Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin

Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson BonaparteTitle: Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte
Author: Carol Berkin
Publisher/Publication Date: Knopf; February 11, 2014
Genre: Nonfiction; History; Biogrophy 
Source/Format: Purchased; Hardcover

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Synopsis from Goodreads...

In Wondrous Beauty, Carol Berkin tells the story of this audacious, outsized life. We see how the news of the union infuriated Napoleon and resulted in his banning the then ­pregnant Betsy Bonaparte from disembarking in any European port, offering his brother the threat of remaining married to that “American girl” and forfeiting all wealth and power—or renouncing her, marrying a woman of Napoleon’s choice, and reaping the benefits. Jérôme ended the marriage posthaste and was made king of Westphalia; Betsy fled to England, gave birth to her son and only child, Jérôme’s namesake, and was embraced by the English press, who boasted that their nation had opened its arms to the cruelly abandoned young wife. Berkin writes that this naïve, headstrong American girl returned to Baltimore a wiser, independent woman, refusing to seek social redemption or a return to obscurity through a quiet marriage to a member of Baltimore’s merchant class. Instead she was courted by many, indifferent to all, and initiated a dangerous game of politics—a battle for a pension from Napoleon—which she won: her pension from the French government arrived each month until Napoleon’s exile.

Using Betsy Bonaparte’s extensive letters, the author makes clear that the “belle of Baltimore” disdained America’s obsession with moneymaking, its growing ethos of democracy, and its rigid gender roles that confined women to the parlor and the nursery; that she sought instead a European society where women created salons devoted to intellectual life—where she was embraced by many who took into their confidence, such as Madame de Staël, Madame Récamier, the aging Marquise de Villette (goddaughter of Voltaire), among others—and where aristocracy, based on birth and breeding rather than commerce, dominated society. Wondrous Beauty is a riveting portrait of a woman torn between two worlds, unable to find peace in either—one a provincial, convention-bound new America; the other a sophisticated, extravagant Old World Europe that embraced freedoms, a Europe ultimately swallowed up by decadence and idleness. A stunning revelation of an extraordinary age...

My Thoughts:

I decided to give this one a try since it has been some time since I last read a book that was nonfiction. I read the synopsis and thought, “Hey, this might not be a bad book." And you know, after reading Wondrous Beauty by Carol Berkin I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes life is as strange as fiction. There are some things you just can’t make up, and Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte’s life was worth reading about. Her story perfectly illustrates the life of an ambitious woman living in the nineteenth-century.

Oddly enough, this was the first time I’ve actually heard of her.

This book opens by briefly telling about Elizabeth’s father before following her life as she was growing up, her subsequent albeit brief marriage to Jérôme Bonaparte (younger brother to Napoleon Bonaparte) and her life thereafter—all the way up until her death. Wondrous Beauty portrays the life of Elizabeth as a mixture of years spent in the limelight as somewhat of a celebrity renowned for her beauty, intelligence, and wit. The book also portrays her as a woman charmed by nineteenth-century extravagant European lifestyle with a clear disdain for her Baltimore roots. Despite all those things, she also suffered a lot of disappointment throughout her life, and it steadily changed her. I also felt that it was fascinating to see how parts of her personal ideology contradicted her actions.

This book makes use of her letters, which are quoted throughout. They were extensively detailed and offered a lot of insight into her life and how she felt about things that were happening to and around her.

Wondrous Beauty is one of those books that I enjoy because it sheds light on another part of history, a story that I might not have known about otherwise. Wonderous Beauty was simply a fantastic, thought-provoking read.

Rating 4/5

About the Author (from the back of the book)...

Carol Berkin received her A.B. from Barnard College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. She taught at Baruch College from 1972 to 2008 and has taught at the Graduate Center for the City University of New York since 1983. She is currently Baruch Presidential Professor of History. Berkin is the author of numerous books, among them Civil War Wives, Revolutionary Mothers, A brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution as well as articles and reviews. She lives in New York City and Guilford, Connecticut...

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