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...

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