Book Review Wondrous Beauty
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte bucked Baltimore’s rigid social system for a more refined Europe
Published: February 12, 2014
An elegant, marble grave nestled in Greenmount Cemetery marks the burial spot of Baltimore’s first international celebrity, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. The weathered stone remembers the daughter of a once-penniless merchant who tied herself to French royalty.
It was her marriage to a dashing Prince Jerome, the brother of the infamous French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, that flung the Baltimore beauty into the newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Carol Berkin’s book Wondrous Beauty (Knopf) follows the life of the smart, witty, gorgeous woman who resolutely defied both her father and the emperor of France. Romantic and dramatic, Elizabeth’s actions captured the hearts of the Western world.(Wallis Simpson, the Baltimore girl who married the British Prince who renounced the throne for her a little over a century later, made a similar impact on the world’s imagination)
A book only recounting glamourous encounters with the noble and rich of past days would be dull indeed. However, Berkin’s writing goes beyond the glittering fairy tale portrayed by the papers. She delves much deeper into the dark, emotional anguish and loneliness of Elizabeth’s situation by transporting us back to post-revolutionary America, where women had very limited options.
Berkin paints a bleak portrait of Baltimore. In the practical, no-nonsense city, Elizabeth grew up under a father who enforced iron-clad rules that threatened to suffocate the women in his family. Passionate and rebellious, Elizabeth married Prince Jérôme not only out of love (of which there was plenty) but also out of a yearning to escape her overbearing father for the more liberal circles of European society. Still, even in Europe she experienced rejection when Napoleon declared the marriage invalid, causing her husband to betray her.
Despite the excommunication and hardship, Elizabeth set out to live her own life as an independent woman without any man in Europe, an act unheard of in her day. To the chagrin of her father in Baltimore, the brave girl was intent on breaking through social stigmas time and again, whether it be in fashion, love interests, or independence. Berkin revels in the girl’s courage and ambition, but she doesn’t hesitate to expose her faults, refusing to be caught up in complete hero-worship of her character.
At times, Elizabeth is very distasteful to the reader; the chase for wealth, happiness, and respectability drags her into unfufillment and misery. We watch as her pride and self-interest blind her love and good judgment. Her son’s marriage to an American—rather than a European aristocrat—infuriates her, and Elizabeth declares her daughter-in-law a “stranger.” Similarly, when her grandson marries a wealthy American, she writes to him that “the remainder of your disgraced position will be a lingering remorseful agony.”
As Elizabeth fights to keep her royal name and ensure the best future for her son, she estranges the people she loves most. Excitement turns to cynicism as she understands more of the world. Society’s luster fades and the world becomes a hard place to live in and an even harder place to love. Her faults, though disturbing, do not ruin our admiration of her. Rather, we blame the faults on the world around her, a world not ready to accept a woman who governed her own finances, homes, children, and destiny. Her faults add depth to her person and value to her sacrifices.
Berkin’s portrait unveils a dichotomy of strength and fragility in human nature. We are reminded that the great exertion required to move against tradition can also be destructive. Power, while granting freedom, can also enslave the spirit. Elizabeth exerts incredible strength to survive the patriarchal 19th century, yet this determination also breaks her own joy and happiness. It is an upsetting exchange.
Still, Wondrous Beauty is a compelling portrait of a complex, fascinating woman. Berkin does not shy away from Elizabeth’s faults and wrongdoings but shows her entire self. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte defied conventions for women in America, creating an independent life for herself.
The portrait of Baltimore, during its early years, is equally nuanced and compelling. The city was a bustling seaport with ships embarking to destinations all over the world, but it was also a provincial town, firmly inculcated with tradition, a relatively miserable state of affairs for someone like Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.
We are lucky that this book’s release coincides with the Maryland Historical Society’s yearlong exhibition on Elizabeth. The show features many of her belongings—objects she gathered abroad and a fashionable dress she wore—making it an excellent companion to Berkin’s research.
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