The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

9781444780499_p0_v1_s300x475Hodder and Stoughton must be my favourite publisher at the moment. Not only are they releasing books set in the Georgian era, but very good books at that! I’m currently reading Martine Bailey’s The Penny Heart and have just finished Antonia Hodgson’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Both are the authors’ second books, both dark and wonderful in different ways.

I read Hodgson’s debut The Devil in the Marshalsea last year and enjoyed it. The sensory details and grim reality of life for 18th century debtors were well captured. However, something was lacking for me, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it until I read The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. It was pizazz, something extra that kept me turning the pages and holding my breath. And the good news is, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins has this in droves.

Hawkins, a kind-hearted but fatally flawed young man, has recently won his freedom and a new girlfriend. He should be happy, but gradually he begins to slip into the old habits that landed him in debtor’s prison in the first place. What starts off as a harmless adventure soon embroils him in the world of criminal gangs in St Giles and vicious wife beaters.

Finding the lives of his loved ones at risk, Hawkins tries to wriggle out of his troubles. Yet he only puts himself in further danger. Not only does he owe a debt to the Queen, he has been wrongly accused of murder.

The victim’s family all hide dangerous secrets. But will Hawkins be able to discover them before the law catches up with him? The twists and turns just keep coming – right until the last few pages.

While the narrative is an enjoyable murder mystery in its own right, it is interspersed with present tense ‘snapshots’ of Hawkins in a cart on his way to Tyburn. For me, these little glimpses made the book extra special. They were immediate and extremely well written, driving the narrative forward and providing a hauntingly accurate account of the last journey made by so many to the ‘Tyburn tree’.

Another clever interruption to the narrative were the ‘press-cuttings’ of Hawkins’ case. We see a ballad written about his crimes and a court record of his trial. These snippets evoked the flavour of the time perfectly and came across as very authentic.

Amidst some heart-pounding action scenes and forays into the slums of St Giles, we also get a glimpse of life at the highest rank of society. I have to confess, I was a little nervous to read the parts where Queen Caroline and the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, featured in the book. I’m a bit of a hard customer to please when it comes to two historic figures I hold so dear. But not only was the depiction accurate, Hodgson’s portrayal of Queen Caroline was, to my mind, spot on. I even managed to guess which of the princesses Hawkins was talking to, merely from her speech, which shows what a good job was made of researching the family, despite their comparatively small bearing on the main action.

While Hawkins is not exactly my type of hero, I found myself rooting for the well-drawn characters and eager to return to the their world. A highly recommended book.

Deaf, peevish old beast

Henrietta_Howard

There are many reasons why Henrietta Howard, the heroine of my new book Mistress of the Court, is a fascinating woman to write about. In previous posts I’ve covered her determination, early feminism and struggle against domestic abuse. However, the aspect of her life that contemporaries at court chose to concentrate on, in poems and in jests, was her partial deafness.

Not all of these were malicious. Pope charmingly uses the affliction to highlight Henrietta’s modest nature:

When all the world conspires to praise her

The woman’s deaf and does not hear

Indeed, Henrietta herself was inclined to make light of her condition with her friends, writing to Lord Chesterfield

I know you so indulgent to your friends, that you would not interrupt their diversions . . . you always affirmed pain was my particular one

But this frivolous comment hid, as so often with Henrietta’s life, a world of pain and suffering. She was not born with any hearing impediment. Her biographer Tracy Borman believes the trouble began in Henrietta’s late 20s or early 30s. The cause is not clear, although for dramatic effect in Mistress of the Court, I attribute the damage to a blow received by her husband.

Henrietta’s was certainly a painful deafness; she often described her ‘poor pain in the face’ and letters from her correspondents are rife with regrets that she is not in  better health. Her friend Dr Arbuthnot constantly treated her for headaches. It may be that Henrietta started to have difficulty hearing her own voice and adopted some signs; one of her letters refers to ‘that gesticulation of the hand for which I am so famous.’

Despite the fact that George II, in one of his rages, referred to her as a ‘deaf, peevish old beast’, it appears Henrietta was perfectly stoical about her condition. In fact, one wonders if she could have born for so long with George II if she were not partially deaf. With the writer Jonathan Swift, she engaged in a kind of playful competition to see who was the most unwell.  ‘I should make you the best husband in the world,’ wrote Swift,’for I am ten times deafer than ever you were in your life.’ Henrietta, however, beat him by showing superior fortitude. Deafness and headache were ‘misfortunes I have laboured under these many years,’ she boasted, ‘and yet never was peevish with myself or the world.’

Eventually, the agony became too severe. Something had to be done. In the summer of 1728, Henrietta consulted the eminent surgeon Mr Cheselden. He suggested an operation – something to be feared and dreaded in the pre anesthetic/disinfectant era. One only has to read Fanny Burney’s account of her own mastectomy to swoon in horror.

Horace Walpole makes an interesting reference to Henrietta’s operation in his anecdotes. He claims that Henrietta heard a condemned man at Newgate, who suffered from the same condition. According to Walpole, Cheselden arranged for the prisoner to be pardoned, on the condition that he submitted to an experimental operation. This is not impossible – Queen Caroline made a similar deal when testing her smallpox inoculations.

