Month: October 2013

The Secret Wife of George IV

Book Cover

I realised it was unforgivable, in a blog about Georgian historical fiction, not to provide reviews for the novels I read set in this period. So from now on, I’m going to include occasional posts about other books to stop you getting bored with mine!

I’ve recently finished reading Diane Haeger’s The Secret Wife of George IV. I must admit, I’d been putting off reading this for a while, because I didn’t want to be influenced by another work when writing my own story about Maria Fitzherbert. So when a rough draft of A Forbidden Crown was complete, I decided I’d give it a try. But then, two fears crept up on me. Firstly, what if I hated it? There’s nothing more annoying than reading a book where the time period and characters you love are gradually destroyed. What’s more, if I did hate it and then reviewed it, I’d be suspected of trying to take down the competition maliciously. But the second fear was even worse – what if I adored it? What if it was the best story in the world about Maria, said everything I wanted to say, was far better than anything I could ever do and made me want to rip A Forbidden Crown into teeny tiny shreds?

Happily, I fell in between these two extremes. I found Haeger’s work to be a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, sprinkled with delightful period detail. However, her interpretations of Maria and George are rather different from mine and the focus of her story is romance. This means A Forbidden Crown still has something new to say about the characters – hooray! Naturally, I’m hard to please when it comes to interpretations of the Hanoverian dynasty. For fairness, I’m going to split my review into one of a reader’s perspective and one of a historian’s. The historical review will have spoilers!

As a Reader

I’ve never read stories by Diane Haeger before, but I’ll certainly download some more. The writing style draws you in right from the start. Haeger is gifted at painting characters and descriptions. There were many scenes where I felt I was really there with the characters in Almack’s or on the sea front.

In this tragic love story, she does a magnificent job of handling emotions, capturing perfectly the despair and desire felt by the couple. There were times when I felt the romance was perhaps a little overblown – lots of “You are my soul”. However, this is a romance novel, and if anyone was over the top in protestations of love, it was George IV.

The novel uses multiple points of view, which gave a good insight into the world outside of the couple’s bubble and took a look at interesting figures such as Charles James Fox. Although I didn’t mind switching viewpoint in general, I did get frustrated when it happened within the same scene. Haeger “head-hops” between characters quite a bit. I got confused when I walked into a room with Maria, found out what Fox and Georgiana thought about her, then left the scene in George’s head. Some readers might not mind this but it spoiled my enjoyment a little.

In the main, there’s lot of action. However, I did find the last few years were rushed through, with lots more telling than showing. Having said that, the end strikes just the right note and is packed with emotion, despite a few “listing” chapters leading up to it.

I would certainly recommend this book to others.

As a Historian

There’s no doubt that George IV is treated harshly by fiction and history alike. It was refreshing to read something sympathetic to his predicament – but I have to say, I found Haeger’s approach rather too sympathetic.

Characters refer to the prince as “wild” and a drunk, and on his death-bed he mourns his “petty selfishness”, yet we never see any of it. All we see are noble actions. He talks of his demons, but they don’t seem to haunt him. He finds it astonishingly easy to give up alcohol with no backsliding and only lies to protect people. I feel we need to see George’s bad side for a fair assessment. My fascination for the man stems from his contradictions; at the same time he was a rash fool, he was also a lovely and kind man. He was petulant, childish and selfish; loving, devoted and charitable. To fully understand Maria’s difficulty in this relationship, I needed to see more of this contrast. As it was, I felt George was an utter victim and had never done a bad thing in his life. One of the great stage-moments of his wooing/bullying Maria into marrying him was an attempted suicide – Haeger leaves this out completely.

Haeger’s theory has George taking up with his mistress Lady Jersey under duress, caring nothing for her, and marrying Caroline of Brunswick to save Maria from hideous gossip. Jersey is his “foil”, used to fool Maria into believing he has gone back to his old ways and make her angry enough to leave him. Personally, I don’t buy this. George was besotted with Lady Jersey and endured the hatred of the nation for her sake. He also used her to taunt Caroline. No mention is made of George marrying Caroline for money, as he certainly did. The choice of bride is also foisted on George III. In fact, the bridegroom suggested Caroline himself. George III was not usually in favour of cousins marrying.

