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The Wicked Uncles
If my cousin Charlotte had not died so tragically—and her baby with her—I should never have been born and there would never have been a Queen Victoria. I suppose there is a big element of chance in everybody's life, but I always thought this was especially so in mine. But for that sad event, over which the whole nation mourned, my father would have gone on living in respectable sin—if sin can ever be respectable—with Madame St. Laurent, who had been his companion for twenty-five years; my mother would have stayed in Leiningen, though she might have married someone else, for although she was a widow with two children, she was only thirty-one years old and therefore of an age to bear more children. And I should never have been born.
It is hard to imagine a world without oneself, as I remarked to my governess, Baroness Lehzen, when she told me all this. She was a gossip and she liked to talk about the scandals that seemed perpetually to circulate about my family. She excused herself by pointing out that it was history, and because of what lay before me—although it was not certain at that time that I should come to the throne—it was something I should know.
It was unfortunate that my family, on my father's side, had a flair for creating scandal—although this made those conversations with Lehzen more interesting than if they had been models for virtue. Almost all the uncles behaved without the decorum expected of a royal family; there were even rumors about the aunts. Poor Grandpapa, who had been a faithful husband and kept strictly within the moral code—so different from his sons—had to be put under restraint because he was mad; and Grandmama Queen Charlotte, even though she had been equally virtuous, had never found favor with the people. So many queens in our history had failed to win approval because they could not produce an heir; Queen Charlotte had overdone her duty in that respect and fifteen children had been born to her. "Encumbrances," "A Drain on the Exchequer," it was said. How difficult it was to please the people!
I was always interested in hearing of my cousin Princess Charlotte, which was natural since I owed my life to her death. Her father, who was the Prince Regent when I was born and became King George IV when I was about seven months old, had created more scandal than any of his brothers, and one of the greatest scandals in that family of scandals was the relationship between Charlotte's parents.
Charlotte had married my mother's brother, Prince Leopold, and Louisa Lewis, who had lived at Claremont with Charlotte and Leopold, told me they had been true lovers. Charlotte had been a hoyden. "There was no other word for it," said Louisa, her lips twitching, implying that the frailties of Charlotte made her all the more lovable. That puzzled me considerably and I wondered why some people's faults made them endearing, when virtues did not always arouse the same kindly feelings.
Charlotte, however, this flouter of conventions, this wild untamed girl, had won the hearts of all about her, and chiefly that of Prince Leopold, her young husband, whose character and temperament were so different from her own.
"He was heartbroken when she died," Louisa told me. "Everyone was heartbroken."
Discussing this later with Lehzen, I remarked that perhaps people loved her because she was dead, for I had noticed that when people died they did seem to become more lovable than when they were alive.
However, the story was that Charlotte was the hope of the nation for she was the Regent's only child, and heiress to the throne, for although his brothers had many children, they were illegitimate. Therefore when the much-loved Charlotte died, and her baby with her, there was great consternation throughout the family, for without an heir the House of Hanover would come to an end. Much later I talked of this with Lehzen and she confirmed what Louisa had told me of Charlotte's popularity.
"Her death was unexpected," she said. "What was to be done? The Regent was married, though unhappily, and he refused to live with his wife, so there was no hope there. And what of the others? There was Frederick, Duke of York, the second son." She shook her head. "He was the Regent's favorite brother and a gentleman much respected, although there had been a scandal . . ."
"Of course there was a scandal," I said. "There is always a scandal."
"Well, we will pass over that . . ."
"Oh no, Lehzen, we will not pass over that."
When this conversation took place I was in my early teens and already developing a certain imperiousness—which was so deplored by my mother. But although I was bubbling over with affection for those I loved, and could be equally vehement in my dislikes, I was at this moment aware of my destiny, and I was determined to have obedience from those about me . . . even my dear old Lehzen . . . just as I had made up my mind that I would not be frustrated by my mother or the odious John Conroy. So I insisted that she tell me of the scandal attached to Uncle Frederick.
