As some of you may know, I’m currently planning my next novel in the Georgian series, which I’ve been referring to as “Almost Queen”. I’ve come up with a much better title, “A Forbidden Crown” and am shaping my research on Maria Fitzherbert into scenes, a character arc and all that other lovely stuff that comes before writing.
But as I look at my notes, I realise the Maria I know now is very different to the one I saw before I embarked on research. She is feisty, witty and I’ve come to admire her greatly.
Through papers on George III and general Georgian reading, I’d built up a picture of Maria in my head. She seemed dowdy and boring through the Duchess of Devonshire’s eyes – a calming, almost maternal influence on the Prince of Wales. I gathered she must be extremely religious, given that she refused to become the Prince’s mistress and never once talked of converting to the Anglican faith. I came to see a wronged wife, whose past had already been tinged by tragedy – a Georgian equivalent of Catherine of Aragon.
Needless to say, I was wrong. Firstly, in terms of her physical appearance. Maria’s buxom, pale beauty was much in demand. Her letters show she was adept at turning down suitors, frequently laughing about “the little men” who trailed her. Her natural place was among the bon ton; her uncles were high up in society and she was much with Lady Sefton, a patroness of the famous Almack’s. Her first two husbands were well to do, leaving her with wealth and all the trappings of fashion. To use a phrase of the day, she cut quite a figure.
Maria certainly was a calming influence on her Prince, but I can find no evidence she had a “boring” personality. She was simply sensible, among a group of people who didn’t know the meaning of the word. She took part in many of the Prince’s wild parties and found it amusing when Barrymore rode his horse up the steps of her house as a prank. But unlike the rest of them, she knew where to stop. And she knew how to make the Prince stop, most of the time. This wasn’t through gentle cooing and sweet words, although they may have played a part. No; Maria chiefly turned the Prince round to her way of thinking with a show of her famous “temper”. She verbally whipped that bad boy into shape.
She was far from being bowled over by Prinny and his glamour. She had his number from the start. She repeatedly told him how ridiculous he was, and tried to cut him in society when his attentions got too marked. He enforced an engagement on her by vowing to kill himself – but even then she was the sensible lady, getting witnesses to sign a document and prove her promise was given under duress, before fleeing to the Continent. As the Prince continued to bombard her with schemes for marriage, she was mistress of herself enough to see the flaws in his plans. In the end, her love for him won through all her logic. But even then, she retained her wits and vital understanding of her lover – “The Prince, follow me to the Continent?! He will be following some other lady at Brighton.”
So what of Maria’s famous, or rather infamous, Catholicism? Although Maria was religious and came to find great comfort in the Catholic church in her old age, she was no zealot. She had no intention to convert others round to her way of thinking, or to raise the children she adopted in the Catholic faith. So why didn’t she just convert to the Church of England? It would have made her life easier, not to mention Prinny’s. Although their marriage would still have been illegal if she was Anglican, it would have been much less dangerous. Remaining Catholic meant his claim to the throne was at risk – and she, in turn, by preventing the heir from inheriting the throne, put her life on the line. I’ve come to see that for Maria, being Catholic was part of her identity. She had grown up in a world of smuggled priests, a secret church community and pride in her staunch Catholic bloodlines. It was who she was born to be, and Maria would never compromise that. In fact, she would never compromise anything that would injure her own self-respect.
I think this is the main reason I have come to love Maria: she demands respect. She would not have Prinny cheating on her, she would not be a mistress, she would not give up her identity. She did not entrap a wayward boy into a marriage; she simply had savvy enough to protect herself and her good name. I can find no evidence that she intended to force her way onto the throne, but she expected to be treated by society as the Princess of Wales. It was her due. For what it’s worth, I believe she would have made an excellent Queen, if the law had permitted it.
As you can see, she’s going to be a fascinating character to write. But she has to be written, as well as marketed, properly. I see many books out there proclaiming her the “secret” wife of George IV. Well, if she was, it was the most open secret in history. Even George III and Queen Charlotte knew about her. The marriage was known, but not proven (although Maria had the evidence to prove it if she wished) – hence George IV’s ability to marry again and become King.
Another common tactic is to set her up as a rival Queen to Caroline, who will be the second heroine of “A Forbidden Crown”. Again, this is wrong – they both directed their fury at the common enemy, George. Caroline actually liked Mrs Fitzherbert and wished the Prince would go back to her.
Then, of course, the “wronged wife” tagline. Perhaps Maria was a little wronged, but the break with George was mainly her own doing – she had simply had enough. Even when she went back to him, she made it clear she would not share his bed. He’d forfeited that right for good.
I hope to challenge the idea that Maria was simply swept up in hopeless love with the Prince of Wales. I want to show her as an intelligent, mature woman who knew what she was doing. Prinny was not her only love – she had adored both her other husbands, particularly Mr Fitzherbert. She had been burnt before, but she never wallowed. She kept pressing on, getting “the better of herself.” I can only try to inspire others to give her, in retrospect, the respect she both demanded and deserves.