REVIEW: The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley
Kensington Palace is now most famous as the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, but the palace’s glory days came between 1714 and 1760, during the reigns of George I and II . In the eighteenth century, this palace was a world of skulduggery, intrigue, politicking, etiquette, wigs, and beauty spots, where fans whistled open like switchblades and unusual people were kept as curiosities. Lucy Worsley’s
The Courtiers charts the trajectory of the fantastically quarrelsome Hanovers and the last great gasp of British court life.
Structured around the paintings of courtiers and servants that line the walls of the King’s Staircase of Kensington Palace-paintings you can see at the palace today-The Courtiers goes behind closed doors to
meet a pushy young painter, a maid of honor with a secret marriage, a vice chamberlain with many vices, a bedchamber woman with a violent husband, two aging royal mistresses, and many more. The result is an indelible portrait of court life leading up to the famous reign of George III , and a feast for both Anglophiles and lovers of history and royalty.
Dear Ms. Worsley,
I’ve said so many times here at Dear Author that I love Georgian romances that when this book was mentioned as one of our daily deals, I just had to get it. Realistically, I know that I would probably have lead a curtailed, shorter, more restricted life had I lived then but damn it!, I still love the look of the clothes and the idea of the elegance of court manners. When I read deeper into the blurb and realized that the focus would be on the reigns of George I and George II, I was even more excited as I know so much less about these two monarchs than George III.
Non-fiction historical books can be wonderful or dry as dust so I opened this one with high hopes but fingers crossed. To my relief I found it a pleasantly readable trip through the mores, manners, people and politics of the day. But it isn’t merely about the high and mighty, whether titled or not. Sure it goes into some detail about the people behind the names I knew but there’s so much more. One of the major redecorations during George I’s time at Kensington Palace was the redo of the King’s Grand Staircase by William Kent who decided to include portraits of some of the servants who worked there as “onlookers” of people climbing up it. I adore getting the “behind the scenes” view of those who helped keep the place running from some “Beefeaters,” to the King’s valet, to a housekeeper and even Princess Caroline’s “wild boy.” The story of the cutthroat machinations behind who was chosen to actually receive the commission is almost as interesting.
I had always thought that royal mistresses were keen for the job and ended up being court power brokers. Well not in Georgian England. George I had his “Maypole,” as the English unkindly called her, while his son seemed to almost despise the poor Henrietta Howard, the woman who endured the position for 20 years before escaping to a happy marriage. The royal marriages ran the gamut as well beginning with George I who imprisoned his adulterous spouse for 30+ years in Germany, George II who passionately loved his intellectual, intelligent wife Caroline (who loved books and had a library all her own) though he still cheated on her and finally George III who remained faithful to his wife Charlotte and began to set the stage for the staid British monarchs to come.
This era was a time of enormous change in Britain and yet old stereotypes and injustices remained. Science and reason began to replace the old Stuart mythos of Divine Right, medicine progressed with the introduction of smallpox vaccination – championed by a woman Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – who also bemoaned the fact that women were still viewed by most men as little more than “greater children” without sense, intellect or reason. And even if she had any of those attributes, she should strive to conceal them in order to be thought desirable by the men. The court itself was losing prominence as the place to “see and be seen” and advance one’s position and fortune. Yet despite all the hassles, expense and relative boredom that those who lived there and sought to join the ranks endured, many spent years haunting the rooms and palaces hungry for entrée and jobs in this exclusive set.
Georgian royal family relations were often as vicious and backstabbing as any reality show or soap opera. Kings were pitted against their heirs by politicians seeking to influence policy and in twenty years the cycle repeated itself in the next generation. Parents were estranged from their children over petty, spiteful disagreements as well as the geographic upheaval that followed the Hanoverians move to England from Germany. Their English subjects also got tetchy over the fondness these kings had for their annual vacays back home and obvious reluctance to return to London. But then neither of the first two Georges ever planned on the fate they got and I do wonder if in the end either of them wished they’d just said, ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the offer of the British crown.
Before I started this book, I knew the basic outline of the era filled in with a great deal of swashbuckling and fancy dress. I knew German George and his son triumphed over two Jacobite attempts to regain the crown for the Stuart dynasty thus giving future authors a wealth of plots for their books. I knew women’s hoops and men’s coats were wide and their wigs were white and both sexes used copious amounts of face paint. But now that I’ve finished “The Courtiers,” I know so much more – and I can’t wait to apply my new knowledge. Must go find a Georgian romance to read! B