Back in September I was thrilled to discover that my short story, The Lions of London, had made the award long list for The Historical Novel Society Conference 2014. I don’t have much experience writing short stories and considered myself ‘bad’ at them – an opinion I will now have to revise! I’m very eager to share the story with you, but I’m not sure if I can yet. The terms and conditions of the competition said the long list may be published in an anthology, so I’m waiting a while. In the meantime, I’d like to tell you about the historical finds that inspired the tale – a feminist, animal-loving dash through the Tower of London!
You may know that the Tower of London was practically London’s first zoo, home to all manner of beasts from the reign of James I. So popular was the Tower Menagerie that it became one of London’s ‘must-see’ attractions. Going sight-seeing in the capital was soon referred to as ‘seeing the Lions of London’ – hence the title of my story. While there were many animals on display, ranging from polar bears to ostriches, the lions remained the most popular – perhaps because of England’s old symbolic associations with the animal. They were appropriated their very own Lion Tower. Up to eleven lions could be kept here, with fresh running water to drink and a diet of nine pounds of beef every day. Young lions were separated from their mothers but allowed free range to play in the Tower grounds – something we can hardly imagine in an age of health and safety!
In the later Georgian era, another menagerie opened at the Exeter Exchange, but it does not quite capture the imagination in the same way as animals imprisoned in an ancient fortress. So I decided to do a bit of research and base a story around the Lion Tower in the early 1700s. There were a great deal of diary entries and letters written regarding the Tower Menagerie, but two in particular caught my attention. The first I actually located in Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century. It was a quote from Mrs Percival, who visited in the winter of 1713-1714:
There was only one Lyoness. The Keeper threw a Dog for her to devour she fawn’d on it, and of all the Meat that was brought her would give him part and got him between her Paws, and lick him: For all this tenderness the Dog was very uneasy.
What a wonderful image this conjures – the maternal lion and a wary dog, an unlikely pair of companions! But if you are a dog lover like me, you will also be questioning why the canine was thrown into the pen in the first place. A bit more research showed me this was far from unusual – I was distressed to find live dogs and cats were frequently thrown to the lions! In fact, if you brought one of your own from home, they would wave the entry fee to the Tower!
My second anecdote features a less docile lion. It is the tale of poor Mary Jenkinson, who was a maid to the keeper in 1686, a few decades before the Georgian period began. Throwing caution to the wind, she decided to stroke a lion’s paw through the bars of the cage (not recommended!). Unsurprisingly, the lion grabbed her arm ‘with his claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her flesh from the bone.’ The only course of medical action in those days was to amputate the limb. Surgeons performed the operation but sadly Mary died shortly after, probably from a combination of shock and blood loss.
These two real-life events provided the basis for my story. But to add atmosphere, I wanted to put a few more animals into the mix. I had my lion cage beside squawking birds and chattering monkeys that jumped about when the big cat roared. This, however, was not based on fact. While there were monkeys at the Tower, their real home was more fantastical than I could have imagined. They lived in a furnished drawing-room, much to the amusement of the visitors, and were taught to mimic human actions such as smoking pipes. You might think you’d be safer in the monkey room with these semi-civilized primates, but you’d be wrong. One monkey bit a soldier’s leg, while a baboon developed a penchant for throwing large objects – a hobby that ended in tragedy when he hurled a 9lb cannon shot at a young boy and killed him.
Should you visit the Tower of London in the modern day, you can see their exhibition on the royal beasts that once made the grey stone walls their home, along with wonderful sculptures. I particularly liked the elephant! I would highly recommend the trip to everyone – even without the bigs cats, the Tower truly remains one of the Lions of London.
One thing you can say for the Hanoverian royal family – they certainly knew how to die in interesting ways. George I had a series of strokes in his carriage but insisted on continuing the journey, finally laying down to expire in the same room he had been born in. His grandson Frederick, Prince of Wales, was famously but inaccurately said to have been killed by a cricket ball. And as you have seen from my post and short story, Queen Caroline died in a thoroughly gruesome way with great courage. Some twenty-three years later, her husband George II was to meet his own infamous death.
I have already written at great length about the farcical nature of George II. This comedy carried over into all the main events of his life. He fell asleep during the sermon at his own wedding. The news of his accession to the throne in 1727 reached him during another afternoon nap; he doddered out to meet Sir Robert Walpole with his wig askew and unbuttoned breeches. When the minister informed George that he had become king, he yelled that it was ‘one big lie’ and stormed off again. It should come as little surprise that this monarch with a penchant for comedy would top it off by dying on the toilet.
George spent his last hours in the first floor private apartments of Kensington Palace, by far his favourite London residence. He had once boasted that he would never die at Kensington, which, if you ask me, was rather tempting fate! On the morning of 25th October he rose from his small hair mattress bed at the usual hour of six ‘ o clock. Neither the King nor those about him had any apprehension of what was about to happen. His German valet de chambre, Schroder, thought the King had ‘never looked better’ than when he received his cup of chocolate that morning.
After chocolate, George threw up the window and looked out onto the south-east gardens that his bedroom faced. He asked Schroder about the weather and direction of the wind – since he received favourable answers, he announced his intention of walking in the gardens.
At quarter past seven, George retired to ‘a little closet’ to empty his bowels. After a time, Schroder heard what Walpole humorously describes as ‘a noise louder than the royal wind’, followed by a groan and a thud. The poor man was put in a terrible predicament. Dare he enter the royal toilet? It sounded like the King needed help, but he had never presumed on such a step before. At last, Schroder made the agonising decision to enter the room and found George on the floor.
