Month: April 2012

Maria – you’ve got to see her!

As some of you may know, I’m currently planning my next novel in the Georgian series, which I’ve been referring to as “Almost Queen”. I’ve come up with a much better title, “A Forbidden Crown” and am shaping my research on Maria Fitzherbert into scenes, a character arc and all that other lovely stuff that comes before writing.

But as I look at my notes, I realise the Maria I know now is very different to the one I saw before I embarked on research. She is feisty, witty and I’ve come to admire her greatly.

Through papers on George III and general Georgian reading, I’d built up a picture of Maria in my head. She seemed dowdy and boring through the Duchess of Devonshire’s eyes – a calming, almost maternal influence on the Prince of Wales. I gathered she must be extremely religious, given that she refused to become the Prince’s mistress and never once talked of converting to the Anglican faith.  I came to see a wronged wife, whose past had already been tinged by tragedy – a Georgian equivalent of Catherine of Aragon.

Needless to say, I was wrong. Firstly, in terms of her physical appearance. Maria’s buxom, pale beauty was much in demand. Her letters show she was adept at turning down suitors, frequently laughing about “the little men” who trailed her. Her natural place was among the bon ton; her uncles were high up in society and she was  much with Lady Sefton, a patroness of the famous Almack’s. Her first two husbands were well to do, leaving her with wealth and all the trappings of fashion. To use a phrase of the day, she cut quite a figure.

Maria certainly was a calming influence on her Prince, but I can find no evidence she had a “boring” personality. She was simply sensible, among a group of people who didn’t know the meaning of the word. She took part in many of the Prince’s wild parties and found it amusing when Barrymore rode his horse up the steps of her house as a prank. But unlike the rest of them, she knew where to stop. And she knew how to make the Prince stop, most of the time. This wasn’t through gentle cooing and sweet words, although they may have played a part. No; Maria chiefly turned the Prince round to her way of thinking with a show of her famous “temper”. She verbally whipped that bad boy into shape.

She was far from being bowled over by Prinny and his glamour. She had his number from the start. She repeatedly told him how ridiculous he was, and tried to cut him in society when his attentions got too marked. He enforced an engagement on her by vowing to kill himself – but even then she was the sensible lady, getting witnesses to sign a document and prove her promise was given under duress, before fleeing to the Continent. As the Prince continued to bombard her with schemes for marriage, she was mistress of herself enough to see the flaws in his plans.  In the end, her love for him won through all her logic. But even then, she retained her wits and vital understanding of her lover – “The Prince, follow me to the Continent?! He will be following some other lady at Brighton.”

So what of Maria’s famous, or rather infamous, Catholicism? Although Maria was religious and came to find great comfort in the Catholic church in her old age, she was no zealot. She had no intention to convert others round to her way of thinking, or to raise the children she adopted in the Catholic faith. So why didn’t she just convert to the Church of England? It would have made her life easier, not to mention Prinny’s. Although their marriage would still have been illegal if she was Anglican, it would have been much less dangerous. Remaining Catholic meant his claim to the throne was at risk – and she, in turn, by preventing the heir from inheriting the throne, put her life on the line.  I’ve come to see that for Maria, being Catholic was part of her identity. She had grown up in a world of smuggled priests, a secret church community and pride in her staunch Catholic bloodlines.   It was who she was born to be, and Maria would never compromise that. In fact, she would never compromise anything that would injure her own self-respect.

I think this is the main reason I have come to love Maria: she demands respect. She would not have Prinny cheating on her, she would not be a mistress, she would not give up her identity. She did not entrap a wayward boy into a marriage; she simply had savvy enough to protect herself and her good name.  I can find no evidence that she intended to force her way onto the throne, but she expected to be treated by society as the Princess of Wales. It was her due. For what it’s worth, I believe she would have made an excellent Queen, if the law had permitted it.

As you can see, she’s going to be a fascinating character to write. But she has to be written, as well as marketed, properly. I see many books out there proclaiming her the “secret” wife of George IV. Well, if she was, it was the most open secret in history. Even George III and Queen Charlotte knew about her. The marriage was known, but not proven (although Maria had the evidence to prove it if she wished) – hence George IV’s ability to marry again and become King.

Another common tactic is to set her up as a rival Queen to Caroline, who will be the second heroine of “A Forbidden Crown”. Again, this is wrong – they both directed their fury at the common enemy, George. Caroline actually liked Mrs Fitzherbert and wished the Prince would go back to her.

Then, of course, the “wronged wife” tagline. Perhaps Maria was a little wronged, but the break with George was mainly her own doing – she had simply had enough. Even when she went back to him, she made it clear she would not share his bed. He’d forfeited that right for good.

I hope to challenge the idea that Maria was simply swept up in hopeless love with the Prince of Wales. I want to show her as an intelligent, mature woman who knew what she was doing. Prinny was not her only love – she had adored both her other husbands, particularly Mr Fitzherbert. She had been burnt before, but she never wallowed. She kept pressing on, getting “the better of herself.” I can only try to inspire others to give her, in retrospect, the respect she both demanded and deserves.