George’s debt is imputed to the King being stingy, rather than his own carelessness. In truth, it was a mixture of both, but it sat ill with me to read of George ordering staff to sell all his luxury items and “see the profit divided equally between my staff and their families for the money they are owed.” – George was notorious for never paying staff. However, this novel has him determined to pay his devoted servants “even if he had to sell every last stick of furniture and precious art in Carlton House”. I don’t think so. The other miracle is that George never seems to get fat. In his old age, we have one scene of him on the porky side, but he’s still described as muscular and handsome at periods when he weighed at least 17 stone.

It saddened me that the complex relationship between George and his parents was only just touched on. George III was made out to be a monster; we only saw him and Charlotte twice throughout the whole book. What’s more, the Regency crisis – perhaps the most important incident in any story about George IV – was reduced to one argument with the Queen. George wasn’t shown taking advantage of his father, hungering after power or trying to organise the next government.. He made a brief trip down to London and only wanted to be King so he could make Maria Queen.

Other characters were strangely skewed, too. Maria’s great friend Lady Anne Lindsay hardly features, but when she does it is to inform the lovestruck George where Maria is travelling in France. Lady Anne was against the marriage and although she did help George in the end, it was very reluctantly, not at all in an attempt to trap Maria as it seems to be here. Maria’s companion Belle Pigot becomes a sort of foster-mother for George, a person he was apparently closer to than the Queen, but I’ve never come across anything like this in the history books. Then there was Captain Jack Payne – somehow transmuted here into a butler called Jacko Payne. Why? Maria’s butler was Whale. There was no obvious reason for these changes. I did feel, however, that Lord and Lady Seymour were drawn well, and also Lady Sefton. These characters had traits I had read about in the past and made for a richer story.

Maria was well interpreted and I was pleased Haeger had included her temper and her pride – characteristics that are often overlooked. I found her a likeable character, but hard to understand towards the end. Her ambition was left out, I believe in an attempt to heighten the disinterested romance.  I laughed aloud when she cried “I do not want his wretched money!” – since Maria spent many years trying to get her allowance paid by George. Maria’s longing for a child is well described, although she seems to mistakenly think the laws of England could not take a bastard by George away from her.

The main problem with Maria’s character in this portrayal arises over the Lady Hertford issue. Again protecting George from any possible slur on his character, Haeger has him flirt with Lady Hertford only to keep her sweet and let Maria look after Minney Seymour. I could potentially believe this (although he later clearly chose Lady Hertford over Maria) and it might have worked for the story, if not for one thing: in this book, he explains his actions to Maria. When she challenges him about Lady Hertford, he confesses it is a deception to make sure she can retain custody of Minney. Given these circumstances, it is almost incomprehensible why Maria leaves him for the last time. It seems whimsical. When it’s clear she loves him so much, it’s hard to believe something he is doing for her could cause them to split.

Haeger also explores Maria’s admirers outside of the royal circle, which I was glad of, for she was a woman much in demand. I think history tends to see her like the caricatures – dull, fat and old – when in truth she was quite the toast of society. I had heard the Duke of Bedford loved Maria, but I feel a little too much was made of it in this story. Not only does the Duke follow her to France, he later sleeps with her and takes her to St. James’s Palace on the day of George’s wedding. In fact, Maria was at Marble Hill and refused to believe the messenger who told her George had gone through with the ceremony. I also don’t think she’d ever sleep with someone outside of marriage, let alone the Duke.

From a research point of view, there were little inaccuracies peppered throughout. One that glared at me was the mention of a vase, which apparently George’s “grandfather had given to him personally shortly before his own death.” Both George’s grandfathers were long dead before his parents were even married. I nearly blew a gasket when Sheridan was described as Scottish.  And then the beach at Brighton was described as sandy, when it’s shingle or pebble. These things are perhaps fussy, but they bothered me. A turn of phrase upset me as well. Maria was making up her mind up to something and thought “That’s it. Period.” Not only is this far too modern a phrase for the eighteenth-century mind, but it’s an American word. If Maria thought that, she would have thought “Full stop”. Yes, it’s petty, but these are the kinds of things my critique group would pick up in a first reading. I just wonder how they made it through.

