Of the three heroines featured in God Save the King, Sophia has caused me the most trouble. She is an elusive, shadowy figure – even her brothers referred to her as “the sea nymph”. So who was this fifth daughter of George III? And why did I choose to include her in my book?
My initial reasons for using Sophia revolved around her mother, Queen Charlotte. I wanted to show the Queen from all angles, and of the six Princesses, Sophia’s voice was the most prominent against her. When I learned Sophia had befriended Caroline of Brunswick, who the rest of the family despised, and possibly borne an illegitimate child, I had a vision of a passionate and rebellious woman, perfect for my novel. Little did I know.
There’s no doubting Sophia’s bitchy tone when writing about the Queen. She has a way with cutting words – you do not want to cross this Princess! But as I researched further into her life, I realised there was a whole side to Sophia I had missed. Not only was she fragile physically, suffering from ill health most of her life, but she was extremely emotional. There’s a lovely anecdote from her childhood about her giving her allowance to prisoners when she learnt how bad their food was. She suffered for the misfortunes of her siblings, reacting more to their pain more than they did themselves. She made herself ill worrying for others; she was a woman living on her nerves, wishing for a heart that did not feel.
How can you tie this sweet little lady in with the other Sophia, the rebel? Few letters survive from Sophia’s teenage years, so I had to rely on other’s accounts. I gleaned that she was a favourite with her attendants, who referred to her as “the little gypsy”. To fit in with this wandering theme, she clearly disliked the restraints put on her by her watchful sister, Royal. It occurred to me that perhaps she started off as a sunny little girl, knowing exactly what she wanted, but was pounded down by years of illness and misery into a snide, reclusive figure. She had provocation enough.
In the early 1800s, George III suffered from another bout of “madness”. These episodes were always terrible, but this one was particularly draining on Sophia. Her father adopted her as his “particular friend” and almost certainly lavished sexual attention on her. I don’t agree with the theory that George III raped his daughter – her later actions don’t accord with it – but he made her feel very uncomfortable. The Queen was no help whatever – in fact she made matters worse with her cold manner – and Sophia was constantly enraged by her. It would be enough to wear anyone down.
But there might be another reason for Sophia’s retreat: the supposed birth of her son. We know, from her correspondence, she had a passionate affair with her father’s equerry, General Garth; whether or not the union produced a child is the topic of some debate. I believe it did; the coincidences of “Tommy” Garth’s birth, adoption and later life are too many to be ignored. Moreover, Sophia’s future seclusion and misery make much more sense when viewed with the presumption she had an illegitimate child. She broke up with Garth soon after he adopted and paraded her alleged son around Weymouth. It was a selfless act of love for both of them – much in keeping with her generous character.
Of course there are those that maintain Sophia’s brother, Prince Ernest, fathered the child. The rumours were largely spread by his political enemies but can’t be dismissed out of hand. Ernest was famously wild and sexually incontinent. When the allegations burst onto the public stage, papers claimed to hold old letters from Sophia to Garth, complaining of Ernest’s “bodily attempts” on her. If this is true, the psychological damage to Sophia must have been immense. Personally, I feel it is unlikely Sophia could tolerate seeing her brother again after such an incident, and she shows no aversion to him in her future life. But just having that suggestion out there must have been distressing enough. This is yet another layer thrown over the mysterious, confusing Sophia.
Last year I went to the National Portrait gallery to see a Thomas Lawrence exhibition. I came face to face with his stunning portrait of Sophia, which ends this blog. I remember walking up to it and looking into the slanting, laughing eyes.
“So you think you understand?” they said to me. “You think you can figure me out? You?! Well! Good luck.”