Despite reading treatise and advice on treatment for bad ears, I could not establish the exact nature of the procedure Henrietta underwent. Suffice to say, it involved some sort of boring tool. Her own description is rather chilling, calling to mind a sweating surgeon and horrific instruments.

I sent for Mr Cheselden, who, give him his due, worked very hard, but found so much resistance, that I was justified to inquire no further then into my jaw; besides, finding nothing there, we were afraid to proceed.

Henrietta admits that the pain of the operation was ‘almost unbearable’, but it seemed to do good. ‘‘I am much better;’ she reported to John Gay in August. ‘Whether I owe it to the operation I underwent, or to my medicines, I cannot tell.’

When I write biographical novels, I often draft little scenes that I have no intention of putting in the final draft. I like to explore important events in the subject’s life and see even the mundane parts of life through their eyes. As I wanted to get a feel for the medicines Henrietta would take daily, and think about how she would cope with an operation, I wrote the following scene with my research into hearing difficulties.  It is not in the novel, but I hope you will enjoy it.

The doctor peered down his nose at Henrietta. He was dressed in black and white like a parson; as if he was prepared to perform the funeral rites, should she take a turn for the worse. A short, unpowdered wig sat beneath his hat. He looked eminently respectable, but Henrietta eyed him warily. Could this man help her? No doctor had been able to save her parents or siblings from their fate. In her experience medical men were mere harbingers of death; crows that sat on the lychgate and cawed as the coffin passed by.

‘Mrs Howard. An honour.’ He bowed, keeping his eyes fixed on her ear.

Suddenly, pain pulsed through her head, nearly felling her. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed a hand to her brow. This would not do. The pangs were coming frequently now, with greater strength. She had to try something to stop them.

A whiff of smelling salts beneath her nose jerked her back to her senses. She looked up gratefully at the doctor, who now stood beside her. ‘Thank you Mr Cheselden. I came over most queer.’

Her frowned. ‘It is your head that troubles you?’

‘Yes, my head and my ears. I do not hear well at all. My friends Dr Arbuthnot and Lord Chesterfield have spoken very highly of your skill with such things. They believe you can help me.’

He wet his lips. His face was plump and ruddy; like most doctors, he looked astonishingly well living off others’ pain. ‘Perhaps I can. Tell me how this first came about.’

With lowered eyes, she explained the gradual loss of her hearing and the headaches that arrested her, especially in times of distress. She told him she had knocked her head many times in the past, but attributed it to riding accidents instead of Charles’s well-aimed fist.

He lifted his bag and began to rummage in it. ‘And what have you taken so far?’

‘Some pills made of Jesuits’ Bark and gillyflower syrup. Laudanum, of course. I try to sleep with half an onion on the bad ear.’

‘With this type of pain, you should be kept cool and take emollient substances such as milk and spinach. Did you never think to shave your head?’

She could just imagine George’s reaction to that. ‘I wish to keep my hair. But I did have a blister, here.’ She ran her finger along her jawbone from the side her chin to just below her earlobe.

‘Yes. The corner of your jaw, just there. That is where we should concentrate.’ He drew out a small wooden case and laid it on a side table. Then, with his index finger, he tilted her chin to the light.

She swallowed. ‘What – what do you mean to do?’

‘You are familiar with the theory behind bleeding? Letting the ill humours flow out?’ She could not nod while he held her head, so she blinked. ‘Then there is a process where we go deeper, especially in cases of lunacy. You may have heard of trepanning?’

She froze. Everyone knew of the horrific procedure where a hole was drilled in the skull to release pressure in the brain. Sometimes discs of bone were removed permanently.

Mr Cheselden smiled. ‘Do not turn so pale, dear madam. I only mean to say that whatever obstructs the flow of blood through the head may cause the ache. With an instrument similar to the trepan, I can bore a small hole in the angle of your jaw to unblock it.’

Her heart bounded within her. Suddenly she did not want any help; she would rather be left alone. ‘Would it hurt?’

Evading her question, he gestured to an armchair. ‘We might do it just there. You could sit comfortably with a cambric handkerchief over your eyes; you would not see a thing. Have you an old sheet, and some lint?’

The ache in her head was dull now; terror drove it off. She moved her dry tongue. ‘I believe I do. But sir, pray tell me how much it will hurt. I must prepare myself.’ She watched him as he passed to the side table and opened his box. Polished steel glinted from within. She turned her face away, sick with horror.

‘I do not believe it will be much greater than the pain you already labour under,’ he said gently. ‘Unless . . . Perhaps you do not feel yourself equal to withstand it?’

Unexpected pride kicked in her chest. Unequal to withstand it indeed! This man had no idea what she had been through. ‘I am accustomed to discomfort, I assure you. What is your price?’ He named a large sum. ‘For such a fee sir, you must be sure of success.’ He inclined his head.

It did not feel right to spend so much, after begging George for more money. But didn’t she deserve some relief; a slither of money to spend on herself, instead of Charles and his blasted debts? ‘If you are certain, I will proceed, Mr Cheselden.’ Fear crept through her as the words left her lips.

