maria fitzherbert

The Secret Wife of George IV

Book Cover

I realised it was unforgivable, in a blog about Georgian historical fiction, not to provide reviews for the novels I read set in this period. So from now on, I’m going to include occasional posts about other books to stop you getting bored with mine!

I’ve recently finished reading Diane Haeger’s The Secret Wife of George IV. I must admit, I’d been putting off reading this for a while, because I didn’t want to be influenced by another work when writing my own story about Maria Fitzherbert. So when a rough draft of A Forbidden Crown was complete, I decided I’d give it a try. But then, two fears crept up on me. Firstly, what if I hated it? There’s nothing more annoying than reading a book where the time period and characters you love are gradually destroyed. What’s more, if I did hate it and then reviewed it, I’d be suspected of trying to take down the competition maliciously. But the second fear was even worse – what if I adored it? What if it was the best story in the world about Maria, said everything I wanted to say, was far better than anything I could ever do and made me want to rip A Forbidden Crown into teeny tiny shreds?

Happily, I fell in between these two extremes. I found Haeger’s work to be a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, sprinkled with delightful period detail. However, her interpretations of Maria and George are rather different from mine and the focus of her story is romance. This means A Forbidden Crown still has something new to say about the characters – hooray! Naturally, I’m hard to please when it comes to interpretations of the Hanoverian dynasty. For fairness, I’m going to split my review into one of a reader’s perspective and one of a historian’s. The historical review will have spoilers!

As a Reader

I’ve never read stories by Diane Haeger before, but I’ll certainly download some more. The writing style draws you in right from the start. Haeger is gifted at painting characters and descriptions. There were many scenes where I felt I was really there with the characters in Almack’s or on the sea front.

In this tragic love story, she does a magnificent job of handling emotions, capturing perfectly the despair and desire felt by the couple. There were times when I felt the romance was perhaps a little overblown – lots of “You are my soul”. However, this is a romance novel, and if anyone was over the top in protestations of love, it was George IV.

The novel uses multiple points of view, which gave a good insight into the world outside of the couple’s bubble and took a look at interesting figures such as Charles James Fox. Although I didn’t mind switching viewpoint in general, I did get frustrated when it happened within the same scene. Haeger “head-hops” between characters quite a bit. I got confused when I walked into a room with Maria, found out what Fox and Georgiana thought about her, then left the scene in George’s head. Some readers might not mind this but it spoiled my enjoyment a little.

In the main, there’s lot of action. However, I did find the last few years were rushed through, with lots more telling than showing. Having said that, the end strikes just the right note and is packed with emotion, despite a few “listing” chapters leading up to it.

I would certainly recommend this book to others.

As a Historian

There’s no doubt that George IV is treated harshly by fiction and history alike. It was refreshing to read something sympathetic to his predicament – but I have to say, I found Haeger’s approach rather too sympathetic.

Characters refer to the prince as “wild” and a drunk, and on his death-bed he mourns his “petty selfishness”, yet we never see any of it. All we see are noble actions. He talks of his demons, but they don’t seem to haunt him. He finds it astonishingly easy to give up alcohol with no backsliding and only lies to protect people. I feel we need to see George’s bad side for a fair assessment. My fascination for the man stems from his contradictions; at the same time he was a rash fool, he was also a lovely and kind man. He was petulant, childish and selfish; loving, devoted and charitable. To fully understand Maria’s difficulty in this relationship, I needed to see more of this contrast. As it was, I felt George was an utter victim and had never done a bad thing in his life. One of the great stage-moments of his wooing/bullying Maria into marrying him was an attempted suicide – Haeger leaves this out completely.

Haeger’s theory has George taking up with his mistress Lady Jersey under duress, caring nothing for her, and marrying Caroline of Brunswick to save Maria from hideous gossip. Jersey is his “foil”, used to fool Maria into believing he has gone back to his old ways and make her angry enough to leave him. Personally, I don’t buy this. George was besotted with Lady Jersey and endured the hatred of the nation for her sake. He also used her to taunt Caroline. No mention is made of George marrying Caroline for money, as he certainly did. The choice of bride is also foisted on George III. In fact, the bridegroom suggested Caroline himself. George III was not usually in favour of cousins marrying.