It was clear that the King had tried to call for assistance, for his hand was reached out toward the bell. As he had fallen from the close-stool, he had hit his head on the side of a bureau, leaving a deep cut on his face. Help was summoned; he was dragged to the bed a blooded, but ‘not a drop flowed’.
In the throes of death, George tried to call for Amelia, but his speech was not intelligible. There was also some confusion over which ‘Amelia’ was meant – his mistress, Amalie, or his daughter commonly called Emily? Some accounts say both the mistress and daughter were summoned, while others only mention the daughter. Either way, we can be sure that Emily was there, for the last seconds at least. She did not get the chance to hear her father’s last commands, for as she put her face close to his, she felt his cheek was cold and recoiled – he was already dead.
To add to the indignity of George’s death, his burial was delayed. An investigation was required to ascertain the cause if his sudden demise and an autopsy performed. The reports, that I have combined her, do not make for pleasant reading.
Upon opening the body of his late Majesty the right ventricle of the heart was found burst & the pericardium filled with a great quantity of extravasated & coagulated blood, nearly a pint . . .the whole heart was so compressed as to prevent any blood contained in the veins from being forced into the auricles; therefore the ventricles were found absolutely void of blood . . . and in the trunk of the aorta we found a transverse fissure on its inner side, about an inch and a half long, through which some blood had recently passed under its external coat . . .His Majesty had been frequently out of order of late, and his pulse so extremely low that the physicians could scarce perceive any motion in it at all.
The conclusion was that a ventricle of the poor man’s heart had burst. While it sounds very painful, at least it was mercifully sudden.
Being a royal corpse, George II’s body was embalmed. This meant that his bowels were removed first for the embalming process and buried separately – another thing that strikes me as undignified, but it was the custom for all princes, and we should not see it as something special to him. It is only unfortunate that, having died in the process of emptying his bowels, such focus should later be put on the organ!
George was finally laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on 11 November, 1760. He was the last monarch to be buried there, according to the Abbey’s website, as subsequent rulers preferred Windsor. And here is the sweetener to George’s tempestuous life and his unrefined death – he was buried like a romantic hero. Not only did he get the full burial rights of a King, but he was laid beside his beloved wife Caroline. In accordance with his will, the sides of the two coffins were removed so that the ashes could mingle. A rather touching end, I feel, to what is so often described as comical death.
As you may have guessed, the drab way in which Maria Fitzherbert is often presented by history has become one of my bugbears. While I’m sure she would have loved the tragic, sainted image that has survived her, it is not strictly true. Don’t get me wrong – she was a good woman. But she was a woman of her time, and a lot more fun than many people realise. She certainly wasn’t a prude.
My novel about Maria and George (working title A Forbidden Crown) starts with her escape to the Continent in a bid to make the Prince of Wales forget about her. Or, as she termed it, ‘throwing cold water’ on him. Traditionally, this has been seen as a journey of quiet reflection for Maria. Yet when you look at the facts, she had an awful lot of fun. There are many episodes from her travels that I would have loved to write about in my novel, but since I make it a rule only to include scenes that push the plot on or reveal more about the character, they didn’t make the final cut. So, I thought I would tell you a little more on my blog about the wanderings of Mrs Fitzherbert.
First of all, let us talk about her traveling companions. For a lady so concern with her reputation, Maria was intimate with some lively characters. Her closest friend, Lady Anne Lindsay, was not considered spotless. Her engagements had all sizzled out – one, because her fiance would not give up his mistress and illegitimate children. There had even been rumours about Lady Anne’s own relationship with the Prince of Wales. Lady Anne’s sister, Lady Margaret Fordyce, was an abandoned wife whose husband had gone bankfrupt in 1774 and fled the country. Along with these two interesting ladies, Maria also had male travelling companions. Her brother brother Jack and her country squire brother-in-law, Basil Fitzherbert were both with her on separate stages of her journey. So from the start, it was clear that Maria did not intend to spend lonely days in total seclusion.
While Maria disliked traveling, especially over the sea, she made sure that she did it in style. Sailing in her own packet, she took her carriage and all her servants. There is even some evidence that she helped smuggle a debtor out of England on her packet by disguising him as one of her household. Once on the Continent, she started off with a visit to the convent at Dunkirk where she had been schooled and gave all the old nuns a feast. She then moved onto Spa with its casinos and balls.
What interests me is that Maria did not seek to conceal herself from notice or shun all connection with royalty. In fact, she positively courted notice from the European monarchs ad Stadtholders. She visited the Haig, where she was received cordially by Willem V and formed a friendship his daughter Louise – somewhat awkward, since the Haig were half in hopes that Louise herself would make a match with the Prince of Wales. Maria made such an impression that Willem V loaned her his royal barge to take the next step of her journey.
When the travelling party made it to France, they went wild for every bit of royal paraphanlia. They saw the crown jewels, the death masks of kings and the coronation robes of Louis XVI. Lady Anne had great fun trying out Louis XV’s bed, before they visited the coffin of that same monarch. They called on the Duc de Chartres at the Palais Royal and met Madame du Barry before moving on to the famous palace of Versailles. Their visit attracted such interest from the French royals that Marie Antoinette sent her own hairdresser to prepare Maria’s long golden locks. Powdered and poufed, Maria and her companions went to the grand couvert to watch the royal family eat in public, where they spent most of the meal peering through their quizzing glasses at her. Lady Anne ‘saw she was gratified.’ On the final part of her travels in Switzerland, Maria spent a good deal of time with the prince’s paternal uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. These do not strike me as the actions of a woman who wanted to hide from the prince’s attentions and had no ambition – whatever she might profess. I think, deep down, Maria longed for the life she was seeing played out in European courts, but she could not decide how to obtain it legally and without damaging her conscience.
