As you may have guessed, the drab way in which Maria Fitzherbert is often presented by history has become one of my bugbears. While I’m sure she would have loved the tragic, sainted image that has survived her, it is not strictly true. Don’t get me wrong – she was a good woman. But she was a woman of her time, and a lot more fun than many people realise. She certainly wasn’t a prude.
My novel about Maria and George (working title A Forbidden Crown) starts with her escape to the Continent in a bid to make the Prince of Wales forget about her. Or, as she termed it, ‘throwing cold water’ on him. Traditionally, this has been seen as a journey of quiet reflection for Maria. Yet when you look at the facts, she had an awful lot of fun. There are many episodes from her travels that I would have loved to write about in my novel, but since I make it a rule only to include scenes that push the plot on or reveal more about the character, they didn’t make the final cut. So, I thought I would tell you a little more on my blog about the wanderings of Mrs Fitzherbert.
First of all, let us talk about her traveling companions. For a lady so concern with her reputation, Maria was intimate with some lively characters. Her closest friend, Lady Anne Lindsay, was not considered spotless. Her engagements had all sizzled out – one, because her fiance would not give up his mistress and illegitimate children. There had even been rumours about Lady Anne’s own relationship with the Prince of Wales. Lady Anne’s sister, Lady Margaret Fordyce, was an abandoned wife whose husband had gone bankfrupt in 1774 and fled the country. Along with these two interesting ladies, Maria also had male travelling companions. Her brother brother Jack and her country squire brother-in-law, Basil Fitzherbert were both with her on separate stages of her journey. So from the start, it was clear that Maria did not intend to spend lonely days in total seclusion.
While Maria disliked traveling, especially over the sea, she made sure that she did it in style. Sailing in her own packet, she took her carriage and all her servants. There is even some evidence that she helped smuggle a debtor out of England on her packet by disguising him as one of her household. Once on the Continent, she started off with a visit to the convent at Dunkirk where she had been schooled and gave all the old nuns a feast. She then moved onto Spa with its casinos and balls.
What interests me is that Maria did not seek to conceal herself from notice or shun all connection with royalty. In fact, she positively courted notice from the European monarchs ad Stadtholders. She visited the Haig, where she was received cordially by Willem V and formed a friendship his daughter Louise – somewhat awkward, since the Haig were half in hopes that Louise herself would make a match with the Prince of Wales. Maria made such an impression that Willem V loaned her his royal barge to take the next step of her journey.
When the travelling party made it to France, they went wild for every bit of royal paraphanlia. They saw the crown jewels, the death masks of kings and the coronation robes of Louis XVI. Lady Anne had great fun trying out Louis XV’s bed, before they visited the coffin of that same monarch. They called on the Duc de Chartres at the Palais Royal and met Madame du Barry before moving on to the famous palace of Versailles. Their visit attracted such interest from the French royals that Marie Antoinette sent her own hairdresser to prepare Maria’s long golden locks. Powdered and poufed, Maria and her companions went to the grand couvert to watch the royal family eat in public, where they spent most of the meal peering through their quizzing glasses at her. Lady Anne ‘saw she was gratified.’ On the final part of her travels in Switzerland, Maria spent a good deal of time with the prince’s paternal uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. These do not strike me as the actions of a woman who wanted to hide from the prince’s attentions and had no ambition – whatever she might profess. I think, deep down, Maria longed for the life she was seeing played out in European courts, but she could not decide how to obtain it legally and without damaging her conscience.
While I believe Maria truly loved the prince, there is no doubt that she enjoyed a bit of flirtation in his absence. To modern eyes, Maria does not look particularly striking. Her large face and aquiline nose would be mocked in cartoons over the coming years. But there is no doubt she had an irresistible charm and was considered an attractive woman in her day. Lady Anne’s travel journal reads like a list of men who fell in love with ‘the Fitz’. Captain Conway was smitten at Spa. When they toured a hospital for the mentally ill, a young surgeon ‘was making love to Mrs F… begging to know when he might wait on her.’ She had to pay off a man she had once flirted with in Florence years ago, to avoid him revealing her letters to the world. Her departure from the Haig was hastened when the attentions of Prince Heinrich Reuss XIII became too pressing. Most impressive of all, when she visited Plombiere, Maria received an offer of marriage from Marquis de Bellois.
I don’t mean to down-play the awkward and distressing position Maria found herself in when the prince fell in love with her. She was certainly very unhappy and homesick toward the end of her journey, when she was in Switzerland with only her brother Jack, having spent well over a year separated from her home, family and friends. Such extensive travel in the eighteenth century was full of inconvenience. She must have felt truly exiled towards the end. Indeed, it was the prolonged indecision and life in virtual stasis that wore upon her, prompting her to capitulate: ‘I feel so worn out… the length of time it has gone on, and the continual prey it has been on my spirits makes me sometimes think that nothing can happen to make me more thoroughly wretched than I am.’ But I hope this post has shown that Maria’s escape to the Continent wasn’t one long journey of misery, reflection and preparation to become a semi Princess of Wales. Like any other young woman of time, she was trying to enjoy her life in the pursuit of pleasure. And I think we can see, from her visits to court and flirtation with young men, that this was a woman who, all along, secretly wanted to accept the prince long before she actually did.