George’s debt is imputed to the King being stingy, rather than his own carelessness. In truth, it was a mixture of both, but it sat ill with me to read of George ordering staff to sell all his luxury items and “see the profit divided equally between my staff and their families for the money they are owed.” – George was notorious for never paying staff. However, this novel has him determined to pay his devoted servants “even if he had to sell every last stick of furniture and precious art in Carlton House”. I don’t think so. The other miracle is that George never seems to get fat. In his old age, we have one scene of him on the porky side, but he’s still described as muscular and handsome at periods when he weighed at least 17 stone.

It saddened me that the complex relationship between George and his parents was only just touched on. George III was made out to be a monster; we only saw him and Charlotte twice throughout the whole book. What’s more, the Regency crisis – perhaps the most important incident in any story about George IV – was reduced to one argument with the Queen. George wasn’t shown taking advantage of his father, hungering after power or trying to organise the next government.. He made a brief trip down to London and only wanted to be King so he could make Maria Queen.

Other characters were strangely skewed, too. Maria’s great friend Lady Anne Lindsay hardly features, but when she does it is to inform the lovestruck George where Maria is travelling in France. Lady Anne was against the marriage and although she did help George in the end, it was very reluctantly, not at all in an attempt to trap Maria as it seems to be here. Maria’s companion Belle Pigot becomes a sort of foster-mother for George, a person he was apparently closer to than the Queen, but I’ve never come across anything like this in the history books. Then there was Captain Jack Payne – somehow transmuted here into a butler called Jacko Payne. Why? Maria’s butler was Whale. There was no obvious reason for these changes. I did feel, however, that Lord and Lady Seymour were drawn well, and also Lady Sefton. These characters had traits I had read about in the past and made for a richer story.

Maria was well interpreted and I was pleased Haeger had included her temper and her pride – characteristics that are often overlooked. I found her a likeable character, but hard to understand towards the end. Her ambition was left out, I believe in an attempt to heighten the disinterested romance.  I laughed aloud when she cried “I do not want his wretched money!” – since Maria spent many years trying to get her allowance paid by George. Maria’s longing for a child is well described, although she seems to mistakenly think the laws of England could not take a bastard by George away from her.

The main problem with Maria’s character in this portrayal arises over the Lady Hertford issue. Again protecting George from any possible slur on his character, Haeger has him flirt with Lady Hertford only to keep her sweet and let Maria look after Minney Seymour. I could potentially believe this (although he later clearly chose Lady Hertford over Maria) and it might have worked for the story, if not for one thing: in this book, he explains his actions to Maria. When she challenges him about Lady Hertford, he confesses it is a deception to make sure she can retain custody of Minney. Given these circumstances, it is almost incomprehensible why Maria leaves him for the last time. It seems whimsical. When it’s clear she loves him so much, it’s hard to believe something he is doing for her could cause them to split.

Haeger also explores Maria’s admirers outside of the royal circle, which I was glad of, for she was a woman much in demand. I think history tends to see her like the caricatures – dull, fat and old – when in truth she was quite the toast of society. I had heard the Duke of Bedford loved Maria, but I feel a little too much was made of it in this story. Not only does the Duke follow her to France, he later sleeps with her and takes her to St. James’s Palace on the day of George’s wedding. In fact, Maria was at Marble Hill and refused to believe the messenger who told her George had gone through with the ceremony. I also don’t think she’d ever sleep with someone outside of marriage, let alone the Duke.

From a research point of view, there were little inaccuracies peppered throughout. One that glared at me was the mention of a vase, which apparently George’s “grandfather had given to him personally shortly before his own death.” Both George’s grandfathers were long dead before his parents were even married. I nearly blew a gasket when Sheridan was described as Scottish.  And then the beach at Brighton was described as sandy, when it’s shingle or pebble. These things are perhaps fussy, but they bothered me. A turn of phrase upset me as well. Maria was making up her mind up to something and thought “That’s it. Period.” Not only is this far too modern a phrase for the eighteenth-century mind, but it’s an American word. If Maria thought that, she would have thought “Full stop”. Yes, it’s petty, but these are the kinds of things my critique group would pick up in a first reading. I just wonder how they made it through.

