Jonathan Yardley

Lucy Worsley's "The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue at Kensington Palace"

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 22, 2010


Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace

By Lucy Worsley

Walker. 402 pp. $30

As inspiration for this account of life in the 18th-century Georgian court, Lucy Worsley takes the "portraits of forty-five royal servants that look down upon palace visitors from the walls and ceiling of the King's Grand Staircase" in Kensington Palace, best known today as the final residence of Princess Diana. This palace was "the one royal home that George I and his son [George II] really transformed and made their own," a place where the servants "witnessed romance and violence, intrigue and infighting, and almost unimaginable acts of hatred and cruelty between members of the same family."

She tells the story of the two Georges and their family through sketches of several of these servants, but her focus really -- and understandably -- is on the royal family itself. Brought over from Hanover (a part of what is now Germany) to replace the Stuart dynasty in 1714, the family was as dysfunctional as anything portrayed in the sleaziest of reality television. Father and son detested each other, with ramifications that rippled from one end of the family to the other and turned the court into "a bloody battlefield," a "world of skullduggery, politicking, wigs and beauty spots, where fans whistled open like flick knives." This is how Worsley summarizes the family's history:

"As a child, George II had lost his own mother when she was imprisoned for adultery. Then he lost contact with his eldest son through the move to Britain in 1714. Next he effectively lost his own father through [a] quarrel that also saw his three eldest daughters taken from him. His second son was snatched and died in George I's care, cementing the enmity between them. After a few short years of peaceful life with what was left of his family, George II lost his richly, truly, deeply beloved [wife] Caroline. His grandchildren were turned against him, and he lost his eldest son to a premature death. Death took three more daughters, Louisa, Anne and Caroline, while an ill-considered, snarling slight saw his only remaining son sink into silent enmity."

All of which is to say that "The Courtiers" is an exercise in the higher (or, depending on one's view of royalty, lower) gossip. Worsley, who as chief curator for a number of England's historic royal palaces appears to be something of a court groupie, writes breezy, chatty prose marred from time to time by the misuse of "hopefully" and "like." One does expect better of the Brits than that. Still, "The Courtiers" is amusing and, among other things, a useful reminder that, contrary to what many believe, sex was not invented in the 1960s.

Presumably Worsley and/or her publisher have put Kensington palace in the subtitle because of its association with Princess Di, but the real focus of the book is St. James's Palace, "a poorly designed, makeshift mansion for the monarchy since the great palace of Whitehall burned down in 1698" but one that "still provided the stage upon which the Georgia court's most important rituals were performed." In the early 18th century, "with the passing of greater power to Parliament the court was gradually becoming a backwater, and the ambitious no longer vied for the great court offices such as Groom of the Stool," but the period saw "a last great gasp of court life and a late flowering of that strange, complex, alluring but destructive organism called the royal household."

The palace drawing room where the court assembled looked more like a zoo than the elegant salon we imagine it to have been: "In the crush people would 'jostle and squeeze by one another,' shouting 'pardon' over their shoulders; it was simply 'impossible to hold a conversation.' Everyone laughed when Lord Onslow tumbled 'backward among all the crowd' and lay sprawling, while another gentleman, 'drunk and saucy,' had to be ejected for throwing a punch." First as Prince of Wales, then as king, George II "turned his backside to those he did not wish to acknowledge, a technique known as 'rumping.' The 'rumped' or spurned could console themselves with having earned membership of the exclusive 'Rumpsteak Club.' "

Both as prince and as king, George II was happily married to Caroline, but he was never without one or more mistresses. The first of these, Henrietta Howard, "was living apart from her brutal, heavy-drinking husband," simultaneously serving George's libidinous urges and, as one of six "Women of Princess Caroline's Bedchamber," the sartorial demands of his wife. That everyone managed to keep a stiff upper lip through this arrangement will seem bizarre to today's reader, but mistresses were a given of 18th-century court life, and wives did their best to tolerate them, in some instances to befriend them. When Henrietta decided she wanted to break away from the court and retreat into quiet private life, Caroline resisted her departure as strongly as George did, though in the end they capitulated, an exceedingly rare instance of royalty giving way to the wishes of an inferior.

This happened in 1731. Six years later Caroline took grievously ill, was totally misdiagnosed by her attending doctors -- scarcely unusual for the time, but ironic considering that both she and George II strongly supported medical science -- and died of complications from "a 'mortified,' or decayed, part of her bowel" after an agonizing decline. George was grief-stricken but quickly began scouting about for a new mistress: "The sight of the elderly king hunting for women was beginning to amuse and to horrify: observers thought he was simply getting too old for japes of this kind. He was now nearly sixty, a considerable age by the standards of his century." What he really wanted was "sympathy, rather than sex," and after a number of trial runs he found a measure of both.

Though women were prized at court and sometimes wielded influence beyond their status, they had few rights and were held in low esteem; Lord Chesterfield spoke for the male hierarchy when he called them "children of larger growth; they have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit; but for solid, reasoning good sense, I never in my life knew one that had it." In truth, though, "the whole sumptuous and luxurious cocoon of court life was in many ways a prison," as much for the men as for the women, since toadying was in even greater supply than rumping. The accounts Worsley gives of lords and ladies willingly sacrificing what dignity remained to them as they tried to wiggle their way upward on the court's greased pole is not pretty, though on the other hand not really any uglier than what goes on every day in the year 2010 in the salons of Imperial Washington.

To her credit, Worsley makes no attempt to underscore the parallels between the courtiers of Georgian England and those of London and Washington three centuries later, but they're self-evident. The human capacity for self-debasement in the search for glitter by association is deeply ingrained and hasn't changed despite the quantum leap from quill pens to iPads. The rooms in which the strivers now gather are warmer in winter and cooler in summer than was the King's Drawing Room at Kensington Palace, and the people in those rooms now smell a good deal better than George II's unbathed courtiers, but there's another stench that hasn't gone away, and won't.

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