As you’ve probably noticed by now, it’s the psychology of historical figures that really interests me. I’ve covered many “characters”, but I believe there are few as fascinating as Princess Charlotte of Wales, only child of George IV and Queen Caroline.
Not only was Charlotte born in the midst of Revolutionary War, she entered life as a main playing piece in the battle between her estranged parents. Sadly for Charlotte, she took after both her mother and father and in different ways. Since they couldn’t live together happily, how was she supposed to juggle these irreconcilable personalities within herself? It wasn’t easy and there were few people to help her.
Both George and Caroline loved their daughter, but it was a love tinged with darker emotions. She was an instrument of revenge to use against the other. Moreover, she reminded them of their less than happy union. She looked very much like her father and her manners at times brought her mother vividly to life. Neither could love her without reserve.
Caroline doted on the young Charlotte. Throughout her life, she was obsessed with babies and children, but I can’t help feeling that as Charlotte grew up, Caroline’s interest waned. It was very clear that Charlotte was to be raised away from her “polluting influence” and though Caroline tried to gain more frequent access to her daughter, the struggle soon became more about annoying George than actually seeing Charlotte. Besides, Caroline had adopted countless other waifs and strays to live with her at Blackheath, all of a younger, cuter age. To some extent, poor Charlotte must have felt replaced.
In my post Sweet Caroline, I discussed how difficult it is to form an opinion of Caroline. It comes as no surprise to me that her daughter also struggled. On the one hand, Caroline was a slice of fun punctuating the dreary monotony of Charlotte’s school room life. It must have been blissful to be swept away from the dull aunts at Windsor to Blackheath’s riotous parties. Charlotte was soon telling her governess she didn’t mind showing her legs when she got into the carriage – she had nice legs, after all. This is pure Caroline talking; a sign that perhaps Charlotte looked up to her mother as a kind of role model, an outspoken woman amongst her more retiring aunts. But Charlotte was not solely Caroline’s daughter, and she began to doubt her mother was quite so wonderful as she first thought. The findings of the Delicate Investigation of 1806 shocked Charlotte to the core. She was enough of George’s daughter to disapprove strongly of her mother’s actions, and begin to question her motives.
Caroline had once helped Charlotte conduct a love affair with Captain Hesse, carrying correspondence for them. At this time, her mother probably seemed like a godsend, wanting her to find true love. It was only later that Charlotte began to wonder if her mother was trying to ruin her reputation, thus punishing George and the entire royal family. Her fears seemed justified when the time came to arrange her marriage. Charlotte asked her mother for advice about accepting the Prince of Orange, but Caroline refused to give any. She was far more concerned that Charlotte should cause a fuss about Caroline’s exclusion from the recent festivities at Carlton House. When, desperate to avoid the match, Charlotte fled her house and cast herself on Caroline’s protection, she was told to go back home! Soon after, Caroline quit the country and left Charlotte to cope with the fall out alone.
It was no easier to trust her father. Personally, I think that George did love his daughter and wanted to do the best by her. But he had a remarkably short memory. As an heir to the throne who had chaffed under the strict education imposed on him, you would expect his rearing of Charlotte to be more liberal. Alas, he was so terrified of Caroline’s influence that he kept her on a tight rein. He made it very clear that Charlotte was to have “no will of her own”. I doubt anyone would like being told that, but for the spirited Charlotte it was doubly exasperating. She began to see him as a jailor. Since he hated and banned visits to Caroline, they became a kind of illicit treat. Another rod George made for his own back was raising Charlotte with Whig values. As heir presumptive, he had subscribed to the party views, but the tables turned when he became Prince Regent. Not only were the Whigs infuriating him with their party squabbles but they were determined to end the war. For the sake of what he believed best for England, George was forced to break with his old party and stick with the Tories. This widened the gap between father and daughter; Charlotte burst into tears at dinner when he gave an anti-Whig speech.
We must remember that George hated Caroline with an almost inhuman frenzy. There were times when his daughter, as a reminder of that hated woman, was loathsome to him. It became far easier to spend time in Brighton with Mrs Fitzherbert and their adopted daughter, Minnie Seymour. Minnie was a winning child, dutiful and sweet – probably because she didn‘t have the Hanover genes in her. Once again, Charlotte was finding her place filled in a parent’s heart. She even began to suspect that George wanted her out of the country, married to a foreign Prince, so it would be easier to divorce her mother. In which case, he would probably marry again and produce an alternative heir to the throne. She stood to lose everything if she didn’t keep her father sweet – or, if she abandoned her mother. How was she supposed to do both?
Unsurprisingly, with all this pressure, Charlotte “played up”. She liked to be rough with her playmates, laugh loudly and swagger like an ostler boy. She delighted in a tom-boy image, yet never lost sight of the great situation to which she was born. When asked to close the door by her governess, she replied grandly, “Not I. If you want the door closed, ring the bell.” For a period of her childhood, she made herself as difficult as possible. Why not? Whatever she did, she was bound to displease one or other of her parents.
Charlotte did have true friends who cared for her, but she didn’t realise it. Her grandmother Queen Charlotte and the five of her daughters who remained in England were on her side. But as they all loved George, Charlotte suspected them of being nothing but his puppets. Moreover, they were all so boring to her youthful mind. She scarcely thought of confiding in them until much later on in life. Meanwhile, her Aunt Royal frequently wrote from Wurttemberg with recommendations for Charlotte’s upbringing. If George had attended to them, Charlotte might have enjoyed a bit of an easier ride. The only one of the family Charlotte knew she could trust was her grandfather George III. They were devoted to each other. But the “madness” snatched him away from her so often, he was of very little use.
Charlotte did eventually find happiness with Prince Leopold, who she married. She calmed down from this point and truly seemed able to be herself. Her relationship with her father and aunts improved, and she wrote fondly to her mother on the Continent. It seemed she had at last reconciled some of the turmoil within. Yet when she was on the point of completing her own joy by adding a child to the family, and delighting the nation by giving birth to a Prince, Charlotte tragically died.
It seems so unfair that she was only able to enjoy a brief snatch of happiness. But from a literary point of view, it has the perfect symbolism. The rotten marriage of her parents tainted her luck throughout life. The only good thing to come of the union, like the marriage itself, broke down at an early age. Poor Charlotte. I often wonder what would have happened if she and her son had lived, thereby erasing the Victorian era. We will never know, but I certainly hope that she has found the peace she was seeking all that time, beneath this beautiful monument with her son and grandmother.