While I believe Maria truly loved the prince, there is no doubt that she enjoyed a bit of flirtation in his absence. To modern eyes, Maria does not look particularly striking. Her large face and aquiline nose would be mocked in cartoons over the coming years. But there is no doubt she had an irresistible charm and was considered an attractive woman in her day. Lady Anne’s travel journal reads like a list of men who fell in love with ‘the Fitz’. Captain Conway was smitten at Spa. When they toured a hospital for the mentally ill, a young surgeon ‘was making love to Mrs F… begging to know when he might wait on her.’ She had to pay off a man she had once flirted with in Florence years ago, to avoid him revealing her letters to the world. Her departure from the Haig was hastened when the attentions of Prince Heinrich Reuss XIII became too pressing. Most impressive of all, when she visited Plombiere, Maria received an offer of marriage from Marquis de Bellois.
I don’t mean to down-play the awkward and distressing position Maria found herself in when the prince fell in love with her. She was certainly very unhappy and homesick toward the end of her journey, when she was in Switzerland with only her brother Jack, having spent well over a year separated from her home, family and friends. Such extensive travel in the eighteenth century was full of inconvenience. She must have felt truly exiled towards the end. Indeed, it was the prolonged indecision and life in virtual stasis that wore upon her, prompting her to capitulate: ‘I feel so worn out… the length of time it has gone on, and the continual prey it has been on my spirits makes me sometimes think that nothing can happen to make me more thoroughly wretched than I am.’ But I hope this post has shown that Maria’s escape to the Continent wasn’t one long journey of misery, reflection and preparation to become a semi Princess of Wales. Like any other young woman of time, she was trying to enjoy her life in the pursuit of pleasure. And I think we can see, from her visits to court and flirtation with young men, that this was a woman who, all along, secretly wanted to accept the prince long before she actually did.
Here’s me meeting the lovely Philippa Gregory in July with her tour of The King’s Curse. Having read her work since I was an early teenager, I was hugely excited to get a chance to meet this best-selling author. She is one of my favourites, although I know this is not a popular opinion in the historical fiction world. People always tell me I can’t possibly like Gregory, because The Other Boleyn Girl was historically incorrect. Well yes, it was. It was also a darn good story, and the one that got me into the genre of historical fiction. Before I picked up that book, I had refused to read anything written after 1900. But I’m not here to write about the Tudor works that have made Gregory famous. I want to tell you about my favourites: her earlier works, stories made up by the author herself and set in the gorgeous Georgian era.
When I met Philippa, I gave her a copy of Queen of Bedlam as a thank you for all the inspiration her writing has provided. I will be delighted if it brings her even a fraction of the pleasure her Georgian books have brought me.
You might not associate Philippa Gregory with the Georgians, but you should. She studied 18th century literature and chose the period for her debut novel, Wideacre. As this is a blog dedicated to Georgian historical fiction, I thought I should give you a taste for Gregory’s Georgian novels. Below, I’ve provided a little summary of each one and my thoughts.
A Respectable Trade
Like most women of her time, Frances Scott seeks a marriage for life-long security. But in order to achieve this, she has to stoop from the position she was born to. She finds Josiah Cole, a prosperous merchant who needs her connections. The two strike a bargain and embark on an amiable, if not loving marriage.
However, when a cargo of African slaves arrive, the politics of the family begin to shift. Frances strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mehuru, which turns her world upside down.
I absolutely loved this book. I read it so quickly and it completely absorbed me. Not only does it treat the subjects of slavery, oppression and ambition with the darkness they deserve, it provides a fascinating insight into the world of the Bristol traders. In particular I remember feeling for Josiah, who is desperate to work his way up. The twists and turns in his story had me screaming at the pages – I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see them coming.
The only thing I didn’t entirely like was the romance aspect of the book. I think it would have been more powerful, and believable, if the relationship between Frances and Mehuru had stayed as a profound friendship. The end also leaves you guessing a little, which may not appeal to everyone.
The Wideacre Triology
Three generations, one estate.
Beatrice Lacey, the darling of her father, is devoted to her home estate of Wideacre. She is at one with the land and the people upon it, but society has other plans for her. Her mother wants her to become an ‘indoor miss’ and marry. Terrified at the prospect of anything that might force her to leave Wideacre, Beatrice embarks on an increasingly desperate campaign to secure her place – at the expense of her soul.
Read if you dare! I won’t pretend Wideacre is a comfortable book. It will probably disturb you, and that’s why I like it so much. It had me turning the pages and gasping. The heroine clearly becomes mentally unstable during the course of the narrative, but while she is hard to like, you cannot help secretly rooting for her. You understand her motivations, even if you do not approve with her methods (any of them).
On a historical note, I also found Wideacre a great tale of a village and its squire in the 18th century. You gain an understanding of the farming methods and the way the labouring classes lived. I had read a lot of academic work about enclosures and wheat prices, but it took this novel to bring home to me just how much the poor suffered.
The Favoured Child
Julia is growing up on the dilapidated estate of Wideacre with her kind mother and bullying cousin Richard. Money is short and the villagers are openly hostile. Her difficult childhood is punctuated by vivid dreams that offer glimpses into both the future and the past. She cannot be sure if she has a gift, or she is going mad.
As Julia grows, she is torn between her love for her cousin and her desire to help the village. Her tentative steps toward independence meet with crushing obstacles. At last she finds two men who seem willing to further her schemes for social improvement, but Richard is not willing to let either Julia or the land go.
Julia Lacey is a very likeable character, a refreshing breath of air after Beatrice. I found her to be a realistic representation of a woman of her time, although at times that could be annoying – you really wanted her to stand up to her male cousin. Hers is a sad story, but I found it captivating. Another page-turner, though perhaps not as fast-paced as Wideacre. The visions and trances – almost akin to possession – that Julia experiences are, at times, overdone.