In summary, I would say the history and characters of Maria and George are recognisable but not entirely accurate in this portrayal. Many concessions have been made to make a better romance. I would recommend this book as a good read and something for people who already know the history. It gives a lovely flavour of the period but, I feel, an idealised view of the people who lived through it.

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Prinny’s Women

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As Prince of Wales, Prince Regent and finally King George IV, one thing was certain: George Augustus Frederick liked his women. Thanks to Cruikshank’s caricatures and popular legend, we have the image of lecherous, womanizing prince embedded in our minds.  But just how many women was George – how shall we put it – intimately acquainted with? And how on earth did he avoid contracting a venereal disease with his track record?

In biographies of George, you will come across the ladies I call the big five: official mistresses who made it into the history books. Here is a summary.

Mary Robinson

1) Mary Robinson. An actress, unhappily married, who caught George’s attention playing the role of Perdita in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. His wild love letters to her were signed in the name of the role’s hero, Florizel. A romantic and slightly vain young lady, Mary always cherished her connection with the prince and kept his portrait into old age. But more than George himself – who she only managed to meet on a few, short, breathless occasions –  Mary relished the style in which he set her up. She was shrewd and managed to make the prince come good on his promises when he finally tired of her. Her imprint on the history of George IV is mainly financial – he had to ask his father for help when he realised how much he had promised her, and she received a considerable annuity from the royal coffers for her brief “services”. There’s a lot more to Mary than her affair with the prince, however, and I would highly recommend Paula Byrne’s biography of her. In historical fiction, she has appeared in Jean Plaidy’s Perdita’s Prince and I understand Freda Lightfoot’s next book will be about her.

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2) Maria Fitzherbert. I – and Maria herself – would debate the term “mistress” when it came to her relationship with George. He married her before a priest, although the ceremony was considered null and void in law due to the Royal Marriages Act. George could not marry without the permission of his father or parliament – permission which would never be granted, because the woman of his choice was Catholic. As I covered in my previous post, there were many reasons the English were adverse to Catholics near the throne, but the main obstacle in George’s case was that  marriage to a person of this religion excluded him from inheriting the throne. As such, he conveniently “forgot” this marriage when it suited him. However, the Catholic church and even the Pope himself declared the union to be binding, which explains why poor Maria continually returned to George when he summoned her, despite much provocation.  I don’t want to give away too much here because Maria is a heroine in A Forbidden Crown, but here is an old post about her from my early research. Two great biographies, each with a different approach to this complicated woman, were particularly helpful: one by James Munson and one by Valerie Irvine.

lady jersey

3) Lady Jersey As a rival to both Mrs Fitzherbert and Queen Caroline, Lady Jersey is the villain of my piece. The actual woman wasn’t all bad, but she certainly wasn’t someone I’d pick as a friend. She was famously described as a serpent, a lady who was not happy unless she had a rival to torment. Married to an older but fashionable peer, she was already a grandmother by the time she took up with George. Her influence over him was a key factor in breaking up his relationship with Mrs Fitzherbert (the first time round!) and she made Caroline’s early married life a misery. It is often said that Lady Jersey persuaded George to marry Caroline, having picked her out on purpose as a wife he would hate. Supposedly, she thought animosity towards his wife would secure her position as mistress. However, we don’t have any proof of this, or the other allegation that she helped smuggle copies of Caroline’s incriminating letters to the Queen. Whatever this fashionable beauty’s sins, she was amply punished by the hatred of the common people, who took the side of their princess. A good blog post (not mine!) on Lady Jersey can be found here.

