Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Betsy Bonaparte--Star Crossed Lover

By Lisa Karon Richardson

In 1803 Napoleon’s younger brother, Jerome was a naval officer fighting in the Caribbean. To escape captured by the English he retreated to America, and subsequently went to Maryland to visit a friend. There he met Miss Elizabeth Patterson, the daughter of the wealthiest man in Maryland. After a whirlwind two month courtship, he asked for her hand in marriage. Neither side of the family was enthusiastic about the arrangement, but Elizabeth, known as Betsy, did manage to obtain her parents’ permission. Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t so accommodating, he had plans for his brother. Despite the First Consul's wishes, however, the wedding went ahead. (Perhaps Jerome thought that once the wedding was accomplished his brother would have to like it or lump it. Little did he realize...)

The couple were married on Christmas Eve 1803 by the Archbishop of Baltimore and immediately set out to take America by storm. Betsy’s beauty was legendary and she had no problem with flaunting it by wearing fashions that raised many an eyebrow. At one point she appeared in Washington, essentially nude. The white muslin gown she wore had been dampened down until it clung to every… um… feature and she had no other layers on beneath it. An ensemble that scandalized the wives of Washington, but didn’t seem to trouble their husbands at all.

At the news of the wedding Napoleon immediately ordered his brother home. Jerome and Betsy managed to ignore Napoleon’s peremptory summons for a while as they traveled south to New Orleans, but the time came when they had to respond.

A now pregnant Betsy set sail with her husband, hoping to arrive in time for Napoleon’s coronation. When they came within sight of the coast in March of 1805, their ship was boarded and Jerome was taken off. She never saw him again.

Betsy was denied entrance into France, and Napoleon exerted his influence to ensure that other ports were closed to her as well. She finally found safe harbor in England and gave birth to a son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, in July of 1805.

Jerome tried to reason with his brother, but Napoleon would not listen and declared the marriage null. He then demanded that Jerome marry a German princess, Catharina of Württemburg. Jerome caved to the pressure and married the German miss--without having his marriage to Betsy legally dissolved.
Napoleon sent a letter to Betsy requesting that she stop using the Bonaparte name, and offering her a small stipend if she would drop her claims, and those of her son on Jerome. She promptly replied that she had come by the name honorably and had no intention of dropping it nor any other right or honor which she was due.

In London, Betsy became the belle of the ball. Every Englishman wanted to meet the woman who so thoroughly got Napoleon’s goat. She returned to Maryland with her young son, but after the Battle of Waterloo she returned to Europe and was feted across the continent for her beauty and wit. She finally secured a divorce from Jerome in 1815 by a special act of the Maryland Legislature. 

The romantic in me wishes they had been less pragmatic and more... dramatic. Couldn't Jerome have chosen to escape France and his brother's control? Couldn't Betsy have found a way to smuggle herself across the channel in order to be reunited with her beloved? Why can't real life be more like books? 

Can you think of any prosaic real life stories that you'd like to write an alternate ending for? What's stopping you?

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, Lisa Karon Richardson’s early books were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now that she’s (mostly) all grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure and excitement in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Her first novella, Impressed by Love, part of the Colonial Courtships collection, is coming in October, 2012 followed shortly thereafter by The Magistrate’s Folly in November.


  1. Ah yes... I love this story. I think I even saw a piece of it depicted in my darling Horatio Hornblower series, but of course I don't know if it was in the original books.

    The part I don't understand is why a nice girl from Maryland would want to go so far as to do the first wet T shirt (and More) contest. Did she feel that as a Frenchwoman by marriage, she could adopt those risqué styles. Her mother and father probably had more than second thoughts by then!

    Thanks for the reminder, Lisa. I agree in this case fiction would choose the better ending!

    I'm sure there's been some fiction written about their son and descendants!

  2. Um, wow. I've never heard this story before. It's so sad. Why was Jerome so weak? True love did not conquer all. Was he just weak? Shallow? Fickle?

    I feel sorry for Betsy even though she flaunted herself. I have to wonder if Jerome put her up to being so brazen.

  3. Deb, I had forgotten about the Horatio Hornblower bit, but I think you're right!

  4. Suzie, you asked some of the same questions that I asked myself. I can't imagine it would have been easy to stand up to Napoleon Bonaparte, I mean whole countries couldn't do it, but even so we sure want love to win out.

    I have no idea what motivated the scandalous wardrobe. It would be interesting to find out though!

  5. Yes, one of the HH movies drew on this incident. The very last one made, I think.

    I've always thought Jerome was a wimp, and he evidently wasn't a faithful husband to his 2nd wife. If I were writing Elizabeth into a romance novel, Jerome would be the sorry cad in her past and I'd get her a real man for the hero.

  6. I want a happy ending, too. But as far as writing it goes, I like your idea, CJ! She deserved better.

    I've got to say, Jerome was a bit of a looker. He and Betsy must have been quite the duo and enjoyed causing trouble.

    Interesting post, Lisa!

  7. CJ, you're right. He was a wimp if he wasn't willing to stand up for his wife. Love your idea of a happy ending. I wonder if Jerome ever regretted his choices. Was his later infidelity an indication of his underlying character all along, or was it more a symptom of unhappiness. We'll never know, but if nothing else character analysis is fun and we can use it to write great stories. Or at least stories with better endings than provided in real life!

  8. He is pretty good looking, Susie. Wonder if he got fat and bald and if that was Betsy's favorite revenge of all?!

  9. Fascinating story, Lisa! What if the wet-dress attire wasn't Betsy's choice? What if James had pressured her into wearing it because he needed to feel he was the king of the heep because all the other men desired his wife? Betsy could have been a trophy wife.

  10. Or, Gina, maybe she was afraid of losing his attention and so turned to trying to make him jealous. There are so many ways to spin a story on its ear!

  11. Valid point, Lisa! Which goes to show how easy it is to make suppositions about a person's actions . . . and still be completely wrong. I want to be a person who more quickly assumes the best of a person instead of the worst, but I'm not there yet. Ugh! I wonder how much "getting there" requires actively disciplining the mind. Even if we assume the worst initially, make a conscious decision to believe the best until proven otherwise.

  12. I was thinking - if I was rewriting this story, then Jerome (yes I agree, he was quite handsome) would have fought valiantly to bring Betsy home as his wife. But Napolean threatened Jerome somehow - perhaps threatening Betsy's life if he didn't abandon her. So Jerome really acted out of love to protect his sweet Betsy.

    Napoleon, on the other hand, likely got something out of the arranged marriage between his brother and Catharina. You know he didn't arrange the marriage out of the goodness of his heart.

  13. Gina, at my day job we have "guiding behaviors." One of them is to assume goodness in intentions. Not always easy, but I'm working on it too!

  14. Suzie, sounds like you don't mind a bittersweet ending. For me it depends on the story. If it's the right ending I'm ok with it, but if it just feels emotionally manipulative I want to wallbang the book.

    And yes, Napoleon got an expanded realm of influence through his brother's marriage. We often think of the girls forced into unwanted marriages for political or financial advancement, but it happened to a lot of men too.


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