Month: February 2012

Type-casting the Regency

Officially, the Regency period extends from 1811, the year George III was finally deemed unfit to rule, to the date of his death in 1820. In common practice, the term is used to refer to the era between the first Regency crisis of 1788 and Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837. Poor William IV, alas, is quite forgotten – but more of this in a future post.

When we imagine the Regency we often paint a glittering, exhilarating picture – a breathless whirl of duels and dandies, balls and fast carriage rides. If you look for a work of fiction set in the period, you are more than likely to find a light, skippy, Heyer-esque romance. What has given us this misconception of a turbulent, difficult period in history? These were years of war and political upheaval with the monarchy and country in a state of dangerous flux. Yes, there may have been young women who based their worlds around sprigged muslin and ices from Gunter’s, but there are as many heedless teenagers today. Does that make our time one of peace and never-ending fun? Hardly.

Historical fiction seems to have carved out a particular “mood” for each era. The Tudor novels I have read are full of threat and illicit sex – dark, brooding pieces. Victorian works focus on the poor or the seedy underside of London; those that deal with the higher classes tend to focus on women’s oppression. If we can see the threats and struggles of these other periods, why do we waltz through the Regency as if such things never existed?

True, you were less likely to get beheaded by a capricious monarch in Regency England. But the death sentence still stood and the jails were still filthy pits of hell. The last burning at the stake took place as late as 1789, while quartering and disembowelment were only removed from the punishment for High Treason in 1814. Soldiers came back from the Peninsular war poor and limbless to beg on the streets of London. The Industrial Revolution was putting many out of work. As for women, although they were not yet expected to be “the angel at home” of Victorian times, they were still very much the property of men. They could be legally kidnapped by their husbands and beaten, so long as the stick was no thicker than a man’s thumb.

Perhaps we base the “spirit of the age” on the literature of the times. There is no doubt that the Regency was the golden age of satire. If we only read the comic novels of Fielding and look at the caricatures of the day, it is easy to imagine a period of romping joy. Many people, I know, blame Jane Austen for carving out a tidy little world inside her novels, but this is unjust. Although Austen was a gifted wit, her books are about impoverished women in the power of snobs and men. Moreover, if you look at Austen’s life, you will see more of the “real” Regency: two spinster sisters making shift with their elderly mother, reliant on the protection of their brothers. It is the same with the Romantic poets – Byron and Keats hardly made it to happily ever afters. It is worth noting that popular books of the period were not all careless, happy pieces: we have Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic horror novels, Richardson’s women under constant threat of rape and Sir Walter Scott’s historical yarns, looking back on other times as better days.

The more I consider, I begin to believe we base our view of an era on the reigning monarch. Henry VIII was both powerful and turbulent, an unpredictable force – hence the constant state of uncertainty and danger lurking in Tudor novels. Most people remember Victoria as the unsmiling widow, never amused (a great tragedy, in my opinion) –  so most Victorian pieces are equally sombre. For the Regency we have the overly-emotional, extravagant, often ludicrous George IV. His parties, no doubt, were carousels of absurd games and indifferent morals – which is why we suffer from the illusion that one could get away with pretty much anything. But we have to remember dear old “Prinny” was widely condemned in the press for his actions. Only aristocrats with the influence of money and a title managed to polish over their misdemeanours and keep appearing in society, although many of them were still ruined.

So who has written a Regency novel that is not a romance? Worryingly few people. I have highly enjoyed Gregory’s A Respectable Trade (I am yet to read the Wildacre trilogy), Miller’s Pure, Griffin’s The House of Sight and Shadow and Banbridge’s According to Queeny, but most of the action takes place in the earlier Georgian period.  Morgan’s Passion is worth a read – although, as you can see from the title, it is a love story, it is based on fact and not whimsical jaunts. The only book that really and truly, for me, manages to combine the tragedy and frivolity of the era in one full swoop is Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Even this starts and ends a little early – 1775 to around 1794 (?) – but it has the right feel to it. Both sides of the Janus-face time come to the fore: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The Most Royal

When you say the word “Princess”, many adjectives come to mind: glamorous, spoilt, regal, elegant, accomplished, rich, beautiful. The reason I love Charlotte Augusta Matilda, or Royal, as she was better known, is she defies these conventions. The eldest daughter of George III was one who truly broke the Princess mould.

