Maria – you’ve got to see her!

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.

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Huzzah! I’ve been nominated for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award  by the lovely J G Burdette at their  blog  Map of Time: A Trip into the Past. If you’re in to history and all things nautical, you should give it a visit!

Receivers of the Very Inspiring Blog Award have to tell you seven things about themselves and nominate seven other blogs.

So here goes, seven things about me…

1) I adore animals. Dogs are my favourite but our present circumstances don’t allow us to have one. Instead, I live with 9 very spoilt guinea pigs and spend most my time pampering them. I prefer animals to most people, and I’d definitely rather get a puppy than have a baby.

2) Despite being a costume drama enthusiast, my favourite films tend to be action movies. I love Die Hard and my favourite film is Gladiator.

3) I’m in to show tunes and classical music. I know all the lyrics to Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon to name but a few. This means I rock at “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” on the Lips game.

4) I’m married to a wonderful man named Kevin who I actually picked up in a bookshop. This is another reason why I’m staying away from Kindles – if bookshops go down, where will people like me find husbands?!

5) I’m a Christian and try to read a bit of the Bible every day.

6) I know some stuff about investments. I’ve worked as an administrator in the industry for six years and have passed the first stage of the Investment Administration Qualification (although I think it’s now called the Investment Operations Certificate).

7) I write because I’ve read so many books that have given me a sense of happiness and wonder. I want to give that feeling to others.

The seven blogs I want to nominate revolve around my obsession with Georgian history. They are:

1) The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide to the Eighteenth Century.  I particularly like the post on how to give yourself a Georgian hair-do!

2) Mike Rendell’s Journal of a Georgian Gentleman. Some fascinating stuff from real life sources.

3) Madame Guillotine. The tagline is “Kill them all, if they won’t eat cake”. What more do you need to know?!

4) Rachel Knowle’s Regency History blog. Lovely snapshots of the most important people and issues of the time.

5) Loretta and Isabella unearth some fascinating things at Two Nerdy History Girls.

6) Georgian Junkies – Authors Emery Lee and Lucinda Brant are every bit as obsessed as I am.

7) Life Takes Lemons Susan’s blog is just beautiful. It’s like my eighteenth-century playground.

Less Henry, more George

On Monday night,  I joined my fellow history geeks for a Tudor dancing class.  The conversation turned – or more accurately, was turned by me – to historical fiction.

As we talked, we realised just how much Tudor fiction was out there. Of the commercial historical fiction we had read, the period was getting about a 70% share. Now, we’re not complaining. No one loves a bit of Tudor more than us. But isn’t the market at risk of becoming saturated with books set in Tudor times? Isn’t it time to try something – well, a bit more Georgian?

Below, I’ve compiled a list of reasons that make the Tudor era an exciting and compelling world to set a story in.  But, as you will see, each of them pales in comparison beside the Georgians, who are even better.

Historical Importance

It still baffles me why we teach school kids about the six wives of Henry VIII, Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess but ignore the four Georges.  Yes, massively important things happened in the Tudor reigns – the formation of the Church of England, to name but one. But while the Hanoverians were on the throne, we won the Seven Years war, reformed Parliament, abolished the Slave Trade, lost America and, at times, stood alone against Napoleon as he tried to turn Europe into his personal Empire. Pretty darn important stuff! But most people look at me blankly when I talk about it.

Religious Strife

We forget that the Hanoverians were actually brought in to keep the Catholics off the throne. The Stuart line had a better blood claim, but the religious prejudice of the country was against them. In 1780, thanks to Lord Gordon’s efforts, violent riots swept through London with the cry of “No Popery”. Whether to emancipate the Catholics remained a major issue. Pitt resigned as Prime Minister at a vital point in the Napoleonic War, not the mention the Irish rebellion, over the issue. So imagine the reaction when rumours spread that the Prince of Wales, later George IV, had married a Catholic widow!

The Constant Threat of Death

The gallows cast their long shadow through the 1700s and beyond. The threat of corporal punishment was very real in the Georgian era. Princess Caroline-Matilda, unhappily married to the Prince of Denmark, was caught in her adultery with a young physician. Both he and his best friend were beheaded. If we hop over to France, we see yet more heads flying around in the Revolution. But even if you manage to keep your noggin on your neck, you weren’t safe from rampant disease.

