How do you solve a problem like Sophia?

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.”

The Madness of Queen Charlotte

The title of my work in progress, “God save the King”, is intentionally ironic. For while the British nation poured out prayers and sung for the health of their male monarch, the heart of my book revolves around one who needed their support ten times more: the Queen.

Anyone who has lived with a person suffering from mental illness will have an idea of what I mean. You only have to read Fanny Burney’s diaries to see the heart-wrenching effect George’s “madness” had on his beloved wife. But to really understand Charlotte, you have to look far beyond this tragic episode to her youth, and then track it forward to her years labouring under her own disease: depression.

Queen Charlotte certainly did not expect to make the wonderful marriage she did. She was born and raised in the small duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which, reportedly, few Britons knew existed and even less could find. Although a Princess, she was hardly born to luxury. She lived for the main part like an English country gentlewoman, absorbed in her studies with very few fine gowns to her name. The Duchy was surrounded by war for most of her youth. Legend has it she wrote a begging letter to the warring monarchs for the sake of the poor inhabitants of her country, and it was this humanity that first drew the attention of King George III of England.

When she arrived in England for her marriage, Walpole described her as “gay”. We have records describing how her eyes “sparkled with good humour and vivacity.” Alas, it was not to last.  Charlotte, a plain looking creature, was constantly compared to the King’s former favourite, the ravishing Sarah Lennox. Her mouth was too large, her fashions were foreign and it is clear that her English ladies, including her mother and sisters in laws, laughed at her. She bore it with bravery, but these first few years in England undoubtedly turned her into the “timid” person she is later described as. I don’t have space here to explain the many ways in which George III’s mother, Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, repressed and bullied the young Charlotte. Suffice to say, she made her disobey the instructions of her own mother, go against her conscience and pretty much banned anything Charlotte liked to do. She found little sympathy from her sisters in law.

It was about this time that Charlotte conceived her “fear” of politics, viewing it as something “akin to sin”. Her letters show she clearly retained an interest in the field but she was commanded to stay aloof from it by her husband. She was nothing if not an obedient, dutiful wife to her beloved George. For an interesting fictional account of Charlotte’s youth, I can recommend Jean Plaidy’s “The Third George”.

Of course “The Third George” and many other fictionalised accounts stop before that most interesting phase of Charlotte’s character: the transformation into the ice Queen. Perhaps authors feel she stops being sympathetic here, where she plunges into depression and lashes out at those around her. Or maybe they just don’t recognise the signs of her mental illness – it’s hardly surprising, as her contemporaries didn’t either. But if you track her life history it is all there: bouts of post-natal depression, staying strong for George, the ricocheting between an overly vivacious, affectionate temperament and an intense black mood in the space of a day. As a fellow sufferer of depression, I find this era the most fascinating.

It is poignant, as we fast forward to Charlotte’s death, to see that she returns to “herself” at last. As a formidable and brave woman, you would expect her to face the end with the same dignity as her daughter Amelia. But Charlotte seemed to realise, in her last days, just how mean and cruel her sadness had made her. She spent days weeping, repenting, wishing to be near the King she had avoided for years, wishing to see all the children she had alienated. She died like a human, not an angel, and this endears her to me all the more.

In my research, I have struggled to find a good biography of Charlotte. Any biographers out there, here is your gap in the market! I actually gleaned most of Charlotte’s life from biographies on her daughters or husband. Most books referring to her are from the 1800’s. Having typed this I’ve just discovered an old beaten copy of “Queen Charlotte” by Olwen Hedley from 1975, but this is the first time I have come across this book in the two years I have been researching, so that shows you how rare it is *purchases*. So why the neglect? Admittedly, Queen Charlotte’s depression isn’t fully of zany, semi-humorous episodes like her husband’s “madness”, but it is an interesting story.

