book review: princesses: the six daughters of george iii by flora fraser

Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III is a biography written by Flora Fraser and published by Anchor. It was released on April 11, 2006.

Category: Biography

Synopsis:  From acclaimed biographer Flora Fraser, a brilliant group biography of the six daughters of “Mad” King George III.

Fraser takes us into the heart of the British royal family during the tumultuous period of the American and French revolutions and beyond, illuminating the complicated lives of these exceptional women: Princess Royal, the eldest, constantly at odds with her mother; home-loving, family-minded Augusta; plump Elizabeth, a gifted amateur artist; Mary, the bland beauty of the family; Sophia, emotional and prone to take refuge in illness; and Amelia, “the most turbulent and tempestuous of all the Princesses.” Weaving together letters and historical accounts, Fraser re-creates their world in all its frustrations and excitements.

The six sisters, though handsome, accomplished, and extremely well educated, were kept from marrying by George III, and Fraser describes how they remained subject to their father for many years, while he teetered on the brink of mental collapse. The King may have believed that his six daughters were happy to live celibately at Windsor, but secretly, as Fraser’s absorbing narrative of royal repression and sexual license shows, the sisters enjoyed startling freedom. Several of them, torn between love for their ailing father and longing for independence, forged their own scandalous and subversive lives within the castle walls. With a discerning eye for psychological detail and a keen feminist sensibility, Fraser delves into these clandestine love affairs, revealing the truth about Sophia’s illegitimate baby; examining Amelia’s intimate correspondence with her soldier-lover; and investigating the eventual marriages of Princesses Royal, Elizabeth and Mary.

Never before has the historical searchlight been turned with such sympathy and acuity on George III and his family. With unparalleled access to royal and private family papers, Flora Fraser has created a revelatory portrait of six fascinating women and their place in history.

Review:  I found this book fascinating.  I knew very little about the family of King George III and Queen Charlotte, and this book about their daughters filled a gaping hole in my royal knowledge.  While it is focused on the six daughters of George III, there is also enough information about the nine sons of George III to gather a basic portrait of them as well.  I found myself drawn in particular to the fact that George III refused to arrange dynastic marriages for his daughters, the only one being that of the Princess Royal, Princess Charlotte Augusta Matilda, to the future Duke of Württemberg, before he was overtaken by madness.  His son the Prince Regent, later George IV, was slightly better in allowing his sisters to marry, but by the time this happened, they were all much too old to have a family of their own.

The story of Princess Sophia’s illegitimate child I found to be both scandalous and sad, for it cost her the chance to have a dynastic marriage, and she died a spinster.  Other than Sophia’s illegitimate child, none of the sisters would produce a child of their own, the only one falling pregnant was the Princess Royal, and her daughter was stillborn.  The book also includes Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only child of George IV and his estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick, and how she finally found happiness with her husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (later King of the Belgians).  Her story, of course, has a sad ending as well, as she died in childbirth at the age of 21.

As Princess Charlotte’s death set off a race to produce a legitimate heir by her uncles, I found that the correspondence between Princess Sophia and the young Princess Victoria of Kent (the future Queen Victoria) to be very sweet.  And, once Victoria ascended to the throne, I found her interaction with her elderly aunts to be wonderful.  I never knew that the aunts were even still alive at the time of Victoria’s reign, or that the last of the line, the only remaining child of King George III, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, was still alive at the time of the birth of Victoria’s last child, Princess Beatrice.

Overall, I felt for these six princesses as they fell in love with men in their social circle, took some of them as lovers, never really found happiness in marriage, some only seeing it as a way to get out from under their mother’s grieving control.  These six princesses knew their station in life, even if some of them gave in to illegitimate affairs, resulting in Princess Sophia’s illegitimate son and Princess Amelia’s dreams of marrying her dear General Charles Fitzroy right up until the moment of her death.

Recommendation: I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for more information about these six princesses who have otherwise been lost to history.  The book is divided into five sections, and I read a section a day and had to force myself to put it down to move on to other things.  Despite the immense sadness that overtakes the book as the princesses grow into their later years and George III descends into madness, I found it a very enjoyable read.