Lady Hertford

4) Lady Hertford A haughty Tory matriarch, not much to look at, Lady Hertford seemed an unlikely match for George. But his devotion to her was undoubted, driving him to fits of tears and days locked up in his room refusing to eat when she initially rejected his advances. It has been argued that Lady Hertford probably didn’t play a sexual role in George’s life – she and her family were there as bosom buddies and companions. Whether she granted the “last favours” or not, Lady Hertford must have persuaded George she returned his love, even if her marriage prevented her acting upon it. Either way, George was obsessed with the family and unhappy when out of their company. Rather cruelly, Lady Hertford used Maria to cover her reputation, making sure she was present when they met so no gossip got out. But Maria was there under duress: Lady Hertford had it in her power to take away her adopted daughter – a thing which Maria would do anything to prevent. However, George’s continual mania for the Hertfords did eventually lead to his second and final break with his patient Catholic wife.

Lady Conyngham

5) Lady Conyngham George’s last mistress made no secret of her motives – at least not to her friends. She was in it for the power and the money. As George’s health deteriorated, she found herself bored with him and is recorded as departing Windsor after his death with “wagon-loads of treasure”. However, she has often been underestimated by historians. Though she came from what was regarded a “low” background at the time, she was by no means stupid and actively pushed George towards Catholic Emancipation. George was not her first lover, but he was certainly her greatest triumph. With her ambitious husband, she managed to see many dreams come true for the family and their children thanks to her “services”. However, accounts of her time with George are tinged with sadness. We hear of him constantly kissing her, staring at her dewy-eyed all through his Coronation and other such foolish marks of devotion. He was besotted, but she was clearly indifferent.  Perhaps he deserved such treatment after all the women he had disappointed over the years, but I do feel sorry for the elderly, doting George.

Although these five were the main influences in George’s life, there are countless others. He reputedly seduced one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting, attempted to start an affair with his sisters’ subgoverness (she was far too sensible to say yes), had two affairs with Elizabeth Armistead, who was later to marry his friend Charles Fox, and nearly broke up the marriage of a foreign ambassador. Amongst his female friends, he attempted but failed to take up with the Duchess of Devonshire, her sister and Madame de Lieven in turn. He was married to Caroline and although he hated her, clearly slept with her at least once to produce his heir Princess Charlotte. In my notes I have so many names of women he dallied with: Lady Bamfylde, Mrs Clare, Lady Melbourne, Mrs Johnstone, Mrs Crouch, Lady Archer, Miss Paget, Harriet Wilson, Mrs Crole, Mrs Davies, Grace Dalrymple Eliot.

It would appear, on paper, that George was a heartless seducer. The strange thing was, he genuinely believed himself desperately in love each time over. He had frenzies over women, falling dangerously ill with despair if he couldn’t get his way. He would weep copious tears and promise them the world. With such a strange and self-destructive compulsion, his life was ultimately a very lonely one. For all the women who had been happy to take his money, none were by his death-bed; only his faithful first wife, Maria, had written to him and her letter remained under his pillow. It has been suggested that George had mother issues, which led to his preference for managing, older women. While his relationship with Queen Charlotte wasn’t easy, I don’t feel it can adequately explain his behaviour, and I will discuss this fully in a later post. But isn’t it sad to think that a young man who started out so handsome and with so much promise ended alone, discarded, having alienated all the women who had ever given him a piece of their heart? He wanted to be loved so desperately – yet he betrayed that love when he got it.  He was, indeed, a complicated man to involve yourself with!

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“A Catholic Whore”

Maria

You’ve got to feel sorry for Maria Fitzherbert. Despite her efforts to live a respectful life and protect her all-important public image, she came in for a large amount of bashing from the press. Why, you might ask, were the artists so keen to mock in caricature a woman who encouraged the Prince of Wales to drink less and retrench to Brighton? And why was her being Catholic so vitally important?

Unfortunately, Maria’s Catholicism wasn’t just a difference of religious belief. If it had been, she and George IV would have coped well. Maria’s beliefs were not the sort she felt she had to preach, or convert others to. She was content to live and let live. The problem was, history had set her – and her “kind” – up as a dangerous enemy to England, and more pertinently, to the crown.

It all started with James II and what we English then termed the “Glorious Revolution”. After fathering two Protestant girls, James married again and became more pronounced in his Catholicism. This led to the English nation deciding to depose him from the throne, and ban his Catholic son from inheriting. (Stuart fans, please forgive this simplistic summary. My Stuart knowledge has a way to go yet!)

Catholicism was, in a nutshell, why the Hanoverians inherited the crown. Their adherence to the Protestant religion was the only thing that marked them apart from various other claimants. Without it, they would be toppled – there were plenty of Catholics with a better blood-claim to the throne.  The law became so stringent that it not only barred a Catholic from inheriting the throne, but anyone married to Catholic. It was typical, really, that the contrary George IV should find his only true love in a woman of this religion!

For the Great British public, Catholics were the enemy. Not only were many of the countries they had fought in previous wars Catholic, but there had been blood shed on their own shores in the name of that religion. Violent attempts to get the Stuarts back on the throne in 1715 and 1745 led to massacres such as Culloden. Englishmen loyal to their King and country began to see Catholics as wannabe “kingmakers” and resented the supposed authority of the Pope to depose monarchs. In short, they were branded trouble-makers.

It was hardly true. In 1780, it was actually the Anglicans – or those claiming to be Anglican and looking for an excuse for a fight – who caused the mayhem, when Lord Gordon headed a protest against a bill to grant the Catholics some concessions. This bill was motivated by practicality, rather than religious freedom. The government needed more troops and were keen to recruit Catholic Highlanders. To help them do so, they proposed a few sweeteners: they would grant Catholics the right to buy and inherit land and  they would waive the sentence of life imprisonment for being a Catholic bishop or priest, providing the Catholics were willing to take an oath of loyalty that renounced the Stuart claim and said the Pope could not depose sovereigns. Maria’s then-husband, Thomas Fitzherbert, was a strong supporter of the bill.  Sadly, the public were not.

Newgate in Flames

Gordon’s rioters, fierce in their blue cockades, tore London apart. They gutted chapels, burnt down the houses of well-known Catholics, set the prisoners free from Newgate and chalked No Popery on doors. In this chaos Thomas Fitzherbert ventured out to check on his property. I have imagined what Maria would feel in my little practice chapter here and hinted at the illness that overtook him shortly after. Some historians actually claim Thomas was killed as a direct result of injuries sustained in the Gordon Riots. This doesn’t seem to be true, but it certainly was the beginning of the end for poor Tom.

In researching Maria, I’ve made some discoveries about the challenges Catholics faced at the time. While I don’t claim to be an expert on this particular topic, here are some interesting tit-bits I’ve found:

  • Penal Laws prevented  a Catholic from being a Justice of the Peace, Lord Lieutenant or Sheriff. As these offices were usually held by people of high standing in the locally society, it would be a significant snub to Catholic squires.
  • Catholics could not become officers in the county militia or take a seat in the house of Lords. They could not get a degree from Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity or Dublin. Rather a blow to the prospects of any young man!
  • Catholics could not act as guardians, executors or suitors in any court of law. They could not inherit or purchase property. Talk about injustice!
  • They could send their children abroad to be educated in their faith but they had to get a special licence.
  • A Catholic could not own arms, ammunition or a horse exceeding the value of £5
  • Catholics had to pay special taxes
  • Mass was illegal. Maria and her family would have been careful to refer to it as “prayers” or “high prayers”. They would also make sure they referred to the Pope as “our chief Bishop”. Similarly, there was no way they would dare call a priest “Father”. The priest would need to wear non-distinct clothing and be referred to as “Mr.”
  • If a Catholic couple wanted to marry, they would need to have an Anglican service. They could have a private Catholic one, but they would then need to have a second, public, Anglican ceremony. Failure to do so could result in a sentence of 14 years transportation! As both the Catholic and the Anglican ceremonies were valid in Catholic teaching, most just opted for the Anglican.

As you can see, life as a Catholic wasn’t easy! It’s no wonder that Maria grew up with such a sense of identity and belonging that was linked to her religion. Her parents had secret masses said in their manor and even set up a house in the village as a secret chapel. They would sneak priests in and allow all the local Catholics to come and hear the contraband service. Her great-grandfather was a baronet (and I believe I read somewhere this was conferred on him by Charles II for his loyalty to the Catholic Charles I) and her second husband Thomas was descended from Throckmorton blood. Those of you familiar with Tudor history may remember Throckmorton’s support of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. One of Maria’s uncles joined a committee to protect the interests of Catholics and appeal for the right to build churches and live in the cities of Westminster and London (yes, Catholics couldn’t even live in the cities of Westminster and London at one point) The religion was in her family, in her blood.

