When George III went mad for the first time, the oldest of his six daughters had just turned 22 and the youngest was five. There were also many sons: his wife had borne 15 children altogether. But George was much fonder of his daughters, especially the eldest three. Comparing himself in a semi-lucid moment to King Lear, he added that they were all devoted Cordelias: there was no Goneril or Regan.
He was right in thinking that the girls adored him. In their letters they called him the "poor dear angel", while their mother was dismissed as "the old Lady". But during his illnesses he was an alarming figure, particularly this first time, when no one understood what was happening. During one meal on 5 November 1788 he raved without pause, his mouth foaming and his eyes like "black-currant jelly", and hauled his eldest son out of his chair to throw him across the room, upon which the Queen became hysterical and fled to her chamber. Afterwards the king was kept in seclusion.
There were hopes that the sight of his daughters would calm him, so they were paraded unknowingly in the garden while he was brought to watch from a high window. Glancing up, they saw him, haggard in his white nightgown, his arms flailing over his head - a sight impossible to erase from memory. In another therapeutic attempt, five-year-old Amelia was presented to him. He tried to control his behaviour, but without success, and Amelia was taken away terrified.
George recovered, only to relapse some years later, and his daughters rarely saw him. Two were despatched to princely matches on the Continent, one married without enthusiasm closer to home, and the other three remained with their brothers and the queen. Never light-hearted, she became ever more overbearing and peevish.
The daughters occupied themselves with needlework, with reading (travel books, Don Quixote and expensive fashion magazines), and with frustrated love affairs. Several struggled against the family curse: not mental illness, so much as a tendency to develop a George IV look. Discreet portraitists tried to minimise trumpeters' cheeks, billowing bosoms and cornerless shoulders, but the truth was inescapable, and the sisters often compared notes on their efforts to exercise. The topic brought out the best in them, for they were wry and good-natured about embonpoint, as about most things. They had to be: their lives were full of disappointments, and almost all were prevented from marrying the men they loved.
Making the most of some unprecedented access to the sisters' letters, Flora Fraser works up a richly-textured narrative of their lives. Princesses also works well as an account of court life and the Regency period. There is a charming portrait of the young Victoria, who visited her elderly aunts. The last survivor, Mary, lived long enough to appear in photographs with Victoria in the 1850s. There, solemn-faced and dressed as a cross between a tea-cosy and a coral reef, she bears an expression of infinite patience, testimony to a life both regal and constricted. In their different ways, all six daughters lived such lives. In Flora Fraser, they find the sensitive biographer they deserve.
Sarah Bakewell's 'The Smart' is published by Vintage.
Flora Fraser will appear at the Cheltenham Festival on Saturday 16 October. (01242 227979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk)
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