Dress of the Week – Betsy Patterson’s muslin gown 10


Muslin gown worn by Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, c1804. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

What could be more fitting a post for this fourth of July than a look at a dress associated with Miss Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore who would for a brief period be better known as Madame Jérôme Bonaparte – until his big brother Napoléon got wind of the whole thing and put an end to it.

It was apparently love at first sight when the nineteen year old navy officer Jérôme Bonaparte first beheld the gorgeous, witty and rather dashing eighteen year old Betsy Patterson, the undisputed belle of Baltimore high society and daughter of the richest man in the area, during a trip to the United States in 1803 and certainly the young couple wasted very little time before getting married on Christmas Eve of that year in a ceremony presided over by the Archbishop of Baltimore. It was a splendid occasion but there were seeds of future trouble already apparent with the groom having to add extra years to his age as he wasn’t old enough to legally marry in either America or France and the bride’s father rather less than impressed with the whole thing as he’d heard rumours of his prospective son-in-law’s philandering spendthrift ways not to mention whispers that Jérôme’s ambitious brother would almost certainly be less than pleased with the match. It was only after the high spirited Betsy had threatened to elope with her suitor that her parents agreed to the match – although they insisted upon having a pre-nuptial agreement drawn up just in case! Very wise.

Muslin gown worn by Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, c1804. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

High spirited, vivacious and strong willed, Betsy was married in a clinging white muslin that was described as being light enough to ‘fit easily into a gentleman’s pocket‘ and for a long time it was assumed that this dress in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was her actual wedding dress. However, the vertical embroidery down the front of the skirt dates it to a year after the couple’s wedding so sadly this probably wasn’t the case. However, what it does illustrate is the young Madame Bonaparte’s rather daring and exquisite sense of style, which rivalled that of her exceedingly glamorous sister-in-law Joséphine de Beauharnais.

As might be imagined, big brother Napoléon, who was already planning his coronation as well as anticipating marriages for all his siblings with the major royal and noble houses of continental Europe, was none too pleased to learn of his younger brother’s hasty marriage and immediately ordered the unrepentant Jérôme to return to France without his wife and have the marriage annulled. Jérôme, still wildly infatuated with Betsy, who was now furthermore pregnant, refused but later partially relented just before his brother’s coronation and decided that he should take his wife back to France for the event. No doubt he hoped that the sight of the beauteous and very pregnant Betsy would soften Napoléon’s resolve. Obviously he was wrong.

Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, Sully, c1805. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Furious, Napoléon ordered that Betsy be forbidden from landing anywhere in continental Europe but graciously agreed that his brother could continue on without her. Promising to sort things out and have her received in proper state, Jérôme went off to reason with Napoléon, assuring poor pregnant Betsy, who was left behind in neutral Portugal, that he would do everything he could to sort the situation out. We can only imagine the tears and promises that were made as he made his departure and prepared for his journey then went off in his carriage as Eliza watched mournfully from a window, waving her handkerchief as he vanished from view.

She was never to see her husband again. Napoléon proved intractable and having failed to persuade Pope Pius to annul the marriage decided, like Henry VIII before him, to do so himself in autumn 1806. He still refused to let Betsy set foot in France and offered her an annual pension of 60,000 francs a year if she would only agree to take herself off forever and relinquish the all important Bonaparte name – no doubt thinking of her child, Betsy proudly refused. In some desperation, she travelled by ship to the Netherlands, hoping to get in via Amsterdam. When this too inevitably failed thanks to Napoléon’s determination that she would never enter France (he sent warships to block her passage) she sailed off to England, always glad to welcome someone less than pleased with Napoléon with open arms, and took up residence at 95 Camberwell Grove in London, where she gave birth on the 5th of July 1805 to her son Jérôme Napoleon Bonaparte.

Meanwhile, Jérôme was still assuring Betsy of his ardent devotion and promising her that if Napoléon continued to refuse his consent to their being together then he would accept his threatened disinheritance and take both she and their child off to live quietly together. Forced to return to his duties in the French navy, he was also determined to prove himself in battle once again and had a vague hope that perhaps he might do well enough to be able to ‘claim’ Betsy as his reward for deeds of valour. Oh dear. However, she was very young too, if rather more sensible than her husband, so I expect she desperately clung on to his vague promises as proof that he would not abandon her and they would be together again eventually.

The gorgeous Dolores Costello as Betsy Patterson in Glorious Betsy, 1928.

Shortly after her son’s birth, in September 1805, Betsy decided that she’d had enough of the whole shebang and returned with her child to Baltimore where she was welcomed as something of a celebrity as after all her husband was from 1807 onwards the King of Westphalia – albeit married to someone else. Yes, faithless, weak Jérôme completely collapsed when confronted with his brother’s wrath and agreed to give up his Betsy and their child and instead marry someone of Napoléon’s choosing. Still apparently madly in love with Betsy but unable to withstand his brother’s will, he married the Princess Catharina of Württemberg on the 22nd of August 1807 in a splendid ceremony at Fontainebleau and unenthusiastically set to work producing a second family with his new wife. Betsy, who seems to have never quite lost faith in her husband and was still hoping that he would make a dramatic reappearance in her life, learned about this second marriage while reading a newspaper.

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jerome bonaparte wedding

The Marriage of Jérôme Bonaparte and Catharina of Württemberg, Regnault, 1807. Photo: Château de Versailles.

In fact, Betsy and Jérôme’s marriage was not to be properly ended until 1815, when she finally managed to secure a divorce. Although the couple would never meet again, he still remained in contact and even in 1808 asked for his son to come and live with him then when Betsy predictably refused this, offered her a small kingdom in Europe, the title of Princess and annuity of 200,000 francs a year in exchange for seeing his son twice a year and eventually having him live with him once he reached the age of twelve. By this point, unsurprisingly enough, Betsy had got the measure of her young husband and firmly turned him down, preferring instead to accept her brother-in-law Napoléon’s offer of a rather less stellar 60,000 francs a year which was to her mind far more likely to materialise and was also not dependent on her giving up any of her maternal rights. She may have lost her husband to the Bonaparte court and vainglorious ambitions but clearly she would be damned if she’d lose her son too.

Jérôme didn’t turn out to be much of a catch anyway – not only was he weak and rather spineless but he would also turn out to be a spendthrift and womaniser so I think that actually Betsy had a narrow escape from his clutches and certainly, as a wealthy and independent divorcee (with a high enough social position for the divorce to have little effect on her standing), answerable to no man and with an exciting and sympathy provoking back story and those glamorous connections to European royalty, she certainly had much to be thankful for during a long life which eventually ended in 1879 when she was ninety four years old, having outlived Jérôme (whom she eventually fell out of love with and would refer to in her letters simply as ‘The Bigamist’ – ouch) and her nemesis, his brother Napoléon and witnessed the destruction of almost everything they had worked towards.

Oh and she eventually made it to Paris in November 1815 once the Bonapartes had been booted out. We can only imagine her satisfaction as she finally placed her elegantly shod feet on French soil for the first time.

If you are in the vicinity, there’s an exhibition about Betsy Patterson Bonaparte at the Maryland Historical Society, which looks fascinating and would appear to have several of her personal belongings on display.

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‘Frothy, light hearted, gorgeous. The perfect summer read.’ Minette, my novel of 17th century posh doom and intrigue is now £2.02 from Amazon UK and $2.99 from Amazon US.

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