John Carroll by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Although Betsy Bonaparte’s family was Presbyterian, she had a Catholic wedding because Catholicism was the religion of the Bonapartes. The man who married Jerome and Betsy was none other than the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.
John Carroll was born in 1735 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He came from a prominent family and was a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence. Because there were no Catholic schools in the United States at the time, John Carroll was educated in France and Belgium. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in either 1767 or 1769. A few years later, in 1773, the pope issued a decree suppressing the Jesuit Order, largely for political reasons. Carroll traveled to England and then returned to Baltimore the following year.
After the American Revolution, Carroll became a leader of U.S. Catholics. In 1789, the Vatican appointed him the bishop of the diocese of Baltimore, which at the time included the entire United States. Carroll was consecrated the following year.
Bishop Carroll oversaw the construction of the first Catholic Cathedral in the United States, which was the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore. He was instrumental in the founding of Georgetown University and the establishment of St. Mary’s College and Seminary. Liturgically, he was ahead of his time in promoting the reading of the liturgy (the formal church service) in English rather than Latin. On the other hand, he was a slave owner and only toward the end of his life did he come to advocate the gradual freeing of slaves.
In 1808, Carroll became an archbishop with jurisdiction over four other bishops in the United States. He died in Baltimore in 1815.
Over the next two weeks, between now and my publication date, I’m going to publish a few excerpts from The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. In the following scene, Betsy Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte—who previously met at a dinner party—have their first dance together.
As they entered the ballroom, Betsy was pleased to see that many people broke off their conversations to watch them. The first dance of the evening was to be a contradanse, which would have the advantage of pairing them for at least ten minutes and of having periods when they could converse because they were not required to take part in the moves. The first time they were an inactive couple, Betsy said, “Lieutenant Bonaparte, I have never seen a uniform like yours. Is it a naval dress uniform?”
Jerome laughed. “No, it is a hussar’s uniform.”
“But, hussars are cavalry. I thought you were in the navy.”
“I am.” He shrugged. “But I like the way this one looks. It is debonair, is it not?”
Before Betsy could answer, it was their turn to take part in the next movement, and by the time they could speak again, she decided not to pursue the subject. She suspected that it was a tremendous breach of protocol for a military officer to wear the uniform of a different branch of service. Clearly, being Napoleon’s brother came with unusual privileges, liberties that the youngest Bonaparte did not hesitate to enjoy.
As she pondered these things, Jerome complimented her on her elegant gown. “It is—très à la mode,” he said after a moment of searching for an equivalent English phrase.
“Merci, monsieur,” Betsy answered, gratified that he considered her stylish.
“Ah, parlez-vous français?” he exclaimed, sounding like a boy in his excitement that she spoke his language.
Betsy nodded, and he gave her gloved hand a quick squeeze of approval. Then returning to the previous subject, he said, “Your taste in clothing reminds me of ma belle-soeur Josephine. She truly knows how to set Paris on its ear.”
“Oh, please tell me about her.”
He chuckled and said in French, “A while back, she started a new fashion of wearing sheer gowns such as yours but with nothing underneath.”
Betsy’s cheeks burned as Jerome continued, “Napoleon considered the style too immodest. One day, finding Josephine and her ladies sitting in the drawing room in such flimsy attire, he gave orders for the servants to pile wood on the fire. When Josephine complained that she was roasting alive, he said, ‘My dear, I was afraid you might catch cold sitting here naked.’”
In spite of her discomfort with the indiscreet topic, Betsy found herself joining in Jerome’s laughter. Then, after her first wave of self-consciousness passed, she felt a delicious sense of freedom in being able to talk so openly of things forbidden in Baltimore society.
The last move of the dance required Jerome to grasp her hands and swing her through several revolutions. After the last twirl, he flirtatiously pulled her closer to his body than was proper before releasing her. As they pulled apart, Betsy found herself halted. Her gold chain had caught on one of his buttons.
She dared not look up at him. With the rapidity of lightning, she felt as embarrassed as if she had found herself publicly wearing one of Josephine’s revealing gowns.
“Permit me.” Jerome used his index finger to unhook her necklace. Instead of releasing the chain, however, he kept it on the crook of his finger and whispered, “Do you see, chére mademoiselle? Fate has brought us together, and we are destined never to part.”
Betsy caught her breath at the romantic perfection of the moment, but then her natural skepticism reasserted itself. She perceived that this man to whom she was temporarily joined—handsome, warm-hearted, and fun loving though he might be—lacked the steely resolve of his famous older brother. He seemed content to glide through life feasting on whatever privileges fell to him in Napoleon’s wake.
“Fate seems to have forgotten that I promised my next dance to someone else.”
Jerome released her gold chain. “If that is your wish.”
“My wish, sir, is for a partner who understands that I am a kingdom that must be won rather than claimed as a birthright.”
For a moment, he seemed perplexed and she feared the sentiment was too complex for him to understand it in English, but then laughter returned to his eyes. “Truly, Mademoiselle, that is a challenge worthy of a Bonaparte.” He bowed and watched her walk away.
Essentially, that was the message I heard from my editor yesterday.
I’ve input all the changes I want to make in The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte based on the copy editing. I read it through. I sent my editor a long email discussing my evaluation of the book and the fact that it fulfills the goals I had for this particular project.
He wrote back expressing his opinion, which corroborated mine. The one thing that surprised me is that he suggested that I let it sit a couple of days and read it through one more time to make sure that nothing “clanks” in my ear. I was eager to send it on to the designer, but I think his counsel is wise.
I have such ambivalent feelings about letting the manuscript go. The last two years plus of living with these people has been very intense, and now I’m going to be done tinkering with their lives. I hope that Betsy, wherever she is, feels that I’ve told her story well. That was my goal when I started this project, to portray her tumultuous life in all its complexity, not to let her be a caricature or a symbol of any kind.
I don’t have children, so I’ve never had the experience of sending one of my babies out into the world . . . until now. As my editor said in an email the other day, the manuscript is about to go beyond the reach of my protection. If I’ve done my job right, I’ve imbued it with enough strength so that it can stand on its own.
This is the most famous portrait of the real Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Look at the bust on the left. Can’t you just see her saucy personality? That was one thing I’ve tried to capture in my book. It will be up to my future readers to determine if I succeeded.
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Gilbert Stuart, 1804