‘I must ask for the payment upfront. In case of . . . difficulty.’

Trembling, she told the money into his hand. George’s impassive profile stared back at her from a coin. Despite everything, her lip twitched. It seemed absurd to pay out such a great sum, when George would gladly put a hole in her head for no charge at all.

A Grim Almanac

51c-3XBsqiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve just finished reading another piece of Georgian non-fiction – and a rather ghoulish one at that! While A Grim Almanac of Georgian London is not for the faint-hearted, it is fascinating and I wanted to share it with you.

Since the Old Bailey records went online, we have a wealth of real crime information at our fingertips. But sometimes it can be a chore to sift through them all, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. A Grim Almanac of Georgian London takes the leg work out for you – all the famous and strange cases are listed in a handy ‘on this day’ format.

We tend to think of crime as a very modern phenomenon, but as these real life cases show, we are probably safer in our own time period. In a society where men could carry guns and swords around every day without comment, accidents could and did happen. Added to this were the frequent riots, duels and brawls, which went south very fast.  A fight in a Georgian pub often proved fatal.

rowlandson_thomas_theduelMore surprising, though, are the range of punishments – or lack thereof – for the guilty. While some offenses, which we would view as minor, received the pillory – a punishment that could quickly prove a death sentence when the crowds started slinging brickbats and dead cats – there were truly hideous cases of child neglect where the perpetrator was acquitted. Your sentence really did seem the luck of the draw – or jury. And in no field was this more obvious than that of domestic abuse.

Having written so much about Henrietta Howard, who spent over twenty years in an abusive marriage, I was both interested and appalled to read just how many incidents appeared in this small sample of Old Bailey cases. While men and women both suffered, as today, the female victims were the most predominant.

While writing about the abusive Charles Howard, I sometimes worried I was going over the top. I based most things he did on the accusations Henrietta leveled against him, but I did wonder if any person could be so truly dreadful to their wife. After reading A Grim Almanac of Georgian London, I have come to realise Henrietta was very lucky to survive at all. It is clear that in some poor quarters, mistreatment and starvation, along with both mental and physical abuse, were the common lot for women and children. While neighbours might pity, they hardly ever intervened. It was only when a death occurred that the abuser got into any sort of trouble.  A huge amount of the murders listed were women killed by their own husbands, and of course a few examples of vice versa. Many of the murderers were hung or branded as punishment –  a worrying amount also came off scot-free.

If anything, I have come to admire Henrietta even more after reading about these contemporary cases. She lived in this world, she knew what could happen. She knew there was little hope of legal redress for her. But through it all, she refused to be a victim. In many instances of domestic abuse, the victim can end up blaming themselves or making excuses for their abuser. It is, psychologically, very understandable. But it was not so with Henrietta. She always believed the treatment she received was disgusting and reproachful – and told her abuser roundly in an impassioned letter many years later. This takes a strength of character, and a bravery that astounds me.

100_8753.originalHowever, the Almanac is not entirely full of gory murder and upsetting abuse. There are also the wily thieves, the insane and the tricksters. One of the latter who stands out was the lady who tried to convince the world she had given birth to rabbits. While I had heard of many of these tales before, it was lovely to have them grouped together and with a good deal of detail. I would recommend this book to all Georgian enthusiasts for an intriguing glance at the underbelly of London.

 

Queen Caroline’s Bath

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I’ve been guest posting again! The lovely ladies at All Things Georgian have invited me to talk about Queen Caroline of Ansbach’s bathing habits on their blog. You can read the post here.

Princess Charlotte

Followers of my blog will know I am always bewailing the fate of the Georgian queens. Or, more accurately, bewailing the fact that so few people know about them. This looks set to change, for Queen Charlotte at least, with the birth of the Princess of Cambridge. Huzzah!

My publisher has asked me to write something in honour of royal Charlottes. I am therefore pleased to present a potted biography of my very favourite Georgian, Princess Charlotte of Wales. You can see the full article below.

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On 2 May 2015, a tiny baby took the nation by storm. TV channels went wild and the fountains in Trafalgar Square ran pink to celebrate her birth. Leaving St. Mary’s Hospital in her mother’s arms, she managed to charm without even opening her eyes. It seems fitting that this little princess should be called Charlotte. She shares the name with one of the most beloved heirs to the British throne.

Princess Charlotte of Wales was born on the morning of 7 January 1796, following a ‘terrible hard’ labour. Her birth was much anticipated; despite raising a family of fifteen with his faithful consort, another Charlotte, George III had yet to become grandfather to a legitimate child. He was delighted with the arrival of this little girl, who secured the succession as third in line to the throne. ‘If the Prince of Wales is blessed with such a daughter as mine are to me, he will be a very happy man indeed,’ he wrote.

But all was not as it seemed. Princess Charlotte had arrived in the midst of a failing marriage. Her mother, Caroline, was living a life of slow humiliation. Her indifferent looks and coarse manners had estranged her from Charlotte’s father, who now paraded a mistress before her. Not that the Prince of Wales was without his own troubles. He had illegally married a Catholic widow before Caroline, and the birth of his first child caused a crisis of conscience. He spent the night of Charlotte’s birth writing a wild and passionate Will – one suspects under the influence of much alcohol. In this strange document, he made it very clear that he wanted his new daughter to be protected from what he saw as the evil influence of his wife.

