D0es loving children make you a good mother? It’s hard to tell. Acceptance of other people’s children may seem easy, but how do you cope with your own child; a tight knot of your hopes and fears, a strange mirror image of yourself – the good parts and the bad? What do you do if the child resembles its other parent in practically every way, and you happen to hate that parent? The situation suddenly becomes very different.
Princess Caroline of Brunswick adored children, especially babies. Tales of her infatuation date back to her youth, when she lavished so much attention upon a poor young boy the village that he was suspected of being her bastard son. Caroline always defended herself: “Everybody must love something in this world. I think my taste is the most natural and whoever may find fault with it may do it or not.” She went on to say that she could never attach herself to dogs and birds like other women – it had to be babies. How strange, then, that this woman would turn out a spectacularly bad mother to her only child, using her as a pawn in her political games! How could she possibly explain herself?
There are a few points to consider. Firstly, we have to look at Caroline herself and the eccentricity of her character. When Lord Malmesbury visited Brunswick to bring her to England, he found the young Princess shallow of mind. He considered her overly affectionate, a friend to everyone, but “incapable of any strong or lasting feeling”. She was “caught by the first impression, led by the first impulse”. In fact, she was remarkably like a child herself – never thinking about what she said, trusting, reckless, fond of practical jokes. Her attraction to children probably stemmed from the fact they resembled her. Other people scolded her for her behaviour, but with children there was no need to pretend. This made her a wonderful playmate, but woefully ill-equipped to be a parent – particularly the parent of a young lady. What was more, Caroline had no experience of good parenting to fall back on. Her own childhood was punctuated by her parents’ quarrels. Her father, the Duke of Brunswick, was a distant, strict man often occupied with military campaigns or his mistress. Her mother, Princess of Augusta of England, was considered remarkably silly. Though she upbraided Caroline for flirting with young men and making a spectacle of herself, she didn’t provide much of an example. Distanced from her husband, she took to grumbling about Brunswick and seeking solace in religion. Lord Malmesbury noted that Caroline had no respect at all for her mother.
When Caroline came to England in 1795, these faults were all too clear to her prospective husband, Prince George. He began to nurture a hatred for her so intense that he described her as a “monster” and a “vile fiend”. Despite his clear reluctance, he managed to impregnate Caroline – perhaps actually on their wedding night – since a daughter was born to them exactly nine months after their marriage. From the start, it was clear that Caroline was not to be consulted about her own child. It was her mother-in-law, Queen Charlotte, who ordered the linen, specified the crib design. When the little girl was born, she was not named after her own mother, which was usual at this time; she was called Charlotte Augusta, after both her grandmothers. Even at these early stages, Caroline was being wheedled out of her life. Prince George, in a violent and probably alcohol-induced rage, wrote a Will shortly after Charlotte’s birth. He was explicit that “The mother of this child, called the Princess of Wales, should in no way either be concerned in the education or care of the child . . . [it is] incumbent on me and a duty, both as a parent and a man, to prevent by all means the child’s falling into such improper and bad hands as hers”. Even though Caroline never saw this Will, the message was clear to her: Charlotte belonged to her father.
Not one to be beaten, Caroline made sure she spent as much time as possible with her baby girl. She sat for hours in the nursery, chose lace for the little one’s frocks and joined the attendants when they took the child out for air. Even when she and George unofficially separated and she was given her own house, she was always backwards and forwards to visit her daughter. But George was out to thwart her. He objected to her time in the nursery and laid down rules for the servants: Caroline was only to be permitted a morning visit.
Little Charlotte was kept on a tight rein through her childhood, which was a surprising parenting method for her father to take. He himself had complained of a strict education and lack of affection from his father. But Prince George was turning out an awfully lot like King George. It must have been exciting, then, for the girl to take trips to her mother’s house on Blackheath. The drunken congas, the games, the ability to sit on a floor cross-legged and eat a raw onion would have seemed like Heaven. Where her father was distant and god-like, her mother was warm and affectionate. It is clear from anecdotes in Charlotte’s youth that she took after Caroline.: the impetuosity of snatching a tutor’s wig off and throwing it into the fire, the delight in winding servants up by refusing to close the doors, the reckless joy in shocking when she drove her governess hell-for-leather across a bumpy field and told the screaming lady there was “nothing like exercise”. But tragically for Charlotte, this likeness was to put her out of favor with her father.
To add another blow, this mother who Charlotte looked up to was soon finding distractions elsewhere. It seems that when children grew to a certain age, Caroline simply lost interest in them. It was not long before she was looking after little boys and girls on the heath who had sores on their faces and standing Godmother for abandoned babies. But of all her little protégées, there was one who would hurt Charlotte particularly: Willy Austin. In the autumn of 1802, Caroline ordered her servants to keep an eye out for a baby she could take to live in the house. Luck would have it that Sophia Austin turned up on her doorstep, her three-month-old son in tow, begging the Princess to help her husband back into work. The offer was soon made – and accepted – to take the baby off her hands.
Soon it was all about Willy. Caroline insisted on changing his clouts herself and having nursery paraphernalia around her. From contemporary reports, Willy was a spoilt brat. He was dangled over a table to pick his favourite sweetmeats, jamming his dirty little hands into everything and breaking plates. He caused such a fuss when a spider was in the room that an army of servants was unleashed with broomstick to get it off the ceiling and take it away. Charlotte hated him and resented being made to play with him. She had to sit by and watch herself eclipsed in her mother’s affections. Even worse, her father and his mistress Mrs Fitzherbert had also taken charge of a young child, Minnie Seymour, at about the same time. Each parent was finding a substitute for their unsatisfactory daughter.
