The Hanoverians: A Closer Look at the ‘Long-Suffering’ Women of the Hanoverian Court
by Laura Purcell
For years, the historical fiction market has been swamped with books about Henry VIII’s wives. Whether in the spotlight or part of the background action, these royal women have sparked hundreds of novels, from romances to murder mysteries. After the success of Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War, we have also seen a surge in fiction set around the Plantagenets. There’s just something about the intrigues of a royal court – the power, glamour and danger – that captures our imagination. But one royal dynasty is conspicuously absent from the bestseller shelves: the Hanoverians. To date, only Jean Plaidy is notable for attempting to tackle these monarchs in historical fiction.
It’s hard to understand the reason for this neglect. After all, the Hanoverians were hugely important to British history. From the accession of George I in 1714 to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, they provided the building blocks of our modern monarchy. But books set in the Georgian era tend to focus on other great forces. We have thrilling sagas such as Poldark and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Military series like Sharpe and Hornblower have proved hugely successful, especially as we mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. And for those readers keen to avoid bloodshed, Regency romances abound.
Perhaps the sheer range of exciting tales possible in this time of upheaval has made us forget about the royal family. If we think of them at all, we dwell on the doomed court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. However, by ignoring the British royals of the period, we are missing out on some incredible stories. Imprisoned wives, bigamous marriages and madness are only some of the subjects on offer. Add in bitter father-son feuds, kidnapped heirs, potential incest and trials for adultery, and you get an idea of the kind of dysfunctional dynasty with which we are dealing.
Personally, I am fascinated by the lives of the women at the Georgian court; the queens, the princesses, the ladies in waiting. On the one hand, they were powerful and able to wield a great deal of influence. On the other, they were at the whim of men – often infuriatingly difficult men. Let me assure you, Hanoverian princes were not the type to whisk girls away to happily ever after. The best phrase to describe the women they married and took for their pleasure would be ‘long-suffering.’
Yet the courage and resourcefulness of Hanoverian women is astounding to research. Most adjusted to the general decline in royal power with grace. Losing their children, their positions and their health bent them, but it seldom broke them. Some forfeited their titles, some lived in fear of their lives. Yet through it all, they remained true to a sense of duty and self-worth.
One of the biggest surprises for me was the progressive attitude of these Georgian queens towards female equality. We often forget that, before the prudish ways of the Victorian era set in, there was a brief period that gave birth to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Some of the Georgian royals became influenced by these ideas. As I learn more, I am fascinated to see the power struggle between the sexes mirroring the battle between monarch and subjects on the national stage.
I am indebted in my research to a range of biographies, released long after Plaidy’s original Georgian saga. Flora Fraser, Tracy Borman and Lucy Worsley in particular have illuminated the lives of Georgian royal women, presenting them for a modern audience. I can only keep my fingers crossed that such books will continue to be published. As a new generation of royalty receives Hanoverian names such as George and Charlotte, we have a chance to spark public interest in this neglected period. We must make the most of it. The stories of the original George and Charlotte are just too important to be left behind.
About the contributor: LAURA PURCELL is a former Waterstones bookseller turned author. The second novel in her Georgian Queens series, Mistress of the Court, will be released August 2015 by Myrmidon Books. She writes an 18th- and 19th-century themed blog at www.laurapurcell.com.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 73, August 2015