In this month’s posts, I will be looking at the lives and loves of some of Britain’s Georgian Queens and Princesses with the help of my guest contributors, American author and historian Geri Walter and the British genealogists and historians Joanne Major and Sarah Murden.
Novelist Hilary Mantel wrote in an article in the London Review of Books in 2013 that she was asked by an interviewer at the Hay-on-Wye literature festival to choose a famous person to give a book to and to choose the book to give them. Many readers of this blog will find her choice of book and the person she chose to give it to shocking because she chose to give a book published in 2006, by the cultural historian Caroline Weber; called Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, to Catherine Duchess of Cambridge.
“It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution,” said Mantel. She was concerned that Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags were hung. “Marie Antoinette was a woman eaten alive by her frocks,” says Mantel. “She was transfixed by appearances, stigmatised by her fashion choices. Politics were made personal in her. Her greed for self-gratification, her half-educated dabbling in public affairs, were adduced as a reason the French were bankrupt and miserable. It was ridiculous, of course. She was one individual with limited power and influence, who focused the rays of misogyny. She was a woman who couldn’t win. If she wore fine fabrics she was said to be extravagant. If she wore simple fabrics, she was accused of plotting to ruin the Lyon silk trade. But in truth she was all body and no soul: no soul, no sense, no sensitivity. She was so wedded to her appearance that when the royal family, in disguise, made its desperate escape from Paris, dashing for the border, she not only had several trunk loads of new clothes sent on in advance, but took her hairdresser along on the trip. Despite the weight of her mountainous hairdos, she didn’t feel her head wobbling on her shoulders. When she returned from that trip, to the prison Paris would become for her, it was said that her hair had turned grey overnight.”
The Duchess of Cambridge is of course no Marie-Antoinette. She is a modern, educated woman who has married for love but Mantel is right about royal women of the past and strangely prophetic in describing what has happened to Kate in the press recently. Duchess of Drab! wrote Sarah Vine in the Daily Mail on 8th April 2016, “It’s the mystery of the cosmos… How DOES a beautiful woman make designer outfits look so frumpy?”
Unlike her late mother-in-law, Diana Princess of Wales, Kate has not courted fashion or the press a crime she will pay heavily for I suspect but as a woman with a mind, she probably knows she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she courts fashion and sex appeal, she will be lambasted and lauded like tragic Diana, if she doesn’t she’ll remain a dowdy, uptight mouse.
The TV coverage is hardly better; Kate’s ‘achievements’ so far are those of her womb; her ability to supply an heir to the throne.
In this respect, Kate is like so many royal women in the past who receive only a passing reference in mainstream history books. When Kate ventures out to visit to some charity or other on her own she is lauded patronisingly by the newscasters as if they were praising a child. Surely, it’s not hard for a woman in possession of one of the country’s most expensive educations and a good university degree to talk to children or politicians for a half an hour after a briefing by Palace aids!
The Duchess of Cambridge is just the most recent in a line of royal women living out their lives in gilded cages. The difference between Kate and her Georgian forbears is that she has chosen her life and consciously sacrificed her private life and career success for love. This was not a luxury afforded to princesses in the past.
Disney may believe every girl wants to be a pastel packaged franchise of a slender-waisted fairy-tale princess but if they knew what most princesses went through in the past and even today they would not be so keen to join their ranks. The truth is many of these women were child brides, exchanged by their families to secure dynastic advantage or to settle political deals; personal happiness and fulfilment was never part of the transaction. To find out more follow this month’s posts.