The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: Ruth Hull Chatlien
Scandalous some would say, flamboyant, headstrong, opinionated and definitely cultures and intelligent Baltimore’s Betsy Patterson sets the world on fire each time she enters a room. With her astute ability for numbers, her flair for fashion and her ambitious dreams Betsy would have fit in the 21st century as an activist, political figure or ambassador to the United States. Her quick wit, her openness and her ability to understand situations and often respond to comments made in order to defend her family and her own position on controversial issues, she is often rebuked in public, chastised by her domineering father and told to remember her place.
The daughter of a mercantile merchant in Baltimore, she dreamed of marrying someone that would take her away to Europe. But, not every dream comes to pass without come difficulties or obstacles standing in your way. Her childhood was riddled with rules, chores, and a short period in school learning to read, write and her appreciation of literature was vast.
When presented to Jerome Bonaparte Betsy thinks her world has just been made and that all of her hopes and dreams for her future have come true. As the younger brother of Emperor Napoleon she imagines herself in the French Salons, at court and living the life of someone part of the imperial family. But, although their courtship seems to commence on a positive note and her father is skeptical about him, she pursues her dreams but an anonymous letter would change it all. Blinded by what she wanted or wants to believe truths about Jerome’s character are written in black and white. Not believing that he had so many infidelities or indiscretions, she refuses to heed her father’s warnings, hopes that she will be allowed to marry Jerome but finds herself exiled and sent away. But, her undying love and belief in Jerome allows her judgment to be clouded at times and although her father disagrees with her choice he allow Jerome to court her but only within the confines of her own home. As Betsy and Jerome declare their love and set a date for their marriage her father decides to hold it off even more. Learning about the age requirement for marriage in France, needing his mother’s approval, Jerome hopes to circumvent this problem and when they are married on Christmas Eve their real troubles begin. A trip to Niagara falls, traveling abroad by ship, shipwrecked, problems with both the British and the French and being denied entry to many countries besides France, Betsy learns the full scope of Napoleon’s power but does not resolve to give up on Jerome.
But, with the birth of her son, her father’s wrath to endure for the debts incurred by her husband, Betsy finds herself fighting many more a battles at times seeming ungrateful for the help she has already received and only wanting what she feels she and her son deserve. Jerome succumbs to the will of his brother and when the news that he has become King and taken a new wife reaches her she fails to see the error in her judgment. Fatal flaws, wanting a title and not really looking at what is important which was their love for each other and the hope of a life together, both Jerome and Betsy lost in more ways than one. Only wanting to gain recognition from Napoleon, discounting their marriage and eventually declaring it null, void and never happening Betsy finds herself alone. Every muscle in her body repels food; her desire to live wanes but her love for her son wins out. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s story is real; her life can be described as turbulent, stormy and passionate. Never giving up on her marriage yet very naïve in her thinking, author Ruth Hull Chatlien creates a story that is breathtaking, mesmerizing, captivating and exciting as readers take the journey along with Betsy from the time she is eight to the prologue at the beginning where her son is about to die. Betsy’s parents Dorcas her mother and William called Mr. Patterson her father are quite unique. Her mother docile, often rebuked in public by her father and Mr. Patterson tough, business oriented, concerned about money and rarely showing any kind of warmth or emotion. Narrow minded, self absorbed yet some might think just trying to keep Betsy focused and under his thumb we see each of his other children marrying the right person in the right station and Betsy needing to become more independent and self-sufficient which her father had little faith that she could. Never praising her, giving her financial support yet throwing it in her face Betsy had to find a way to live without Jerome, bring up her son and not feel inner or outward disgrace.
Betsy has many possible suitors who would like to become part of her life and her son’s life. But she stands tall in her beliefs wanting him to be give declared a prince by Napoleon, hoping to receive a pension from him and never relenting in her wants and goals. Although some might say that her reasons selfish, that she is self-absorbed and her only concern is with status or some might say she has her son’s best interest at heart. With wars raging between France and Britain and the US declaring war with the French things heat up in more ways than one. With President Jefferson placing an embargo on goods going to other countries her father’s business began to wane and things at home became more difficult. But, the pension the Ambassador to France was able to get for her, the respect people showed on the outside and her newfound friendship with Dolley Madison, things seemed to take a better turn for Betsy. Letters and correspondence from Jerome then enlightened to a harsh truth by her best friend, Napoleon’s campaign in Russia failing the world seemed in turmoil. As Betsy wrote to friends in Europe wanting to know more than what was in the newspapers, hoping to find a place for herself and her son there, her mother’s illness and her father’s infidelities the final outcome for Betsy still has not come. Losing her mother and learning that Napoleon was no longer Emperor and her hopes for Bo/Jerome her son becoming prince disappeared.
The book is replete in history as we learn about the conflicts between the United States, Britain and France, the wars fought, lives lost and one woman who hoped to gain by standing firm on her principals, not faltering in her goals and hoping to finally be received by a man that made sure that she would lose it all. But, did she in the long run. But, with the city in shambles and dangers all around Betsy begs to leave Baltimore concerned that her son would suffer at the hand of the British because of his last name. Events changed and she decided to go to France leaving her son in the care of others and then hoping that he would be safe.
Leaving Europe, returning home and being reunited with her son only proved to strengthen her mind making sure that Jerome would adhere to what she wanted, understand her goals for him and not regale in her father’s footsteps. Without his father to support him she explains why he has to work hard in order to raise himself to the station and status she wants for him and desiring that he have a “brilliant career in diplomacy or government and one day to make a noble marriage.” Explaining the importance of his last name, not to think about marrying someone that would be beneath his station she never really listens to her words or realizes she is turning into her father. Jerome however is smart, perceptive and feels that why can’t they be happy as he states, “As they are?” A mother’s thoughts are revealed on pages 421-422 as she relates why she has entered Jerome in a school in Geneva and why he needs to be trained and primed for a career befitting his station.
Sometimes what we want comes back hitting us in the face as her son decides on a different course of life when of marrying age. Status matters to her and she preferred begin known as the former sister-in-law of Napoleon. Never seeing his son yet coming to Europe her former husband departs really fast meeting his son for the first time in 1826. Although Betsy wanted her son to live in Europe he opted for America.
Marrying Susan Mary Williams worth 200,000 dollars, the daughter of Benjamin Williams the founder of the first railroad company in America. But Betsy was angry, wrote to her father and he voice was not heard. Always thinking everyone is beneath her and her son this time she lost.
An ending you will have to read for yourself, a life devoted to only one think rank and status and a woman who gave up everything to pursue her goals. What happens when he meets his father for the first time? What happens when he asserts himself and decides where he wants to live and what type of life he wants? A starling letter of admission states her feelings about her son’s choice when marrying, as you will read on page 444 and another on 445. What happens when she finally meets Susan? What happens when Jerome joins her at the end of their son’s life? Her father’s will says it all and the bequests made quite telling as William gets the final word. Did Jerome ever get a title or rank? Did he ever use the Bonaparte name? What were their final words? One woman who wanted to be treated as an equal and proved she belonged in a man’s world. Betsy, Elisa Patterson: a force to be reckoned with but was she ever happy? The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is truly an exciting story as readers take the journey; visit the many different cities throughout the world. Did she ever meet Napoleon? Maybe in her dreams. Strong characters, very intense plot and a story that will keep you glued to the printed page rooting for Betsy to win every step of the way. Ambitious: truly defined Betsy.
Fran Lewis: reviewer