“The Madness of George III” (which I am going to see in two weeks!) is a brilliant play and one I will review after attending. But I really feel people watch this masterpiece and think they have got the full story. They haven’t: the play focuses on the men. Of course it does; this is where the main struggle for power, the typically “interesting” stuff happens. Bennett has touched on Charlotte’s plight and done it well, but in a play he has not had time to elaborate fully. Moreover, I find people end up believing George got better for good and lived Happily Ever After with Charlotte. I wish it was so, but it wasn’t. If you want to find out what really happened after, you will have to read “God save the King”.

The Bodice Ripper

Princess Sophia

Back in November, I attended the IHR Winter Conference about the relationship between academic history and historical fiction. One historian gave a wonderful talk about how novels had given birth to her passion for studying the real life subjects.  She ended her speech with the succinct summary: “Besides, the sex is better.”
Later, Stella Tillyard thanked this lady for reminding us all why we really read historical fiction. Of course, every candidate laughed.

But was it really a joke? The more I research into my chosen genre, I start to wonder if there’s an element of truth in this. Let me tell you about my experiences as a reader. In my teens, when my obsession with the Georgians began, I was more interested in books from the actual era than historical fiction. I went on to expand my period all the way up to the Victorian age, but still refused to read any fiction penned after 1900. I felt reading books really written at the time gave me a much better understanding of the people and the society. As you can image, the raciest thing I’d read was Thomas Hardy, and that’s about as subtly sensual as you can get.

I finally broke my chains to read Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”. Now, while my friends may tell you I’m a bit of a prude, I had no problems with this story. The Tudor court and its politics revolved around sex, and after all, the book is about Henry VIII’s mistress. My second historical read, Tracey Chevalier’s “The Lady and the Unicorn” was even saucier. But again, I understood the symbolism of the unicorn’s horn and was quite content that the “bodice ripping” was necessary to the story.

I can’t say this of every historical novel. It seems to me that all books and movies now have the obligatory sex scene, whether it’s appropriate or not. At the moment I’m reading Gillian Bagwell’s “The Darling Strumpet” which, admittedly, is about Nell Gwynn, who worked as a prostitute and went on to be mistress to Charles II. Very rightly, it shows the seedy underside of Stuart England but – dare I say it – I think it shows a bit too much! It’s a well written book, even the sex scenes are well written, but there are so MANY of them. I’m getting to the point where I turn the page and think “Oh, goodness, here we go again.” I’m getting a bit bored with them. I don’t think there’s any way Nell hasn’t had it. Twice.

So is this an expectation of the genre? There’s an excerpt at the back of “The Darling Strumpet” from Bagwell’s next one – again, lovely writing – but they’ve decided to feature the bit with a gypsy boy pleasuring himself underneath a tree. This must be what sells about her books – but is it what sells historical fiction in general?

I’ve tried to think why I like certain sex scenes in the genre. I guess there’s always a curiosity about the different types of under clothing they wore and what they did for contraception back then. Yet when you think about it, the act wouldn’t really be as romantic as it’s portrayed, would it? The bed could be ridden with lice, the beautiful clothes that drop off our heroines stiff with weeks of sweat. Afterwards, the hero would probably wee in the chamber pot and go to sleep, leaving his lady with the stench of his urine. Nice.

Perhaps it’s all about the element of danger. In a modern novel, an assignation with a lover doesn’t carry the same risks of disgrace and social banishment. I have to admit, this makes historical sex scenes more exciting for me, but again I wonder, how realistic is it? The threat of an illegitimate child or being cast off from one’s family would prevent most (sensible) heroines from taking part in these escapades.  I’m convinced there are many more girls who throw caution to the wind in historical romance than there were in real life.

So where should we use the good old-fashioned bodice ripping? Obviously, if you’re writing about a real person and they really had an affair, go ahead.  With made up characters, sex scenes can be wonderful, but I would suggest you use them sparingly. I can tell, and so can a million other readers, when you’ve tacked one in there for sake of it. When I look back over the books I’ve read, some of the erotic passages that stand out in my memory didn’t feature the act itself. You can use your skill as a writer to draw out the sensuality of the scene – and often, subtext is so much more thrilling.

