Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: Who Was She?

By Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch

“Crushed like a butterfly sporting on the bosom of a flower (a rose).” –Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte Account Book, 1858-59

XX.5.72 Bonaparte, Elizabeth Patterson, 1785-1879.
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1785-1879), François Josephe Kinsoen, circa 1817, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.72

For the past year, I have collected hundreds of quotations written by Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. What grows more and more evident in these words is that Elizabeth was not a happy woman. Disappointed by her ill-fated marriage to Jerome and continually berated by her father, William Patterson, Elizabeth felt caught between, as she put it, “an unnatural Parent and a faithless husband.” When writing about Elizabeth, perhaps the greatest challenge is to sort out the embittered woman from the witty, charming, vivacious person so many people admired.

“I have been in such a state of melancholy, that I wished myself dead a thousand times…” Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte wrote to Lady Sydney Morgan, 1820 [Charlotte Boyer Lewis, 169]. This confession of a deep, dark depression reoccurs throughout Elizabeth’s life. When her words are severe, they are fueled by more than just bitterness. They are fueled by genuine hurt, sadness and disappointment. Elizabeth felt life had knocked her about “like an indian Rubber Ball…”

Despite this confessed hopelessness, Elizabeth continued to chart her own destiny, shaping a life for herself in both Europe and Baltimore. Late in life she recognized and lamented her independence, recording, “…like the Silkworm I spun my own suit & my own Lodging & had no aid or partner in my Labors.” Few women of her time could say the same. Unlike most women with her advantages, Elizabeth chose never to remarry and find a “partner” in her struggles. Instead, the “lodging” she made for herself was the fortune she amassed through her own ingenuity and business acumen. She was quick to point out that “All my Ground Rents were bought out of my own Purse.” Her formula for business was straightforward: “Never run the slightest risk in the pursuit of great profits—see clearly the transaction to its termination.” This approach benefited her greatly and ensured wealth for her son and grandsons. Unlike Elizabeth who often fretted over her financial state, the future generations of American Bonapartes enjoyed fortunes free from worry.

While it is perhaps easy to focus on the vitriolic-tongued Elizabeth and think she was one of history’s most accomplished “poison pens,” it is far more challenging to look below her severe words. In the subtext of her anger and resentment, one finds a woman whose life had not gone as she had hoped. “Life has been to me a bitter struggle & a hard and rocky road,” confessed Elizabeth in her account book from the 1860s. To tell her true story, we must construct a picture of a woman who was not everything she appeared to be. Those who met her remembered her as beautiful, charming and amusing. Within the private writings, the other Elizabeth, a woman troubled by self-doubt, anger and despondency is found. Therein one finds another Elizabeth, a woman who inspires the sympathy she felt her father and her former husband never granted her.

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