Even though my interest tends more towards eighteenth century France, I still have a certain fondness for shenanigans across the Channel in my own rather less than sunny England and in particular the family and court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s direct contemporaries, George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte.
Unfortunately, the Hanoverians don’t tend to appear very often in fiction, possibly because beyond his sad ailment, his unruly offspring and the loss of those colonies across the Atlantic, George III isn’t considered to be very interesting while his fellow Georges are dismissed by most as clodhopping pop eyed German dullards with a penchant for ugly mistresses and unflattering wigs.
Princess Sophia, Beechey, 1797. Photo: Royal Collection. This painting was commissioned along with those of his other surviving sisters by George, Prince of Wales (later George IV) to hang in his London residence, Carlton House.
Luckily, Laurie Graham wasn’t put off by any of this when she decided to write A Humble Companion and the result is a bittersweet and often darkly amusing tale that offers the reader a fascinating and often unflinching glimpse into the very heart of George’s family from the point of view of a fictional companion to his daughter, Princess Sophia.
There’s a couple of shocks in this book so I won’t go into too much detail, although those of you familiar with the controversy surrounding Princess Sophia, her supposed illegitimate child by Major Garth and the rumours that she had either been raped by her dissolute brother, Prince Ernest, or had been conducting an illicit sexual relationship with him can probably at least partially guess how matters unfold within the book, all observed by the wry and somewhat satirical eye of her ‘humble’ companion, Miss Nellie Welche, who grows to feel great affection towards the Princess while at the same time pitying the way that she and her sisters are effectively cut off from everyday life and denied a normal existence with marriage and children of their own by their demanding parents.
The pity that Nellie feels for the princesses naturally leads to some comedic moments as they in turn assume that Nellie must be poor because her father works as a steward for their eldest brother, George, not comprehending at all that actually her family is very comfortably circumstanced and that she is far better off than they for having the benefits of a close and affectionate family life and all the normal freedoms of a middle class girl growing up on Soho Square in London. It is her awareness of this contrast between her own life and that of the Princesses that enables Nellie to sympathise with Sophia when her life takes a most shocking turn for she is one of the few who can really see how Sophia’s sequestered existence in Windsor Great Park has left the unfortunate princess with no normal outlets for affection and love.
Princess Sophia, Lawrence, 1824. Photo: Royal Collection. George IV commissioned this painting of his favourite sister for Windsor Castle. She was almost fifty and an invalid but Lawrence appears to have applied something of an airbrushing technique to keep his royal patrons happy.
I thought Nellie Welche was a superb creation and I was equally as hooked by her own often very sad tale as it tragically intertwines with that of the ‘Royalties’ as I was by the scandalous goings on at court. I especially liked the bits when Nellie, an aspiring novelist who eventually gets her work published despite the disapproval of her husband, had little chats with Frances Burney, who was at one point a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte. I’m a HUGE Burney fan so it was lovely to see her make a few appearances, even fleetingly.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed this book which spanned the childhood of George’s daughters to the adolescence of Queen Victoria (poor old Princess Sophie was her neighbour in Kensington Palace and yet another victim of the awful Sir John Conroy, who managed to fritter most of her fortune away over the years) and created a really evocative picture of the dying years of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth with all the rumblings of war, revolution and enormous social change. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who is as intrigued as I by the family of George III.