Friday, November 27, 2009

Eliza, Betsy, and Napoleon

And so, to pick up where I left off -- alas, some weeks ago now -- I decided to try to find out more about this woman Eliza Anderson, the author of these three delightful and intriguing letters to Betsy Bonaparte in 1808. Nothing much had been written about her in recent times, but the magazine of the Maryland Historical Society had published three articles about her: one in 1934, one in 1941, and one in 1957. Of these, only one focused exclusively on Eliza. The others were about her and her second husband, the French architect Maximilian Godefroy.

The more I read about her -- and the more of her letters I came across -- the more intrigued I became. I already knew from the three letters I had read that she was witty, intrepid, defiant of social conventions -- and an excellent writer. Here are some other things I discovered:

In 1805, when she was about 25, Eliza accompanied her friend Betsy Patterson Bonaparte on a risky voyage across the Atlantic. Why so risky? Aside from the fact that all ocean travel was risky in that era, there was a war going on between the British and the French. And if the British figured out exactly who was in THIS ship, they would have found it a most attractive target.

Betsy's last name is a clue to what the problem was: a little over a year before, at the age of 18, Betsy had impulsively married Napoleon Bonaparte's 19-year-old brother. Betsy's wealthy father had given his consent to the marriage with great reluctance -- after doing everything he could to break up the romance -- because he feared that Napoleon would object. And indeed, Napoleon, who became Emperor shortly after the marriage took place, was livid when he found out what Jerome had done. He had other plans for his siblings, namely using them to form alliances with the royal houses of Europe. And Jerome's marriage had occurred during an unauthorized leave from his military duties in the West Indies. Napoleon ordered him back to France at one -- without the "young person" he claimed to have married.

After some dithering, Jerome and Betsy resolved to head back to France together and plead their case before the Emperor. But because the British would have liked nothing better than to capture their enemy Napoleon's brother, the young couple had to guard their plans with as much secrecy as they could. As it turned out, they weren't capable of a whole lot of secrecy, and rumors of their attempted departures (some true, some false) kept showing up in the newspapers. Finally, they managed to embark, only to be shipwrecked rather spectacularly only a few hours later. Everyone was saved, but according to reports, when rescued the passengers were "nearly naked."

This attempt was followed a few weeks later by another one that proved equally abortive: soon after sailing, the ship encountered an armed British frigate and turned back. Then it was winter, when an Atlantic crossing was too perilous to undertake. But finally, in March of 1805, Jerome and Betsy decided to try once more.

And this is where Eliza comes into the story...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Divorce, 19th-Century Style

Okay, I think it's time to say a few more words about Eliza Anderson Godefroy, the woman I mentioned a few blog posts back.

I stumbled across her while researching what I thought was going to be a historical novel about a woman named Betsy Bonaparte, a Baltimore heiress who married Napoleon Bonaparte's youngest brother, Jerome, in 1803 (she was 18, he was 19). Betsy's correspondence and papers are housed in the library of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, and there are a daunting number of them. As I was going through the first of 20 boxes, I came across three letters written to Betsy in 1808 that stopped me in my tracks.

They were far better written and far more interesting than anything Betsy herself had produced (at least, from what I've read of her correspondence -- and I've now read a lot). And they were all written by a woman named Eliza Anderson, who had gone off in pursuit of her ne'er-do-well husband. He had married Eliza some nine years before when she was 19, fathered a child with her, and then quickly abandoned the family.

Why was Eliza pursuing him now? Because she had fallen in love with another man, a French architect named Maximilian Godefroy, and she wanted a divorce. Divorce wasn't easy in those days: you had to petition the legislature for a private law granting you a divorce, and you had to prove adultery. For some reason, Eliza had gone from Baltimore to Trenton, New Jersey, to get her divorce. After some time there, she decided that her lawyers weren't doing enough to track down her errant husband and obtain proof of adultery (not an affair, as she remarked, "to which men usually call witnesses"). So she decided to go to Albany, where she thought he was, and track him down herself.

