Saturday, December 5, 2009

Eliza, Betsy, and Napoleon--Part 2

So, as I was saying, Betsy and her husband Jerome Bonaparte decided to try once more to sail from Baltimore to Europe to try to convince Jerome's brother--the Emperor Napoleon--to recognize the validity of their marriage.

On at least one of the previous abortive attempts at crossing the Atlantic--the one that ended in a shipwreck--Betsy had brought along an unmarried female relative of hers, Nancy Spear, as a companion. There's no explanation of exactly why she brought Miss Spear along, but the couple may have anticipated some difficulty that would require them to be separated.

But when Jerome and Betsy decided, in March 1805, to attempt the voyage yet again, Betsy brought along not Miss Spear (who may have been reluctant to go to sea again after that shipwreck) but her brother William and her friend Eliza Anderson. At this point Betsy was several months pregnant, so a female companion who could hold her hand during a possible delivery may have seemed like a good idea.

The mention of a "Mrs. Anderson" on this voyage has led some of the many historical novelists who have taken a crack at Betsy's story to conclude that she was an older "family friend"--"sour and efficient" as one author characterized her--with experience as a sort of midwife.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Eliza Anderson was 25 at the time, only five years older than Betsy, and the two had been friends from their youth. Although no letters between them survive from this time, later letters suggest that Eliza felt a partly maternal, partly sisterly interest in Betsy--sometimes urging her to read the "metaphysical writers" that Eliza herself found consoling in times of despair (she mentions works such as William Paley's Moral Philosophy and Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments), sometimes chiding her to curb her notoriously acid tongue.

We don't know exactly why Betsy chose Eliza to accompany on her voyage, but at this point both of them held a somewhat marginal position in Baltimore's elite society, which may have strengthened their bond. Betsy was the daughter of one of the state's wealthiest men, William Patterson (second in wealth only to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, according to Thomas Jefferson). But her reputation had suffered as a result of her controversial marriage, her air of superiority, and her scandalous manner of dress (she favored the new French neoclassical style--no corset, thin material--leading Americans to complain that she was appearing in public nearly naked). Basically, a lot of people in Baltimore couldn't stand her--just as she couldn't stand them.

As for Eliza, her father was a respected, but far from wealthy, doctor. Probably as a result of family connections and her father's eminence, Eliza was friendly with the daughters of Baltimore's leading families, including not only Betsy but the three Caton sisters, granddaughters of Charles Carroll. But her position in society was even more precarious than Betsy's. At the age of 19 she had made an ill-advised marriage of her own, to a Henry Anderson. After about a year, during which he fathered a daughter, Henry abandoned his family, apparently after going bankrupt.

So in 1805, when Betsy asked Eliza to accompany her to Europe, Eliza was essentially a single mother, living a life of genteel poverty in the shadow of far wealthier friends and relatives. We can safely assume that her life lacked glamor and adventure. How could she resist Betsy's invitation to sail to Europe and possibly be received at the court of the Emperor Napoleon, even if it meant leaving behind her four-year-old daughter and risking her life on the high seas, where there lurked not only natural disasters but also the British navy, on high alert for Jerome's rumored crossing?

Well, actually, I probably would have said no myself. But Eliza was apparently made of stronger, and more adventurous, stuff.

And as we shall see, she got plenty of adventure.

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