Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Betsy Grows Bitter

Eliza, at least, was undoubtedly delighted to arrive back home safely after her adventures with Betsy in Europe, and to be reunited with her father and her little girl.

Betsy was presumably bitterly disappointed that her mission had failed: she now had an infant son--a putative heir to the Bonaparte throne--but her husband was missing in action. She didn't know yet whether Napoleon would be convinced to recognize her marriage, but in this instance no news must have looked like bad news. Still, she was determined to keep up appearances. As she wrote to her father from London about Jerome, "we must certainly act as if we supposed him possessed of some principle and honour.”

As it would turn out, he wasn't. Or perhaps that's being too harsh: Napoleon wasn't an easy guy to stand up to. In any event, after a few ardent letters and lavish presents he sent to Betsy in 1805 and 1806, Jerome grew silent. And then in 1807 word came that he had acceded to his brother's wishes and married royalty--Princess Frederica Catherina of Wurtemberg. It may not have been a love match, but the union enabled Jerome to become King of Westphalia--at least until Napoleon met his literal Waterloo.

Betsy essentially spent the rest of her life (and she lived to be 94) fighting to establish herself and her son as genuine Bonapartes. She never got the title she yearned for, and her son disappointed her by marrying a perfectly nice Baltimore girl instead of the royalty she would have preferred--an act that drove her, she said, to the brink of madness. (Apparently she didn't get the irony here: her OWN marriage was annulled by Napoleon largely because SHE wasn't royalty.) And eventually she got a court decision recognizing her son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (nicknamed "Bo"), as a Bonaparte. But he wasn't allowed to take his place in the line of succession for the French throne--which, of course, did end up in Bonaparte hands again for a while. (Her grandson, Charles Bonaparte, did become an Attorney General of the United States--but it's unclear whether Betsy would have been impressed by that.)

And so we will basically leave the story of Betsy, which gets pretty boring and depressing. In the next installment we'll switch our attention to Eliza. During her lifetime, Eliza may have felt herself to be in the shadow of her far more celebrated friend (or perhaps I should say "friend"). And lots more ink has been spilled over Betsy than Eliza--who hasn't been written about by a historian in over 50 years. But as we'll soon discover, what Eliza herself was about to accomplish was pretty impressive--and, I would argue, a lot more historically significant than anything Betsy ever did.

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