Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scandal, Fictional and Otherwise

In my last post, I hinted that in 1807 Eliza Anderson may have been up to something--something that led observers to speculate that her translation of the scandalous novel Clara d'Albe was actually autobiographical. (Of course, as Eliza pointed out, if it was a translation, how could it be autobiographical?)

At some point in late 1806 or 1807, Eliza met a French artist and architect living in Baltimore named Maximilian Godefroy. Godefroy's early history is cloaked in some mystery (he gave conflicting accounts), but it appears that he escaped from France after getting into trouble with Napoleon and eventually secured a job in Baltimore teaching drawing at St. Mary's College, a boys' school run by French priests. Godefroy apparently cut quite a dashing figure: he had pretensions to nobility (on some occasions he's referred to as "Count St. Maur" or "Count La Mard"), and he attracted favorable attention after designing a Gothic chapel for the Sulpician friars of St. Mary's in 1806--a structure that has been called the first Gothic-style building on American shores. In the summer of 1807, the Baltimore Library exhibited his massive drawing, "The Battle of Pultowa," which had a romantic backstory: supposedly Godefroy fashioned it while imprisoned in the Chateau d'If, using only bits of paper that came to hand--120 in all--along with the "stump of a pen" and ink made from the soot of his stove.

How Godefroy and Eliza first met isn't clear--although he does record being treated by her doctor father in October 1806--but by July 1807 he had become a contributor to the Observer. That magazine, edited by Eliza, published in three installments a work by Godefroy entitled “Military considerations on the mode of defence best adapted, for the United States, under its present circumstances.” (With a background as both a soldier and an architect, Godefroy apparently felt he had some expertise in military fortifications.) In October this work appeared in pamphlet form, with the translator identified as Eliza Anderson.

So far, nothing scandalous here. But at some point the relationship between Godefroy and Eliza became romantic. They were married in December of 1808--after Eliza had, the previous June, gone to Trenton, New Jersey, to obtain a divorce.

That's right: Eliza was already married. (Why she went to Trenton to get the divorce is a mystery to me.) In 1799, when she was 19 years old, she'd married a Baltimore merchant named Henry Anderson. They had a child the following year, but shortly thereafter Anderson disappeared: he's no longer listed in the Baltimore city directory of 1801. For the previous six years, then, Eliza had been an abandoned wife. But of course that, under the mores of the era, didn't give her license to fool around with another man.

So, in October 1807--when both Clara d'Albe and the translation of Godefroy's pamphlet appeared--there may have been talk of some hanky-panky between Eliza and Godefroy, and that may have fueled the odd rumor that Clara d'Albe was somehow based on Eliza's own experience. Eliza was surely right to protest that she was merely the translator, but isn't it possible that a certain similarity between Clara's plight and her own may have drawn her to the novel and helped her to overcome any scruples she might have had about translating a work that was so racy? After all, both Clara and Eliza had found true love, and all that was standing in their way were some pesky marriage vows.

Whether there was actually gossip about Eliza and Godefroy in 1807 I don't know, but there was certainly talk by June of 1808, when Eliza was seeking her divorce in Trenton. "As for what the Town says of me and much I hear they say," she wrote to her friend Betsy Bonaparte, "I care not. Absurd & ridiculous monsters in whose hands no fame can go unsullied--if Godefroy had wished or proposed anything dishonourable to me, would it be by honourably proposing to my Father to make me his wife & share the good or bad fortune that befalls him that he'd prove it? Why should I be at the trouble of getting a divorce & overcoming the difficulties that attended getting the means to do it--if I had already sacrificed honor? Truly I might have continued as I was--their malice is too glaringly absurd, for it to cost one a single sigh."

And yet, she's not quite as cavalier about the gossip as she makes out; the next sentence is, "Tell me if you have heard anything of their infernal reports--God help me, a spanish Island or any other Island, with some one to knock out the brains of any who insult me, will be blessed Elysium."

It certainly sounds like Eliza maintained her "honor" in 1807. But someone--perhaps one of the many Baltimoreans Eliza had managed to antagonize--was apparently spreading rumors to the contrary.

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