Dirty linen of a spurned princess

THE UNRULY QUEEN: The Life of Queen Caroline by Flora Fraser, Macmillan pounds 20
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THE story is pure pantomime, never tragedy; but as pantomimes go it is a spectacular one, with a cast entirely made up of outrageous dames and ugly sisters, and never a good fairy in sight. Nobody emerges with credit, not its heroine, not her persecutors, not even her supporters and defenders - for she had no friends. Flora Fraser is at her most acute in her account of how Queen Caroline was used by politicians and radical groups for their own ends, which had nothing at all to do with her position as a woman injured and ill-treated by her husband, George IV. The truth is, she was merely a useful lever against a deplorable monarch and a superannuated and corrupt parliamentary system.

Some of her defenders affected to take the high moral ground, although the evidence is they did not believe it for a minute. But the poor who rallied to her, women especially, were demonstrating something new, the first public objection to the double standard. Queens may have died young, fair and headless under Henry VIII, or seen themselves neglected in favour of showy beauties by Charles II, but George IV was not going to get away with divorcing his wife for the same sin of adultery in which he indulged so routinely, so blatantly, so gracelessly and with so many partners.

What sort of woman were they defending? Caroline, princess of Brunswick, then Princess of Wales, finally Queen of England, was born in 1768 in the German duchy of Brunswick. Her parents were unhappily married and her upbringing was confined and dreary. One of her brothers was an imbecile, and her elder sister was married to a prince of Wurtemberg who rapidly had her imprisoned in a fortress in St Petersberg, where she either died or disappeared; no one was sure which, and no one bothered to ascertain. Yet with Frederick the Great of Prussia as great-uncle and George III of England as uncle, the younger daughter still stood a good chance of being found a husband on the royal network. Caroline seemed to have won the jackpot when, in 1794, her first cousin the Prince of Wales was suggested. He was bribed with the promise that marriage would sort out his financial problems. As Flora Fraser writes, she could not wait to be shot of Brunswick, and he could not wait to be clear of his debts.

Caroline was not clever, though she had a certain rough wit. According to several witnesses, her personal habits were not nice, meaning she did not wash or change her underwear often enough. She had no natural taste in literature, music, painting or even clothes, and little effort had been put into cultivating any. She never learnt to spell or write grammatically, though she dictated forcefully. Linguistically, she was rather like George Steiner without the intelligence, if such a thing can be imagined: she grew up speaking French and German, learnt English and spent her later years in a multilingual entourage.

Fair-haired and plump, with a head too big for her body and a short neck, she also had a dogged strength of character. She was never overawed, and when hurt or offended she fought back. All this became necessary from the first meeting with her future husband who, as is well known, took one sniff and called for glass of brandy, saying he felt unwell. The Princess, astonished, had her own comment: "Mon Dieu! est-ce que le Prince est toujours comme cela? Je le trouve tres gros, et nullement aussi beau que son portrait."

So much for the arranged royal marriage. Although one child was produced - Princess Charlotte - to whom both parents were devoted, the Prince of Wales behaved outrageously in every way and the couple were separated almost as soon as they were married. He did everything to keep her from her daughter; his mother the Queen failed to support her daughter-in-law, and she was driven to set up pathetic households of her own, finding affection by adopting poor children, the most famous known as Deptford Willy. This led to groundless but much investigated allegations that she was Willy's natural mother; her adultery would have been high treason. The scandal was fuelled by her habit of cracking jokes about being pregnant, which Freud would have understood better than the Prince's spies. Later, when she was in Rome, she remarked to Sir Humphry Davy, following an audience with the Pope, "you will see evident symptoms of it in nine months' time".

In fact there were no more children. Lonely and humiliated, Caroline left England when the continent was opened again at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Her husband is said to have raised the toast "To the Princess of Wales's damnation and may she never return." For some years it looked as though she would not. She did not come either to her daughter Charlotte's marriage nor for the birth of her stillborn grandson, which killed Charlotte.

If she grieved, she forgot her sorrows in a colossal sightseeing and shopping trip, seeing herself as some kind of roving ambassadress in the Mediterranean. One plan was to get Christian slaves released, for which she visited various Beys ("the dear Arabians and Turks are quite darlings"). She rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and founded a religious order. You expect Hello! and Harpers & Queen at every turn, to comment on the smart canvas pavilion set up on the dock of her yacht to catch the breezes; on the fancy dress and opera parties in Naples; on the architectural "improvements" to her lakeside villa on Como. Alas, and all too characteristically, she managed to pick a quarrel with the single genius who came her way - Rossini - when his music was performed, and later hissed him for some fancied slight.

What happiness she did find came from an altogether lesser Italian, one Pergami, night watchman, chamberlain and masseur. He was 16 years younger than the Princess, the very picture of a handsome gigolo, and married, but he saw his chance and took it, no differently from any other royal favourite in an age when royalty was the main source of patronage and money. Caroline bought him a barony in Sicily and took his mother, brother, cousin and daughter into her household. Flora Fraser says his wife remains a shadowy figure, and so in a way does Pergami himself, since there is no record of his point of view. It was hardly a romance, but certainly a convenient arrangement for both parties. Whether they were technically lovers, as the spies set on them alleged, and as Flora Fraser agrees, remains unproven: would Caroline, even at 46, have risked pregnancy? But they were undoubtedly intimate.

Her return to England, without Pergami, on the death of George III, to claim her crown as Queen, makes the great farcical climax to the book. Flora Fraser has done heroic work in the archives and comes up with marvellous material. The new King was determined to bar his Queen from the coronation and to try her for adultery. He insisted on her name being removed from the liturgy in which the royal family is prayed for every Sunday, after one of his advisers pointed out that "if she is fit to be introduced to the Almighty, she is fit to be received by men ... and we may surely bow to her at Court". The Queen was particularly incensed by this, and much less worried by the arrival of scores of witnesses bribed and brought from the continent to describe her bedroom arrangements abroad. As these squalid creatures landed at Dover they were hailed as "bugs and frogs" by her supporters and beaten, kicked and scratched all the way up the beach. No more than they deserved.

The Queen's trial was a costly absurdity, and although few of the Lords probably believed her innocent, they were not prepared to find her guilty on the evidence before them. At her acquittal in 1820 five chief cities of Britain were illuminated for five nights, and every vessel in the Thames was covered with colours, a huge effigy of a bishop hanging heels uppermost from the tallest mast.

A year later she was dead, and within the decade the King followed her to the grave. If she was largely forgotten, he was remembered with general detestation for his behaviour towards his wife. "What a set," wrote Matthew Arnold about Shelley and his circle; but they look like angels in comparison with the royal buffoons appointed to rule over them. It's hard to think of any justification at all for their power, wealth and position as you read this brilliantly uncovered and grotesque tale.