This was to be an ill omen for Charlotte’s childhood. She lived as a continual bone of contention between her parents, who fought for control of her. It is no wonder that she grew up to be an unconventional princess. Her laugh was too loud; she wiped her nose on her sleeve. She did not mind showing her drawers when she climbed out of the carriage. As a horse-mad tomboy, she picked up habits from the grooms in the stables, nodding at people rather than bowing to them and adopting a slouched standing position.

Despite, or perhaps because of these eccentricities, Charlotte was immensely popular with the public. After a few failed love affairs a broken engagement, she finally found happiness with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. The nation rejoiced over the marriage of this golden couple. Their fame grew to such a degree, that Charlotte’s father became jealous.

Tragically, on the eve of starting her own family and providing another male heir to the throne, Charlotte’s life was cut short. She delivered a stillborn son on 5 November 1817 and experienced complications after the birth. Less than twenty four hours later, Charlotte was dead, aged just twenty-one.

The outpouring of grief from the British nation was unprecedented. Shops closed for a fortnight, even the poor went into morning. ‘It is difficult for persons not living at the time to believe . . .’ wrote Henry Brougham. ‘It really was as if every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.’

But Charlotte’s legacy lives in. Her death paved the way for one of Britain’s most famous queens, Victoria, to take the crown. Victoria’s beloved consort, Albert, was coached in his role by none other than Charlotte’s widower, Leopold. The stage was set for another great royal love story. And now, this generation has its very own Princess Charlotte to love. She looks set to become every bit as popular as her namesake.

If you would like more in depth information about Charlotte of Wales – I am your girl! You can read about her relationship with her mother, trips to Brighton, her death, her husband’s life, a longer biography and a particularly unpleasant Christmas for a start. Also, look out for my novel about Charlotte and her mother, which will be coming in the Georgian series. Provisional title is Queen of Misrule.

Henry Howard

Mistress of the CourtEvery novel has its minor characters. Sometimes, they can be even more interesting than the protagonist. In fiction these ‘bit part’ characters can create spin offs, but in fact-based historical fiction they are real people with rich lives of their own. Today I want to consider the life of Henry Howard, who features in my story about his mother, Henrietta, titled Mistress of the Court.

On New Year’s day 1707, Henrietta Howard gave birth to a son. First child and heir to his father, Charles, who was in turn the son of an Earl, you would think his future would be bright. Unfortunately, the boy was to live a confusing and emotionally traumatic life.

Named for his maternal grandfather, the young Henry Howard arrived in a family already at odds with one another. His father Charles was in the process of suing Henrietta’s brother over her dowry. Money was short, and so was the love between the two parents. From Henrietta’s writings, we know that Charles was a drunkard, gambler and abusive husband. When his lawsuit failed, the family were left more in debt than ever. Depositing Henrietta and the infant Henry in ‘mean lodgings’ in Berkshire, Charles returned to London to live his life unencumbered by their presence.

This abandonment lasted some two years. Henry was deprived of a father for the earliest part of his life – and any form of financial aid from that father. Even when Henrietta, finally at her wits end, set off in search of Charles, the family did not enjoy a happy reunion. They boarded with Charles’ brother at Audley End house for a year and a half. However, Charles was again frequently absent, deserting mother and child for months on end. They were finally expelled from Audley End for failing to pay the rent. It is testimony to Charles’s bad behaviour that he was evicted by his own brother.

Audley End House

Audley End House

If this constant movement and upheaval was confusing for the young Henry, it was about to get worse. He was dragged across the roughest parts of London under the assumed surname of Smith to avoid his father’s debtors. Every so often, his father would run away under fear of arrest and leave him with his mother. Unsurprisingly, mother and child grew close. Henry was Henrietta’s only comfort and gave her the affection she did not receive from Charles. They were both ‘under the pressure and smart of hunger’ most of the time.

In Mistress of the Court, Henrietta travels to Hanover in order to make money and a future for her son. While this probably was her main motivation for going abroad, it is distressing to think that she must have further traumatised Henry by depriving him of his only friend. She only raised enough money for herself and Charles to go to the Hanoverian court and woo the next monarch. Henry was left behind, though it is not clear with whom.

My knowledge of Henry’s life comes solely from Tracy Boreman’s excellent biography of Henrietta and Henrietta’s published correspondence. I have not seen any letters Henry wrote about his childhood, if indeed any survive. But it is hard to conceive that he was not deeply affected by these strange early years of his life. He had been passed from pillar to post like a package, half-starved through most of his formative years. He was a frequent witness to the abusive relationship between his parents. At the age of barely seven, he was abandoned by them both for just over a year. Little wonder he appears as a strange and rather prickly child in my book.

