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A life revealed through possessions

A Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte - Alexandra Deutsch

Though not a household name today, in her day Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was a celebrity thanks largely to her brief marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte's youngest brother Jérôme. Yet Elizabeth was a remarkable woman in her own right: the daughter of a wealthy Maryland merchant, she became a successful businesswoman and socialite. Though her efforts to establish the status of her son, Jérôme Napoleon, within the Bonaparte line ultimately met with failure, she nonetheless enjoyed the status that came from her association with the family and succeeded in ensuring that her son and his children were accepted as members of it.

 

As the chief curator of the Maryland Historical Society, Alexandra Deutsch is in charge of the collection of artifacts donated by Elizabeth's family to the organization after her death. Her book is not a traditional cradle-to-grave biography of Elizabeth but a detailed study of key aspects of it that uses her possessions to illustrate her interests and how she lived her life. Deutsch uses these items to tell the story of a woman of great ambition and taste who took considerable pride in her association with the Bonapartes and worked to ensure that both she and her son and grandchildren were able to live the lives due to them because of it. Ultimately this required Elizabeth to develop her own acumen as an investor and property owner, and she built up the fortune enjoyed by her son and grandchildren through prudence and good advice. It's a remarkable story that Deutsch tells well, aided throughout the book by a generous number of color photographs of Elizabeth's many possessions that illustrate her points. The result is a work that does credit to Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and her many achievements, revealing just how much one woman's possessions can tell us about the fascinating life she led.