One of her letters describes the steamship journey up what must have been the Hudson -- the crowd of passengers jammed tightly on board, the relentless sun, the "smoke & glowing delights which Lucifer prepares for his faithful followers." She waxed lyrical about the mountains and the rising sun that shone on the clouds, so that they "looked like other & more distant hills bordered with silver." And, moving on to her arrival in Albany, she expressed her disgust with her cad of a husband, who -- in addition to his other faults -- had now descended to working as a fisherman and "associating cheerfully with servants." But she got what she came for: he not only confessed to adultery, but also ultimately provided the name of a witness of sorts, a Baltimore physician (perhaps the provider of an abortion?).

Who was this spirited woman whose writing was so engaging, I wondered? I had to know. And so I found myself getting sidetracked from my research into Betsy -- who was, in addition to being a mediocre letter-writer, a pretty unpleasant person -- and getting more and more intrigued by Eliza.

I'll share some more of my discoveries about her in my next post.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Well, Hello Fanny!

Sometimes ignorance is, if not bliss, at least a state that makes it more likely you'll engage in that willing suspension of disbelief that is so crucial to immersion in someone else's imagination.

Last night I saw the movie Bright Star, which is set in the 1820s and based on the romance between John Keats and, literally, the girl next door, a young woman named Fanny Brawne. (I realize my previous blog post was also about a movie -- it's actually very unusual for me to see two movies in the space of a few days!) It's an engaging, terrifically romantic movie (fittingly, since it's about a Romantic poet). And what's more, the period details seem spot on and not prettied up. There's laundry hanging out to dry, lots of mud (I kept worrying about the hems of those lovely empire-style dresses), and the actors -- even the female ones -- seem to be wearing little or no make-up, which gives them an authentically scrubbed and slightly raw look. And, according to Caleb Crain in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, the screenwriter, Jane Campion, incorporated phrases and ideas from Keats's letters into the dialogue.

But right at the beginning, there's a detail that I, for one, found jarring. As Fanny Brawne and her family arrive at the house of some friends, there's a chorus of greetings: Hello, Hello, Hello. Over and over. What's the problem? The word "hello" didn't actually come into common usage as a greeting until much later in the 19th century -- not until Thomas Edison decided that "hello" would make a good word to use when picking up the phone (Alexander Graham Bell favored "ahoy"). Before that, it appears to have been something people said primarily to express surprise or to get someone's attention. If you wanted to greet someone in the early 19th century, you would probably have said "good morning" or some variation appropriate to the time of day.

It's true that Wikipedia suggests that "hullo" may have been used as a greeting in England, as opposed to the U.S., as early as 1803. But the point is that, for me, even thinking about whether these people would actually have said "hello" broke the spell that the movie was trying to cast. For a few moments at least, I was no longer in the front hall of a house in Hampstead in 1828; I was in a movie theater around the corner from my house, in November 2009.

And therein lies one of the dangers of historical movie-making -- or historical fiction. You always have to sweat the details, on the off chance that some viewer or reader will know more than you do. (And it's clear that Caleb Crain was distracted by a slightly different but related question, i.e., whether Keats really would have spoken the way he did in the movie.) That's one reason it was such a relief to work on a contemporary novel over the past few months: I could be quite confident that my period details were indisputably authentic.

But ultimately, last night, I forgot about all those "hellos," forgot the fact that I was in a movie theater, and gave myself over to the movie itself. And, knowing how difficult it is to get every nuance "right," I can't really bring myself to chastise Jane Campion for what appears to be an anachronism.

Actually, I just kind of wish I'd never heard that "hello" was a late 19th-century invention.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Author

Watching the movie The Soloist this weekend put me in mind of an encounter I had recently, one that continues to haunt me.

The Soloist -- which I highly recommend, by the way -- is a true story about the relationship between a journalist, Steve Lopez, and a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers. When Ayers, who is playing a two-stringed violin on the street and is pretty obviously schizophrenic, mentions something about having gone to Juilliard, Lopez does some research and finds out it's true: the guy was once a promising cellist. Lopez writes about Ayers and helps him get a cello, reunite with his family, and move off the street.

Here's my own experience: a couple of weeks ago I was leaving the Library of Congress after an intense day researching the woman I'm currently writing about, Eliza Anderson Godefroy. Outside on the deserted pedestrian walk, I saw something that turned out to be a couple of crumpled dollar bills. I picked them up but I felt funny about taking them: I didn't need this money. I resolved that I would give them to the first homeless person I saw on my way to the Union Station Metro stop.