Henrietta Howard

Henrietta Howard

Prospects improved for Henry with the death of Queen Anne in 1714. His parents arrived back in England shortly before the coronation of George I and were granted places at court. However, their new lodgings in St James’s palace were not as grand as they sound. It was a horrid place, rife with damp and the necessity of sharing chamber pots between families. One wonders if Henry was altogether pleased to be reunited with his parents under these circumstances.

The domestic situation certainly did not ease up. Henrietta and Charles were constantly coming to blows. He disapproved of her clothes and her friends. He was annoyed that her service to the Princess of Wales interrupted her attendance on him. Henrietta confessed to getting out of bed several times a night for fear he would kill her. Not precisely an ideal environment for a child under 10 to grow up in.

Things finally came to head with the split of the royal household in 1718. Henry’s parents worked for different factions of the court and were both unwilling to give up their roles. After a furious row, Henrietta stormed out without even stopping to take her belongings. Charles sent a bitter letter after her, saying he no longer considered her to be his wife.

In Mistress of the Court, I have Henrietta separated from her son unwittingly. But the sad truth is that she actually made the decision to leave him. It was certainly not something she did lightly. Her writings show she agonised over the choice and genuinely feared for her life if she stayed with Charles. But what a blow it must have been for Henry, just eleven years old! It was a breach of trust that he would never forgive.

Henrietta was in fact, extremely naive about her son. At first she thought Charles would allow her to visit him – an illusion which he quickly dispelled. She then remained convinced that Henry would take her side, despite her actions. She was determined not to pressure him but ‘leave all to his natural inclinations’. What she actually did was leave him to the insidious ways of Charles. And Charles, accordingly, was raising the child to despise his mother.

This was all the easier when Henrietta became mistress to the Prince of Wales. While it was necessary for her survival, you can imagine how it looked to Henry. He probably thought his mother had deserted him to run off with her lover. And though it was far from the truth, Charles would have encouraged the idea. Charles wrote to tell Henrietta that their son was forced to ‘hear the reproaches of your public defiance to me, and what the world will interpret as the occasion of it.’

George II, Henrietta's lover

George II, Henrietta’s lover

Henrietta was only able to obtain sketchy details of her son’s life over the next few years. She discovered he was at a school near Salisbury and sent her cousin to visit, but he was removed to a private school before she arrived. In 1720, he attended Magdalene College at Cambridge. His studies were followed up at an academy in Paris. Henrietta’s friend Lord Peterborough sent his son to the same academy, hoping to glean some further information. It does not seem he was successful. Whether in or out his father’s company, Henry made no effort to contact his mother.

It appeared that Charles was right when he wrote that ‘No artifice or temptation . . . will every prevail with [Henry] to desert me.’ This is surprising, considering Charles’ behaviour through Henry’s childhood. Henrietta was certainly shocked, and disbelieving. ‘I wish to God [Henry] was of a riper age to be judge between us,’ she wrote. ‘I am not willing to suppose he will long neglect a parent who has not forfeited the duty he owes her.’ Nor was she alone in her hopes. From Alexander Pope’s letter of 1727, we can see that Henry was not treated particularly well by his father:

And yet, as to the last thing that troubles you (the odd useage of Mr H towards his son) I would fain hope some good may be derived from it. It may turn him to a reflection, that possibly his mother may be yet worse used than himself; and make him think of some means to comfort himself in comforting her.

It was not to be. Henrietta legally separated from Charles in 1728. This proceeding was highly usual at the time, considered as something only resorted to by ‘blasphemous, trouble-making’ women. Henry would have felt humiliated by this public end to his parents’ marriage, and the wide spread gossip of his mother’s infidelity.

This separation was the final nail in the coffin of the mother/child relationship. Charles died just five years later in 1733, but still Henry made no contact. In fact, Henrietta appeared afraid of seeing him. Lord Bathhurst could only convince her to visit by assuring her that ‘my castle is not molested by your son.’

Henry became Earl of Suffolk upon Charles’ death and enjoyed some success in his life. He was elected. Member of Parliament for Bere Alston and married a wealthy heiress, Sarah Inwen, on 13 May 1735. Her dowry cleared Audley End house of its debts. It was the kind of shrewd action Henrietta herself would take.

Sadly, Henry’s life was not destined to be long. He had no children and died in 1745, aged just 39 years old. I like to think his young widow was deeply in love for him, for she left it a good seven years before remarrying. She became the second wife of Lucius Cary, 7th Viscount of Falkland, though still remained childless.

It is so sad to consider that Henry’s short and tragic life is completely of a piece with the miserable, tempestuous marriage that created him. The one good thing to come of the union, he did not survive long enough to carry on the bloodline or find reconciliation with his mother. We can only imagine Henrietta’s feelings when she lost her son, some twenty-two years before her own death. But I hope that at least, in his earldom and his marriage, Henry was able to find some of the happiness that eluded his early days.

 

The Second Empress

51z+c-y1D2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve now read two books by Michelle Moran and absolutely loved both of them! She is undoubtedly an author that keeps you turning the page. Madame Tussaud enthralled me with its depiction of the French Revolution, skillfully portraying the struggle from both sides of battle line. I galloped through The Second Empress in an even shorter time and, as it handily fits into the Napoleonic era, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the book.