Less Henry, more George

On Monday night,  I joined my fellow history geeks for a Tudor dancing class.  The conversation turned – or more accurately, was turned by me – to historical fiction.

As we talked, we realised just how much Tudor fiction was out there. Of the commercial historical fiction we had read, the period was getting about a 70% share. Now, we’re not complaining. No one loves a bit of Tudor more than us. But isn’t the market at risk of becoming saturated with books set in Tudor times? Isn’t it time to try something – well, a bit more Georgian?

Below, I’ve compiled a list of reasons that make the Tudor era an exciting and compelling world to set a story in.  But, as you will see, each of them pales in comparison beside the Georgians, who are even better.

Historical Importance

It still baffles me why we teach school kids about the six wives of Henry VIII, Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess but ignore the four Georges.  Yes, massively important things happened in the Tudor reigns – the formation of the Church of England, to name but one. But while the Hanoverians were on the throne, we won the Seven Years war, reformed Parliament, abolished the Slave Trade, lost America and, at times, stood alone against Napoleon as he tried to turn Europe into his personal Empire. Pretty darn important stuff! But most people look at me blankly when I talk about it.

Religious Strife

We forget that the Hanoverians were actually brought in to keep the Catholics off the throne. The Stuart line had a better blood claim, but the religious prejudice of the country was against them. In 1780, thanks to Lord Gordon’s efforts, violent riots swept through London with the cry of “No Popery”. Whether to emancipate the Catholics remained a major issue. Pitt resigned as Prime Minister at a vital point in the Napoleonic War, not the mention the Irish rebellion, over the issue. So imagine the reaction when rumours spread that the Prince of Wales, later George IV, had married a Catholic widow!

The Constant Threat of Death

The gallows cast their long shadow through the 1700s and beyond. The threat of corporal punishment was very real in the Georgian era. Princess Caroline-Matilda, unhappily married to the Prince of Denmark, was caught in her adultery with a young physician. Both he and his best friend were beheaded. If we hop over to France, we see yet more heads flying around in the Revolution. But even if you manage to keep your noggin on your neck, you weren’t safe from rampant disease.

Looking at the English monarchy, we can’t forget that Maria Fitzherbert put her life in serious peril by marrying the heir to the throne against the laws of the land. As I will cover in my next novel, there were several times she could have faced imprisonment and even death if her secret marriage was confirmed. Just imagine what would have happened to her if she’d married him before the Gordon Riots!

As for George IV’s other Queen, the wayward Caroline, she was almost certainly guilty of adultery. I believe Prinny would have had her killed if he thought he could possibly get away with it. Luckily for us, he knew there was no way.

Illicit Affairs

Well I’ll wait until I write my new book to tell you all about Caroline and her Italian lover, but there are plenty more to discuss. George III’s brothers enraged him with their unsuitable, secret marriages, while another family member was sued for adultery by his lover’s husband.
George II lived in thrall to his mistress and actually scared his grandson off women for a while. And then we have Prinny, a ladies’ man if ever there was one! I don’t think there was one love he didn’t cheat on. His brother William IV was little better, having numerous illegitimate children with Mrs Jordan before ditching her for a real Princess.

But the women gave as good as they got. We’ve listed Caroline and Caroline-Matilda, but there was also Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, infamously linked with her son’s tutor Lord Bute, and of course George III’s daughters, who you can read about in Queen of Bedlam.

Strong Women in a Man’s World

Personally, I consider Queen Charlotte a very strong woman, although this may sound strange when I tell you she was often afraid to contradict her husband. But there are other, less controversial claims. I present Caroline, so determined in her right to be crowned Queen, despite her long estrangement from her husband, that she tried to storm his coronation! I give you Augusta, thwarted from becoming Queen by her husband’s death, but able to control the throne long into her son’s reign. There are many more, but I’m not going to talk about them too much in this post. I’m going to write books about them. They’re that cool.

The Need for an Heir

There were many squabbles for the throne in the Georgian period. Who can forget Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Old Pretender? Bloody battles were fought over their claims to inherit for the House of Stuart.

In later years, when the young Princess of Wales died unexpectedly, there was a race amongst George III’s sons to give birth to an heir. Ok, a Georgian monarch was unlikely to chop your head off if you didn’t give him a son. But it was still a shock when, after decades of male rule, the crown was left to a young girl by the name of Victoria…

Costumes

I admit partiality to a lovely French hood, but a bonnet is also very becoming. And what can Tudors really hold up next to powdered wigs and towering hair sculptures? Our dresses are more risqué and twice as flattering. Our men don’t have silly puffy legs or pointy beards – and they don’t need codpieces to show their manliness. As another bonus, hygeine has improved about 30% since the Tudor period!

So there you have it. Every point answered. And as you can see, I’ve focused mainly on George III and George IV – they’re uppermost in my thoughts at the moment because I’m working on their novels. I haven’t really started to mention what happened with George I and George II, but there’s already so much material! Go on – do it. I know you want to. Convert: go Georgian.