Sunday, November 18, 2001

By James Munson
Carroll & Graf, $26, 414 pages, illus.

Before Wallis Simpson and Diana, Princess of Wales, there was Maria Fitzherbert. In 1785, she secretly married George, the young Prince of Wales, and like her 20th-century counterparts, she eventually found that marriage thrust her into unrelenting scrutiny by press and populace. For a time, Maria was able to dodge the worst of the attention. But soon she learned what she should have known all along, that there was simply no room at the palace for someone of her background Catholic and twice widowed (before the age of 29). Never mind that she was wealthy, gorgeous and had attitude to spare. The Royal Marriage Act and the Act of Succession forbade the union, and, some would argue, nullified it.
James Munson’s “Maria Fitzherbert: The Secret Wife of George IV” is part love story, part social history and a lavish, literary telling of one brave and likable woman’s tussled existence. The union between the prince and Mrs. Fitzherbert lasted almost 30 years and the openly secret marriage was a prominent part of British political life. The Regency England Mr. Munson portrays and in some ways indicts in this fascinating biography is vivid and vital, with that period’s shining stars making stunning, memorable appearances. We see and hear from William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox, his adversary in the House of Commons, and the playwright William Brinsley Sheridan.
Sheridan’s recorded observations on Mrs. Fitzherbert, his friend and some believe his lover, frame key moments in the woman’s life. And it is no wonder that her world became something of a living laboratory for his raucous play “The School for Scandal,” “one filled by Lady Teazle, the carefree wife, Charles Surface, the spendthrift and Sir Benjamin Backbite,the rumour monger.”
This was the world of the “ton,” and “one in which a gentleman was defined, [according to Lord Egremont] as ‘one who studies nothing but dress, address and the graces and who devotes his whole time to cards; who detests musty authors, and still more their musty rules. A perfect connoisseur in cosmetics and perfumes, and a complete master of the ceremonies at toilettes … ‘” For the prince this shallow existence spelled peril, or as Mr. Munson puts it so succinctly: “Part of the Prince’s problem was that he had nothing to do.”
Maria was a sturdier, more reliable sort but was cut from similar cloth. Mary Ann Smythe (she became Maria as a young woman), was the eldest of six children born to Catholic parents in Bramwell, Hampshire. Her early childhood was marked by the pleasures of visiting a beloved uncle in the countryside, away from the mother and father who, Marie noted in a letter in 1811”were always so censorious.” When she turned 13, her parents sent her to Paris to a convent school. At 18, she married a Catholic widower, Edward Weld of Lulworth Castle, Dorset, who was older than she was when they married but by 15 years, as Mr. Munson points out, not the mistaken 26 often cited.
The marriage did not last long. Weld seems to have died after a horseback riding accident, although Mr. Munson suggests there is no conclusive record of the cause of death. In any case his demise came just three months after the wedding. Three years later, Maria wed another wealthy, Catholic landowner, Thomas Fitzherbert of Staffordshire.
The young wife, now part of an established social set, enjoyed the parties and activity of her new life, but even that was to be short-lived once Thomas fell ill with tuberculosis and, despite her heroic efforts to nurse him back to health, died. Maria became a widow for the second time, on this round with an allowance of 1,000 pounds per year and a house in Park Street, London. There she spent a great deal of time with Lord and Lady Sefton, both of whom were active in Whig society.
At that time she abandoned her “earlier natural look and followed the hair style set by the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. This required ladies to use powder, pomatum, and ‘a large triangular thing called a cushion’, that is, wire and false hair to build a mountain sometimes rearing up three feet. As Mary Frampton, [a neighbor from Maria’s Dorset days] noted, ‘the higher the pyramid of hair, gauze, feathers, and other ornaments was carried the more fashionable it was thought.’ These could include bird cages, ornaments made of blown glass, feathers (which sometimes caught fire if taken too near a chandelier) … Once a week the poor suffering female had to open up the structure to exterminate the accumulated vermin.”
In 1784 Mrs. Fitzherbert met the prince and he would prove to be an ardent, if slightly unhinged suitor. The prince “showered her with jewels and in May commissioned Gainsborough to paint his new love.” Maria resisted the prince’s advances, knowing full well that given her background they could never marry. But he persisted, staging an elaborate display of a suicide attempt including the sight of blood and urging that the only thing that would save his life was her hand in marriage. She agreed, but then being wholly spooked by his performance, drew up a document withdrawing her promise to marry him, declaring the union null and void. The magnificent Georgiana helped in the writing of the document, and the two women quickly left for Paris, with Thomas Gainsborough’s painting half-finished.
“Prinny” went off to Brighton, and had some tantrums that alerted all of England and his father that he was besotted with the widow Fitzherbert. The king would not let the prince go to the continent to coax his beloved back to England. But after long letters and the passing of 28 months, Maria was persuaded to return to London.
On Dec.15, 1785, the couple married at her home, and after the honeymoon its location not known, according to Mr. Munson they found themselves the objects of intense gossip. They kept separate residences but partied heartily with other royals and, with the exception of the dandy Beau Brummel whom Maria disliked intensely, all seemed to go well.
But the prince indulged extravagance and soon his massive debts came to the attention of his father, George III, and the House of Commons. There the subject of the prince’s marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert was raised and Fox, then the head of the Whig party, denied that the couple were married. Maria was furious on two counts. First, she believed that she and the prince had decided that no public confirmation of their marriage should be made. But if one were to be made, surely it would not be in the form of a denial. Plaintively she said, according to Lord Wentworth, “He does not seem to have form’d any plan for me.”
Soon the money problems were settled, all seemed well and the pair set off for Brighton to run up fresh debts, furnishing the new Pavilion. This time the king declared that the debts, now around 375,000 pounds, would not be settled until the prince married a German princess. And on Apr. 8, 1795, the prince married Caroline of Brunswick, a woman whom he loathed.
Prinny became hysterical once more and Maria got word that the pope believed her to be the one true wife. She returned to the prince and they began entertaining together again, but once George III became mad and the Regency was declared, the prince dumped Maria. From 1820 on Mrs. Fitzherbert was out of the royal loop, but she received an annual stipend. She died in 1837 at he age of 81.
Maria Fitzherbert’s memory lives on and this well researched, lively book, will do a great deal to advance history’s appreciation of her. Readers will enjoy seeing its many evocative illustrations which include wickedly funny caricatures from the period.
But it is the secrecy element of Maria Fitzherbert’s story that will always intrigue was she, under law a wife or a mistress? In somewhat more recent times this very secrecy was proposed as a solution to a thorny problem within the monarchy. Mr. Munson reports that Winston Churchill introduced the topic of Maria’s 1785 marriage at a gathering that included Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, “perhaps as a half-serious solution to the King’s marital dilemma. The Duchess of York [now the Queen Mum] replied ‘That was a very long time ago!’”
But not too long ago to keep us guessing.

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