I was thrilled when I found out that this novel existed, and not only because it was by Moran. I had long thought that the story of Maria Lucia of Austria was just waiting for its own historic novel. This was a young woman who, despite strong personal feelings against the match, became Napoleon’s second wife to save her country. Rather than sinking into a depression or becoming obstructive, as many a princess would in her position, she actually made the marriage a success. If this wasn’t a good enough reason to admire her, she also grew up in my favourite palace, Schönbrunn.

Moran brings Maria Lucia to life masterfully. We meet her as an artistic young woman who loves her family and is being raised as the future regent for her unwell brother. Her political astuteness and strong nature are clear from the start – she wishes to be a credit to her homeland of Austria. Through her eyes, we also learn of the toll the Napoleonic wars have taken on the land and grow to understand how hated an enemy the French were at the time period. This only heightens the conflict we feel when, to get her country out of its difficulties, she is forced to leave the man she loved and become the bride of Napoleon, a man she despises. I say she is forced – I mean by her conscience. Perhaps the most inspiring thing of all is that Maria Lucia is under no compulsion from her loving father – she makes the sacrifice for her people.

Maria Lucia/Marie Louise

Maria Lucia/Marie Louise

We join Napoleon’s court as fellow newcomers, equally dazzled and appalled by its excesses. Whilst Napoleon does not come across positively in the story, his behaviour is perfectly in keeping with the accounts I have read of him. Furthermore, we must remember that Moran is portraying him through the eyes of his enemy – ancient royalty looking down on what they perceived as an upstart solider. While Maria Lucia settles into her strange marriage, well aware that Napoleon is still in love with Josephine, we meet the other narrators of the story.

Napoleon’s most scandalous sister, Pauline, takes up the tale. I found her point of view immensely fun and wonderfully disturbing to read. While at times I thought the voice sounded a little modern, Moran’s choices seem to be supported by further reading I have undertaken about Pauline. Pauline is a bold woman, wildly ambitious and the closest of all the family to Napoleon. While she is bitchy and clearly mentally unstable, it is impossible not to feel a kind of affection for her. Her obsessions with Egypt and – worryingly – her brother, push her beyond the means of her health as she strives to become a queen worthy of legend. Slyly manipulating the split between Napoleon and Josephine, she is also instantly jealous of the success of his second empress. In her distracted state of mind, she begins to think that she will one day wed Napoleon herself. We learn that this bizarre love/hate relationship between the siblings goes back a long way; in his need to be beloved, Napoleon has exiled all of his sister’s lovers. It’s all rather disturbing, but it’s fascinating to read about.

Pauline Bonaparte

Pauline Bonaparte

Our third narrator is Haitian man whose name, for the moment, is Paul. He has given up his given name, his family and his heritage to serve Pauline, While he loves her, he is able to see her faults and condemn her treatment of Maria Lucia. Through his struggles, we see the price that the conquered have paid for Napoleon’s wars. We learn of Paul’s once beloved country, laid to ruin, and his identity crisis following the move to France. While he has made a good life for himself, he is reaching the end of his patience. He cannot put up with the hollow pretense of the French court for much longer. So far, his heart has kept him in France, but as times change he begins to take on courage. Pauline with have to choose between him and her brother – a contest he rather hopes than expects to win.

Full of drama and conflict, this is a book that will appeal to most readers of historical fiction. I do not mean to imply that men cannot enjoy the story, but I feel that women would perhaps appreciate it more, bound up as it is with the intricacies of female relationships and squabbles. The beginning of the book lacked pace for me, as it was full of backstory for the three narrators. However, this soon picked up and I found myself enthralled. A must for lovers of the French court and those who want to read about women in history who have dared to defy convention.

Benjamin Franklin House

benjamin-franklin-house1A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to take an architectural tour around the Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street. A delicious little Georgian townhouse hidden off the Strand, it is full of wonderful period features.

I have to admit, I knew very little about Franklin before attending the tour. Obviously I knew about his experiment with lightning and his involvement with the Declaration of Independence, but that was about the sum of my knowledge. The visit really piqued my interest; Franklin was a man at the center of diplomacy who lived through an astonishing time. Part spy, part scientist, diplomat, inventor and philosopher, he was a fascinating man. Franklin lived in London for nearly sixteen years in his role as Postmaster for American, returning home in 1775 with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Sadly, his Craven Street house is the last of his residences to survive.

I have visited many Grade II listed buildings, but Benjamin Franklin House tops the bill at Grade I – a place of exceptional interest to our heritage. The restoration project completed to bring the house up to its present condition was a huge undertaking. Fortunately for us, lots of love and devotion have rescued the place from dereliction and you can now see a genuine example of an everyday Georgian townhouse.

imagesI say ‘everyday’ – in fact, it seems 36 Craven Street was far from ordinary! Not only did you have Franklin lodging there with his experiments and important dinners, but there was an anatomy school running downstairs. A collection of bones found during conservation were on display, from where the school had practiced cutting up bodies – either obtained from the gallows or the resurrection men! I rather feel for the poor landlady, Margaret Stevenson, with such strange lodgers, but it seems she rather enjoyed her eccentric household.