From Caroline’s point of view, the adoption of Willy seems natural. She resented being kept out of her daughter’s life. Here, at last, was a child who was truly hers, to love and raise without restraint. Only, she didn’t do a particularly good job with Willy either. When he reached ten, she was already looking out for another baby. She let him sleep in her bedroom until he was about thirteen and then evicted him brusquely to admit her lover. She tried to provide for him in her Will but had squandered so much of his inheritance he only had £200 a year. He eventually died in a lunatic asylum in 1849. Ironically, Willy was also the catalyst of the “Delicate Investigation” into Caroline’s conduct. He was suspected of being her bastard son by either Sir Sidney Smith or Captain Mamby. Although Caroline encouraged the rumour and mixed it with one of her own – that Willy was the son of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who she had smuggled into the country - there was no truth to it. Willy was proven to be the son of the Austins. But Caroline hadn’t escaped. The Investigation put a deeper blot upon her character and led to even more limited access to Charlotte. The King, previously keen to champion Caroline’s rights to her daughter, saw her true colours and gave up his support. After all, this adopted child had only served to put her actual daughter further out of reach.
Charlotte didn’t know the full extent of the charges against her mother until much later. She continued to heed the crowds in their constant cry: “Never desert your mother”. After all, didn’t her mother’s frequent letters to the newspapers harp upon how much she loved and missed her daughter? Wasn’t it natural to believe they were allies, united against her cruel father? It led Charlotte to a supreme act of courage: defying her father and fleeing a marriage she didn’t want to speed across London to her mother’s house. They would form an alliance, they would stand against her father, as they had always talked about. And yet suddenly Caroline was quiet, surprisingly circumspect. She encouraged Charlotte to return home, though she was kind enough to insist her beloved maid accompanied her. Charlotte’s bold gesture of confidence, her repeated insistence to her fiance that she could not marry him and leave her mother all alone in England, was met with a slap in the face. Just when Charlotte was giving up everything to take her mother’s side, she was betrayed. Caroline was planning to leave England and live on the Continent. “I am so hurt that I am very low”, poor Charlotte wrote. After an “indifferent” leave-taking, Caroline launched out across the ocean and left Charlotte to a fate of practical house-arrest. How could she do this to her only daughter?
Caroline’s attendants would insist that the repeated insults of George had finally overwhelmed her. She was mortally offended when Allied sovereigns visited England and completely ignored her. She wanted to live simply as Caroline, a free commoner. I suspect she also felt that she was doing Charlotte a favour by leaving. It was clear George would never love her while Caroline continued to torment him and she could see the strain on the poor child, constantly pulled between her parents. Perhaps to release the pressure, Caroline simply removed herself from the equation. Nevertheless, the action smacks of breath-taking selfishness. Charlotte would never fully forgive her, but it seems Caroline didn’t even notice she was hurting her child. In short, the action is typical of Caroline: rash, ill-considered and self-absorbed.
As Charlotte, by necessity, grew closer to her father, she began to find out more about her mother and her illicit lovers. She was shocked. The more she considered, the more she realised what Caroline truly was. She began to confess all the times Caroline had carried notes for her and encouraged her to make love to Captain Hesse – at one point, locking them in a bedroom and telling them to enjoy themselves. Though she would always have natural affection for, she could no longer respect Caroline. George unkindly suggested that Caroline had been trying to smirch Charlotte’s character to get revenge on him. I doubt Caroline would have had any such thought. As a young girl, she would have given anything to be locked up with a handsome officer for an hour. Her youth was full of thwarted flirtations and being kept separate for young men. She probably thought she was being a brilliant mother by setting Charlotte up with lover.
Although they wrote a little, Caroline and Charlotte never saw each other again. Charlotte was to die tragically in 1817, just twenty-one years old, in giving birth to a still-born son. Cruelly, Caroline had to find out about both her daughter’s marriage and death second-hand, like someone who had no connection to her. For all her faults, she didn’t deserve this. There was some motherly feeling left in her, despite it being at odds with her nature. Her eyes filled with tears when she left England and Charlotte’s death shook her to the core. She retreated into something like a stupor, plagued by headaches. She erected a monument in her garden to the memory of her lost daughter and described the loss as the “death warrant to her feelings”. Surely these weren’t the signs of an indifferent mother.
I can’t defend Caroline’s mothering skills. She was undoubtedly ill-suited to the job and far too selfish to be the rock that her bewildered daughter so sorely needed. But although many of her statements of love and affliction were carefully manipulated to rile up her husband’s enemies, they were not devoid of truth. She did love Charlotte and was proud of her. Sadly, in a world where the child belonged to its father, and in Charlotte’s case physically resembled her father, the relationship could never flourish. Caroline would never have the emotional depth of her husband or her daughter. While I must condemn her as a bad parent, I don’t think she was an unloving one. It was just a great tragedy that her love was never fixed and selfless. Had she been able to show Charlotte the scale of affection that her eventual husband, Leopold, did, the poor girl’s life might have been very different indeed.