For me, it all began with Royal. I was reading Flora Fraser’s Princesses with an eye to writing a series of six books, one about each of George III’s daughters. The first who truly leapt out and inspired me was Royal. I knew, whatever I did, it would start with her. Why? Because she’s one of those characters I adore: the type of person no one else seems to like much. Although the eldest of the Princesses and granted the title “Princess Royal”, she was certainly not the favourite. She lived in constant fear of her mother’s disapproval and was a disappointment in many ways: she could not dance, she hated music, she had bad fashion sense and she was nowhere near as beautiful as her sisters. Her father was extremely fond of her, but in 1783 Amelia stole the place of most beloved daughter, leaving Royal as merely “the governess to her five sisters”.

It is impossible not to feel for the girl as you read accounts of the time, comparing her disparagingly with her sister Augusta, but perhaps it was this early neglect that forged Royal into the determined and passionate character she became.  She was adept, as her later life was to show, at managing people. She juggled caring for her depressive mother, deranged father and younger sisters while keeping in the good books of her brothers. She managed to go around with the full bearing of a Princess “looking every inch the daughter of a King,” even though she was hopelessly lacking in confidence and preferred liberal Whig politics. Her sisters, especially the young Sophia and Mary, saw her as an authoritative figure who told tales on them to the Queen. She was generally considered proud and priggish.

I can’t deny that Royal was very aware of her position as the eldest daughter of the King of England, but the quiet manner which most people took for pride was actually shyness. She had a fear of talking too much in case she betrayed the stammer that haunted her throughout life. She did not fit in with her family; there was no place for her. Princesses Augusta and Elizabeth were best friends, whilst the three younger sisters, so much Royal’s juniors, formed their only little clique. It is hardly surprising she became distant, concentrating on her great talent: drawing.

In the end it all got too much for poor Royal. She broke down to her brother, the Prince of Wales, begging him to find her a husband. She complained that the Queen favoured all her sisters above her and as for the King, when he was not mad, he was oblivious to the fact his daughter was ageing. He seemed in no hurry to establish the woman in her late twenties – young by our standards, but positively verging on an old maid at the time. The Prince of Wales tried his best to help, without much success. It is sad to consider that even this brother, who Royal clearly trusted and loved, saw fit to refer to her as a “bandy-legged bitch” in his youthful correspondence.

But Royal knew how to get what she wanted. In her younger years she had tortured a governess to the point of resignation with her bad behaviour, all so she could get the young Miss Hamilton, who she adored, into her position. When a proposal for her came up from Fritz of Württemberg, she did not rest until it was accepted. Although political pressure played a part in George III’s decision to allow the marriage, I cannot help thinking his eldest daughter exerted all the influence in her power. I can imagine she wheedled, pleaded, did whatever she needed to do to get him to say yes. So many other offers were rejected outright, and continued to be rejected after Royal was married. She was the only Princess, after all, to marry with the King’s consent.

Royal’s husband was as unlike a stereotypical Prince as she was a Princess. Fat and short-tempered, Fritz made an unlikely hero to rescue Royal from her tower. But although he dragged her into war and at one point, made her the enemy of England, she seems to have loved him. She was enchanted that he had a picture of her father sent across to her new rooms before she got there, so she would see a familiar face. He showed delicacy to her feelings when he prevented her seeing him injured after a riding accident and he gave her a ready made family: two sons and a daughter by a previous marriage.

This previous marriage was to Royal’s own cousin, Augusta of Brunswick. Rumour has it that he beat her, cheated on her with both men and women, and arranged for her to be killed in Russia. Contemporary sources also show many suspected Fritz of beating Royal too, but she always denied it. It is hard to tell the truth; Royal was too proud a woman to admit such a thing and besides, who did she have to confide in? Whatever really happened, she loved him to the end and beyond. After Fritz’s death, she kept up many of his customs and spent her life preserving his good name.

Royal never gave birth to the babies she so desired; she had one still born daughter and never fell pregnant again. Yet she made herself invaluable to the stepchildren she adopted, and in later years, their children. When she died, her two “granddaughters” refused to be moved from her corpse and clung around it affectionately. As for the people of Württemberg, they adored her too. She was famous for her charity and a well beloved consort. It is satisfying to reflect that, although she suffered much throughout her life, Royal’s stoic religion and dogged determination paid off in the end. By the time she passed from the world, she had found her place and established herself as a great Queen.