The Secret Wife of King George IV
If you’ve ever read a Regency Romance or an historical romance set in the regency period, it’s very likely you’ve run into George, the Prince Regent, more commonly known as Prinny. He was an interesting character who is most often portrayed in novels as a caricature of himself: the corpulent, lascivious spendthrift who’s also quite the snappy dresser. But obviously there was more to him, and some of this is revealed in an interesting way in The Secret Wife of King George IV.
One of the most fascinating things about George is that he loved and married a woman, a Roman Catholic woman, whom he never publicly acknowledged as his wife. Maria Fitzherbert, a twice-widowed older woman, came into the prince’s life when he was still a very young man. She was entirely unsuitable. She was six years older, obviously not a virgin, and her religion precluded his ever becoming serious about her. But he did become serious and very quickly. Maria was for him everything that all his other women were not. She was gentle, kind, and honest, and not in the least political. George pursued her, intending to make her his mistress, but she was too virtuous to accept him on those terms. So he risked everything he had to make her his wife and married her illegally, since the heir had to get the King’s permission.
Since this is a historical novel – not a romance – and these were real people, it is not a surprise to learn that their marriage had significant problems. Initially the problems were small. George was a spendthrift and had many debts, primarily because he strongly opposed his father, King George III, so George III didn’t allow his son a larger budget. Prince George also defied his father politically and refused to marry a woman of his father’s choice. So George and Maria never had enough money. Also they were continually haunted by society gossip since they never clarified whether they had actually married. The London newspapers were not kind; Maria lost her reputation and was made out to be George’s mistress. And as their relationship continued, their problems became greater and more complex. The couple dealt with many harsh realities over the course of their forty-five year marriage.
I liked this book. It had an interesting subject, it was full of fascinating secondary characters including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the great orator Charles Fox, and George III, and it revealed the complexity of upper echelon Georgian England. I was glad to see Prince George portrayed as a real person with his own ambitions and emotions instead of the cardboard buffoon he appears as in many Regencies. Maria was a good character as well. She was very likable, and I honestly wished things had turned out better for her. The book made me want to learn more about their lives.
The book did have a few weaknesses, however. George and Maria’s relationship spanned many decades, but Haeger concentrated on the years in the beginning of their marriage, for obvious reasons. She skimmed over the later decades, and since she used dates rather sparingly, the story sometimes seemed to happen almost out of time. It became more and more difficult to visualize the main characters because of this, and I caught a few chronological errors along the way.
Also, as the novel progressed its tone sank into a maudlin sentimentality, stressing repeatedly the soul-mate quality of the relationship. The book so emphasized George and Maria’s undying affection for each other that it became almost too much.
But my biggest problem with this book is that Haeger tried over and over to rationalize and excuse George’s bad behavior towards Maria. She gave him noble reasons for his betrayals, and that did not wash with me. I was grateful that she did not villify him, but he most assuredly was not a saint. This was a man who did spend too much money, who did take mistresses, and who did everything to excess. And some of his actions simply cannot be explained away.
I can still give a slight recommendation to this book, however, because of its interesting setting, characters, and story. Georgian/Regency England was a fascinating time, and George IV was a man of his age. For those of you who like biographies but wish they had more emotional punch, The Secret Wife of King George IV is for you.