“Sense and Sensibility I have just finished reading; it certainly is interesting, & you feel quite one of the company. I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like.”
– Princess Charlotte of Wales
Here’s a hint for my next book: everyone will be talking about Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only child and heir of the Prince Regent. Never heard of her? She never became queen because she died at 21, and the crown eventually went to her as-yet-unborn cousin Victoria. Judging from Charlotte’s exuberant and often wild behavior, a Charlottean era would have been quite different from the Victorian era!
In 1811, when my book is set, Charlotte is still alive and expected to be queen someday. I originally planned for her to be a boring figure whom everyone drinks toasts to – and then I started reading her story. She’s one of those cases where history is stranger than fiction. If you prefer your princesses to be decorous and demure, you should probably stop reading this now!
Charlotte’s family was very unpopular in England. Her grandfather George III was mad, and the Prince Regent was disliked because of his excesses and extravagant lifestyle. But Charlotte was adored by the public from the time she was born, and seen as the great hope and pride of England.
The life of the feisty princess was anything but a fairytale. Her parents’ arranged marriage was a disaster from the start. How disastrous? Her mother, Caroline of Brunswick, was coarse, unwashed, and had a history of an improper relationship with an Irish officer. On first meeting his bride-to-be, the Prince Regent said, “I am not well, pray get me a glass of brandy.” Caroline’s reaction? “I think he is very fat and nothing like as handsome as his portrait.” Prinny went to the wedding ceremony drunk. The new couple had marital relations precisely three times. Prinny believed she was not a virgin. Caroline later hinted he was impotent. The couple separated several weeks later, each going on to have a promiscuous lifestyle. Charlotte was born just nine months after the wedding, already destined to be an only child and therefore the future queen.
Her parents used her as a weapon against each other. Prinny strictly limited his wife’s contact with their daughter, but spent little time with her himself. When Charlotte was eight, he decided he wanted his palatial home, Carlton House, to himself. After dismissing Charlotte’s beloved governess, Lady Elgin, he moved Charlotte into a separate building next door where, as one of her biographers put it, she “lived in a household of her own, in the company of no one who was not paid to be there.”1
Charlotte, her spirits uncrushed, became an outrageous tomboy. One of her childhood playmates, the grandson of her governess, later told of her lively ways, enjoyment of fisticuffs, and love of pranks. Some courtiers found her to be undignified, but others liked her because she did not choose to ‘put on dignity.’ She enjoyed daily drives in her carriage, drawn by her ‘beautiful grey poneys.’ “Accompanied by Lady de Clifford, [Charlotte] would herself take reins and drive off at top speed, turning into a very bumpy field, where the carriage swayed and jolted perilously, and Lady de Clifford shrieked. “Nothing like exercise, my lady”, cried Charlotte. “Nothing like exercise!””2
And then there was her love life. Her first infatuation at age 14 was with an illegitimate cousin who rode beside her carriage every day and would sit in private conversation with her at unseemly length. When he was called away, his place was taken by the handsome Lt. Charles Hesse. Charlotte’s mother blatantly encouraged this romance, passing letters between the two and encouraging Lt. Hesse to sneak into her own rooms at Kensington Palace for illicit meetings with her daughter. She went so far as to lock Charlotte and Hesse into her own bedroom and said, “I leave you to enjoy yourselves.”3 Yes, really, I’m not making this up! Charlotte was then but fifteen.
There were several other tempestuous romances and a widely publicized episode when Charlotte ran off to escape an unwanted marriage, but the princess did get a brief happily-ever-after. Her marriage to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg was brief but blissful.
Is it any surprise she saw herself as being like Marianne in Sense & Sensibility, only “certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like?”
Despite her romances and escapades, the public never stopped adoring Charlotte. When she died giving birth to a stillborn son at age 21, the entire kingdom went into deep mourning. Drapers ran out of black fabric, and even the poor and homeless found black rags to tie around their arms. Henry Brougham wrote, “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.”
Whew. So how do you write a character like that into fiction without readers assuming it’s a ridiculous exaggeration? The Regency may look beautiful and pure from a distance, but it was a licentious and decadent era when the royal princes and much of the aristocracy were extravagant, wild and often promiscuous, a far cry from the image popularized in movies of noble, aloof aristocrats. I am already dreading complaints from readers that my characterization has maligned the poor princess!
Fortunately for me, Princess Charlotte stays off stage for most of my new book, though there are frequent references to her. But you still may be surprised by what happens when she does appear!
If you think I’m exaggerating, I suggest reading the excellent article on Princess Charlotte at Wikipedia. Here are a few other interesting articles:
Princess Charlotte’s Christmas – Laura Purcell
Charlotte spends time with Charles Hesse – The Princess Charlotte of Wales blog
The Wedding of Princess Charlotte – Madame Gilflirt
The Sadness of Charlotte – The Express
I’ve only footnoted the most outrageous and difficult to believe quotes:
- Charlotte & Leopold: The True Story of the Original People’s Princess by James Chambers
- Prinny’s Daughter: A Biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales by Thea Home
- Princess Charlotte’s Christmas – Laura Purcell
Now I’ll leave you to wonder about why Princess Charlotte comes up so often in my next book. Here’s the tag line: “Once upon a time, disguise of every sort had been his abhorrence. Now Darcy could hardly recall when he had not worn a disguise.” Sound interesting? 😉