In summary, I would say the history and characters of Maria and George are recognisable but not entirely accurate in this portrayal. Many concessions have been made to make a better romance. I would recommend this book as a good read and something for people who already know the history. It gives a lovely flavour of the period but, I feel, an idealised view of the people who lived through it.

Posted in Reading | Comments Off on The Secret Wife of George IV

Prince George’s Christening

Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge

Last week, Kensington Palace announced the Christening date for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge.  The ceremony will take place on 23 October 2013 in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace and will no doubt be an occasion of much joy. But when you watch the news and see the pictures, spare a thought for another little Prince George, born nearly 300 years ago, also Christened at St. James’s Palace. This child, second son of George II and Caroline of Ansbach, was less lucky than our third in line to the throne. Innocently, he became the object of a quarrel which rocked the nation.

After the trauma of leaving her eldest son, Frederick, behind in Hanover, Caroline, then Princess of Wales, struggled to get a second boy. In 1716, she gave birth to a stillborn son, which nearly killed her. However, she fell pregnant again very soon and was finally delivered of little George on 20 October 1717 (Old Style calendar, 2 November in the New Style), in her chambers at St. James’s Palace. George’s birth was witnessed by – amongst others –  his father, the Archbishop of Canterbury, four Duchesses and five Countesses. I think any woman who has been through childbirth will feel how awful it must have been to labour while all those people watched on! In her last confinement, Caroline had insisted on sticking with the German tradition of having one female midwife attend the birth. It is significant to note that, after the last year’s tragedy, Caroline employed two male midwives for George’s birth: a much more English procedure.

out of; (c) Warwick Shire Hall; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Caroline’s  joy in the delivery of a healthy boy was echoed by the public.  Cannon salutes and fireworks displays marked the first birth of a Hanoverian prince on British soil. George was also the first royal child to be born in some years, Hanoverian or not. The last one had been James Stuart, commonly known as The Old Pretender and the Warming Pan Baby. The celebrations for James’s birth were marred by his Catholic decent. People believed – or pretended to believe – that he was not a prince at all, but smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming-pan. There were no such doubts or wild stories about little George.  But while the baby himself was not controversial, his Christening was to prove an event that divided the English court.

The King, George I, had been spoiling for a fight with his son, the Prince of Wales, for some time. Only the year before little George’s birth, the King had visited his domains in Hanover and been outraged to find the Prince and Princess of Wales entertaining his political enemies and winning the country over with their lively personalities in his absence. Unwittingly, this new baby was a powder keg who would ignite the family quarrel that had been coming for many years.

St. James's Palace

At first, the King seemed happy with the little prince’s birth and amenable to his parent’s wishes. He came every day “to watch the baby suck” although it was noted he didn’t speak to his own son on these occasions. He was also agreeable to Caroline’s choice of name for the boy, which was William. However, when English ministers began to get involved, the situation quickly turned ugly. The ministers insisted that, as the King was to be one of the baby’s godfathers, it should be named after him. As a compromise, the King suggested George William. Unfortunately, he didn’t go to the child’s parents himself to explain this change and the reasons behind it. Instead, he sent a man hated by the Prince and Princess of Wales to deliver the message: the Duke of Newcastle.

Tracy Borman describes Newcastle as “a mean-spirited and obnoxious noble man whose eccentricities rendered him a laughing-stock” and Lord Hervey is hardly more complimentary about the man in his memoirs. One can imagine the fuss and importance with which the Duke delivered such wounding news. However, there was worse to come. The King was advised that, although the Prince of Wales wished to appoint his uncle as the second godfather, it was custom for the monarch to choose the second godfather himself from amongst the principal lords at court. In a move that must have been intended to provoke, the King settled on the Duke of Newcastle. In vain did the Prince of Wales protest and beg his father to make another choice. Newcastle was the man, and he must have felt very puffed up about it too.

