I know, I know…I never talk about the Prince Regent. I make it a point not to.
However, last night I watched the first of a three-part series on the English Regency. And while there was some good stuff there, as well as a number of elements which deserve criticism–and while I equally feel that the controller of BBC4 deserves a good kicking for the infantilisation of history-documentaries in general–there’s one tendency which was abundantly on display in Elegance and Decadance that I cannot let pass.
It’s the creation of a wrong impression by failing to tell the whole story or failing to place an event or artefact in context.
From the off, we were into ‘wrong impression’ territory. The presenter showed the camera a corset that the young Prince George (born 1762) had worn as a child which was meant to help him grow up straight and tall. This corset was, of course, presented as restrictive and unfeelingly strict. Which I suppose it was.
But what the viewer wasn’t told was that the young Prince George wasn’t alone in wearing a corset like this. In that era, it was normal. The disease of rickets was every 18th century parent’s nightmare–they didn’t know it was caused by a vitamin deficiency. So they corseted young children in the belief that they were supporting correct growth.
(And this was the future King of England for heaven’s sake–he had to grow up straight and tall. He couldn’t be a hunchback–that would have had overtones of Richard III…) All of a sudden, that corset doesn’t look quite so much like child cruelty, does it? But without context, the unwary non-historian is led to a false conclusion.
Then of course, there was the fact that the Regency officially began in February 1811 and lasted until 1820, which is strictly true, but not the full story–as anyone who has seen Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George might tell you. Because George III didn’t just have one lapse into madness in 1810 which proved permanent–he’d been dodging in and out of lucidity for quite a long time as a result of the disease porphyria.
So although there hadn’t been an Act of Parliament making Prince George the Regent before 1811, they’d come awfully close to it on a previous occasion; then the king had recovered his wits, so they didn’t.
There’s another thing. We hear all the time in the press and elsewhere about the need to look beyond the surface of a situation to discover the root causes–for instance to look beneath the surface of sudden teenage rebellion to find perhaps troubled family relationships or family alcoholism or maybe bullying…something. But when too many historians look at past lives, the insights into emotional cause and effect or troubled relationships and context just evaporate.
Poof. It’s gone.
And we’re left with the same old “he was hated…he was fat…he was…”
Now I’m not going to insist that Prince George was likeable or even lovable. I’m sure he had his share of faults and vices, and then some. But I do know this: he was young once. He wasn’t always a grotesque, leering caricature poured into too-tight clothes.
And when he was young, he was something! Tall, good-looking, dashing, sexy…the public and press adored him. He was the Brad Pitt of his day. He hung out with the fastest crowd–the Devonshire set (as in Amanda Foreman’s biography, Georgiana)–and they were daring, energetic, wild and witty, they rejected the stuffiness of the staid court of his father, they embraced the ideals of the French philosophes and the French Revolution in its early stages. And he was at the centre of it.
As a series of acts of filial rebellion, it was superb. And that’s what it was.
And it was more than that. Because Prince George was Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne.
Now I am a fan of George III. But on the subject of raising children, he was just a tad on the controlling side. Okay, I’m lying–he was controlling to the point of unreasonableness. He simply could not be brought to allow Prince George even a hint of freedom or responsibility. The Prince’s younger brother had been sent to North America with the navy during the Wars of Independence, ostensibly as a young officer, but actually to spy for his father and conduct secret negotiations.
But for the Prince of Wales, nothing. His father wouldn’t allow him a place in the army nor the navy, wouldn’t let him to travel outside of England. Wouldn’t even give him his own estate or household to manage. He was the heir to the throne and his person could not be exposed to any danger. Not any.
And given that, it’s not perhaps surprising that when finally he did escape from his father’s control, when he finally did get out into the world, young George kicked over the traces–he got himself the most beautiful girlfriends, he stayed up all night gambling and drinking, he rode hard, he swore, he hunted, he wore clothes to wind his father up, he did it all.
The press loved it! They revelled in using the spectacle of his wild and pleasure-seeking life as a stick with which to beat his father, the King, who was none too popular at the time, due to the loss of those pesky American colonies. And it drove the straight-laced King potty. (Who says James Dean invented teenage rebellion?)
But, he was the Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne. And as that he had only one job: waiting. That’s it. Waiting to be King. Nothing else. And his father kept the reins of government, such as they were, firmly in his own hands. No sharing.
And despite the image we have of fat, stupid, lazy…Prince George was not stupid. He was rather intelligent, in fact, with a lifelong love of Greek and Latin literature. He was a singer with an impressive bass voice, and a sublime cellist–he possessed a deep musicality. But with that intelligence, with that musicality, he was allowed to do nothing. So, (in today’s parlance) he channelled his boredom and frustration into what he could do, what he could control, what would irritate his parent–spending money, living garishly and wildly. In short, into anything that would define him as the opposite of his father.
Eventually the excesses and mass executions of the French Revolution made Whiggism privately impossible for him–those aristocrats and crowned heads they guillotined in France, those were his friends and cousins, in some cases, so their loss was personal and he grieved for them. (The Duchess of Devonshire was a close friend and correspondent of Marie Antoinette and her ladies in waiting…) Still, by then, rebellion, wildness, fecklessness had become his default setting. And an arranged marriage to a young woman with a serious hygiene deficiency (his closest friend, Brummell, was the instigator of the daily bath, remember) did nothing to improve the situation.
Which somehow makes him rather understandable–not lovable perhaps–but definitely human.
Another small point. The presenter of the series brought up George’s love of uniforms and the number of these in his wardrobe as well as showing us many portraits of him in different military uniforms. She also derided his habit in later life of recounting the Battle of Salamanca as if he’d been there; ditto his belief that he’d been at Waterloo.
Now, I’m not saying that fashion was kind to the Prince. It wasn’t. Skin-tight trousers do not sit well on a fellow of late middle age with a 50″ waistline.
However, Prince George had grown up and lived in an era of military heroes. In the 18th century, the ideal of a true gentleman, a true nobleman, was a fellow who dodged bullets as the bravest soldier during the day and then spent his evenings and nights making passionate and delicious love to the ladies. (I’m not making this up.)
Admiral Lord Nelson had been loved, adored and idolised by the press and public. He was the kind of military hero who had his arm shot off, the skin blown off his forehead and down into his face, who went down to the surgeon to be patched up and then came back up for more. He led his men into battle from the front and he was lionised for it.
He may have been the enemy, but Napoleon Bonaparte was a military leader who had won a crown, a country and an empire through military prowess. His court was that of a military state and he the premier soldier of the age, the head of the French army.
Tsar Alexander and the Prussian King, Frederick William, were both present at many of the battles in which their armies fought (not always with positive results). It’s what kings did.
Seen in this contextual light, George is no different from his fellow monarchs…he didn’t get to go to war, his father and Parliament wouldn’t allow it. But kings wore the uniforms of their armed forces, it was part of the job. And if George wanted some of the adulation which Nelson received, if he thought the uniform would help…well, I fancy one can see his reasoning.
Anything else? Well, I dare say there is. But I can’t think of it right now. No doubt it’ll come to me…