Looking at the English monarchy, we can’t forget that Maria Fitzherbert put her life in serious peril by marrying the heir to the throne against the laws of the land. As I will cover in my next novel, there were several times she could have faced imprisonment and even death if her secret marriage was confirmed. Just imagine what would have happened to her if she’d married him before the Gordon Riots!

As for George IV’s other Queen, the wayward Caroline, she was almost certainly guilty of adultery. I believe Prinny would have had her killed if he thought he could possibly get away with it. Luckily for us, he knew there was no way.

Illicit Affairs

Well I’ll wait until I write my new book to tell you all about Caroline and her Italian lover, but there are plenty more to discuss. George III’s brothers enraged him with their unsuitable, secret marriages, while another family member was sued for adultery by his lover’s husband.
George II lived in thrall to his mistress and actually scared his grandson off women for a while. And then we have Prinny, a ladies’ man if ever there was one! I don’t think there was one love he didn’t cheat on. His brother William IV was little better, having numerous illegitimate children with Mrs Jordan before ditching her for a real Princess.

But the women gave as good as they got. We’ve listed Caroline and Caroline-Matilda, but there was also Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, infamously linked with her son’s tutor Lord Bute, and of course George III’s daughters, who you can read about in Queen of Bedlam.

Strong Women in a Man’s World

Personally, I consider Queen Charlotte a very strong woman, although this may sound strange when I tell you she was often afraid to contradict her husband. But there are other, less controversial claims. I present Caroline, so determined in her right to be crowned Queen, despite her long estrangement from her husband, that she tried to storm his coronation! I give you Augusta, thwarted from becoming Queen by her husband’s death, but able to control the throne long into her son’s reign. There are many more, but I’m not going to talk about them too much in this post. I’m going to write books about them. They’re that cool.

The Need for an Heir

There were many squabbles for the throne in the Georgian period. Who can forget Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Old Pretender? Bloody battles were fought over their claims to inherit for the House of Stuart.

In later years, when the young Princess of Wales died unexpectedly, there was a race amongst George III’s sons to give birth to an heir. Ok, a Georgian monarch was unlikely to chop your head off if you didn’t give him a son. But it was still a shock when, after decades of male rule, the crown was left to a young girl by the name of Victoria…


I admit partiality to a lovely French hood, but a bonnet is also very becoming. And what can Tudors really hold up next to powdered wigs and towering hair sculptures? Our dresses are more risqué and twice as flattering. Our men don’t have silly puffy legs or pointy beards – and they don’t need codpieces to show their manliness. As another bonus, hygeine has improved about 30% since the Tudor period!

So there you have it. Every point answered. And as you can see, I’ve focused mainly on George III and George IV – they’re uppermost in my thoughts at the moment because I’m working on their novels. I haven’t really started to mention what happened with George I and George II, but there’s already so much material! Go on – do it. I know you want to. Convert: go Georgian.

Prinny: such a pity

George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, Prince Regent and King of England, has never been a popular figure. He is not even one of those “Marmite” Kings that people either love or hate. I have yet to hear someone say: “That George IV, he was great.” But is our longstanding mockery and contempt for this monarch entirely fair?

Let me tell you about my own experience with “Prinny”. Many years ago, I discovered a passion for Jane Austen which, combined with my love for the TV series Sharpe and Hornblower, sparked my interest in the late 18th/early 19th century. Having devoured all Austen’s novels and juvenilia, I moved onto her letters to her sister Cassandra, which is where I came across the Prince Regent for the first time.

Jane was evidently not a fan. When discussing the marital fracas between the Prince and Caroline of Brunswick, she writes: “I will stand by her, poor woman – first, because she is a woman and secondly, because I hate her husband” (this is from memory – forgive me Austenites if it is slightly off). Like a loyal fan, I let my opinion be swayed by Jane’s. I read the history with a bias against Prinny. And yet… Even towards the end of Austen’s letters, I found myself wavering. The Prince professed himself a great fan of her work and invited her to dedicate the novel Emma to him. Could a man who read – and loved- Austen novels be all bad?