In God save the King, I currently have one full-blown bodice ripping chapter. I felt this was necessary to show how sheltered the Princess Royal had been up until her marriage. The scene is revelatory for her and sadly, not very pleasant. But with Princess Sophia, I’ve been less explicit. It is clear from what I’ve written that she sleeps with her lover, but I didn’t feel the need to describe their love-making. I talk about their love and their feelings for each other, including their desire, and the methods of contraception they relied on.  As far as I’m concerned, no more is required.

But am I wrong and hopelessly innocent? Do you now consider my book with disgust and run off in search of fresh, heaving bosoms? Let me know your thoughts.

Can we do the past justice?

Queen Charlotte

Despite writing short stories and novellas set in the Regency period for about the last ten years, I’ve always shied away from “real” people. In fact, I haven’t even resorted to the little stratagem many authors employ of having their characters bump into people such as the Prince Regent and Beau Brummel. Why? Because I just didn’t feel entitled to put words in the mouth of someone who truly existed. I could literally see their Georgian skeletons rotating in their graves at my presumption.

Two years ago, I found a reason to overcome my scruples. I picked up a book that had been long languishing on my shelf: Flora Fraser’s Princesses. If you haven’t read it (and you should read it!), this wonderful book gives a biography of the six daughters of George III. Ever heard of them? It occurred to me that so many people would love this story but would never know of it, because they simply aren’t the types to wander down the history section of the bookshop.  Fired up with enthusiasm for my new best friends, the Georgian Princesses, I decided I was going to tell the tale to those who wouldn’t read it otherwise.

Of course this was massively ambitious and naive. I may set out to write their story, but I will only ever tell my own.

Historical fiction is, I believe, wholly subjective. Yes, you could weigh the subject matter evenly and show every side of your protagonist from birth to death, but you would end up with an academic essay, not a novel. Although all my characterisation is based on research, I am bound to bend it to my own means. Essentially, I am writing about freedom and I will naturally select source material that helps me to express this. I’m not the only one: I was amused this week to see Charles Fox appear on Garrow’s Law as a slim, well-dressed man with small eyebrows – the polar opposite to most of the accounts we have of him. But as Garrow’s Law is aimed at showing a man before his time – liberal, reforming and a beacon of justice – his “radical” associates have to appear attractive to us. Old food stains and a monobrow like a caterpillar just wouldn’t do that. I can fully understand the casting decision.

I have had endless trouble moulding my three heroines Queen Charlotte, Princess Royal and Princess Sophia into “characters”. My problem is that they are people and, however much art seeks to imitate life, will never fit easily into the pages of a book. For example, contemporary sources tell us Charlotte started life in England as a “gay young Queen” but as we follow the course of history we see her beaten down into a selfish, morose woman. She was the type of person who would get herself into debt by giving too generously to charity but in later life acted with almost inhuman coldness to her own family. I have tried my best, and am still working on blending these two aspects of her psyche – but so far the response from test readers has been, understandably: “Why is she so nice in her narratives but so harsh in her daughters’ ones?” Some of this, no doubt, stems from a weakness in my writing and a need to further develop the psychological insight I offer. But I have found what the reader expects from “book characters” is consistency – and unfortunately, their real life counterparts don’t play ball!

Aside from this, there is the yawning gulf between your subject and your reader to consider. However well spoken Princess Royal was, I am compelled to use contractions such as can’t and won’t to make her dialogue flow. I have tried, where possible, to use my subject’s own words, directly from their correspondence. Amusingly, it is these lines that my test readers underlined with “This doesn’t make sense”. Quite rightly, the test readers also highlighted the young Princess Sophia’s narratives that jarred against their expectations: “She is seven! Were you this eloquent at seven?” Sadly, no, but Sophia was. In French, too. But when it comes to writing a good novel, it simply doesn’t matter. My test readers are right: to the modern eye, it looks stupid.

What do you think? Can we ever tell the true story of our subjects, or even present our own interpretations without bowing to the restrictions of the art form? Should we even want to? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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