After poring through 20 boxes of Betsy Bonaparte's correspondence at the Maryland Historical Society, Natalie Wexler's heart sank.
In 2005, Wexler had been captivated by a portrait she'd seen of the Baltimore-born beauty, who wed Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's youngest brother, against the French emperor's wishes.
Wexler is an author, a historian and an attorney. She itched to tell Betsy's story — until she started reading the letters.
"Betsy was really not a very pleasant person," says Wexler, now 59 and a Washington resident.
"The letters were pretty self-absorbed. But in the first or second box, I found three letters to Betsy from Eliza Anderson, and they just sang to me. They were witty and interesting and not all about herself. Then I found out that Eliza had gone off to Albany to pursue her errant husband, which in the early 19th century was a pretty adventurous thing for a woman to do. Then I found out that she was probably the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States."
Wexler was hooked and spent the next nine years delving into Anderson's life.
The result is Wexler's third novel, "The Observer," which focuses on 1807, the year that Eliza edited a general readership magazine from the Baltimore home she shared with her physician father.
Wexler's novel mixes historic figures with invented characters. For instance, chapters are narrated alternately by Eliza and a fictional servant girl named Margaret McKenzie, who describes working-class life in 19th-century Charm City.
"The Observer" also includes verbatim excerpts from the small periodicals of the time, which conducted gleeful public vendettas against prominent society figures and each other.
Wexler will discuss her discoveries when she appears at the Ivy Bookshop on Sept. 16. An edited transcript of a recent conversation appears below.
How did you conclude that Eliza was the first woman magazine editor in the United States?
I looked at various secondary sources, and they all identified someone else who came seven years later as the first female editor. That woman also was editing a woman's magazine. The Observer was for a general audience, and it ran for a year.
I did come across two extant issues of an obscure publication called The Hummingbird that was edited by a woman during the 1790s, or a few years before The Observer was published. It's not clear how long The Hummingbird lasted, and it was more of an aggregation site that reprinted articles that had appeared elsewhere. The woman who edited it called herself "a compiler."
Eliza was much more than just a compiler. People sniped at her, but she was really thrilled when she realized that people were talking about something she wrote.
Betsy Bonaparte makes an appearance in "The Observer." How close were the two women in real life?
They knew each other; their families were distant cousins and Eliza was four or five years older than Betsy. They were close enough so that when Betsy traveled to Europe after having married Jerome Bonaparte, she took Eliza and her brother along as her traveling companions. Betsy was pregnant when she made that trip, and Eliza was present at the birth of Betsy's son.
There were also letters that Eliza wrote to Betsy in which she indicated that they knew each other well. Betsy clearly confided in her, because Eliza would tell Betsy not to get so depressed.
After a while, Betsy grew apart from Eliza or rejected Eliza. There were a few letters from Eliza into the 1810s. It's not clear if Betsy responded, but it seems that she had moved on. She was living this international celebrity life in Europe, while Eliza was on the verge of poverty.
Tell me more about Eliza's second husband, Maximilian Godefroy. I'd never heard of him and had no idea he's designed some of Baltimore's landmark buildings.
I think he's never gotten the recognition he deserves.
I grew up in the shadow of the First Unitarian Church at Charles and Franklin streets and admired it as a child. The church was founded in 1817, and even though it has this orange frieze that's full of 19th-century symbolism, it's an amazingly modern-looking building with these very clean lines.
Godefroy also designed St. Mary's Chapel on North Paca Street, which is considered the first neo-Gothic structure in the United States. And he designed Baltimore's Battle Monument, which is on the city seal.
To me, he's the nicest part of the story. Eliza had this early marriage that did not work out. Her husband abandoned her and their year-old daughter, and yet she finds her soul mate and overcomes great obstacles in order to marry him. Toward the end of her life, she wrote a letter saying that she had never regretted joining her fortunes to this man who she clearly adored and who clearly adored her.
What were early 19th-century weekly magazines like?
I see parallels between these 19th-century magazines and what's going on in the Internet today.
They were completely written by volunteers. It was a pastime for gentlemen, and nobody got paid, as far as I can tell. People wrote under pseudonyms almost all the time, so there was the same cloak of anonymity, which on the Internet can lead to quite a bit of nastiness.
The weird thing was that I stepped away from this novel for at least a year to become editor of an education blog. When I went back to the novel, I realized that Eliza had some of the same rewards and frustrating editing that I was having, from people saying they were going to write things and then not handing them in to this pressure of having to turn things out on a daily or weekly basis.
Why do you think no other writing by Eliza has been found after The Observer folded?
That's a mystery to me. There was this one year of her life, 1807, that was amazingly eventful. Not only did she edit this magazine and write much of it, she translated this racy novel from French into English and took up with this guy.
She married Godefroy in 1808. Maybe she devoted herself to her husband's career, or maybe she wrote things that didn't survive.
Here she was [with] this fierce intelligence, who fought so hard to have her mind recognized, and the idea that she then faded into obscurity is disappointing. I like to think that she did continue to write, maybe in France.
About the Book: "The Observer" was published Sept. 1 by Kalorama Press. 318 pages, $15.
Author Natalie Wexler reads from "The Observer" at 7 p.m. on Sept. 16 at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Call 410-377-2966 or visit theivybookshop.com.