Once again the plight of the poor comes into fascinating focus: children abducted from the village to be apprentices, corn-riots, the back-streets of Bath. The dirty truth behind the glamour of the Georgian era is revealed in a very human way.
The last of the trilogy and in my opinion, the best. This was a relief, as I have read so many trilogies let down by the final book!
Meridon is a gypsy orphan, keeping body and soul together by training horses for an abusive step-father. Her only comfort is her sister Dandy; a reckless, beautiful girl. At night, Meridon dreams of a place called Wide and a girl named Sarah. She vows to find the land of her dreams. Somehow, she will make life better and save her sister from a future as a whore.
The sheer scope of this story is amazing – you travel from a gypsy wagon to horse shows, Wideacre to the highest London society, balls to card-sharping dens. The story is good, but the main pull for me was the characterisation. Meridon is someone you enjoy spending time with, despite her gruff ways. She reacts in ways that ring true based on her experience. I found her a deeply sympathetic character, especially since she was so rough around the edges.
While this book refers to The Favoured Child, you don’t actually have to read the first two installments of the trilogy to understand Meridon. If you just pick one of the three, I’d make it this one.
George II’s longest-serving (and longest-suffering) mistress was famed for her submission and gentle behaviour. She was one of the few women who could listen to the king’s tirades and retain her tranquility. Her manners set a pattern for modesty, discretion and obedience. As one contemporary observed, she acted ‘as if she had never seen any ill nature, and had been bred among lambs and turtle-doves.’ Such a character may not strike you as an early champion of women’s rights, but in fact Henrietta held a number of views that were, for her time, bordering on the radical.
If you look at Henrietta’s formative years, it is easy to see why she came to the conclusion that women had ‘superior sense, superior fortitude and reason.’ Her father, Sir Henry Hobart, whilst much beloved by his wife and family, was an extravagant and hot-headed man. Tracy Borman describes him with a ‘quick temper and dictatorial manner’. Eight years the senior of Henrietta’s mother Elizabeth Maynard, he ran through her dowry of £10,000 at a rapid rate and left the estate heavily in debt. There were also rumours that he had deprived Elizabeth of her rightful income. Sir Henry’s tempestuous life ended when, incensed over a slander, he challenged his neighbour to a duel. He was skewered on a sword, leaving his wife and eight children with his bills.
Sir Henry did have a son and heir, but the boy was too young at the time of his death to take up the reins of management. A series of shocking deaths over the next few years left only Henrietta, her brother and two sisters remaining from the initial family of ten. As the eldest survivor Henrietta, a girl, had to take charge.
It is interesting to see that even at this early age of sixteen, Henrietta was aware that she needed to use men to get what she wanted. She needed security and a husband to help her care for her younger siblings. She must have been thrilled when, in less than a year, she managed to secure an offer of marriage from a distant relation, Charles Howard. As the third son of the 5th Earl of Suffolk with a distinguished military career, he seemed like an excellent catch. But Henrietta’s youth and inexperience had failed to see his true character: ‘wrong-headed, ill-tempered, obstinate, extravagant and brutal.’ He sold his commission soon after their marriage and frittered the £700 away on drink, gaming and women. To make matters worse, he decided to sue the young brother Henrietta had tried so hard to protect. This must have been enormously distressing for poor Henrietta, who was by that time on the verge of giving birth to her first child.
We know of the terrible life Henrietta led between 1706 and 1713 thanks to a raging letter she wrote to Charles in 1728, listing all her wrongs. She was frequently starving, abandoned for weeks on end with no idea where he was, and ejected from lodgings where he did not pay the rent. This would have been bad enough, but Charles was also physically violent towards his wife. She describes ‘dreadful scenes…which humanity would force the most barbarous to commiserate.’ A neighbour confirmed that she treated Charles with ‘constant awe…scarce even daring to speak to him’.
Henrietta did, however, defy Charles in one essential way: she sold all their belongings without his knowledge and purchased two tickets to Hanover. Her object was to secure a post in the household of the Hanoverian royal family, who were next in line to the British throne. Happily, she succeeded. Under the auspices of Princess Caroline, she began to see a very different model of marriage from her own.
I’ve written at length in other blog posts about the balance of power between Caroline and George II. Here, it is only necessary to say that any feminist views Henrietta nurtured must have received encouragement from observing the relationship. She saw how expertly a clever woman could manage her husband without seeming to. In fact, Caroline’s tactics of apparent submission and gentle agreement were exactly those Henrietta would use when she herself became George’s lover.
In my last post, I explained why I think Henrietta did have some genuine affection for George. But it cannot be doubted that she also used him for protection from her brutal husband – and money. She also made use of other men at the court, whether it was to raise her political status, provoke her royal lover or help her with building projects. In later years, Swift and Pope wrote of her as if they had been mistreated by a femme fatale. Whatever the truth about her flirtations, I find Henrietta’s views on love very interesting. In her court career, she was faced with ludicrous love letters by an elderly admirer, the Earl of Peterborough (and they are TEDIOUS, believe me). With the help of her great friend John Gay, she replied by expressing her opinions on the subject of courtship. Although she aimed many good-humoured jests at her own sex, the picture that emerges is a woman who expects to be addressed as an equal, rational creature rather than a swooning stereotype. My favourite excerpts from these letters are show below
If you will allow a woman ever to think, I must beg your lordship to give me leave to tell you what I think of your letters… I fancy the man who first treated the ladies with that celestial complaisance used it in contempt of their understandings… But perhaps you will ask me, if a woman be neither like angel nor devil, what is she like? I answer that the only thing that is like a woman is – another woman… The most agreeable compliment to a woman is to persuade her she is a very fine woman. No reasonable woman desires more… I think every man is in the wrong who talks to a woman of dying for her; the only women that can have received a benefit from such a protestation are the widows.
Henrietta’s beliefs were to be put to the test in the winter of 1717. The great Christening quarrel split the royal household apart. She was faced with the choice of either staying with her son and abusive husband, who served George I, or following Prince George and Princess Caroline into exile. Never before had she been given the opportunity to break away from the terror of her marriage. She longed to escape, yet she knew it would bring disgrace and separation from her son. It was an agonising decision which she wrote about at length, trying to establish whether she could keep her own honour free from her husband’s taint, and listing the many wives she knew who were made miserable through ‘man’s tyranick (sic) power.’ ‘Self preservation is the first law of human nature,’ she wrote, ‘are married women then the only part of human nature that must not follow it?’ In the end, she did follow that law of nature and took the brave step to leave.
Of course, a man like Charles Howard did not give up easily. Over the next eleven years, he would continue to threaten and torment her. Not only did he deny any access to their son, he secured a warrant to legally kidnap her, even making an attempt to break into the palace and seize her. He blackmailed, he enlisted the views of bishops, he referred to the law. You can tell what a horrendous man he was by the fact that his own brother Edward died leaving all his money to Henrietta – not Charles. And in true form, Charles tried to go against the deceased’s wishes. When Edward passed away on 22 June, Charles ‘took possession of body and goods, and was not prevailed upon till yesterday (28 June) to resign the former for burial’.
Naturally, Henrietta wanted to free herself from association with this man. She felt that being mistress to a prince did not demean her honour half as much as marriage to such a wretch. But her options were severely limited. Divorce was so unusual that it would need an Act of Parliament – an expense far beyond her means. Legal separation was only possible if the wife could prove adultery and life-threatening cruelty. Henrietta had certainly endured both, but had kept it well hidden from the world. Not to be deterred, she took the astonishing step of suing for a private deed of separation. Such deeds were extremely rare and would have been viewed with censure. At first, Charles resisted all negotiation. It was then that Henrietta penned her furious letter demanding justice. ‘You have called me named and have threatened to kick me and break my neck,’ she complained. ‘I have often laid abed with you when I have been under apprehensions of your doing me a mischief.’ She made it very clear that she felt the failure of the marriage was his fault:‘the marriage duty, which I have performed and you have violated…you who have made marriage an instrument of cruelty.’ It was money, rather than a sense of shame, that softened Charles in the end. However, one way or the other, Henrietta achieved her aim of independence at the beginning of 1729.
Four years later, her freedom was secured. Her husband and lifelong tormentor finally died. But there is another twist to the tale. Rather than relishing the single life she had worked so hard to obtain, Henrietta threw herself into the protection of another man just two years later. Caroline thought it an unaccountable piece of folly. But you have only to read the tender correspondence between Henrietta and her second husband, George Berkeley, to see why she acted as she did. Berkeley was everything Charles had not been: intelligent, humorous and kind. He did not scruple to marry the prince’s ‘damaged goods’ and gave up his own home to live with her at her precious house of Marble Hill. He cared for her when she was ill, he missed her when she was away. He helped her to raise her nephew and niece, Dorothy Hobart, who may actually have been Henrietta’s illegitimate child. Berkeley understood the secret strength of the woman he was marrying and accepted her views. The pair often engaged in a playful war of the sexes. ‘The actions of women are too inconsiderable to draw consequences from them: thus I know your pride and arrogance in power makes all you men reason,’ Henrietta wrote to him. ‘But I do not despair to see some of my sex vindicate us, and make a figure that will make some of you tremble.’ The pair were exquisitely happy until Berkeley’s death 11 years later.
But Henrietta’s fight for troubled women did not end with the happy resolution of her own story. Her niece beloved Dorothy fell in love with a soldier considered unsuitable by her family. In despair of receiving permission to marry, they pair eloped. When they were finally discovered (unmarried), Henrietta took an interesting course of action. She continued to urge Dorothy to save her own future and stay away from the man. In a society that would condemn a woman for running away with a suitor and not marrying him, Henrietta’s advice is unusual. It almost echoes the progressive Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice when Lydia elopes with Wickham: ‘And they must marry! Yet he is such a man!’. As it turned out, Dorothy was entangled far deeper than suspected and could not take her aunt’s advice – she was with child. She made the marriage, but fortunately it turned out to be a very happy one.
The same could not be said of the last woman Henrietta tried to save. I have written a little before about Lady Mary Coke, who was forced into a miserable marriage. Mary’s husband was every bit as cruel as Charles and, I suspect, mentally disturbed. Mary complained that he ‘tore my ruffle all to pieces and told me I deserved to be assassinated.’ Henrietta acted as friend and adviser to the distressed Mary, even finding her legal aid and trying to get her a separation. Sadly, Mary was not quite as brave as Henrietta. She hesitated to take the radical step and was discovered. Her punishment was imprisonment in her room without food.
The fact that this treatment of Lady Mary was still considered legal really highlights what Henrietta and her contemporaries were up against. For one, I admire the spirit that kept Henrietta true to herself through a life of hardship. Her ‘feminism’, however primitive, was truly brave and, I think, remarkable for its time.
There’s no denying it: the Hanoverian kings were an odd bunch. But while this makes them fascinating to study, it also makes them difficult to write. I recently attended a talk by Tracy Borman, in which she described George IV as the ‘most normal’ amongst the Hanoverian monarchs. When the ‘normal’ one is a vain fantasist addicted to drink and opium, you know you have a problem.
It is amazing just how readily these kings lend themselves to farce. Now, while I like a little bit of comedy in my novels, I also want people to take the characters seriously as human beings. When working on George III for Queen of Bedlam, I had to prize away the image of a tyrant passed down in American legend and the anecdotes of his madness, such as the one where he shook hands with a tree (this didn’t actually happen, but many people still believe it did). Fortunately, George III had so many good qualities and such tragically bad health that it was not hard to redeem him. But what of his predecessor, George II?
I have to admit that George II has been my greatest challenge yet. Many of his failings were just so . . . funny. At the time of his reign, he was the subject of intense satire. Every contemporary account has some comic element; his short temper, his obsession with lists or his boring conversation. It was important to me that I got this peppery character across and made use of the comedy, but I was not content with letting him become a mere caricature. As I considered him through the eyes of his women, he began to change.
George’s wife Caroline was a clever woman who undoubtedly used her beauty to manipulate him. In her last years, she endured cruel insults and humiliation from him. But I found that some elements of George and Caroline’s relationship could have come straight from a romance novel. At their first meeting, George was in disguise. He visited her court posing as a travelling count – rather like the games Henry VIII used to play, but with much more success. He was able to observe Caroline and decide she was the wife for him. Despite taking many mistresses over the course of his life, George never really lost his devotion to Caroline. He wrote her beautiful love letters and was inconsolable when she died. One account says that all the queens had to be removed from his deck of cards to save him from bursting into tears. He asked to be buried beside her with the side of his coffin removed, so that their ashes might mingle. These actions do not tie up with the coarse, unfeeling man that history has traditionally presented to us.
Then we have Henrietta Howard, George’s long-serving mistress. It is generally agreed that George and Henrietta shared a highly cynical relationship; she needed his money, he needed a mistress for his masculine pride. But I think there may have been a little more to it than that. George was famous for being a miserly king, yet he gave Henrietta many gifts, long after he was supposedly tiring of her. One present was a whopping £11,500 in the stocks. This was specifically designed to free Henrietta from dependence on her abusive husband – a special contract was drawn up to specify that he could not touch it. Thanks to George’s foresight, Henrietta was able to build Marble Hill, her home for the rest of her life.
Henrietta’s awful husband continued to plague her for money, but miraculously her allowance increased by just the sum he was demanding each year. Since it is recorded by Hervey that Caroline turned down all Henrietta’s requests for pecuniary aid, we are safe to assume that the extra money came from George. It would have been easy for him to leave Henrietta to her fate and take up with a new mistress, but he didn’t. In fact, even when she left him in disgrace, she still received a court pension.
None of this ties up with the comical George II so often portrayed. While we usually see a king that no woman could tolerate, let alone love, the real man seems to have inspired some affection in return. Caroline may have relied on him mainly for power, but during a time of crisis she preferred to sacrifice her children rather than leave him. In her own words, they were not worth ‘a grain of sand’ in comparison to her husband. To Henrietta, George was ‘dearer than my own brother’. And while we must allow for some court sycophancy, the last letter she wrote to him suggests that real feeling had once been there. She writes of ‘the honour of [his] esteem’ and how it had made ‘the happiness of my life’. She ends mournfully, ‘The years to come must be employed in the painful task to forget you as my friend; but no years can ever make me forget you as my King.’
So was there something about women that softened George? I found my own key to his character in this portrait.
Isn’t it beautiful? It’s not difficult to see who the favourite child is. The son and heir is lovingly held in his mother’s arms and clings to her in return. The daughter is somewhat in the shadows, a little apart from the group. Well, this little boy is George II and the woman is his mother Sophia Dorothea.
George was close to his mother, resembling her in feature and quick feelings. But his world was torn apart when, at the age of nine, his parents separated for good. Caught in adultery, his mother was banished to the Castle of Ahlden and never saw him again. Her portraits were taken down; he was not allowed to mention her. His father mocked him for his grief; the only comfort left was his grandmother. I don’t think we can underestimate how fundamentally this episode would have affected a child. It could offer an explanation for both his gruff behaviour and his softer attitude toward some women. Is it too much of a leap to conjecture that he saw his mother in Henrietta Howard, another desperately unhappy young wife? Was Caroline, with her firm advice and unswerving loyalty, the maternal figure he yearned to replace?
While the legends of George trying to swim across a moat to reach his mother have been proved false, I think the spirit of the story is very true. He certainly intended to free Sophia Dorothea and make her Regent of Hanover if she outlived his father. Sadly, this did not happen. Mother and son were kept apart by less than a year; she died at the end of 1726, he gained his throne too late in June 1727.
Interestingly, George’s mother crops up in my research again a few years after her decease. Once more she seems to herald a change to her son’s behaviour. On a trip to Herrenhausen, George stumbled across his mother’s personal papers. He evidently found something he did not like there. Perhaps he had always believed her innocent of adultery and had a nasty shock. Whatever it was, it shattered his image of her. He never spoke of his mother again.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that his behaviour toward Henrietta and Caroline deteriorated after this trip. However, I think that George’s discovery about his mother may have had a direct impact on his relationship with the woman he clung to for reassurance, and the woman he was trying in some small degree to save.
Looking through the eyes of a little boy caught in a family crisis, I hope I have managed to make George into a more three-dimensional and believable character. But I am conscious that in doing so, I have come down rather hard on the father he despised, George I. Rest assured that George I will get his own humanising treatment – watch this space!
It’s exactly two months since Queen of Bedlam launched and my life has been busy! But busy in a good way. I’ve had the honour to feature on some wonderful history blogs and even a national newspaper. I thought you might like to follow me on my adventures and read my articles.