One of my favourite parts of the tour was a chance to play Franklin’s famous glass armonica. You can get some seriously spooky sounds from this instrument, but also great music – Mozart and Beethoven both composed pieces for it. My musical skills were sadly lacking – still, I had fun!

glassHopefully I will be returning to Benjamin Franklin House later this year to take part in their Historical Experience. Through this attraction, the house is brought to life in its Georgian splendour. Actors read excerpts from Franklin’s writing and recreate every day scenes from the house. Using light projectors, the interior is returned to something like its original decoration, immersing you in the smells, sights and sounds of the era. I can’t wait!

You can find out more about Benjamin Franklin House here.

Life Mask

Elizabeth Farren

Elizabeth Farren

It’s time for another Georgian book review! I’ve been reading a lot lately, so I thought I would share with you my thoughts about Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask.

I was drawn to the book, not only but its eighteenth/nineteenth century setting, but the fact that one of the heroines was Elizabeth Farren. I grew interested in Elizabeth after seeing her spectacular portrait at a Thomas Lawrence exhibition. The catalogue explained that she was a famous actress who went on to become a Duchess. How could such a fairy-tale fail to capture my imagination? I was also interested to learn that Elizabeth was a great comic actress, a rival to Dora Jordan. Jordan’s long-term relationship with the Duke of Clarence, late William IV, has ensured her prolonged fame, but Elizabeth Farren has disappeared into some obscurity.

In Life Mask, Emma Donoghue brings Elizabeth to life as determined and proud character. We learn that her life was far from easy as she forged a path for herself from a poor background. Through all her trials, she is shown as guarding her hard-won reputation with jealousy. She keeps the Duke she will eventually marry at arm’s-length until he is single, defying the contemporary stereotype of actresses with loose-morals. Through Elizabeth, we get to explore the world of the eighteenth-century theater in all its bawdy glory, braving rowdy audiences and meeting some of the leading lights of the age. Donoghue shows that Elizabeth could be ruthless and was prepared to sacrifice friendships for the sake of her career. But in spite of, or perhaps because of that, I rather liked her.

Life Mask is not written entirely from Elizabeth Farren’s point of view. One of the narrators is the Duke of Derby, her future husband. His part of the story provides a fascinating insight into Georgian life and politics, especially the expectations on the Georgian man. Although Derby was caricatured for being short and ugly, his wealth and status ensured him a good position in society. He is represented as a man of his time, taking us into the bloody world of cock fights and the fast-paced arena of horse-racing. What appealed to me most about Donoghue’s portrayal of Derby was his state of flux – at once a reformer and an aristocrat, he often finds himself in a difficult position. Doggedly loyal to the Whig Charles James Fox, he is nonetheless jealous of his ancestral rights. It was interesting, from my perspective, to see the inner workings of the Whig party. After spending my time studying Pitt and George III, I got the chance to sit in the other side of the camp, where they were referred to as ‘the Eunuch’ and ‘Old Satan’. I have to say, I came to understand Fox and his party much better. Derby’s political sympathies appeal to the reader and his devotion to Elizabeth is touching. While he is shown as being somewhat harsh to his first wife and indifferent to his children, this romantic worship of an actress rather wins us to his side.

Elizabeth Farren by Anne Seymour Damer

Elizabeth Farren by Anne Seymour Damer

The star of this show, however, has to be the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer. A widow, estranged from her husband before his death, she has grown used to governing her own life. She is first introduced to us as she befriends Elizabeth and begins work on her bust for display at the Royal Academy. However, as the story progresses, we find that the Life Mask of the title is the mask that Anne is wearing, hiding her progressive attitudes from the world. Somewhat outcast by her single state and daring to enter the realm of the arts, Anne focuses her life on sculpture and friendships. Sadly, these friendships begin to fall away before distressing gossip. She has to re-evaluate all the relationships she has known and come to terms with the fact that the rumours about her could be true. Her struggle provides a wonderful exploration of the female state and sexuality in the eighteenth-century, covering such diverse topics as intense friendships through to the legal nonentity of a wife. It is only towards the end of the story that Anne is finally able to embrace what she truly is and live the life she wants, in spite of society. She is helped along in her journey by the blue-stocking Mary Berry and Horace Walpole.

I have to admit that Donoghue made rather too much use of her research in this book. I did feel like I was being hammered with facts at times. There were parts that dragged for me and, had I not been interested in the period to start with, may have made me give up reading. Much could have been edited, however the excellence of Donoghue’s writing shines through in some truly beautiful phrasing. What is more, she makes you truly interested in the lives of the people she writes about. I was keen to do my own research and find out more about the real historical figures straight after reading. I particularly enjoyed her representation of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill. I am now very eager to visit his Gothic mansion and see some of the scenes from the book with my own eyes.

On the whole, I would say that perhaps Life Mask does not work as a novel – I would struggle to tell you the story or the plot. It meanders and does not compel you in the way a novel should. Nonetheless, it is a great piece of creative biographical writing, and one I think her subjects would be very flattered by.

