Today I am happy to bring you a guest post from the fabulous Laura Purcell, who is in the midst of a blog tour for the release of The Queen of Bedlam, a book about Queen Charlotte of the United Kingdom. As I live in Charlotte, NC (in Mecklenbury County), the post and novel have struck a chord with me. I hope you enjoy it also.
In the early nineteenth-century, novels were often considered light, frivolous things. There was even a suggestion, as Jane Austen humorously portrays in Northanger Abbey, that young ladies might find themselves inflamed or over-stimulated by such works.
Amidst these prejudices, it’s surprising to find a love for novels at the heart of respectable English society: in the household of the Queen herself.
Queen Charlotte was an avid reader, sending her servants out to find books for her on local stalls. She composed her own poems for state occasions and even set up a small printing press at her house in Windsor, Frogmore, for improving tracts. Literature was a hobby that echoed down through to her daughters, especially the youngest two Sophia and Amelia. Even on her deathbed, we hear of Princess Amelia reading from and admiring Richardson’s Clarissa.
The French writer Madame de Genlis was a favourite with the family, and sent Charlotte all of her works. The Queen preferred moral or uplifting pieces to the prevalent Gothic romances, but as she told her servant Fanny Burney, “they write so finely now, even for the most silly books, that it makes one read on and one cannot help it.”
Burney herself was a novelist, who owed her employment to the Queen’s appreciation of her talents. Although some sources say she had a bishop vet the book first, Charlotte had Burney’s second novel Cecilia read aloud to her and distributed the work amongst her daughters. She clearly found the novelist entertaining and was horrified by Burney’s apparent reluctance to write again. “Shall we have no more?” she urged, “Nothing more?” Charlotte went on to admit she admired the improving nature of Burney’s work. “I think…there is a power to do so much good – and good to young people – which is so good a thing.”
Burney did go on to complete another novel, after leaving the Queen’s service. A contemporary, Mrs Papendeick, suggests removal from the royal household was Burney’s only option as an author. “The queen would not sanction novel writing under her own roof” she writes, as “the pen would be laid down with regret and duty found irksome.” But this is not borne out by Charlotte’s reception of the new book, Camilla. She was delighted to receive the five-volume novel on bended knee from Burney, and asked her to leave another set at the door to the King’s apartments. She invited Burney back the next day to speak with the King and their daughters. Eagerly, Charlotte told the King how Camilla was started there at Windsor Castle, where Burney had drawn up the story skeleton. On talking of the volumes, she said, “Mrs Boscawen is to have the third set, but the first – Your Majesty will excuse me! – is mine.”
Charlotte had a good claim to the first set of volumes: they were dedicated to her. Burney’s sycophantic address starts: ‘That goodness inspires a confidence, which, by divesting respect of terror, excites attachment to greatness, the presentation of this little work to Your Majesty must truly, however humbly evince.’ Going on to apologise for the common nature of her characters, Fanny ends with cringe-worthy flattery: ‘With the deepest gratitude and most heart-felt respect, I am, madam, Your Majesty’s most obedient, most obliged and most dutiful servant.”
This is a stark contrast to another dedication to royalty, some years later. Charlotte’s son George inherited his mother’s taste for literature. He was a particular fan of Jane Austen and invited her to tour his library at Carlton House. Sadly for George, Austen did not return his admiration.
Miss Austen was in a particular quandary when the Prince’s librarian, James Stainer Clarke, mentioned she might dedicate her next book to her illustrious admirer. Though Austen was not thrilled, she was unwilling to offend, and wrote to ask Stanier Clarke “whether it is incumbent on me to show my sense of the honour, by inscribing the work now in the press to HRH.” The use of the word incumbent is telling.
In the end, Austen was pressured into dedicating Emma to the Prince Regent. However, her plan was simply to send one set to him, two or three days before the work was generally public, and put on the title page: “Emma, dedicated by permission to HRH The Prince Regent.” This would not do. Her publishers insisted on transforming her dedication into a sycophantic, un-Austen gush. It ended as: “To His Royal Highness the Prince Regent this work is, by His Royal Highness’s permission, most respectfully dedicated, by His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant, the author.”
Austen would have been pleased, though, to find an appreciation of her work dribbled down to the next generation of the royal family. Princess Charlotte, the rising heir and hope of the nation, was much taken with Sense and Sensibility. “I have just finished reading; it certainly is interesting, and you feel quite one of the company. I think Maryanne and me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like. I must say it interested me much.”
Perhaps Austen would have preferred to dedicate something to this straight-forward and fun-loving princess!
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Amazon Link to The Queen of Bedlam
London 1788. The calm order of Queen Charlotte’s court is shattered by screams. The King of England is going mad. Left alone with thirteen children and with the country at war, Charlotte has to fight to hold her husband’s throne. It is a time of unrest and revolutions but most of all Charlotte fears the King himself, someone she can no longer love or trust. She has lost her marriage to madness and there is nothing she can do except continue to do her royal duty. Her six daughters are desperate to escape their palace asylum. Their only chance lies in a good marriage, but no prince wants the daughter of a madman. They are forced to take love wherever they can find it, with devastating consequences. The moving true story of George III’s madness and the women whose lives it destroyed.
Such a great article. Thanks for all of the fascinating historical tidbits.
Thanks for joining us today, Rachel.
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