A 32-year-old spinster describes quality time with her family in Weymouth. "Read to the Queen the whole evening till cards, when I play at whist till my eyes know not hearts from diamonds and spades from clubs... News there is none, but who bathes and who can't, and who won't and who will... all these very silly questions and answers which bore one to death..."
This wasn't an untypical evening for the six daughters of George III and Queen Charlotte, who spent much of their adult lives longing to marry. Elizabeth, author of the above, also hoped to have children. Although she eventually escaped the tedium of her unmarried state (at the advanced age of 48), Elizabeth never became a mother. The only one of her royal sisters ever to give birth successfully had no husband.
This "parcel of old maids'', as their niece Charlotte unkindly termed them, had none of the sparkle of Emma Hamilton nor the rapaciousness of Caroline of Brunswick - the subjects of Flora Fraser's excellent previous biographies. The sisters lived quietly, their nesting instincts channelled into artistic pursuits, gardening and home improvements. "We go on vegetating as we have done for the last 20 years,'' writes one sister. Yet Princesses does not make dull reading.
Fraser teases from their collective identity the princesses' individual characters. Born in 1766 Charlotte, Princess Royal, stammering and clumsy, blossomed when away from the queen. Two years younger, lovely Augusta enjoyed all things military. Chubby Elizabeth grew to be determined, industrious, artistic and supportive of her mother. Six years Elizabeth's junior, Mary, a self-confident beauty, wasn't clever but loved children and idolised the Prince Regent, who was always kind and generous with his sisters. Nervy, bookish Sophia was the one sister to see his faults. Devoted to her father, critical of her mother, Sophia was - so Lord Melbourne said - "very pretty... very like a gypsy". Last came Amelia, headstrong and winning. The king preferred the girls to his feckless seven sons. His dutiful daughters worshipped him, even though it was largely "the dear angel'' who prevented them marrying.
Everyone knew of the unlawful marriages and vices of their brothers. But there were rumours too surrounding these outwardly dutiful women. Did Elizabeth bear two children fathered by a page? Had Amelia contracted VD at 15? Was Sophia mother of an illegitimate son? No, possibly and yes. Sophia's child's father was either her own brother Ernest, whom she claimed made "attempts on her person" or, more likely, the "hideous old devil" General Garth with whom she fell in love at 21.
Fraser conjures the cosily claustrophobic early years - the rural seclusion, the ever-growing family dotted between houses in Kew. The suburban sovereigns eschewed formal dining, opting instead for quiet nights en famille. The queen played on the harpsichord. The king, tired after a day hacking at trees, would dandle the latest baby on his knee. The children ate plainly and took long walks whatever the weather. Their parents believed girls as capable as boys and for the older princesses hired a governess who spoke seven languages. The sisters played cricket, football and hockey. In infantile letters to their attendants they demonstrate a huge capacity for affection, apologising for being silly about eating rhubarb or punching the servants.
The three younger daughters' schooling was less ambitious. Other matters now preoccupied the queen - notably the monarch's bouts of madness. While the king was being physically restrained, his daughters felt pinioned by their duty to their bad-tempered mother. Princely suitors came - and went. Finally the Princess Royal landed the obese Frederick, Hereditary Prince of Wurttemberg, described by Napoleon as being put on earth "to see how tight you could stretch, without bursting''. After the stillbirth of a daughter Charlotte too ballooned out and had to be carried about in a chair. Having strayed sexually, Sophia could not hope for marriage. Augusta may have secretly married her lover General Sir Brent Spencer and Amelia was desperate to do the same with her General Fitzroy. "I mean to keep you in bed for a week at least when we marry," she told him. It wasn't to be. Tuberculosis killed the 27-year-old princess.
In this serious and substantial book, Fraser quotes sensitively from confidential letters. Some are indirect, coded (Sophia discussing her illegitimate son), others scorching (Amelia's billet-doux), making us voyeurs of their intimacy. Particularly touching is how the surviving sisters embraced change so late in life. Augusta, having always wished to travel, first quitted England in 1821 aged 53. Balancing the six lives proves a hard act but Fraser keeps expert control over her material. Occasionally the sentences are so packed with information, it takes two readings to arrive at the meaning. It's as if Fraser wants nothing taken away from these princesses as they finally claim the limelight.
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