features seed pearls and garnets.


Painting in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, photograph by Michael Chatlien, 2011


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Betsy’s Circle: Victor Marie du Pont

Among the French emigrés that Betsy and Jerome knew in the United States were Victor and Gabrielle du Pont, of the famed Du Pont family.

Victor Marie du Pont was born in Paris on October 1, 1767 — 246 years ago today. At the age of 17, he began to work with his father in the Bureau of Commerce. France was still a monarchy at the time. In 1788, the year before the French Revolution, du Pont went to the United States to work with the French minister here. Over the next few years, du Pont traveled back and forth between the two countries, but in 1800, the entire Du Pont family moved to the United States for good.

Victor du Pont established a trading company in New York and helped provide supplies to the French troops in Santo Domingo. Victor’s company went bankrupt, partially because the French government didn’t pay him. (There are also reports that du Pont went deeply into debt entertaining Betsy and her husband. Jerome was the emperor’s baby brother after all.) Victor’s brother, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, was more successful. He founded the chemical company that still bears the family name.

In 1811, Victor and his family moved to Delaware, where he founded a wool manufacturing company. He eventually served in the Delaware State House and State Senate. One of his sons was a rear admiral during the Civil War.

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Betsy’s Circle: Marianne Caton

In last Thursday’s post, I mentioned that Betsy Bonaparte’s older brother Robert married Marianne Caton. Marianne was the granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of four Marylanders and the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. The family was wealthy and prominent.

Marianne was three years younger than Betsy. Beautiful, well educated, and sweet-natured, she was the oldest of four sisters: Marianne, Bess, Louisa, and Emily. (You can see all four of them on the book cover below, with Marianne’s portrait being the largest.) Betsy Bonaparte and Marianne Caton were the Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian of their day, international celebrities known for their looks and their loves.

And like our contemporary “famous-for-being-famous” cultural icons, both women had both private and public struggles. Marianne, who is my main focus today, struggled with poor health, particularly asthma. And to her deep regret, she was never able to have children.

In the late 1810s, Robert Patterson and the three oldest Caton sisters travelled to Europe, partially to see if the climate would help Marianne. Known as the Three American graces, they became the toast of English society. In a strange twist of fate, the Duke of Wellington — the very officer who had defeated Betsy’s brother-in-law Napoleon — fell in love with Marianne Caton Patterson, even though she was married. Opinions differ as to whether the two became lovers or simply affectionate friends. They did exchange portraits to remember each other by.

Back in the United States, Marianne became a widow in 1822 when Robert died of cholera. Three years later, she remarried, not Wellington, who still had a wife, but his older brother Richard, the Marquess Wellesley. It was a strange choice that I don’t completely understand — would you marry the brother of the man you loved but couldn’t have? — and the marriage was not particularly successful.

For more information on Marianne and her three sisters, I recommend reading the nonfiction book Sisters of Fortune by Jehanne Wake. It’s well written and meticulously researched, and it was one of many helpful sources I used in the writing of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. I enjoyed reading it even though I thought the author was unduly harsh in her views of Betsy Bonaparte. (There were problems in the relationship between Betsy and Marianne, but I think Betsy was a much more nuanced person than Wake portrays.)

sisters of fortune

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19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore for research, my husband and I toured the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. (You can see it in the third image on this page.) The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my special interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so unexpectedly encountering her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than just a hazy historical figure.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun (Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome gave it to Betsy after they married—or bought it for their home.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six, so theoretically, she could have used it there.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp sense of humor, I feel certain she would have been amused.

205 Bourdalou mit Blumenmalerei Frankenthal c1756-1759
A Sample Bourdelou (not Betsy’s), Photograph by Austin Towers, via Wikimedia Commons


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Writing Historical Fiction: 19th c. Information Lag

While I was planning the plot of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I had to deal with what I call information lag. In the current age of instant communication, it’s hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometimes amused themselves by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious that you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice? Especially knowing that the letter might be lost and you’ll have to start all over again six months from now?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure it was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for the information lag because it helped to add considerable tension to the plot. The specifics of how that tension plays out will not be revealed until the book is published. (That’s my contemporary version of information lag.)



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Writing Historical Fiction: Foreign-Language Dialogue

Although the first part of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is set in the United States, one of my main characters is European. Jerome Bonaparte’s first language was Italian, and his second was French. Betsy had studied French from an emigré when she was a schoolgirl, and her lifelong dream was to live in France, so it only made sense to assume that the two of them spoke French to each other quite often.

The problem is that many of my readers won’t know that language. So how does a writer tackle this issue? I took a variety of approaches.

One tactic is to write the dialogue in English but to say that it was said in French, as in the following example:

The two young men were speaking in French and, apparently assuming that Americans could not understand the language, spoke at full volume even though their comments were far from discreet. Betsy, who had learned French from Madame Lacomb, heard one of them say, “Bonaparte, I think the young lady before us is the one whom Mlle. Pascault described, the girl called the Belle of Baltimore. Certainly, I have not seen anyone else who fits the description.”

A second tactic is to sprinkle the text with small phrases that are either well known or similar enough to English that they are easy to figure out:

Pardonnez moi.” Jerome bowed, sweeping his arm elegantly to one side.

