Friday, November 27, 2009

A Royal Affair

As an American growing up in Philadelphia, all I knew about George III is that he was the bloody tyrant against whom the American colonist rebelled, ensuring a steady stream of tourists to my home town every summer.  Stella Tillyard's A Royal Affair barely mentions George's political life and focuses on his siblings.  Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta had nine children, six of whom lived to adulthood.  George III was unusual for his time and social position in his monogamy and acetic habits; his siblings more than made up for him.  

His older sister, Augusta, was too smart and too forward for the marriage market and eventually married a German Duke, producing the ill-fated and uncrowned Queen Caroline.  Edward, Duke of York was the consummate playboy and a financial drain on the royal treasury before dying of malaria at age 28.  Henry, Duke of Cumberland, was co-respondent in a society divorce before entering a scandalous but ultimately successful marriage with a commoner.  William, Duke of Gloucester, married the illegitimate and widowed society beauty Maria Walpole, only to abandon her after reconciling with his brother.

The saddest and most scandalous marriage was that of George's youngest sister, Caroline Matilda.  Married at age 15 to the cruel and unbalanced Christian VII of Denmark, she was essentially abandoned by her husband after giving birth to their son.  She eventually entered into an affair with Johann Fredrich Struensee, one of her husband's advisers, was involved in an unsuccessful rebellion against her husband, was exiled, and died of scarlet fever at age 24.  Tillyard spends about half of A Royal Affair dissecting Caroline Matilda's marriage, perhaps because it's a case study of why arranged marriages are a bad idea.  Unfortunately, it wasn't a very interesting or long-lived marriage and A Royal Affair never comes alive like Tillyard's previous book, Aristocrats.

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