Reviewed by Maria Perry
Described by Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, as ‘a real-life period drama to lose yourself in’ and by Simon Schama as ‘great historical writing’, Janice Hadlow’s The Strangest Family is her first book. It is 617 pages long and a useful compendium of the period currently being celebrated as ‘the Glorious Georges’.
The story takes us from the reign of George III's great-grandfather, King George I, to King George II’s death in 1820. It also encapsulates the Regency, gives a brief account of the reign of George IV, and pays proper homage to George III's illustrious granddaughter, Queen Victoria. My chief reservation about such a heroic undertaking is that in this age of tweets and soundbites, the ‘general reader’ may no longer have the attention span to embrace the books content to the full.
For cognoscenti of the eighteenth century, however, The Strangest Family is full of delights and surprises. In an Author’s Note, Ms Hadlow confesses that it took her ten years to write the book. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with Amanda Foreman’s track record for Georgiana and Flora Fraser’s memorable researches in the Royal Archives whilst compiling Princesses. Ten years is about average timing for an eighteenth-century blockbuster. Olwen Hedley, Queen Charlotte’s biographer, took seventeen years and she was a royal archivist at Windsor Castle.
For specialist readers, then, I hope I may say without giving offence that Ms Hadlow’s first five chapters contain no great surprises. In her sixth chapter, ‘Fruitful’, she truly gets into her stride, chronicling the shift in attitudes to childhood and to ‘parenting’, which took place so conspicuously in the Age of Enlightenment. She skilfully combines a history of changing practices in obstetrics (the developing role of the man-midwife and Rousseau’s advocacy of breastfeeding, a topic which obsessed aristocratic and enlightened women in the eighteenth century) with refreshing data about Noah’s Ark, the toy shop in High Holborn, opened in 1760 by William Hamley as a precursor to the family emporium in Regent Street.
The chapters on education are also lively, exploring the relationships between the princes and their tutors and the princesses and their governesses. Queen Charlotte’s patronage of Mrs Trimmer, the founder of the Sunday Schools, where poor children could learn to read and write, is featured. So is the Queen’s ruthless habit of luring away her friends’ teachers to instruct the royal brood.
Most of the action takes place at St James’s, the Queen’s House (now Buckingham Palace), Kew, Windsor Castle, and Charlotte’s ‘earthly paradise’, Frogmore, but there are entertaining glimpses of the royal couple staying with friends. On visits to Nuneham Courtenay, home of the Earl and Countess of Harcourt, Queen Charlotte would invite herself with the words, ‘We propose storming your castle of the 18th of this month’; while the King, knowing the Earl was a collector, once sent him a spoof April Fool letter from the antique dealer ‘Marmaduke Spooner’.
The later chapters on the marriage of the spinster princesses and the tragic death of Princess Charlotte, heiress to the throne, are finely told, though some readers may feel too much faith is placed on the evidence of Lord Glenbervie, a notorious scandalmonger. There are also omissions. Although quoting extensively from his daughter’s memoirs, Hadlow never mentions Charlotte’s stalwart confidant, Friedrich Albert. He had done her hair since she was twelve years old and she persuaded George III to let her bring him from Mecklenberg to continue dressing it when she was Queen of England. In the accounts of the Western Journey after the King’s illness, the historic visit to Longleat is also left out.
But these are trivia. To have written a first book (including some chapters containing more than two hundred footnotes) while successively holding posts as Controller of BBC2 and Head of History at Channel 4 is an achievement indeed.
Best known as a Tudor historian, Maria Perry (Somerville, 1961-4) has written six books. Her seventh, a biography of Queen Charlotte with the working title Queen of Flowers, is in the pipeline. George III and Queen Charlotte, by Benjamin West, reproduced courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.