Book: Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regency
Author: Saul David
Pub: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998
Ever since I learned more about the American Revolution and found out just how little "taxation without representation" was actually going on under our colonialism (hint: a lot less than the "taxation with representation" to which we are currently subjected), I have wondered how a people so secure could ever have been goaded into rebellion, putting their lives, property and sacred honor on the line for an abstract ideal of liberty. Not to say I'm not grateful that they did, nor am I less in awe of the incredible men who founded this nation. It's just difficult to imagine a people rising up, with everything to lose, when they were not under anything truly like oppression. Then, I read Prince of Pleasure, and I am starting to understand.
Is there anything in the world more useless than a figurehead monarch? A parasite on the body politic, leeching off the people of his land, begging the Parliament constantly for more money? King George III, the monarch from whom the 13 colonies declared independence in 1776, was, probably, one of the less disgusting depictions of this particular beast. Had the colonies waited 35 more years to rebel, which would have been during the Regency, they would have probably wanted to sail across the Atlantic and bring back the Prince Regent to tar and feather. He was that much of a schmuck.
My first and lasting impression from this book was a complete agreement with the always perceptive Jane Austen - "I hate him." This guy was, from his earliest pretensions of "independence" (or whatever you call it when you live by sponging off of others), such a prodigal that his debts equalled over £150,000 by the age of twenty-two! Consider that Miss Austen herself earned barely more than £700 for a lifetime of work (keyword: earned), and this amount of debt (paid off by periodic parliamentary increases to his income) verges on obscene. I have no problem with wealth that has been earned, or even inherited fair and square, but the Prince seems to have had no income stream other than imposing constantly upon the English Parliament. I think that, nowadays, the royal family in Great Britain has their own streams of revenue, and I'm not sure why the Prince Regent did not.
Then, there was his womanizing. He was a big hypochondriac, at least when it came to arousing the sympathies of reluctant ladies by stressing his imminent demise if they did not succumb to his advances. That seems to have been his wooing pattern: when initial rejection was met with, he went into decline until the maternal nature of most women would be activated. Add to this the fact that he constantly chose as mistresses women of a certain age, and the maternal connection becomes even clearer. The woman who suffered the most from his attachment was a Catholic widow, known (and this is delightful, really) as Mrs, Fitzherbert. I just love that! This woman was married to the Prince of Wales in an illegal ceremony, and was his longest lasting love. Yet, history knows her primarily as Mrs. Fitzherbert. I don't know why that tickles me so. It just seems so quirkily formal and British to hold to "Mrs. Fitzherbert," and not "Maria" - her Christian name. Poor woman! She comes off the best out of all the people associated with the Prince in this long biography.
There is a lot in this biography of political maneuverings before and during the Regency. There was the constant debate of "Catholic emancipation," of which I knew nothing before reading this book, and, though it was a pressing issue of the time and one that the Prince went back and forth on repeatedly, it seems so elementally decent to allow Catholics to vote and be full citizens of England, that it's hard to get too involved with the arguments back and forth into which the author delves. Then, of course, there is the whole issue of the French Revolution. The Prince should really have been happy that he was not in power during this tumultuous time across the Channel, since his excesses might have inspired a similar outcome in England. Instead, his father's more balanced lifestyle repressed any similar tendency in the hearts of English commoners and deflected the heat of indignation at that crucial juncture. There was also, in France, the Napoleonic era and that mighty little fellow's determined march through the continent and grandiose designs on Russia and England. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the real issues of import in a study of the Prince are not the political. Politically, he was an opportunist - tending Whig when it irked his father to do so, then bending Tory when he needed that majority alliance. His main points of interest to the casual modern reader were personal (i.e. his marriages, legal and illegal, and affairs) and the mark he made on defining the culture of the time.