Is it any surprise that Maria refused to cast this heritage aside for the love of a man? She had a great sense of her own self-worth and would never betray who she was. I admire her the more for refusing to give up her history for a chance of glory as the Prince’s wife. It is too often the way with historians to represent Maria as deeply pious – they forget her adhesion to her faith had more to do with identity than theological differences.

"What's a fellow to do about these darned Catholics?"
“What’s a fellow to do about these darned Catholics?”

As for George IV, his opinions towards Catholicism underwent stupendous changes. At one time quoted as saying Catholicism “was the only religion for a gentleman”, he progressed to wary indifference and finally antagonism. As Regent, he refused to discuss Catholic emancipation, and with good reason. His father, George III, was vehemently against it, and after all, he was only ruling in his father’s name. When the time came for him to rule in his own right as George IV, his feelings altered again. Once he had made the coronation oath, he began to feel the same way as his father: granting the Catholics freedom would be going directly against the vow he had made to uphold the Protestant religion before God.  Part of me also feels that, even after all this time, he was still secretly seeking the approval of his deceased parent, which he hardly ever gained in life.

But George IV did finally sign the Catholic Relief Bill in 1829, a year before his death. He was reluctant to let it pass, to say the least. He became violently ill and desperate in trying to stop it – some also suggest this huge upset hastened his death. But George IV knew when he was beaten by public opinion, and took the brave step of signing despite his own feelings. He was able to put his own opinions aside for the good of the nation – a step his proud, stubborn father would never have been able to do. This was a great leap towards religious freedom in Britain and one for which, I’m sure, Maria would have been proud of him.

 

Brighton

I’m very lucky to be within reach of many places featured in my novels. Only recently I found out that Henrietta Howard spent time living at Blickling Hall and Audley End – both places I visited and enjoyed without even knowing! In preparation for A Forbidden Crown, Brighton was a key place to visit. It’s a very different place now to the resort that Maria, Caroline and Charlotte knew, but somehow just being there helped me to get a feel for their lives. Of course, the building at the centre of my research was that famous “monstrosity”: The Royal Pavilion.

In A Forbidden Crown, the Pavilion serves as a symbol for Maria’s relationship with George IV. It goes from being a simple farmhouse to an elegant Marine Pavilion under her watch. But by the time it becomes an exotic, sprawling folly, both the building and the Prince have grown far past her recognition. In fiction, I’m taking the view that most contemporaries shared: it was over-the-top and gaudy. But I must admit, on a personal level, that I rather like it!

You have to use your imagination as you walk through the small remnant of the gardens, towards the towering domes. A busy road and a pavement would not be running right alongside – there was a drive and a little wilderness before you reached the Steine. There probably wouldn’t have been so many tall buildings blocking your view of the sea. The modern-day care-takers of the Pavilion have given you a wonderful feel of what the gardens may have been like: bright flowers, palm trees and exotic plants, all taken from contemporary accounts. A lovely place to walk on a sunny day – but, as I was there in November and the wind was pretty high, we hurried inside.

Of all my heroines, only Princess Charlotte would have experienced the interior of the Pavilion in its current state. She rather dreaded visits to her father and, as luck would have it, the building works with me to create an unsettling atmosphere. In A Forbidden Crown, Charlotte will walk down the corridors, uneasy to see the dark faces of the Chinese figures watching her with sharp, wooden eyes. The roaring dragons and snakes entwining themselves round the furniture will make her think she is walking into a monster’s lair. She will feel, as I could not, the suffocating heat of the air, which her father tinged with the smell of burning incense and spices to give it an oriental flavour. Indeed, many ladies were frightened by the decoration, refusing to sit under the dragon chandelier. In the dark, it looked like the dragons really were breathing flames of fire, rather than supporting candles.

