The Right of the Queen
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Organizing a biography around an event, especially a dramatic trial, obviates one of the genre’s weak points: the requirement to chronologically cover every aspect of a subject’s life. Not all phases of an individual’s biography are equally important or interesting. The more chronological the approach, the more lengthy the narrative tends to become.
Jane Robins’s delicious page turner, “The Trial of Queen Caroline: The Scandalous Affair That Nearly Ended a Monarchy” (Free Press, 372 pages, $27.50), is as much history as it is biography, forsaking extensive character analysis for the plotting of fast-breaking events and sudden twists of fate. By the end of the narrative, the two main characters, George IV and the queen he abjured — not to mention a colorful supporting cast, including the manic-depressive Whig politician, Henry Brougham, and the radical firebrand journalist, William Cobbett — are arrayed with a transfixing vividness that is like watching a world-changing episode unfold on television.
With the advent of cable television networks and 24/7 news coverage, the world is — as William Wordsworth wrote 200 years ago — “too much with us.” That Wordsworth could make such a statement, however, ought to be regarded as a challenge to our conventional notions about how our world has diverged from Caroline’s, the world of 1820 when a prince wanted to divorce his princess and everyone speculated about the rights and wrongs surrounding the conflicted couple. Sound familiar?
It is to Ms. Robins’s credit that she does not draw the parallel — perhaps because it is so obvious, and perhaps because through means of narrative economy and understatement she obliges the reader to make comparisons between then and now. This brilliant strategy heightens the focus on George and Caroline, the former an obese bigamist and the latter a plump adulteress, although Ms. Robins wisely eschews such labels. Rather, it is her aim to tantalize her readers into entertaining conjectures such as: Was Caroline unfaithful to her prince? Or was she merely careless with the attentions she paid to her male servants and courtiers, indulging in intimate gestures in public that did not necessarily mean she was even more intimate with them in private?
Ms. Robins builds up considerable sympathy for Caroline, the same sympathy the British public felt for this royal who liked to consort with commoners and rejected protocol. She wanted to be the people’s queen and thought she had the opportunity to be one when George III died in 1820, and she returned to England after a long exile — driven abroad by her husband, who had taken one look at her (he refused to meet her before the marriage), essayed an act or two of sexual intercourse, and then shunned her for the rest of her life.
Such behavior earned George IV bad press. He was disliked for his conspicuous extravagance and what would today be called “womanizing.” Even worse, he had secretly married his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic, before his nuptials with Caroline, thus jeopardizing his position as the next Protestant king and defender of his nation’s established church. Finding her prince to be no prince, Caroline agreed to leave Britain even while insisting on her prerogatives as a royal. When George III died, the prince decided it was time to try Caroline for adultery (a capital crime) and rid himself of her forever. Against the advice of her advocate, Henry Brougham, Caroline returned, believing not only that the case against her could not be proven, but that the British people would not stand for such an insult to their queen.
Caroline was right. A time when the circulation of the London Times was only 10,000 might not seem, as Ms. Robins notes, an age when public opinion could be accounted a major political force.But six or seven people might read a single copy of a newspaper.And broadsides and all manner of cheap publications inundated the countryside, where they were read (often aloud) to groups of avid Caroline junkies.About the only people who did not plump for Caroline were the Tories and certain stuffy Whig ladies. The women of England, Ms. Robins suggests, were outraged that a husband — royal or not — could so demean his spouse.This was not, however, a feminist issue: The populace backed Caroline precisely because George had not honored the traditional way of respecting a wife.
Then radicals like William Cobbett made Caroline their weapon against the unruly monarchy George exemplified. Here Ms. Robins departs from Flora Fraser’s view of the “unruly queen” put forth in “The Unruly Queen: the Life of Queen Caroline” (1996). Ms. Fraser writes in no uncertain terms that Caroline was guilty of adultery. The shrewd Ms. Robins never puts it so baldly. Ms. Fraser may be right, but as the brilliant Henry Brougham put it to the House of Lords (charged with trying Queen Caroline),the most damning testimony against her came from individual witnesses who could provide no corroboration.
Given the public’s hostility toward George IV, and the prosecution’s inability to produce the “smoking gun”(someone who had witnessed Caroline having sex outside of marriage), the Tory administration was forced to withdraw its charges against Caroline. Then she made a fatal error: She tried to barge her way into George’s coronation. The public turned against her because no matter how offensive they found George, he was still their king and her actions were deemed undignified.
Caroline died shortly thereafter, probably of stomach cancer, and recouped a good deal of favorable public sentiment. Throughout her trial eminent figures such as Wellington feared there might be a revolt in the army, splitting into pro-Caroline and pro-George factions, or even a nationwide upheaval. Such fears were exaggerated, but Ms. Robins is right to evoke the tense atmosphere of the time and the sense of foreboding that the country might forsake reform for revolution.
As a work of both history and biography Ms. Robins’s effort is excellent. As a study of the press and the shaping of public opinion, her work is perhaps even more valuable. And for sheer pleasure in reading a well-wrought narrative, it would be hard to top this book.