9781844081752

Caroline and George

caroline-of-brandenburgThe relationship between George II and his Queen, Caroline of Ansbach, was far from simple. The love they shared is hardly the stuff that dreams are made of – she manipulated him; he cheated on and humiliated her. And yet this partnership was the most successful of the Hanoverian dynasty, ending only with Caroline’s death after thirty-two years of marriage. In the spirit of Valentine’s day, I thought I would dwell on the romantic aspects of their love. There are many sweet anecdotes, not to mention George’s famous love letters.

Their story starts off like a fairy-tale. Caroline was a beautiful, orphaned princess growing up under the protection of George’s aunt, nicknamed Figuelotte. Figuelotte wanted Caroline to wed her own son, but the princess was not keen on the young man. As fame of Caroline’s beauty and intellect spread, she attracted many suitors, among them Archduke Charles of Austria. But the right marriage came in the most unlikely form.

406073_151546_LPR_0_0In June 1705, Caroline received three unexpected visitors: Baron von Eltz, his servant and Monsieur de Busch. They stopped, supposedly, on their way back to Hanover, to present compliments from the Hanoverian Chief Minister. But in fact, ‘Monsieur de Busch’ was George Augustus in disguise. He came to spy on the princess he had heard so much about and see if she was as agreeable as everyone said. She was – George was instantly smitten. From then on ‘he would not think of anybody else’. He ran back home and told his father he wanted to marry Caroline. The proposals were made immediately, George being ‘seized with such an affection and desire for her, that he is most eager to marry her without delay.’ The ceremony took place on 2 September, just three months after the initial meeting of Caroline and ‘Monsieur de Busch’.

In February 1707, Caroline produced her first child, the desired son and heir, Frederick. But her health remained poor following the birth. By July she had come down with smallpox and pneumonia – a deadly combination. The distraught George refused to leave her side, nursing her through the illness and finally contracting it himself.This sacrificial devotion served to bring the couple even closer together and, thankfully, they both recovered.

By 1709 a second child was born, Anne. George was away at the time of the birth but wrote Caroline one of his fabulously romantic letters.

I have just received the good news of the birth of a daughter at which  feel all imaginable pleasure… I am only a little bit angry that it caused you pain. You should know me well enough my very dear Caroline to believe that everything that concerns you is infinitely precious to me. This new token of your love attaches me the more deeply to you and I assure you dear heart that I love the baby without having seen it. Adieu my dearest heart, for God’s sake take care of yourself and the young family, particularly the new-born infant who at present has the most need of care. The peace of my life depends upon knowing you in good health and upon the conviction of your continued affection for me. I shall endeavour to attract it by all imaginable passion and love and I shall never omit any way of showing you that o one could be more wholly yours dear Caroline than is your George Augustus.

George would continue to show attention to his wife in her childbearing. In later years, he entered the birthing chamber itself to resolve a quarrel between her ladies and the midwife. And the letters didn’t stop, either. In his memoirs, Lord Hervey recalled couriers arriving weekly with ‘a letter of sometimes sixty pages, never less than forty.’

Caroline was to prove the strength of her attachment to George in 1718, when she was faced with an impossible choice: leaving her husband or her children. She was a fond and good mother, but she said her children were not worth ‘a grain of sand’ in comparison to him. Her sacrifice was rewarded richly by the time she became Queen . She was entrusted with the Regency of Britain on several occasions. George fixed her jointure at £100,000, then made Richmond Lodge and Somerset House over to her. Happily, by this time, she was also reunited with the children.

The last few years of Caroline’s life were not easy ones. Her relationship with George was rocky and he was frequently scolding her. He also sought her advice and opinion on his love affairs, of all things. But all this was forgotten when Caroline collapsed in November 1737. Once again George became the devoted husband, sleeping fitfully at the foot of her bed and kissing her hand repeatedly. This time there was no hope of recovery. The couple’s parting was both touching and comical. To quote from my previous post about Caroline’s death:

Caroline … urged him to marry again. Crying, he said he would have mistresses instead. Still unable to resist a joke, Caroline cried “My God! That never stopped you before.”  But George would stand by his words – he never took another wife. As he explained, he never saw another woman “fit to buckle Caroline’s shoe”. Caroline removed the ruby ring placed on her finger at the coronation and put it in her husband’s hand, saying “This is the last thing I have to give you. All I ever possessed came from you. My will you will find a very short one: I give all I have to you.”

The strength of George’s grief took everyone by surprise. He ‘showed a tenderness of which the world thought him before utterly incapable’. He cried when giving speeches and left drawing rooms early. His daughter Amelia removed the queens from his pack of cards to save his feelings. George was once again ‘Monsieur de Busch’, devoted to his departed wife. In a frenzy almost worth of Wuthering Heights, he ordered a hackney chair to take him to the vault where Caroline was buried and spent hours by her tomb. Then, to end the love story with the romance that it had begun, George wrote down his wishes for his own burial. Not only did he want to be buried next to Caroline, but he ordered for the sides of the coffins to be removed, so that their ashes might mingle. It was a very sweet end to what was, undoubtedly, an extremely strange marriage.

If you want to find out more about George and Caroline, look out for my book Mistress of the Court in August!

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