When we think of the British royal family, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle immediately spring to mind. But it’s interesting to discover both these iconic residences owe much of their modern prominence to a relatively recent king: George III.
George III came to the throne in 1760, determined to live in a different style from his forebears. He disliked the formal, stately palaces of Kensington and Hampton Court, which he associated with his hated grandfather. While he was happy to perform ceremonial duties in St. James’s Palace, he wanted a peaceful home for his wife and children. To this end he purchased a modest red brick house from the Duke of Buckingham, informing his Prime Minister it was “not meant for a palace, but a retreat”.
Naturally, Buckingham House required some remodelling to become “Queen’s House” – the name it went by during George III’s reign. But rather than vamping it up, George actually had the house toned down. Grand iron screens were replaced by simple railing, while the elaborate formal gardens were simplified.
This was in keeping with George’s modest tastes. His apartments, on the ground floor were sparsely decorated by royal standards, painted green-grey “without the smallest affectation, ostentation or meanness.” The grandest rooms were the King’s great libraries; the two storey octagon library that could only be entered through his bedchamber and the west library, connected directly to the weather-vane so the King could see how his fleet fared at sea.
However, George and his young wife Charlotte were not adverse to a little splendour. The Queen’s rooms, on the next floor, were a show case for her collections of watches and curiosities. Mrs Powys notes the queen had “the most capital pictures, the finest Dresden…besides the gilt plate, innumerable nick-nacks”.It seems that then, as today, decorative touches and fashionable décor were considered part of the women’s realm. We can glimpse red damask walls and marble chimney pieces in paintings of Charlotte with her young children, as well as black and gold “japanned” panels in her breakfast room. Antique roman ceilings and crystal chandeliers blocked out the next storey, which held the nursery and the servants. Rather usefully, the upper storey had “floors so contrived as to prevent all noise” from disturbing the queen.
Although George and Charlotte succeeded in making Queen’s House a family home, where the majority of their children were born, it didn’t fulfill their need to improve and develop. Windsor Castle was another project taken up by the royal couple. Long disused, the castle itself was unfit for habitation, so they bought up two lodges nearby, one of which used to belong to Queen Anne, the other to Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn. Vast extensions were made to accommodate George and Charlotte’s swelling family, giving the buildings the look of a barracks. Nonetheless, only the finest decorations were to be found inside; paper hangings, carved gilt frames, curtains of white dimity with cotton fringes, Portland stone staircases and chairs knotted with floss silk.
Once more, Windsor became a focal point of royal life, as it was in the Stuart days. George liked the country life at Windsor, building his own mill and miniature farm. I get the feeling that Charlotte was less keen, staying indoors with a migraine while her husband took the children on long, muddy, “barbaric” walks about the countryside.
Between 1781 and 1804 renovation work took place at the castle. While apartments remained unfinished, courtiers often urged one another to bring warm cloaks for the drafty corridors and thick boots for the gravel of the terrace. Even when building was complete, the rooms remained cold. Charlotte complained of needing to huddle up with her daughters in furs beside the fire. She was not allowed carpets as the King said they harboured dust. I imagine she would have rather stayed in her lodge, but alas it was demolished. Luckily for Charlotte, she was able to buy Frogmore House as her little retreat within the grounds of Windsor, and decorate it more to her own taste.
Charlotte and George’s son, George IV, remodelled Queen’s House into Buckingham Palace and restored Windsor Castle to a state of pure opulence, making them the grand houses we know today. However, amongst these success stories for the family there is one poignant project that was never finished: George III’s “Castellated Palace” at Kew. A gothic wonder of turrets, the Castellated Palace was conceived in one of George’s many bouts of illness. He was to make “Ludlow Castle, improved”, a fortress in stone. But with an eccentric, sick king, an architect with “a certain lack of diligence” and a shortage of workmen, the plan was doomed to failure. Running up bills of £100,000 – over twice its original estimate- the Castellated Palace was finally abandoned when George became incurable in 1810. The shell remained, “an image of distempered reason”, until George IV demolished it in the late 1820s, using the building materials for other projects.
Yesterday I was researching at Kensington Palace (my second office, as I like to think of it), which has a wealth of Hanoverian connections. My main reason for going was to see Past Pleasures, who are putting on a wonderful series of Georgian re-enactments for the 300th anniversary of George I’s accession. I was lucky enough to meet the Duchess of Richmond (later mother to the infamous Lady Sarah Lennox) and assist her in dressing Queen Caroline. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos for you. To protect the precious history inside Kensington, flash is not allowed and my camera refuses to take anything but a black blur without flash. So you will just have to go and see it for yourself!
While I was wandering round, I decided to visit the wonderful Victoria Revealed exhibition again. If you haven’t been I would highly recommend it. Victoria’s world is brought to life with her words stenciled on the walls and a wealth of her personal possessions. Her black baby boots are one of my favourite pieces, along with the bracelet of hearts commemorating the birth of each of her children. You also get to see Victoria’s beautiful wedding dress. What I love about this is that Victoria was only 5ft 1 and they have displayed her dress in front of a mirror. So if you stand before it and angle your head, you can see how you would look wearing the dress! (Yes, it did suit me rather well.)
The exhibition reminded me how much I love Victoria. Yes, she was neurotic, obsessed and a pretty bad mother but she was also brave, loyal and fiercely intelligent. The mix of good and bad in her is one that fascinates me. I remember reading long extracts from her earlier diaries and really connecting with the young lady who tried to be good and loved her dog called Dash (my dog at the time was called Splash, I like to think they would have been friends). It began to trouble me that this Queen, who interested me so much, was not included in my Hanoverian monarchs series. She was the last Hanoverian Queen – and she was Hanoverian through and through. From her protruding blue eyes to her lust, temper tantrums and hatred of her eldest son, she lived and breathed the family characteristics I have come to know so well.
Initially, I suppose Victoria missed my list because she was a queen, in her own right. My books were planned as a series covering the women who loved the Hanoverian monarchs, and this monarch was a woman herself. Moreover, she is still a well known figure today, not a forgotten heroine without a voice. But yesterday I considered the women in Victoria’s life and realised there was much to say. Many talented authors have already covered the stories of Victoria’s daughters – but what about her mother?
Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld married George III and Queen Charlotte’s fourth son, Edward Duke of Kent. She had already been widowed once and was to find herself a widow again before many years had passed. She first began to interest me when I was researching the life of Princess Sophia for Queen of Bedlam. Sophia and Duchess Victoria were close friends. They had two things in common: concern for the upbringing of little Victoria and a fascination with John Conroy. There came other family ties as the years progressed: the Duchess’s brother, Leopold, married my favourite Georgian princess, Charlotte of Wales. As you will know if you read my blog, I am completely smitten by handsome Leopold, so naturally I also take an interest in his sister! I came across Victoria of Kent yet again when looking into the life of Queen Adelaide. As the Duchess’s daughter was to succeed Adelaide’s husband, the two often came into close contact. Poor Adelaide had to smooth the way on many occasions between William IV and the Duchess.
These disagreements with the King hint to Victoria of Kent’s character. She was proud, controlling and shrewd. She has an infamous reputation as the ultimate pushy mother who wanted to rule through her daughter. But actually, she was a woman left in very difficult circumstances who fought for the rights of her daughter. I think it would be amazing to explore the real woman behind this dark legend. Even more thrilling would be the chance to see and write about Victoria through her eyes. So I am adding Duchess Victoria of Kent to the Hanoverian Series. This will ensure I cover the dynasty from beginning to end (although Edward VII did have Hanoverian blood, and certainly the eyes, he was officially of the house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha because of his father). The book will be all the more interesting because it will start in the reign of George III and progress all the way to the beginning of the Victorian age. Quiet a fitting way, I think, to tie up the story. There are other novels to work on first, but I have to confess – I can’t wait to begin this one!
It’s always a pleasure to read new fiction set in the Georgian era, but that delight is intensified when the story is written by a captivating new author like Martine Bailey. I was lucky enough to get chatting to Martine on Goodreads, where she told me about her upcoming Georgian release. As you can imagine, my ears perked up and I dashed to the launch party! Since this blog is the haven of Georgian historical fiction, I’d like to share my thoughts on Martine’s wonderful book, which I have just finished reading.
I have to admit that if left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have picked An Appetite for Violets off the shelf. The cover and the title struck me as a bit girly to start with – I couldn’t have been more wrong! This is not a twee tale of flowers and baking, but a dark mystery that explores the underbelly of Georgian life. Venereal disease, unwed mothers, a cursed jewel, slavery and poison all feature in this rich adventure across 18th century Europe.
Our heroine is Biddy Leigh, a straight-forward but kind-hearted undercook at the old estate of Mawton Hall. At the beginning of the story, Biddy’s life seems simple. She is planning to marry a local lad and save for a tavern of her own. But when the master of Mawton Hall takes a new wife, a rich young woman descends on Biddy’s world and changes it forever. Biddy’s good heart and ambition draw her deeper into her mistress’s life, until she is forced to leave all she knows behind. Stuck abroad with a secretive employer and increasingly shifty fellow-servants, she must use all her wits before she is entrapped.
Biddy has to be one of my favourite heroines to appear for a long time. Whilst hard-working and generous, she has a sharp tongue and will not be taken for a fool. She felt very realistic to me – in almost every situation, she acted as a normal person would do. Moreover, I found her a convincing representation of a rural eighteenth-century servant; keen to advance, loyal, gently mocking of the rich folk whilst envying their possessions. But the real triumph of Biddy has to be her language. As you know from my previous posts, I often struggle when historical authors use outdated words. Sometimes it seems they are just chucking them in to sound clever, or it distracts from the meaning of the sentence. Not so with Martine Bailey. Every Georgian slang word Biddy uses is clearly expressed, and is often used to marvelous comic effect. I have never seen language so lightly and skillfully interwoven into a historical character.
There are other voices in the narrative: that of Loveday, a slave forced to work as a footman; Mr Pars, whose correspondence Loveday reads to us and most importantly, the recipe book The Cook’s Jewel. I liked the touch of letters telling part of the story; it reminded me of the eighteenth-century epistolary novels. And while I am no cook, I found the old recipes intriguing. You do not have to be a foodie to love this book (although you will adore it if you are one!). Bailey’s descriptions and Biddy’s enthusiasm soon give you an appetite for a fascinating culinary world.
Loveday’s character is excellent and again, his speech is convincing. He speaks imperfect English, but it is never hard or jarring to read. Bailey has clearly done her research on the island and culture Loveday would have come from, giving a wonderful glimpse into the man behind the slave. Through his foreign eyes we see oddities of eighteenth-century culture that Biddy would not remark upon as strange. We also root for him on his quest to discover the man he once was. But along the way, Loveday manages to discover one or two other things that thicken the plot . . .
It is very hard to find a genre for An Appetite for Violets. It is a historical novel with mystery, crime, romance, comedy and gothic elements. Whilst parts of the story are dark, the book has an overall cheerful feel to it. It is easy to read and never feels cumbersome. I suppose at the end of the day, it is like one of Biddy’s recipes. There are many ingredients, some of which you would hesitate to blend together, but when all is mixed and cooked, the finished dish is a triumph.