His marriage to his legitimate (according to the Church of England and the 1772 Royal Marriages Act) wife, Caroline of Brunswick was a disastrous union. He was repulsed by her person (apparently she had cleanliness issues), and a child (Princess Charlotte) was conceived after only three acts of consummation - the only three in the entire twenty-six years of their marriage. Although she disgusted him beyond further physical contact, he really cannot be forgiven for the base way that he treated her, both as a husband, as her Prince, and as the father of their child. She was gauche and debauched and vulgar, but he was simply an insufferable jerk. Miss Austen can be counted on, as usual, to provide a succinct and pithy view of the entire royal marriage mess:
Jane Austen voiced the disgust which most people now felt towards the Regent for his unpardonable treatment of his wife in a letter to an acquaintance on the 16th [of February, 1813]. "Poor woman," she wrote of Caroline, "I shall support her as long as I can because she is a Woman, and because I hate her Husband . . . [If] I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince would have behaved tolerably by her at first." (p. 341)
So, Princess Caroline took lovers. The Prince of Wales took lovers. Pretty much everyone in the uppercrust of society took lovers. (For an excellent book and a fun read on the utter immorality and impropriety of Regency aristocracy, you may wish to peruse An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray (1999).) The reason that the Prince fell under so much censure is that, as the figurehead of England if not the primary power, his behavior set the tone for England's presentation to the world. Plus, and this is probably the greater reason, he lacked panache. He lacked that sort of exuberance of spirit, that "devil-may-care" insolence, that allowed so many other colorful figures of the era to escape public condemnation. He seemed to have had some charm and erudition - an especial appreciation for the arts was one of his defining and greatest triumphs - but those personal qualitites did not translate over into his public persona. While he made a miserable Prince of Wales and, later, Prince Regent and, even later, King, it is difficult to say whether he had sufficient bravura to have been one of the great aristocratic bounders of an age that overflowed with such rakes and cads. He seems to have stumbled at every try for a distinct personality. Sometimes, with people like that, you just need to shove them away into a little corner of a government job wherein they can exercise little havoc and pain. Could he have been anything more useful to England than the King? Probably not.
Maybe it is because I am a twenty-first century American who has never lived in a country ruled by such a creature as a monarch that I find it difficult to see the point of the Prince Regent, later George IV. He didn't lead any battles to victory (although, to be fair, he was always trying to get a higher military appointment than the ceremonious one he possessed). He didn't inspire his people toward any higher goal or ideal. He, the nominal head of the English church, did not bring to his country one iota of Christ's love or magnamity. He was not a great thinker, an accomplished anything. He had a certain amount of education and tendency toward self-betterment, but he did not sufficiently exercise his privileged background to improve his court or his country. In the midst of some of the great debates of human dignity and liberty (e.g. slavery, Catholic and Jewish emancipation within the kingdom, even - before his reign - the American revolution) he wavered back and forth, never taking a position that stood up for righteousness against the tide of oppression. Probably, the best thing I could say about him was that his favorite novelist was Jane Austen. So, I commend him for his literary taste.
Was he, as his educator, the Bishop of Coventry, declared of his then fifteen-year-old charge, an "admixture" of "the most polished gentleman" and "the most accomplished blackguard in Europe" (p. 429)? Well, his biographer declares that the answer to that question is: Yes. I say: No. He did not have nearly enough of the "gentleman" about him to make up for his gross lack of character and feeling - his general want of propriety in matters personal and public. The British people deserved better for their monarch dollar, ahem, pound than this creep.
This biography was well-written, with one exception: The author quotes as authority twice George MacDonald Fraser's book, Black Ajax. This is an historical novel by the author of the Flashman series, this one featuring Flashy's father, Captain Buckley Flashman. Nowhere in these quotes does Mr. David indicate that they are from a fictional source. He treats a dialogue between Capt. Flashman and Lady Jersey as an historical event. I'm not certain if this is sloppy research, or if the author is intending in some dry, British way to be funny. What tends me toward the latter is the way in which he frames the quotes. He uses the phrases "according to" and "is said to have" in both instances of quotes, which is rarely used in the rest of the book. I did find one or two other examples of his framing cited quotes as such, though, and those are not from fictional works, but from memoirs. So, it's hard to say for certain.
Overall Grade: B
Subject Interest: B-
Illustrations: B- (could have used more political cartoons from the era, a lá The Unruly Queen)
Recommended? Yes, with reservations. This book will not change your life or make you a better person. It probably will make you appreciate not living under a monarchy (if Charles, Diana, Camilla, et al, have not already done that). It wasn't a particularly fun read, but it was informative. I came away feeling that I knew everything I needed to know about the Prince Regent. If you are interested in some of the history that was taking place at the time Jane Austen was writing (my main reason for reading this book), it's probably a fair read. This world of the Prince was a far cry from the decent country gentry that JA liked to write about (although you really begin to see the dichotomy of country values and city values portrayed in Mansfield Park as being a relevant issue).
Next Up: The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey