T'he case of the Duke of the Abruzzi and Miss Elkins, which during several years roused so much interest in Europe and America, followed in its earlier stages very much the course of the strange romance between Jerome Bonaparte and Elizabeth Paterson. Both contained all the essentials of a thrilling story - the young prince, the beautiful American girl, and the implacable relations in Europe.
Elizabeth Paterson was a remarkably beautiful girl. She had a perfect Greek profile, she was small and dainty, with a mass of wavy brown hair, large hazel eyes, full of a look of tenderness, an exquisite complexion, and beautifully moulded shoulders: Madame de Stael, Talleyrand, and Thomas Moore are among those who have placed her great beauty on record - the last-named found her lovely at the age of forty-seven.
She was a witty girl, sometimes cruel in her thrusts, wilful, full of courage and independence. If the principal trait in her character had been tenderness or affection, she would have been the most poetic figure in modern history; but she was hard and ambitious.
She was the eldest of a family of thirteen, whose father, William Paterson, a merchant of Baltimore, had amassed a huge fortune. He seems to have been a severe man, who liked to rule his home with the sway of an autocrat. His wife, whose name was Dorcas, lived up to it. She was meek and gentle and colourless, but cultured. It must have been a dull life for Elizabeth, who certainly, as she said herself, was not made for obscurity.
She had many proposals before she was eighteen, but they were all from rich Baltimore merchants. However, accustomed to wealth, and miserably bored with Baltimore and commerce, she refused them all, for she wanted rank, brilliance, and social distinction.
Given a girl like this, with her beauty and strength of character, it is easy to guess that when Jerome Bonaparte, a boy of nineteen, came to Baltimore in the summer of 1803, she soon saw a prospect of realising her proudest ambitions. Jerome was on a light-hearted tour of the States with his suite, having, in a moment of boredom, left his naval duty in the West Indies. In a seaman this would have been desertion; but no one thought much of it in the young brother of the great Emperor away in France; or, if they did, they said kindly, "Boys will be boys," and let it pass.
Mr. Paterson soon discovered that girls will be girls. Young Bonaparte met Elizabeth at a race-meeting. He was having a thoroughly good time, being lionised and made much of; and then, this sunny day, he suddenly beheld a vision of beauty and tenderness in a demure, buff-coloured silk gown with a white lace fichu, and a great hat waving with black plumes. Now, Jerome was a spoilt boy, the youngest of the family, and his mother's darling. Since Napoleon had lifted the family from poverty into splendour, Jerome had developed a great taste for extravagance, and an even stronger taste for having his own way. So when he saw Elizabeth, he fell in love with her at once and desperately; insisted on meeting her over and over again, made violent love to her, and then sulked bitterly when one day Mr. Paterson quietly and firmly went into the country, and took the lady with him.
Miss Paterson, a Prince's Wife
The quietness of the country seat in Virginia gave Elizabeth plenty of time to mope, and she did it very heartily, looking very picturesque all the time, and getting paler and paler, because she was really fretting. Not every day does a merchant's daughter have the chance of marrying an emperor's brother! Mr. Paterson saw well that the match could only bring misery, but even the severest father will flinch after a few weeks in the country with a drooping daughter, who gets lovelier and more languid every day.
Miss Elizabeth Paterson, first wife of Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia. The marriage, however, was declared void by Napoleon. The engraving shows three portraits of Miss Paterson, and that undoubtedly she was a woman possessed of exceptional beauty. She left one son, Jerome Bonaparte Paterson
Mr. Paterson gave in. He brought her back to Baltimore, and eight weeks after they first met the two were definitely engaged. Jerome felt very strongly that there would be opposition from Paris, so he hurried on the wedding. They were married on Christmas Eve of 1803 by the first Roman Catholic Archbishop of America, John Carroll. There was nothing vulgar and showy about Elizabeth's ambition, and she showed her good taste by getting married in a simple white muslin frock she had worn before.
A very happy honeymoon was spent on one of Mr. Paterson's country estates; but after a while Jerome began to want to take his bride home, and one may be sure that Elizabeth yearned for the splendours of Paris even more than he did. But then the first cloud appeared. Jerome heard that Napoleon had issued the following pronouncement:
"By an Act of the II. Ventose, all the civil officers of the Empire are prohibited from receiving on their registers the transcription of the act of celebration of a pretended marriage that Jerome Bonaparte has contracted in a foreign country during the age of minority, without the consent of his mother, and without publication in the place of his nativity."
Great exertions followed. The American Minister in Paris did all he could; Mr. Paterson worked energetically; Elizabeth's brother came to Paris, and was very pleasantly received; but Napoleon was inflexible. He ordered Jerome, as a lieutenant of the fleet, to return to Paris, and forbade all captains of French vessels to receive on board "the young person to whom Jerome has attached himself." If Jerome came back and abandoned Elizabeth (who would not be allowed to land on French soil), he should be freely forgiven.