A third tactic—and this one is my favorite—is to plant context clues in the surrounding text, so the reader won’t feel lost even if they don’t understand exactly what the characters are saying:

Jerome lowered his voice. “Je rêve du jour quand je te présenterai à Napoléon. Il verra que j’ai choisi un femme aussi élégante que Josephine.

Although Betsy felt gratified that Jerome would compare her favorably to Josephine, she could not allow him to assume their marriage was a certain thing.

Because a large part of Betsy and Jerome’s story concerned the interaction between and comparisons of two different cultures, I wanted their dialogue to show that. These three techniques allowed me to accomplish that goal.


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Betsy Bonaparte: Her Venomous Tongue

According to people who knew her, Betsy Bonaparte had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. One of the amusing aspects of portraying her in the novel was allowing her to rebuke her foes with stinging insults that I would never dream of using myself.

One acquaintance who wrote about her was James Gallatin, son of Albert Gallatin — who was the Secretary of the Treasury and later the Minister to France. When Betsy was in Paris, she dined with the Gallatins often. In his memoirs, James Gallatin recorded the following story. I wasn’t able to use it in the novel, so I will quote it here:

[Madame de Staël] had given a dinner at her house in Geneva, to which Madame Bonaparte was invited. Arriving very late, she delayed serving the dinner for over half an hour. On one side of her was a Mr. Dundas, a great gourmand, who was much put out at having to wait. After the soup had been served he turned to Madame Bonaparte and asked her if she had read the book of Captain Basil Hall on America. She replied in the affirmative. “Well, madame, did you notice that Hall said all Americans are vulgarians?”

“Quite true,” calmly answered Madame Bonaparte, “I am not in the least surprised. If the Americans had been the descendants of the Indians or the Esquimaux there might have been some reason to be astonished, but as they are the direct descendants of the English it is perfectly natural that they should be vulgarians.” After this Mr. Dundas did not open his mouth again and left at the first opportunity.

The Diary of James Gallatin


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Writing Historical Fiction: Back Story

Jérôme Bonaparte - Sophie Lienard
Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard, on Wikimedia Commons

What brought Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome to Baltimore of all places? Well, for one thing, Baltimore was the third largest U.S. city in the early 1800s, behind New York and Philadelphia. It was one of the country’s most important ports.

Second, a year or so earlier, Napoleon had decided that his baby brother was going to become the naval expert of the family. Accordingly, Jerome was made a lieutenant (even though he was technically too young) and sent to the West Indies. While there, he made a colossal error of judgment that might have had serious international repercussions, so his commanding officer ordered him to return home to report to his brother, who at the time was First Consul of the French Republic.

Britain and France were technically at peace during 1803, but relations between the two countries remained uneasy. French officials were understandably nervous about exposing a member of Napoleon’s family to possible danger should war break out again while he was en route. They decided Jerome should go to a U.S. port and sail on a neutral ship—and thus, hopefully, escape the notice of the British navy.

So Jerome went to Baltimore, where his friend Joshua Barney lived. Being a young man who loved amusement and pretty girls, Jerome decided to enjoy himself while he was there. He soon began to hear about a beautiful young woman named Betsy Patterson, known as the Belle of Baltimore, and grew eager to meet her. From all accounts, Jerome had a way with young women, but he never took any of his amours seriously. I’m guessing he thought he could have a fling and then be on his way with little consequence to himself. However, Betsy proved to be more than a match for the charming young Corsican. When they met, he was instantly smitten. As the saying goes, the thunderbolt struck, and any interest Jerome had in returning home disappeared.


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Betsy’s Circle: The Man Who Saved Baltimore Twice

General Samuel Smith Rembrandt Peale
General Samuel Smith by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The person in charge of the defense of Baltimore when the British attacked in 1814 was Samuel Smith, former revolutionary officer and current U.S. senator. He also happened to be Betsy Bonaparte’s uncle, as he was married to her mother’s older sister.

Samuel Smith was born in Pennsylvania, but his family moved to Baltimore when he was a boy, and he made Baltimore his home for the rest of his life. Like Betsy’s father, he made his money from shipping and trade. Smith served in the army during the Revolutionary War, advancing from captain to major to lieutenant colonel. He spent the winter at Valley Forge with George Washington, and he later took part in the Battles of Saratoga, which were the turning point of the war.

In his forties, Smith entered politics. He served in the House of Representatives from 1793 to 1803 and in the Senate from 1803 to 1815. His highest rank was president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third in line to the presidency.

During the War of 1812, a Baltimore officer named General William Winder had been in charge of the disastrous defense of Washington, D.C., which led to a rout of the American forces and the burning of the capital. When it came to defending their own city, Baltimoreans turned to 62-year-old Samuel Smith rather than the much-younger Winder. Smith organized the digging of fortifications to prevent a land approach and prepared to sink ships in the Patapsco River to prevent a water approach.

After the Battle of Baltimore was over, Smith returned to Congress, serving in both the Senate and the House for nearly two more decades. All together he spent 40 years in Congress.

In August 1835, Smith was once again called upon to save his city. Seventeen months earlier, the Bank of Maryland had failed, and the public had grown tired of waiting for the long-promised settlement. For several nights running, angry people gathered to attack the homes of bank directors. Samuel Smith, now eighty-three years old, organized a force of volunteers and managed to quiet the mob and convince them to disperse. The grateful city made Smith mayor, a position he held for three years. He died in 1839 at the age of 86.

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