For me, of course, the place was far from frightening. Most rooms spoke of splendour and elegant parties. I understood that, if the place looked incredible to me, it must have been truly extraordinary for the lucky ladies and gentlemen of the period who got an invite. The painted bamboo and palm-trees were as close as many visitors would get to seeing the real things in their natural habitat. The Banqueting Room and the Music Room were works of art. In fact, George loved the decor of the music room so much that he wept when he first saw it. My audio-guide said the carpet was so thick and luxurious that people would sink into it. Whole teams of servants would have to scour the palace after each party, to clean off the melted wax and wine stains on the wall. Apparently, stale bread was good for cleaning walls and tea-leaves for cleaning carpets. Both the party and the clean-up operations must have been some sight!

There were also rooms with a simple kind of elegance – the type I imagine Maria approving of and Caroline hiding in during her first and only stay in Brighton.  Both of these ladies would have experienced a smaller and more restrained Pavilion, clad in glazed Hampshire tiles. The main room would have been the current saloon, which is undergoing work to return it to Regency glory. I lingered here a while, trying to absorb the feel of it. This was a room in which Maria would have stood, many a time. A room in which she was probably happy.  It would have had a plain, neo-classical look back then, when she laughed at the hi-jinks of her Prince and his companions. Going off either side would be rooms where she played cards, acted as hostess – and at last, was humiliated by George’s mistresses. I made a little trip to Maria’s house, close by, which is now a YMCA. I felt there the more calming, elegant influence she would have exuded over the Pavilion. Some say there is an underground tunnel from it to the Pavilion – I rather like that idea, but I think Maria would feel it beneath her dignity to be sneaking around underground like a rat in a sewer. Near Maria’s house, there is a hotel where William and Adelaide stayed on some visits. It was wonderful to picture them all, on their holidays by the sea, swarming around the hub of the Prince’s fantasy playground.

The main purpose of my visit was to see the exhibition on Princess Charlotte – “The Forgotten Princess”. It was smaller than I imagined, but I’m glad I saw it. Not only did I finally find the Maria Cosway painting of Caroline and Charlotte leaning against Britannia that I had read so much about, I saw some items that were, to a historical novelist, a bit like relics. Firstly, Charlotte’s baby shift. I could just see her chubby little arms filling up the sleeves, her constantly working legs kicking out beneath. Caroline would have hugged her daughter close, marvelling over the tiny cuffs and detailed stitching. She would probably have felt, at that time, that her daughter was the only thing she had to connect to in all of England. Perhaps she would also have experienced a stab of annoyance that she had not been able to order the baby clothes herself – it would have all been Queen Charlotte’s doing.

There was another baby shift on display, more poignant. The warm, squirming body that was to give it a purpose never breathed. It was part of the clothing set ordered for Charlotte and Leopold’s baby boy. He was stillborn. I remember reading that Charlotte ordered the baby clothes with great care, enjoying choosing patterns and materials. But when they arrived, she didn’t want to look at them. Fear of the birth, or perhaps a premonition of her own dark fate, had sapped her enjoyment from them. She folded the baby clothes and put them away. Did her hands fold the delicate, wispy material of that shift? I like to think so.

Lastly, la pièce de résistance: Charlotte’s wedding dress. They think the dress in its current form is the original wedding gown and three other court costumes cobbled together,  but the tampering didn’t really bother me. What bowled me over was the proportions of it. I’ve seen many paintings of Charlotte – the high, ample bosom, the short but pleasantly plump figure. I have to say, they were spot on. Suddenly she was there before me – about my height, pleasingly rounded. I could see her, adjusting her hair in the mirror, trying to calm her fluttering stomach. Whether the gown was entirely original or not, it was very beautiful. If only the happiness it promised could have lasted a little longer for poor old Charlotte.

If you are reading or writing about the Regency period, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the Pavilion. The Charlotte exhibition is on until the end of March 2013 so you have a few more months to catch it. It’s sad that we no longer have Carlton House to marvel at or Charlotte’s prison, Warwick House. At Brighton Pavilion, at least,  we can get a taste of George’s extraordinary decorations, and a feel for the royals who are now long gone.

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.