My feelings were further complicated by research for my novel about Prinny’s mother, Queen Charlotte.  Although she rarely had the courage to stand up for him openly, Charlotte adored her eldest son. She was proud of his precocious wit, which showed itself from an early age, and I found many amusing examples of her secret championing of her first baby ( my favourite has to be her sneaking him into a commissioned portrait against the King’s knowledge). To write from the viewpoint of a woman who so loved the Prince, I had to start considering him in a different light.

There were many examples of his goodness before me. To his six sisters, he was something of a fairy godfather; showering them with presents and intervening with the Queen on their behalf. His sister Amelia declared he was the only one in the family who knew what feelings were – a statement that surprised me, given his almost heartless conduct during the King’s great illness of 1788-89. But when I considered further, I recalled there were extenuating circumstances. The Prince could hardly be expected to dote on a father whose treatment of him would try the patience of a saint. Indeed, many historians blame Prinny’s character flaws on the harsh upbringing and unrealistic expectations placed upon him. And was it really unusual that a young man, with the prospect of power dangled above his head, was tempted? I found I could almost forgive him.

But sadly, we can’t just see the Prince as a victim. He has to be one of the most complex characters I have ever come across.  I am now undertaking research and planning for a novel about his two wives, Maria Fitzherbert and Caroline of Brunswick, and find all my original dislike returning.  George’s vanity, melodramatics and extravagance come bounding out of every source, and the overblown style of his letters is tedious. I find I can’t blame him for his aversion to Caroline, and the initial split with Maria seems to be more her fault than his – but all the same, his conduct throughout the whole is childish. Perhaps it is lucky I feel this abhorrence, for both his wives feel it too at some point in my story. But I must also write the early part: the tale of the young Prince Maria fell in love with.

The more I plan and dwell on these chapters, the more the sadness of the situation overwhelms me. Here was a tender-hearted, clever young man, once called the first Prince in Europe. Through harsh training, bad friends and his own follies, he ended up as an obsese and laughable figure who few mourned. His daughter, Charlotte, had promised to be the best of him, but her tragic early death only sent him further into depression  and sickness. His eating increased yet again, and he died fatter than Henry VIII.

Contemporary sources suggest the Prince’s mind was “poisoned” by those around him. I am particularly looking forward to reading Charlotte Frost’s book on Sir William Knighton, who was accused of this. Prinny was certainly easy to influence, but it would be naive to blame his serious flaws and weaknesses upon others. I’m afraid to say that many of his troubles were simply his own stupid fault.

I can only hope that, whatever the truth, we can all find it in our hearts to pity George IV just a little – if only in gratitude for the fine art he added to our national collection and the improvements he made to our royal palaces.  So here’s to a man often ridiculed, but perhaps never truly understood – in his own age or ours.

“I shall always love dear little Kew for this…”

Here’s me meeting the wax torso of George III. Look at the joy on my geekish little face!  I had good reason to smile; it’s hard work finding traces of this monarch in modern England.

So far, George III has had the longest reign of any English King. While he was on the throne, America became independent, England went to war against revolutionary France and the slave trade was abolished. You’d think our museums and palaces would be full of him, but sadly this is not the case. It is as if we have continually hushed up the “shame” of a “mad” King. You can’t imagine how sad – and frustrating – this is for the Georgian junkie.

So, George never beheaded a wife. Why does this make him less interesting than Henry VIII? Did Henry ever try to climb the pagoda in Kew gardens? Did he found the Royal Academy? Did he? No. But still, every school kid knows his name, while few have any idea who George III even was. I can go to Hampton Court Palace (which I do love, by the way) or Kentwell Hall and experience a living Tudor world. I can go to Dickensian Christmas markets and even Dickens World to live the Victorian life. What do you do if you want a Georgian experience? A Jane Austen ball seems to be the only option. Now, the Regency is great, but what if I’m not very good at dancing and I prefer old school Georgian dresses with panniers? Am I to live my life skipping between Tudor and Victorian times as if there was nothing in between?

