The title of my work in progress, “God save the King”, is intentionally ironic. For while the British nation poured out prayers and sung for the health of their male monarch, the heart of my book revolves around one who needed their support ten times more: the Queen.
Anyone who has lived with a person suffering from mental illness will have an idea of what I mean. You only have to read Fanny Burney’s diaries to see the heart-wrenching effect George’s “madness” had on his beloved wife. But to really understand Charlotte, you have to look far beyond this tragic episode to her youth, and then track it forward to her years labouring under her own disease: depression.
Queen Charlotte certainly did not expect to make the wonderful marriage she did. She was born and raised in the small duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which, reportedly, few Britons knew existed and even less could find. Although a Princess, she was hardly born to luxury. She lived for the main part like an English country gentlewoman, absorbed in her studies with very few fine gowns to her name. The Duchy was surrounded by war for most of her youth. Legend has it she wrote a begging letter to the warring monarchs for the sake of the poor inhabitants of her country, and it was this humanity that first drew the attention of King George III of England.
When she arrived in England for her marriage, Walpole described her as “gay”. We have records describing how her eyes “sparkled with good humour and vivacity.” Alas, it was not to last. Charlotte, a plain looking creature, was constantly compared to the King’s former favourite, the ravishing Sarah Lennox. Her mouth was too large, her fashions were foreign and it is clear that her English ladies, including her mother and sisters in laws, laughed at her. She bore it with bravery, but these first few years in England undoubtedly turned her into the “timid” person she is later described as. I don’t have space here to explain the many ways in which George III’s mother, Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, repressed and bullied the young Charlotte. Suffice to say, she made her disobey the instructions of her own mother, go against her conscience and pretty much banned anything Charlotte liked to do. She found little sympathy from her sisters in law.
It was about this time that Charlotte conceived her “fear” of politics, viewing it as something “akin to sin”. Her letters show she clearly retained an interest in the field but she was commanded to stay aloof from it by her husband. She was nothing if not an obedient, dutiful wife to her beloved George. For an interesting fictional account of Charlotte’s youth, I can recommend Jean Plaidy’s “The Third George”.
Of course “The Third George” and many other fictionalised accounts stop before that most interesting phase of Charlotte’s character: the transformation into the ice Queen. Perhaps authors feel she stops being sympathetic here, where she plunges into depression and lashes out at those around her. Or maybe they just don’t recognise the signs of her mental illness – it’s hardly surprising, as her contemporaries didn’t either. But if you track her life history it is all there: bouts of post-natal depression, staying strong for George, the ricocheting between an overly vivacious, affectionate temperament and an intense black mood in the space of a day. As a fellow sufferer of depression, I find this era the most fascinating.
It is poignant, as we fast forward to Charlotte’s death, to see that she returns to “herself” at last. As a formidable and brave woman, you would expect her to face the end with the same dignity as her daughter Amelia. But Charlotte seemed to realise, in her last days, just how mean and cruel her sadness had made her. She spent days weeping, repenting, wishing to be near the King she had avoided for years, wishing to see all the children she had alienated. She died like a human, not an angel, and this endears her to me all the more.
In my research, I have struggled to find a good biography of Charlotte. Any biographers out there, here is your gap in the market! I actually gleaned most of Charlotte’s life from biographies on her daughters or husband. Most books referring to her are from the 1800’s. Having typed this I’ve just discovered an old beaten copy of “Queen Charlotte” by Olwen Hedley from 1975, but this is the first time I have come across this book in the two years I have been researching, so that shows you how rare it is *purchases*. So why the neglect? Admittedly, Queen Charlotte’s depression isn’t fully of zany, semi-humorous episodes like her husband’s “madness”, but it is an interesting story.
“The Madness of George III” (which I am going to see in two weeks!) is a brilliant play and one I will review after attending. But I really feel people watch this masterpiece and think they have got the full story. They haven’t: the play focuses on the men. Of course it does; this is where the main struggle for power, the typically “interesting” stuff happens. Bennett has touched on Charlotte’s plight and done it well, but in a play he has not had time to elaborate fully. Moreover, I find people end up believing George got better for good and lived Happily Ever After with Charlotte. I wish it was so, but it wasn’t. If you want to find out what really happened after, you will have to read “God save the King”.