By Ruth Hull Chatlien
Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore to research my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, my husband and I visited the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and the Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.
As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my particular interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.
You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so running unexpectedly across her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than a shadowy historical figure who existed only in the yellowed pages of old letters and biographies.
After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun(Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article, the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome Bonaparte gave Betsy that particular item after they married.
The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six.
Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.
Since Betsy was known for her sharp wit, I feel certain that she would have had something saucy to say about that.
Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.
She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.