BOOK REVIEW: ‘Courtiers’

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COURTIERS: SPLENDOR AND INTRIGUE IN THE GEORGIAN COURT AT KENSINGTON PALACE
By Lucy Worsley
Walker, $30 432 pages, illustrated

Most people today think of London’s Kensington Palace as the residence of Diana, princess of Wales: the place where those masses of flowers symbolized the extraordinary outpouring of grief in reaction to her untimely death.

For much of the 20th century, the palace had been transformed into myriad apartments for minor members of the royal family, such as Prince Philip’s grandmother, leading Princess Margaret, who, like Charles and Diana, made her home in one of its grander parts, wittily to dub it the “Aunt Heap.” Before that it was chiefly known as the place where the youthful Princess Victoria grew up and where, one June morning in 1837, she came downstairs in her nightclothes to be told that she was now queen.

But as we learn in “Courtiers,” a sparkling piece of popular history that brings that venerable building to light, back in the late-17th and 18th centuries, it was the very hub of the British court. Its author, Lucy Worsley, curator of the organization that looks after Kensington Palace, not only naturally has a fund of knowledge about the palace but demonstrates throughout its pages a real feeling for the place, summoning up its atmosphere through myriad anecdotes and character portraits. And her writing can be pungent, evoking a scene far removed from most people’s idea of the formality of a royal court:

“In the eighteenth century, the palace’s most elegant assembly room was in fact a bloody battlefield. This was a world of skullduggery, politicking, wigs, and beauty spots, where fans whistled open like flick knives. Intrigue hissed through the crowd, and court factions were also known as ‘fuctions.’ Beneath their powder and perfume, the courtiers stank of sweat, insecurity and glittering ambition.”

The early and mid-18th centuries were the last time in English history that kings really mattered, politically and militarily. Although the accession of the German George I, who spoke no English, brought about the first prime minister, he and his son, who spoke English, albeit with a strong guttural accent, still wielded real power.

George II was in fact the last British sovereign to lead his country’s troops into actual battle. Having fought heroically in his youth at the Battle of Oudenarde before accompanying his father to England as Prince of Wales in 1714, he fought bravely at the head of his armies in 1744 at the Battle of Dettingen - when he was more than 60 years old. So those machinations at court by all and sundry were actual grabs at power.

Lest anyone think that the intrusion of all this realpolitik might make for dull stuff, they need have no fear. For this was a time when it was so important for the king to have mistresses that even as uxorious a man as George II, truly devoted to his extraordinary wife Queen Caroline, must have them, and there had to be a chief one at any given time, known by the grand title of “maitresse en titre.”

One of the many fascinating arcane revelations in this book is the way French was still the court language, with native German sovereigns on the British throne addressing one another not in their mother tongue or in English but in French on even the most intimate occasions. On the queen’s deathbed, she begged her husband to remarry, but his reply, choked out through sobs, was the phrase: “Non, j’aurai des maitresses. [No, I will have mistresses].”

It is the character of Caroline who stands out most boldly in “Courtiers.” Although born in the tiny German court of Ansbach, so obscure that it seemed most unlikely ever to produce a queen of England, she had nonetheless managed to get to know such luminaries of the Enlightenment as the great philosopher Leibniz, and was, according to Ms. Worsley, the most intellectually gifted consort of any British sovereign. More piquantly, she observes that “Caroline was a member of the last generation of women to live before a curtain was drawn over the female libido.” Who knew?

“Courtiers” goes far beyond the narrow world of royalty in its scope. It is a marvelous dipstick into 18th-century British society as a whole. If we rightly deplore our own age at the beginning of the 21st century as a coarse one with its explorations into the most intimate details of celebrities, what can we make of a time when the grossest details of the last illness and death of a beloved queen could be fodder for the finest poets of the time?

When the hapless Caroline was suffering a hideous protracted death from a ruptured intestine, made still worse by inept medical intervention, even the most disgusting details were picked up by none other than that greatest of 18th-century English poets, Alexander Pope:

“Here lies wrapt up in forty thousand towels/

The only proof that Caroline had bowels.”

It is unimaginable that one of today’s laureates could stoop so low as the acknowledged master of the heroic couplet did in penning something like this. Bad as things can get in our tabloid culture today, at least our greatest writers don’t contribute to it. And so, as Ms. Worsley guides us on her stunning romp through council chamber and bedroom, hallway and boudoir, we can not only take pleasure in learning about the past but can even feel a little better about the present.

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