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There was once a young woman who married the Prince of Wales but discovered that there were three people in her marriage. Feeling neglected and unloved, the Princess of Wales found consolation elsewhere and throughout her marriage attracted a good deal of media attention becoming the people's favourite royal into the bargain. Sound familiar? Well, I'm not talking about the late Princess Diana but of the original 'People's Princess', Caroline of Brunswick.
This biography by Jane Robins is about the events leading up to and surrounding George IV's divorce action against Queen Caroline, a very public trial which not only divided the nation but led to a situation which many feared could cause a British revolution..
In 1794 at the age of 26, Princess Caroline of Brunswick became engaged to George, Prince of Wales. By all accounts Caroline was a plump, friendly sort of girl, some said too friendly. She certainly had the common touch and her informal attitude to the people and her special affection for children, immediately endeared her to all who came into contact with her, even if the gossip-mongers hinted that her morals were looser than was entirely proper for a would-be member of the British Royal Family. Gossip aside, plans went ahead for the wedding. Now there was one big stumbling block to this marriage being a success and that was a willing bridegroom. The engagement had taken place without gorgeous George, Prince of Wales and mega-egotist, even setting eyes on Caroline and maybe if he had, what followed wouldn't have been quite so entertaining for the public at large.
George may have become engaged to Caroline sight unseen but he had had the good sense to get one of his diplomats, Lord Malmesbury to give her the once over and write a report. That report stated that Caroline had a pretty face though she was 'not graceful' but had a good bust and 'was gay and cheerful with good sense'. Though he had omitted certain other facts, Lord Malmesbury duly sent off his report despite his own reservations and some offered by the Princess's own parents. Her mother described Caroline as 'open frank and unreserved', not the best qualities for a member of the Royal Family and her father claimed 'she lacks judgement'. And warnings weren't just issued on the Brunswick side as Caroline and her mother received an anonymous letter from England telling them to beware of George's current mistress, the formidable Lady Jersey. Nevertheless, Caroline, along with Lord Malmesbury set off hopefully for a new future in England.
Jane Robins recounts the details of Caroline's journey to England using mainly information from Lord Malmesbury's own diaries. On the journey, Lord Malmesbury was impressed by Caroline's courage when she didn't turn a hair knowing that the hostile French army was close by. He was less impressed by her attention to personal hygiene, however, and had to get a lady-in-waiting to explain that the Prince of Wales would expect a higher standard of cleanliness and tidiness than Caroline was demonstrating. When they eventually arrived in London, it was George's mistress, Lady Jersey who immediately took control having been made Lady of the Bedchamber. Sally Jersey had suggested Caroline as a wife for George in the first place and now she took every opportunity to present Caroline in a less than flattering light, encouraging her to apply too much rouge and wear a white satin gown which didn't enhance her figure and she also planned to ride in the same carriage facing forwards, thus demonstrating she was of equal status to the bride-to-be. That plan of action was scotched by Lord Malmesbury but it was clear that George's mistress was doing her utmost to create trouble between the royal couple even before they'd met.
Whatever else is said about George IV either before or after his accession to the throne, he may have changed from a reasonably handsome man into a fat lump of blubber but he was an intelligent man and also one of fastidious tastes. When he heard that Caroline had arrived, he eagerly rushed off to meet his bride. The only witness to the couple's first meeting was Lord Malmesbury who introduced George to Caroline. Malmesbury wrote in his diary that Caroline attempted to kneel before George but the Prince raised her up and embraced her. Then apparently, overcome by some strong emotion, George walked off to a distant part of the room and said 'I am not well. Pray get me a glass of brandy' before walking out and leaving the poor Princess alone. She was equally unimpressed with her Prince, telling Malmesbury 'I think he's very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait.'
As the wedding was set for three days hence, there was no chance for either party to pull out and the marriage went ahead and even from the wedding night it was clear this was going to be a stormy marriage, especially as George had to get blind drunk to fulfil his obligations and later confided to Malmesbury that he suspected he was not the first. George later told Malmesbury 'She turned my stomach and from that moment I made a vow never to touch her again.' Fortunately for George, on one of the three occasions when he managed to fulfil his marital duties, he also managed to impregnate Caroline.
Although she failed to impress her new husband, it didn't take long for Caroline to charm her father-in-law and the press who duly reported everything about her, though it didn't stop them from bemoaning the profligate ways of her husband. With the press on her side, Caroline was ready to do combat with her husband, especially when their daughter Charlotte was born and George demanded that Caroline have nothing to do with the child's care or education. As by now George was resolved to separate from his wife and eventually seek a divorce, the battle lines were drawn.
This is one of the most entertaining historical biographies I can ever remember reading. Despite her poor hygiene and lack of discretion, Caroline comes across as an engaging, warm-hearted and rambunctious woman and all my sympathies were with her. George, on the other hand, was an arrogant and egotistical spendthrift with little understanding of how ordinary people lived and even less desire to find out. He maliciously humiliated his discarded wife, treated her with disdain and definitely made every effort to blacken her name, rather like the behaviour of our current Prince of Wales. Who says history doesn't repeat itself?
The book is very well researched using lots of primary sources and contemporary texts to tell the story of this turbulent royal marriage. In fact, it's so gripping and so well told that it reads more like a gossip column from one of the red-top newspapers rather than a work of history. It's impossible for the reader not to take sides in the same way as did the population back then, who avidly lapped up all the latest news from the press. Caroline's supporters were drawn mainly from the lower and middle classes as well as from the media which reported many a 'leak' from the Royal household. The press, including the cartoonists of the day, were definitely not fans of George IV, frequently referring to him as 'The Prince of Whales' and always lampooning him both in print and in cartoon form. Caroline, in contrast, had the great pamphleteer William Cobbett fighting in her corner, a man who endeavoured to have the Queen's cause taken up 'by every cottage in the land'. With a few notable exceptions, however, the aristocracy were less inclined to support Caroline, probably because they valued their positions in Society rather more than they did the pursuit of justice.
Reading these events of two hundred years ago is very entertaining and in many ways the book reads like a novel, not least because the details were so scurrilously recorded at the time but were also highly comical. Jane Robins reports the facts about the marriage and the divorce case but she doesn't fail to get across the humanity of her subjects and she portrays both Caroline and to a lesser extent, George as real people despite their faults, of which both had many.
There are also several illustrations in the book (though possibly not enough) showing the major players in this Royal farce and though photography was some way in the future, many of the portraits are of a photographic quality which allows the reader to put a face to the name. In addition each chapter is prefaced with an illustration, mainly taken from pamphlets of the day and accompanied by a contemporary quotation.
The author provides numbered notes on the text but these are at the back of the book so don't interfere with the flow of the narrative and are generally confined to citing her sources. All the relevant information is included in the text without the necessity of adding to it. I personally find it very annoying when a history book is littered with footnotes. As well as these notes, there is also a detailed bibliography.
I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this book as a superb read and one which will appeal not only to history buffs but also to those who enjoy a good gossip. Jane Robins brings the doings of the Royal court of the early nineteenth century to life in an educational yet highly entertaining way, giving a blow-by-blow account of a failed marriage.
Publisher: Pocket Books; New edition edition (5 Mar 2007)
Biography dealing with the trial of Queen Caroline