- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 23, 2005


By Flora Fraser

Knopf, $30, 496 pages, illus.


Flora Fraser admits in the introduction to “Princesses” that when she told friends she was researching the six daughters of the mad King George III they were less than intrigued. After all, only three of the six princesses ever married, none of the marriages created any dynastic consequences, and all the princesses died in relative obscurity. What kind of material could fill a whole book?

A lot it turns out. Using the hundreds of letters the princesses left behind, Ms. Fraser investigates the sad and (occasionally) scandal-filled world of the women most affected by the king’s illness. Her portrayal of the privileged, yet pathetic princesses is at times devastating. During his brief bouts of sanity, the king married his sons off to a flock of foreign princesses, but he kept his daughters (Princesses Charlotte, Augusta, Elizabeth, Sophia, Mary and Amelia, in age order) under his thumb at home.

The king believed his sisters’ marriage choices to have been disastrous, so he concluded his overprotectiveness was an act of fatherly love. So in 1772 he successfully urged the passage of the Royal Marriages Act that forbade any of his daughters to wed without his consent before they turned 25. After that they had to get the permission of parliament. Over the years, the king rejected dozens of proposals until the girls became what their niece Princess Charlotte termed “a parcel of old maids.” “We go on vegetating as we have done for the last twenty years of our lives,” Princess Elizabeth wrote in 1808 when she was 38.

The king experienced his first descent into madness when two of his sons died. Prince Alfred went first in 1782 and the king declared that if it had been his beloved son, three-year-old Octavius instead, “he would have died too.” Just a year later Octavius followed Alfred to the grave. “The king was at least as cast down by [Octavius’s] death … as he was by the negotiations that … would accord the American rebels full independence and establish an American republic,” Ms. Fraser writes.

Afterwards he started insisting that Octavius was still alive and his other six sons were dead. One of the king’s most frequent symptoms was to talk nonstop for days to imaginary subjects in his court until “the veins in his face were swelled” and “his eyes could compare to nothing except black currant jelly,” the queen once told an assistant.

Several times he had to be bound in a straitjacket after howling like a dog. At one point he told his daughters that he had lately been reading “King Lear.” The girls were so horrified about the symbolic possibilities they couldn’t think of anything to say. Luckily, he later clarified that “in some respects he was not like [Lear]; he had no Goneril, nor Regan, but only three Cordelias.”

The three oldest princesses at least had the benefit of their devoted mother, Queen Charlotte, who saw to it that they received first-rate educations. The queen doted on the intellectual development of Princesses Charlotte, Augusta, and Elizabeth, for whom she summoned the best teachers of literature, languages, religion, art, music, and ancient history. She even called in the great actress Sarah Siddons, who gave them lessons in dramatic enunciation.

But as the king became sicker, the queen fell into depression and, while she watched her daughters closely and also began to intervene in their marriage proposals, she ceased to devote herself to their intellectual pursuits. “I pity my three younger daughters whose educations I can no longer tend to,” she wrote. “Our time passes, if not joyously, at least reasonably.”

Making matters worse, the king began insulting the queen, telling her that she, not he, frightened the children. Meanwhile the princesses remained determined to marry and “quit that vile class,” as one wrote. Princess Sophia described herself and her unmarried sisters as tabby cats. “I wonder why you do not vote for putting us in a sack and drowning us in the Thames,” she wrote to her brother, the prince of Wales.

Most desperate was poor Princess Elizabeth, who, as she aged, became increasingly eccentric. She began breeding cattle and Chinese pigs and put pieces of friends’ wedding cakes under her pillow in hopes that a prince would whisk her away. “How I long to be married, married before my beauty decays,” she wrote. Finally at 48, Queen Charlotte, although she cried bitterly, conceded that Elizabeth was old enough to know her own mind and allowed her to marry Frederick of Hesse-Homberg.

At 30, Princess Charlotte, known to her family simply as “Royal” was allowed to accept a proposal from Prince Frederick of Wrttemberg, a man so obese a piece of his whist table had to be cut out to accommodate his gut. All accounts suggest the marriage wasn’t a happy one. Rumors circulated that the prince physically abused Royal and, after her one pregnancy ended with a stillborn baby, she never recovered. Always admired for her nice figure, the princess grew and grew until it was said that “she had no shape—like snow.”

At 40 beautiful Princess Mary, the most stylish sister and favorite aunt of Queen Victoria, was reduced to marrying her first cousin “Silly Billy,” or William, the duke of Gloucester, whose proposals she had previously rejected 20 times. The rest were an even more tragic lot. Princess Augusta spent her childhood obsessed with behaving perfectly, but was never rewarded — the king rejected every suitor that sought her hand. So she carried out an affair with a General Sir Brett Spencer whom all of Europe speculated she had secretly wed.

Princess Sophia squashed all hopes of ever marrying when she gave birth to an illegitimate son by one of the king’s equerries (although local gossip said paternity belonged to her libidinous brother Prince Ernest). Later in life, as an old spinster, Princess Sophia turned blind and deaf and passed the time winding yarn and stuffing pillows. The vivacious Princess Amelia met the worst fate. At 15, as she was making plans for a wedding that had never been proposed, including having her initials entwined with her lover’s on plates, she contracted venereal disease, and later died of consumption.

The reader will also learn a lot about the other royals who lived at the time, including Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, William, Prince of Wales, and King George IV, who hasn’t always been treated kindly by history, but is portrayed surprisingly well as a loving brother who “raised [the princesses’] spirits with letters and presents and jewellery.” Thanks to Flora Fraser’s riveting and wonderfully detailed new book, George III’s daughters can step out of the shadows of history and take their rightful places with the rest of the House of Hanover.

Rachel DiCarlo is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.

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