Thankfully, no. I will let my Stuart-loving friends blog about the years up until 1714, but for the years after that, there’s Kew. Kew Palace was one of the many places I visited in my research trips for God Save the King. George’s family rotated their time between Windsor, Buckingham Palace (then called Queen’s House or Buckingham House) and Kew. In fact, George can take the credit for two of these major royal residences: he purchased Buckingham Palace for Queen Charlotte and restored the neglected Windsor Castle to its former glory. As both have remained working royal households, they show few signs of the family who once lived there. George IV, with his love of interior design, started changing them pretty much straight away. The Upper Lodge and Lower Lodge where the Princesses lived at Windsor have been demolished. Frogmore, which Queen Charlotte purchased as her retreat, still exists and is open to the public about two days a year. Alas, even here, the Georgian elements are being erased. The tour guide informed me the house had been restored to the time of Queen Mary, leaving only The Green Pavillion and Charlotte Closet in their original Georgian state. Consequently, they are the only two rooms of the palace to feature in God Save the King.

That Kew Palace, or the Dutch House as it was then known, still exists is something of a miracle. One suspects if it wasn’t for the fact that William IV and Queen Victoria’s parents held their weddings in the Queen’s drawing-room, it would have met a similar fate to the other buildings. For while we still have the wonderful botanical gardens, cultivated by George III’s mother Augusta and his wife Charlotte, there are many, many fascinating areas of Kew that have been wiped out through time. We no longer have Richmond Lodge or the White House – magnificent palaces that saw so much Georgian history. What is worse, we don’t even have a known painting showing the interior of the White House. The Orangery, the Cathedral, the gothic wonders littering the park, the Castellated Palace built by George in his later years – all are gone.

But enough of what we don’t have! What we do have are two little gems: the aforementioned Dutch House and Queen Charlotte’s cottage. Historical Royal Palaces have done an excellent job restoring and maintaining these precious buildings and – what pleases me more – teaching people about George. At the front door you are greeted by a lovely young lady in a straw bonnet and left to explore the house at your leisure. Naturally, I love every square inch of the place, but here are the highlights:

  • The fetching wax torso shown above. Modelled from the life by Madame Tussaud, it is the most like-life image available to us. To make the “meeting” even more realistic, the room resounds with George’s best quotes.
  • Queen Charlotte is everywhere! You can watch a short film about her family, narrated in her “voice” in the pages dining room, listen to her complain of the cold in the boudoir and even see the chair she died in.  I have to admit I got a little choked up standing in the stillness of the room where she passed away.
  • Actual objects that belonged to Charlotte, George and their children. My favourite is the little dolls house the Princesses played with.
  • The dining room where George was “captured” by Willis in 1801.
  • The unrestored Princesses’ rooms on the second floor. There are fragments of old wallpaper, ancient witch marks on the wood and even prices still pencilled onto the panels.
  • Queen Charlotte’s cottage. The scene of many happy family picnics and decorated largely by the clever Princess Elizabeth. I wish the menagerie was still outside!

There’s probably no need for me to tell you how thrilled I am to say that, from 18 May, another part of lost Kew will be open for us to explore: the kitchens. After years of touring stately homes to see Edwardian kitchens and Victorian kitchens, I will finally get to see the scullery, bake-house, larders and stores for silver and spices of the 18th century. There’s even a rumour they’ve found George III’s old bath tub.

I might be sad to get so excited over these things, but let me urge you to go to Kew when the new display opens. As you can see from my rant, this is important history which is sadly being forgotten. Please, please support Historical Royal Palaces and the work they do to keep geeks like yours truly happy. Go on – visit Kew!

Kew Palace is open from 2 April to 30 September 2012.

Open daily 11.00 to 17.00

Last admission to the palace is at 16.15
Kew Palace tickets may be purchased in person from Kew Gardens entrance Gates or from the Welcome Centre by the Palace.

Queen Charlotte’s Cottage is open, in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew every weekend from April –  September
Saturday and Sunday from  11.00 to 16.00

Type-casting the Regency

Officially, the Regency period extends from 1811, the year George III was finally deemed unfit to rule, to the date of his death in 1820. In common practice, the term is used to refer to the era between the first Regency crisis of 1788 and Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837. Poor William IV, alas, is quite forgotten – but more of this in a future post.