The state bed at Hampton Court

So when the Christening finally took place on 28 November 1717 (Old Style calendar), tensions were running high. It was the custom at the time for a royal baby to be Christened in its mother’s chambers, rather than the chapel. Caroline lay in a grand state bed to watch the proceedings – and doubtlessly felt frustrated and powerless.  She had to watch as her husband tried to suppress his famous temper and everything happened against her wishes. Here is a little excerpt of the Christening scene from my work in progress about Caroline, Mistress of the Court:

 “The King, the King!”

On cue, the court dipped into a reverence. Caroline merely bent her neck. She was glad her position in the bed prevented her from curtseying – she couldn’t stomach cringing before the King now. She saw the effort it cost George – the tremors in his calf and his quaking shoulders. He gripped his hat so hard it bent the rim.

The King nodded at Georgie, bawling his little heart out. “Well, he certainly has a voice on him.”

Men came to wrench him from Caroline’s arms. Georgie’s fingers clasped the lace at her neck, but he was too weak to cling on. It was as if he knew they meant to foist a false name and a false godfather on him and fought against them with furious wails. Caroline twisted her lips in a grim smile. He had his father’s temper and he wouldn’t make it easy for them. She was proud of him for that.

The ceremony itself passed smoothly but when the Bishop closed, and the Prince of Wales escorted the King from the room, tempers finally broke. The Prince of Wales flew at the Duke of Newcastle, holding his hand and extended-forefinger in his face in a menacing way. What he said next remains one of history’s great unanswered questions. Newcastle reported that the prince hollered “You are a rascal, but I shall fight you.” The Prince of Wales, on the other hand, maintained he had said “You are a rascal, but I shall find you out” i.e get even with you. Perhaps the confusion arose from the prince’s thick German accent, but either way, Newcastle remained convinced he had been challenged. He flew straight to the King to tittle-tattle.

Angered, the King sent a deputation of ministers to his son to find out the truth. In great indignation, the Prince of Wales expressed his astonishment that the issue had escalated and said the difference in rank between him and Newcastle made the very idea of a duel insulting. However, on the advice of the cabinet, full of ministers who disliked the Prince of Wales, and perhaps to settle old scores, the King chose to believe Newcastle. As a punishment for undutiful behavior, he then ejected the Prince and Princess of Wales from the royal palaces.

King George II

This blow would have been bad enough on its own. But to add insult to injury, the King ruled that the Prince and Princess would have to leave their children behind in his care – all three daughters and the newborn George. Emotionally destroyed and still weak from giving birth, poor Caroline had to drag herself across London to a duke’s house without a royal guard, where she and the Prince remained until they purchased Leicester House for themselves.

Hundreds of servants were caught in the turmoil of this family separation. Members of the court had to pick a side to favour, knowing full well that if they visited the Prince and Princess of Wales, the King would never see them again. Many people suffered from this rift, which was never fully healed. Although in later years the royals got back on speaking terms, and the Prince and Princess of Wales were allowed to visit the King’s court, they didn’t stay in the palaces or have full charge of their children again until the King’s death ten years later.

But the real tragedy of this story remains with little George. In February 1718, he fell ill with “an oppression upon his breast, accompanied with a cough, which increased . . . a fever succeeded with convulsions”. The King arranged for him to be moved out of smoky St. James’s Palace to Kensington – which, sadly, was not much better, due to the damp problems it suffered from. He was sufficiently alarmed by this stage to inform the Prince and Princess of Wales that they might visit the baby as often as they pleased. It was as well he did; not long after, George breathed his last tiny breath inside the palace. His mother was present at his death.

Kensington Palace

A later autopsy found that George had a large amount of water on the brain and a polyp on his heart. He was never destined for a long life, and the King was cleared from blame. However, I imagine many people still felt that separation from his mother had hastened the child’s death. With “a pitiful amount of black crepe” baby George was buried privately at night in Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey.

A sad tale if ever there was one. Let us hope and pray our little Prince George’s Christening is a far happier event, and that he lives a long and joyful life as England’s future King.