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.

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