When we imagine the Regency we often paint a glittering, exhilarating picture – a breathless whirl of duels and dandies, balls and fast carriage rides. If you look for a work of fiction set in the period, you are more than likely to find a light, skippy, Heyer-esque romance. What has given us this misconception of a turbulent, difficult period in history? These were years of war and political upheaval with the monarchy and country in a state of dangerous flux. Yes, there may have been young women who based their worlds around sprigged muslin and ices from Gunter’s, but there are as many heedless teenagers today. Does that make our time one of peace and never-ending fun? Hardly.

Historical fiction seems to have carved out a particular “mood” for each era. The Tudor novels I have read are full of threat and illicit sex – dark, brooding pieces. Victorian works focus on the poor or the seedy underside of London; those that deal with the higher classes tend to focus on women’s oppression. If we can see the threats and struggles of these other periods, why do we waltz through the Regency as if such things never existed?

True, you were less likely to get beheaded by a capricious monarch in Regency England. But the death sentence still stood and the jails were still filthy pits of hell. The last burning at the stake took place as late as 1789, while quartering and disembowelment were only removed from the punishment for High Treason in 1814. Soldiers came back from the Peninsular war poor and limbless to beg on the streets of London. The Industrial Revolution was putting many out of work. As for women, although they were not yet expected to be “the angel at home” of Victorian times, they were still very much the property of men. They could be legally kidnapped by their husbands and beaten, so long as the stick was no thicker than a man’s thumb.

Perhaps we base the “spirit of the age” on the literature of the times. There is no doubt that the Regency was the golden age of satire. If we only read the comic novels of Fielding and look at the caricatures of the day, it is easy to imagine a period of romping joy. Many people, I know, blame Jane Austen for carving out a tidy little world inside her novels, but this is unjust. Although Austen was a gifted wit, her books are about impoverished women in the power of snobs and men. Moreover, if you look at Austen’s life, you will see more of the “real” Regency: two spinster sisters making shift with their elderly mother, reliant on the protection of their brothers. It is the same with the Romantic poets – Byron and Keats hardly made it to happily ever afters. It is worth noting that popular books of the period were not all careless, happy pieces: we have Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic horror novels, Richardson’s women under constant threat of rape and Sir Walter Scott’s historical yarns, looking back on other times as better days.

The more I consider, I begin to believe we base our view of an era on the reigning monarch. Henry VIII was both powerful and turbulent, an unpredictable force – hence the constant state of uncertainty and danger lurking in Tudor novels. Most people remember Victoria as the unsmiling widow, never amused (a great tragedy, in my opinion) –  so most Victorian pieces are equally sombre. For the Regency we have the overly-emotional, extravagant, often ludicrous George IV. His parties, no doubt, were carousels of absurd games and indifferent morals – which is why we suffer from the illusion that one could get away with pretty much anything. But we have to remember dear old “Prinny” was widely condemned in the press for his actions. Only aristocrats with the influence of money and a title managed to polish over their misdemeanours and keep appearing in society, although many of them were still ruined.

So who has written a Regency novel that is not a romance? Worryingly few people. I have highly enjoyed Gregory’s A Respectable Trade (I am yet to read the Wildacre trilogy), Miller’s Pure, Griffin’s The House of Sight and Shadow and Banbridge’s According to Queeny, but most of the action takes place in the earlier Georgian period.  Morgan’s Passion is worth a read – although, as you can see from the title, it is a love story, it is based on fact and not whimsical jaunts. The only book that really and truly, for me, manages to combine the tragedy and frivolity of the era in one full swoop is Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Even this starts and ends a little early – 1775 to around 1794 (?) – but it has the right feel to it. Both sides of the Janus-face time come to the fore: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The Most Royal

When you say the word “Princess”, many adjectives come to mind: glamorous, spoilt, regal, elegant, accomplished, rich, beautiful. The reason I love Charlotte Augusta Matilda, or Royal, as she was better known, is she defies these conventions. The eldest daughter of George III was one who truly broke the Princess mould.

