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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