I’m very lucky to be within reach of many places featured in my novels. Only recently I found out that Henrietta Howard spent time living at Blickling Hall and Audley End – both places I visited and enjoyed without even knowing! In preparation for A Forbidden Crown, Brighton was a key place to visit. It’s a very different place now to the resort that Maria, Caroline and Charlotte knew, but somehow just being there helped me to get a feel for their lives. Of course, the building at the centre of my research was that famous “monstrosity”: The Royal Pavilion.
In A Forbidden Crown, the Pavilion serves as a symbol for Maria’s relationship with George IV. It goes from being a simple farmhouse to an elegant Marine Pavilion under her watch. But by the time it becomes an exotic, sprawling folly, both the building and the Prince have grown far past her recognition. In fiction, I’m taking the view that most contemporaries shared: it was over-the-top and gaudy. But I must admit, on a personal level, that I rather like it!
You have to use your imagination as you walk through the small remnant of the gardens, towards the towering domes. A busy road and a pavement would not be running right alongside – there was a drive and a little wilderness before you reached the Steine. There probably wouldn’t have been so many tall buildings blocking your view of the sea. The modern-day care-takers of the Pavilion have given you a wonderful feel of what the gardens may have been like: bright flowers, palm trees and exotic plants, all taken from contemporary accounts. A lovely place to walk on a sunny day – but, as I was there in November and the wind was pretty high, we hurried inside.
Of all my heroines, only Princess Charlotte would have experienced the interior of the Pavilion in its current state. She rather dreaded visits to her father and, as luck would have it, the building works with me to create an unsettling atmosphere. In A Forbidden Crown, Charlotte will walk down the corridors, uneasy to see the dark faces of the Chinese figures watching her with sharp, wooden eyes. The roaring dragons and snakes entwining themselves round the furniture will make her think she is walking into a monster’s lair. She will feel, as I could not, the suffocating heat of the air, which her father tinged with the smell of burning incense and spices to give it an oriental flavour. Indeed, many ladies were frightened by the decoration, refusing to sit under the dragon chandelier. In the dark, it looked like the dragons really were breathing flames of fire, rather than supporting candles.
For me, of course, the place was far from frightening. Most rooms spoke of splendour and elegant parties. I understood that, if the place looked incredible to me, it must have been truly extraordinary for the lucky ladies and gentlemen of the period who got an invite. The painted bamboo and palm-trees were as close as many visitors would get to seeing the real things in their natural habitat. The Banqueting Room and the Music Room were works of art. In fact, George loved the decor of the music room so much that he wept when he first saw it. My audio-guide said the carpet was so thick and luxurious that people would sink into it. Whole teams of servants would have to scour the palace after each party, to clean off the melted wax and wine stains on the wall. Apparently, stale bread was good for cleaning walls and tea-leaves for cleaning carpets. Both the party and the clean-up operations must have been some sight!
There were also rooms with a simple kind of elegance – the type I imagine Maria approving of and Caroline hiding in during her first and only stay in Brighton. Both of these ladies would have experienced a smaller and more restrained Pavilion, clad in glazed Hampshire tiles. The main room would have been the current saloon, which is undergoing work to return it to Regency glory. I lingered here a while, trying to absorb the feel of it. This was a room in which Maria would have stood, many a time. A room in which she was probably happy. It would have had a plain, neo-classical look back then, when she laughed at the hi-jinks of her Prince and his companions. Going off either side would be rooms where she played cards, acted as hostess – and at last, was humiliated by George’s mistresses. I made a little trip to Maria’s house, close by, which is now a YMCA. I felt there the more calming, elegant influence she would have exuded over the Pavilion. Some say there is an underground tunnel from it to the Pavilion – I rather like that idea, but I think Maria would feel it beneath her dignity to be sneaking around underground like a rat in a sewer. Near Maria’s house, there is a hotel where William and Adelaide stayed on some visits. It was wonderful to picture them all, on their holidays by the sea, swarming around the hub of the Prince’s fantasy playground.
The main purpose of my visit was to see the exhibition on Princess Charlotte – “The Forgotten Princess”. It was smaller than I imagined, but I’m glad I saw it. Not only did I finally find the Maria Cosway painting of Caroline and Charlotte leaning against Britannia that I had read so much about, I saw some items that were, to a historical novelist, a bit like relics. Firstly, Charlotte’s baby shift. I could just see her chubby little arms filling up the sleeves, her constantly working legs kicking out beneath. Caroline would have hugged her daughter close, marvelling over the tiny cuffs and detailed stitching. She would probably have felt, at that time, that her daughter was the only thing she had to connect to in all of England. Perhaps she would also have experienced a stab of annoyance that she had not been able to order the baby clothes herself – it would have all been Queen Charlotte’s doing.
There was another baby shift on display, more poignant. The warm, squirming body that was to give it a purpose never breathed. It was part of the clothing set ordered for Charlotte and Leopold’s baby boy. He was stillborn. I remember reading that Charlotte ordered the baby clothes with great care, enjoying choosing patterns and materials. But when they arrived, she didn’t want to look at them. Fear of the birth, or perhaps a premonition of her own dark fate, had sapped her enjoyment from them. She folded the baby clothes and put them away. Did her hands fold the delicate, wispy material of that shift? I like to think so.
Lastly, la pièce de résistance: Charlotte’s wedding dress. They think the dress in its current form is the original wedding gown and three other court costumes cobbled together, but the tampering didn’t really bother me. What bowled me over was the proportions of it. I’ve seen many paintings of Charlotte – the high, ample bosom, the short but pleasantly plump figure. I have to say, they were spot on. Suddenly she was there before me – about my height, pleasingly rounded. I could see her, adjusting her hair in the mirror, trying to calm her fluttering stomach. Whether the gown was entirely original or not, it was very beautiful. If only the happiness it promised could have lasted a little longer for poor old Charlotte.
If you are reading or writing about the Regency period, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the Pavilion. The Charlotte exhibition is on until the end of March 2013 so you have a few more months to catch it. It’s sad that we no longer have Carlton House to marvel at or Charlotte’s prison, Warwick House. At Brighton Pavilion, at least, we can get a taste of George’s extraordinary decorations, and a feel for the royals who are now long gone.