HM - Apr. 2014 - Scarbrough

Book Review

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

Reviewed by Beth Scarbrough, Georgia Council for History Education

Carol Berkin successfully brings another historic character to life in her latest book. She is a master of giving those of the past a voice centuries after death, and Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (Betsy) is no different. Betsy’s life is a mingling of excitement, enchantment, heartbreak, scandal, love, ambition, adventure, and bitterness. The story begins with her ill-content in her native Baltimore and her father’s pedestrian expectations of his eldest daughter. Enter the dashing Jerome Bonaparte, youngest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. It is a love affair of youthful intensity and political implications. So her odyssey with European aristocracy begins. She proves to be a woman of considerable brilliance and wit. Berkin paints a picture of the dichotomy of a woman who brazenly defies her father’s wishes, yet is very much like him in ambition and spirit. A woman who rejects the values of her home country, yet earns money and freedom with a decidedly American entrepreneurial spirit.

Wondrous Beauty tells the story of a remarkable woman coming of age as the fledgling United States does the same. The intrigue of her life comes from more than just the love story, but also the political story. As Berkin states, “Although Betsy enjoyed no formal political rights and wielded no formal political power, she was nevertheless influential in the political and diplomatic decision making of the early republic.” She stands as a woman who challenged the societal norms of her time. However, she was not an activist for women, but one for herself. She was unashamed to trust only herself for her fortune and well-being. Even so, Berkin reminds readers that “Betsy paid dearly for her choices in life, of course.”

In the classroom, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte would serve as an ideal anchor for the early Republic through the Civil War. Her life and times span from 1785 to 1879. Students would no doubt connect to her life, and educators’ use of that high interest would assist students’ ability to understand economic, social, and political implications of events in the United States and Europe for almost 100 years.

Berkin’s greatest accomplishment in each of her books is to introduce readers to human lives of the past in his or her own time and place. Yet, her artistry evokes the emotion and the tension that lies within each of us – connecting us across time and space with those we wish we could have known.