Thursday, February 10, 2011

Celebutantes of the 19th Century

I recently went to a fascinating lecture about the Caton sisters.

Who, I hear you ask? Is that like the Kardashian sisters? Well, yes, kind of.

The Caton sisters were beautiful and wealthy, and basically famous for being famous. They were, if you will, the celebutantes of their time. But--given that their time was the early 19th century--they were way more discreet. And their parents--unlike the parents of Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe--weren't into alliteration. The Caton girls were named, rather boringly, Mary Ann, Elizabeth (or Betsey), and Louisa. (There was also a fourth one--Emily--but she never made it as a celebutante.)

Before I went to the lecture, almost everything I knew about the Caton sisters was filtered through the letters of the two women I've been researching for the past few years, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte and Eliza Anderson Godefroy. All five women grew up in the same elite social circle in late 18th- and early 19th-century Baltimore.

I knew enough to discount much of what Betsy Bonaparte said. Not only did she have a phenomenally venomous tongue, but she clearly saw the Caton girls as her rivals for the title of Belle of Baltimore. Beautiful and wealthy herself, Betsy was the first Baltimore girl to snare a royal title--well, sort of. She married Napoleon's youngest brother in 1803, but her hopes of someday rising to the throne herself (or at least some kind of throne--I imagine a principality would have sufficed) were dashed by Napoleon's vehement opposition to the marriage, which he had annulled. Imagine Betsy's anguish when all three of the Caton sisters ended up with titles after marrying into the British aristocracy (including one, Mary Ann, whose first husband had been Betsy's own brother).

But Betsy's animosity toward the Catons started even before their famous 1816 trip to England, during which the sisters were feted as "the three Graces." Shortly before their departure, Betsy was scolded by her friend Eliza Anderson Godefroy for badmouthing Betsey Caton at a New York boarding-house. After swearing Betsy B. to the strictest confidence (for Betsey C. had "charged me not to tell it to you"), Eliza reported the gossip retailed by two gentlemen in New York who were Betsy C.'s "devoted lovers." According to them, Eliza told Betsy B., "at a public dinner at the Boarding House you abused her in the blackest & most infamous manner, & that they made it a point to tell her to put her on her Guard against you_ I told her I did not believe a word of it & that they must be dirty Fellows indeed who would take such a business upon their hands."

Eliza pleaded with Betsy B. "not to open her lips" about Betsey C. in the future (so, despite her protestations, she obviously DID believe the report). Perhaps Betsy B. grew more discreet, but her hatred of the sisters continued to burn with a hard, gem-like flame. In her later years, Betsy B. apparently spent many hours going through her voluminous correspondence and annotating it, just for fun. In 1867--fifty years after Eliza wrote her that letter about the New York boarding house--she wrote on the bottom, "From Mrs. Anderson Godefroy about my old Enemies the Catons who hated & injured me in Europe in 1816 & were, out of the Patterson father & sons Robert John Joseph & Edward, the most pernicious foes of my life." (The Patterson men referred to were Betsy's own father and brothers, so you get some sense here of what her relationship with her own family was like. But that's another story.)

I trusted Eliza's observations a bit more, but she was ambiguous on the subject of the Catons, especially Betsey. In that 1816 letter to Betsy B., Eliza seems to be endorsing her friend's own dim view of the Caton girl: "No matter what she may be," she tells Betsy B., "you cannot but injure yourself by speaking of her. .. she will always make herself appear the unresisting victim to your unmerited dislike."

But maybe Eliza was only saying what she knew Betsy B. would want to hear. Many years later--when Betsey Caton finally snared a titled husband at the age of 45--Eliza reminisced about her with considerably more warmth. “Betsey Caton had more heart and more head than all the rest of the family put together," she told a correspondent on hearing of the marriage. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the rest of the clan, but still pretty favorable to Betsey.

Right after she says that, though, Eliza goes on to say: "... but nothing so wastes the heart, so deteriorates all elevation of mind, as the system of coquetry she and her sisters were taught to practice almost from their cradles. It has however succeeded perfectly well with them, for the end of life is to obtain the object of our Soul’s ambition, and rank and title was theirs.”

The lecture I went to--which was given by Mary Jeske at the Maryland Historical Society--provided a more complete portrait of these three women. They certainly don't seem to have been the demons Betsy Bonaparte thought they were. On the other hand, Eliza's judgment that rank and title were their "Soul's ambition" may well have been correct (they certainly were Betsy B's!). Such an objective may seem strange to us, in this day and age, but in the early 19th century an excellent marriage was the highest ambition that most women could aspire to. And on those terms, the Caton sisters succeeded spectacularly.

Before the lecture, I found the Caton sisters' story reminiscent of all those tales about impoverished British landed gentry marrying American heiresses for their money--the most recent version being the addictive PBS series "Downtown Abbey." But as I discovered, the Caton girls actually didn't have any money--not of their own. Their grandfather, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) was indeed fabulously wealthy. But the sisters weren't able to get a piece of that until Carroll died. And he lived to be 95, which was almost unheard of in those days.

After the first Caton sister married in 1817--not to an aristocrat, yet--it was rumored that her husband was shocked to discover, after the marriage, that she had no fortune. One of Betsy B.'s London correspondents wrote to tell her that no one was going to make THAT mistake again. No one, he said, would be taking Betsey Caton to the altar "unless the money is first paid down, or put into a Train that it will be forthcoming."

It's enough to make you feel sorry for Betsey Caton, whatever her ambition was in life. And it's quite a tribute to the Caton sisters that they all managed to marry aristocrats--at least one of them, indeed, impoverished--even AFTER everyone knew they had no money. Can the Kardashians top that accomplishment?

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