Examining the sensational life of Jérôme Bonaparte’s American first wife, Charlene M. Boyer Lewis explores how Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte ‘actively constructed a transatlantic life’ over the early-mid nineteenth century. With a biographer’s verve, Boyer Lewis traces Patterson Bonaparte’s personal odyssey: from beginnings as a merchant’s daughter in Baltimore to the stylish young wife of the French Emperor’s brother Jérôme, to social fixture and confidante of Dolley Madison in Washington after her forced divorce, to European salonnière over the two decades after 1815, to an enduring American and French celebrity in old age. While emphasising the uniqueness of Patterson Bonaparte’s story, Boyer Lewis places her life within larger American contexts of debates over cosmopolitanism, national identity and gender roles in the early Republic.

Patterson Bonaparte’s early cosmopolitanism appeared very much her own construction. After a sheltered early life—though, as Boyer Lewis emphasises, one informed by broad reading in early romantic novels—at eighteen she met Jérôme at a dinner held by exiled Saint Domingue plantation owners in 1805, and wed him that Christmas. With their route to Europe initially barred by the British navy, ‘Madame Bonaparte’ achieved American celebrity status through her sensational match, social charm, and revealing French ‘Grecian style’ wardrobe. After being separated from Jérôme in Lisbon and returning to the United States with his infant son, on the strength of her dramatic story and prestige of her French connections, she developed a social position for herself amongst the highest levels of Washington society. Despite never having yet set foot in France, she so came to personify ‘all that Americans admired and envied’ about Europe that she became a regular guest of the Madisons at the White House.

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