Born in a brothel just weeks after the start of the American Revolutionary War, Betsy Bowen’s life may not have started auspiciously, but by the time Eliza Jumel Burr died 90 years later the Civil War had ended and she had transformed herself into a prominent citizen who had mostly disguised her past, a collector of art who was fluent in two languages, and a businesswoman who had accumulated so much wealth her heirs and heir-wannabes battled for years over the property she left behind, one case going all the way to the Supreme Court.
And yet, if she is remembered at all today it’s because her second marriage was to the notorious but apparently still charming Aaron Burr, a former vice president who was disgraced after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and to add insult to injury in Burr’s biographies she’s often described dismissively as a former prostitute, which is probably not accurate. What’s ironic about the way Eliza Jumel Burr has been misrepresented is that the truth of her astounding path of upward mobility is far more dramatic than any of the falsehoods told about her.
This captivating biography of Eliza not only rights those wrongs, it’s a real page turner. Chapters tend to end on an exciting note, so I often found myself reading much longer than I had planned. While the book is focused on Eliza, it’s also an interesting cultural history of life in the years after the American and French Revolutions–Eliza’s first husband was a savvy and warmhearted merchant from France, and the couple lived in that country for a while after The Reign of Terror had settled down.
Though well researched there are gaps in Eliza’s life, especially her early years, because records left behind don’t tell much about what she was doing then, but I still found her story moving, even romantic. When Eliza met Stephen Jumel, the man she would soon marry, she had care of an unrelated young boy whose mother had died, something that was apparently not unusual at the time. Jumel generously paid for them both to have French lessons and treated Eliza’s charge as a son. Later the couple they adopted one of Eliza’s nieces who was brought up by them with lots of love and every advantage money could buy.
There were definitely ups and downs in the couple’s relationship, especially as they grew older, but I was struck by how much Stephen trusted Eliza to make astute business decisions and help manage their growing estate. After Stephen was killed in a carriage accident she was able to continue to increase her financial assets, making her a very wealthy women and bringing her to the attention of perennially broke Aaron Burr, who ran through some of her fortune before she managed to divorce him–being a husband he, of course, had charge of her money.
Eliza wasn’t a conventional women of her time because she was unable or unwilling to maintain a facade to hide her emotions and ambitions behind a mask of daintiness and allure, which meant the upper echelons of society were never as accepting of her as she wanted them to be. But her accomplishments and life trajectory are astounding and make a fascinating tale that is well told in this book.
I read an advanced review ebook copy of this book supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss at no cost. Review opinions are mine.