For me, it all began with Royal. I was reading Flora Fraser’s Princesses with an eye to writing a series of six books, one about each of George III’s daughters. The first who truly leapt out and inspired me was Royal. I knew, whatever I did, it would start with her. Why? Because she’s one of those characters I adore: the type of person no one else seems to like much. Although the eldest of the Princesses and granted the title “Princess Royal”, she was certainly not the favourite. She lived in constant fear of her mother’s disapproval and was a disappointment in many ways: she could not dance, she hated music, she had bad fashion sense and she was nowhere near as beautiful as her sisters. Her father was extremely fond of her, but in 1783 Amelia stole the place of most beloved daughter, leaving Royal as merely “the governess to her five sisters”.

It is impossible not to feel for the girl as you read accounts of the time, comparing her disparagingly with her sister Augusta, but perhaps it was this early neglect that forged Royal into the determined and passionate character she became.  She was adept, as her later life was to show, at managing people. She juggled caring for her depressive mother, deranged father and younger sisters while keeping in the good books of her brothers. She managed to go around with the full bearing of a Princess “looking every inch the daughter of a King,” even though she was hopelessly lacking in confidence and preferred liberal Whig politics. Her sisters, especially the young Sophia and Mary, saw her as an authoritative figure who told tales on them to the Queen. She was generally considered proud and priggish.

I can’t deny that Royal was very aware of her position as the eldest daughter of the King of England, but the quiet manner which most people took for pride was actually shyness. She had a fear of talking too much in case she betrayed the stammer that haunted her throughout life. She did not fit in with her family; there was no place for her. Princesses Augusta and Elizabeth were best friends, whilst the three younger sisters, so much Royal’s juniors, formed their only little clique. It is hardly surprising she became distant, concentrating on her great talent: drawing.

In the end it all got too much for poor Royal. She broke down to her brother, the Prince of Wales, begging him to find her a husband. She complained that the Queen favoured all her sisters above her and as for the King, when he was not mad, he was oblivious to the fact his daughter was ageing. He seemed in no hurry to establish the woman in her late twenties – young by our standards, but positively verging on an old maid at the time. The Prince of Wales tried his best to help, without much success. It is sad to consider that even this brother, who Royal clearly trusted and loved, saw fit to refer to her as a “bandy-legged bitch” in his youthful correspondence.

But Royal knew how to get what she wanted. In her younger years she had tortured a governess to the point of resignation with her bad behaviour, all so she could get the young Miss Hamilton, who she adored, into her position. When a proposal for her came up from Fritz of Württemberg, she did not rest until it was accepted. Although political pressure played a part in George III’s decision to allow the marriage, I cannot help thinking his eldest daughter exerted all the influence in her power. I can imagine she wheedled, pleaded, did whatever she needed to do to get him to say yes. So many other offers were rejected outright, and continued to be rejected after Royal was married. She was the only Princess, after all, to marry with the King’s consent.

Royal’s husband was as unlike a stereotypical Prince as she was a Princess. Fat and short-tempered, Fritz made an unlikely hero to rescue Royal from her tower. But although he dragged her into war and at one point, made her the enemy of England, she seems to have loved him. She was enchanted that he had a picture of her father sent across to her new rooms before she got there, so she would see a familiar face. He showed delicacy to her feelings when he prevented her seeing him injured after a riding accident and he gave her a ready made family: two sons and a daughter by a previous marriage.

This previous marriage was to Royal’s own cousin, Augusta of Brunswick. Rumour has it that he beat her, cheated on her with both men and women, and arranged for her to be killed in Russia. Contemporary sources also show many suspected Fritz of beating Royal too, but she always denied it. It is hard to tell the truth; Royal was too proud a woman to admit such a thing and besides, who did she have to confide in? Whatever really happened, she loved him to the end and beyond. After Fritz’s death, she kept up many of his customs and spent her life preserving his good name.

Royal never gave birth to the babies she so desired; she had one still born daughter and never fell pregnant again. Yet she made herself invaluable to the stepchildren she adopted, and in later years, their children. When she died, her two “granddaughters” refused to be moved from her corpse and clung around it affectionately. As for the people of Württemberg, they adored her too. She was famous for her charity and a well beloved consort. It is satisfying to reflect that, although she suffered much throughout her life, Royal’s stoic religion and dogged determination paid off in the end. By the time she passed from the world, she had found her place and established herself as a great Queen.

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.

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