'Princesses The Six Daughters of George III' by Flora Fraser is definitely for a niche market of history readers who enjoy knowing more about the lives of aristocratic women, who, though having every perceivable advantage when young, are not allowed to live up to their potential. Their lives left to us like pretty footnotes.
George III (1738-1820) and his wife, Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) had fifteen children beginning with the birth of George IV in 1762 and ending with Amelia in 1783. The king is described as a devoted husband and father, especially toward his daughters. Although a loving family man, King George was a firm believer in duty, of which he often felt his heir presumptive lacked. In the summer of 1788, he suffered from his first prolonged attack of mental illness (believed to be the inherited disease, porphyria). He recovered, but sadly for his daughters, who had grown up believing they would be married off to foreign royalty (most likely German princes) their future careers as queens came to a halt.
Charlotte, Princess Royal (1766-1828) Augusta (1768-1840) Elizabeth (1770-1840) Mary (1776-1857) Sophia (1777-1848) and Amelia (1783-1810) had their young lives take on tired routines of trying to insure their father’s mental stability while placating the nerves of their mother. Although promised vacations and balls to meet worthy suitors, the princesses did not start marrying, if at all, until much later in their lives. With the exception of Princess Royal, they were brides past menopause.
By 1811, their father’s condition was such that it set their oldest brother, George IV, on the throne as Regent. The result of this business was that the princesses’ lives changed little.
Fraser has covered this time-period before in “The Unruly Queen” about the no love lost relationship between Queen Caroline and George IV. In that book, she had a lot more material to work with since Queen Caroline was fodder for newspaper articles and editorial cartoons. Further, the Queen’s well-documented exploits included extravagant travel (she was one of the first tourist to the holy land) and adopting at least one boy of questionable parentage, made for interesting, if not sometimes sad, reading. The Royal sisters, on the other hand, were seldom mentioned in newspapers, thus for this book, Fraser had to make do with a lot less material.
In “The Unruly Queen”, George IV’s sisters came off as evil harpies who take pride in goading their sister-in-law/first cousin (Caroline was the daughter of their father’s sister). Of course, now as a reader of both books, I must acknowledge that the nitpicking may have been more out of boredom than actual malice – even if it was done on behalf of their beloved brother. Pretty and painted these princesses did not live enviable lives, and Fraser does an admirable job piecing together the missing pieces.
As expected, the sisters wrote to each other all of their lives. The older set of three, were the closest and shared intellectual interests. They were lucky enough to have the best education available to them. Whereas, by the time the latter three were in need of tutors and governesses, their parents had put their parenting on autopilot, which allowed the quality of the girls’ education to slip.
Further, the younger daughters did not have the apparent supervision of the older three. Princess Sofia gave birth to an illegitimate child, which may, or may not have been, sired by her brother, Ernest.
Similar to “The Aristocrats” by Stella Tillyard, about the well-connected and influential Lennox sisters, “Princesses” is a comparable read of sisterly relationships among the privileged and educated. It is well written, and for a book of this nature, a fast read. The only issue I have is that many crucial historical events, such as Waterloo for instance, happen without much comment. Granted, the sisters’ views on these matters may have been lost in time, but I think Fraser could have been done more to highlight these events to the reader.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in patrician women’s history or the history of the British Royal family.
Within the book are three separate inserts showing portraits of the princesses at various ages. One picture in particular was telling. Mary, the last living child of George III, in a photograph with her niece, Queen Victoria and her two eldest children (the boy, later to be King Edward VII). Thus through the new medium of photography, three centuries of monarchal connections was eerily saved for posterity.
pages plus index: 478
publisher: First Anchor Books Edition, April 2006
© 2006 Westerfield