There's generally no shortage of homeless people hanging out in front of Union Station. When I got to the first of the pedestrian islands you cross in order to get to the station itself, I found no fewer than four homeless people clustered there, begging cups at the ready. What to do? How could I choose between them? If there had been only two, I could have given them each a dollar bill. But there were four.

I hurried on, intent on making my train. But at the next pedestrian island -- at the side of the ornate fountain depicting Columbus staring forth boldly from the prow of his ship -- there was a lone scruffy-looking middle-aged African-American man seated on the ground, a knit cap pulled low over his brow. Quickly, I stuffed my dollar bills into his cup and began to move on.

But he thanked me and called me back -- and, surprised by his clearly articulated, unaccented English, I turned around.

"I want to tell you something," he said crisply as I drew closer. "I want you to go to the Library of Congress."

"That's where I just came from!" I said.

"Well, I want you to go there and look me up in the card catalogue," he continued. "Rod Amis. A-M-I-S. There are three of us: Kingsley, Martin, and me. They're British -- and I'm half-British myself. Anyway, go to the Library of Congress. You'll see I've written 11 books. You'll find them there."

I was amazed. The specificity of his description (not 10 books, but 11) and his obvious acquaintance with literature (he was familiar with Kingsley and Martin Amis, neither of them shlock writers) were convincing. Eleven books?? I wanted to ask what had happened to him, how he had ended up propped up against a marble fountain, begging for spare change.

But I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. Instead I told him that I too was an author -- that I had a book (only one) in the Library of Congress myself. I told him that I would be sure to look him up and that I had enjoyed meeting him. He gave me a warm, slightly surprised smile and nodded graciously.

I couldn't get Mr. Amis out of my mind during my ride on the Metro. And as soon as I got home I looked him up in the online catalog for the Library of Congress. To my dismay, I was told that my search had found no results. I tried again, then again. I tried a Google search and found a Rod Amis who had self-published a couple of books, but who was clearly not the same Rod Amis I'd met.

Finally I had to face the fact that I'd been duped. And yet, I couldn't feel annoyed at Mr. Amis for taking me in. Maybe he hasn't written 11 books -- maybe he hasn't written any books -- but he's clearly got a story of some sort to tell. I'll probably never know what it is. And I'm certainly not going to get a book out of the encounter, the way Steve Lopez did.

But what I did get out of it was a moment of connection with someone I had dismissed as just another homeless person. Whether or not Mr. Amis is a fellow author, we at least have -- or perhaps in his case, had -- similar aspirations. And my gut feeling is that Mr. Amis actually believed what he was telling me -- it was not so much a matter of lying as of confused realities. What's more, the look on his face when I told him I was glad to have met him -- words he probably doesn't hear too much -- is something I hope I'll never forget.

And those words were true.

ADDENDUM: After I published the foregoing blog post, I heard from an old friend of Rod Amis's. It turns out that the "Rod Amis" I found through Google IS the same Rod Amis I met. I had dismissed the possibility because the Rod Amis I found had written a book about New Orleans, and I just assumed he'd still be in N.O. But apparently Mr. Amis has now migrated to D.C. Lest there be any doubt, there are pictures of him in front of Union Station -- displaying a sign that says "Rod Amis ... Author, Raconteur, Bon Vivant" -- accompanying a posting about him at by Debbie Elliott.

So I stand corrected: Mr. Amis has in fact written at least two books (I could only find mention of two) and was a pioneer in (ironically, since I'm writing a blog post) the blogging world. The comments I came across online about his writing were almost uniformly enthusiastic -- and from what little I read, the enthusiasm is justified.

According to the NPR post, Mr. Amis has "slowly lost the use of his brain because of a vitamin deficiency often brought on by alcoholism" -- possibly an occupational hazard of his former profession as a bartender. I would amend that: he clearly hasn't entirely lost the use of his brain, although it's likely his writing days are over.

I was also wrong about another thing: as Mr. Amis's friend observed in his e-mail, a book could certainly be written about this man. Alas, I don't think I'm the person to write it.

What I'd really like to be able to do is figure out some way to get Mr. Amis off the street and into some kind of safe shelter -- especially on a day like today, so cold and wet that I myself am reluctant to venture outside even for a moment. It pains me to think that Mr. Amis -- or anyone else for that matter -- is spending an entire day unprotected from weather like this, weather that's only going to get worse in the coming weeks and months.