"It was a woman of course. It was often women with your uncles—almost always in fact. He was Commander in Chief of the Army and she was an adventuress, Mary Anne Clarke by name, born in Ball and Pin Alley, a little byway near Chancery Lane, so they say. She married first a compositor and his master fell in love with her and sent her to be educated. I do not know what happened to the first husband, but there was a second named Clarke. Well, a woman like that will have lovers by the score, and somehow she came to the notice of your Uncle Frederick." Lehzen pursed her lips. "It's her sort who make the money fly when they get a chance. You'd think they would respect it. But oh no, my lady Mary Anne was eating off the best plate. The Duke promised her a thousand pounds a year so that she could live in a style she thought suited to her talents, but money was always a problem in the family and when Mary Anne did not receive her money she looked around for means of adding to her income. She had the idea that she would accept bribes for the service of getting commissions for those who paid her."
"And did my uncle assist her in this?"
"That's how it seemed. Charges were brought against him and there was a great scandal. She threatened to publish his letters . . ."
I nodded and remained silent. I knew from experience that if I spoke too often and betrayed too much interest, Lehzen would remember she was talking too freely and that would be an end—temporarily—to these interesting revelations.
"Then of course . . . his marriage. He was separated from the Princess Frederica almost as soon as he was married to her, and, as you know, the Duchess went to live at Oaklands Park with her dogs and other animals where she stayed till she died. So although Frederick was the next in line, he was old and could not be expected to produce an heir . . ."
I loved this saga of the uncles. But because they were a scandal and a disgrace to the family, as my mother said, I found it hard to get information about them and had to prize what I did learn from Lehzen over a long period.
Next to Uncle Frederick came Uncle William. He was the Duke of Clarence, who was in time to become King William IV. He had always been a rather ridiculous figure. He was different from all the other uncles, for whatever else they were, they were highly cultivated, courtly, with exquisite manners. Not so Uncle William. He had been brought up differently and sent to sea at an early age; he prided himself on being a bluff sailor. He was garrulous and fond of making public speeches that were often diatribes against this and that, and sometimes quite incoherent. In his youth he must have been quite a romantic figure because he entered into a relationship with Dorothy Jordan, an actress, and by her had ten children. He had set up house in Bushey where he and Dorothy Jordan lived harmoniously albeit without benefit of clergy, just as my father had with Madame St. Laurent. The uncles seemed to have a flair for that sort of relationship. But with the death of Charlotte he had to find a wife quickly, just as my father had. In the end he had treated Dorothy Jordan badly. She went to France and died there unhappily. Uncle William had made a fool of himself on several occasions by asking the hand in marriage of certain ladies—none of them royal—and being publicly refused, except by one, a certain Miss Wykeham, who did accept him; but when Charlotte died and the need for an heir was imperative, he had to abandon her and be married to Adelaide, the daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. I grew to love her dearly.
Well, that was Uncle Clarence who was to conflict so bitterly with my mother. Next to Clarence came my father. I often wished that I did not have to rely on other people's pictures of him. It is sad never to have seen one's own father. I loved to hear stories of him, although, of course, they were not all flattering.
I knew he wished to marry Madame St. Laurent, and I came to believe that the Royal Marriage Act was responsible for a great deal of the immorality in my family, for this act forbade sons and daughters of the King who were under the age of twenty-five to marry without royal consent; and when they were past that age, they had to have the consent of Parliament. It was a cruel act in a way, but because of the nature of the Princes, I suppose it was necessary.
So my father knew he would never be allowed to marry Madame St. Laurent. I heard that she was not only beautiful but kind and wise. She had escaped from the revolution in France and must have been a very romantic figure.
The Regent had honored her. He had always been lenient with his brothers' misdemeanors—and quite rightly so, because he had committed many himself. Poor Madame St. Laurent! I was sorry for her, but I suppose it is what women must expect if they enter into irregular relationships.
My father must marry. An heir was of the greatest importance if the family was to survive. Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen and Victoria of Leiningen, widow of the ruler of that principality, were available. Which was for which did not seem to matter very much. I have often thought how different my life would have been if Adelaide had been my mother. But then I suppose I should have been different, so that is a futile conjecture.
It was decided that my father, being more cultivated and princely in his manners than William, should have Victoria because she would have to be wooed, whereas Adelaide, no longer in the first flush of youth, and there having been a dearth of suitors for her hand, would be obliged to take what was given her. Victoria, on the other hand, as a widow once married for reasons of state, would have the right to choose her next husband.
So it was to be Victoria for Kent and Adelaide for Clarence.
And after Kent, Cumberland. From my earliest days I had thought of him as wicked Uncle Ernest. His appearance was enough to strike terror into the bravest child. This was largely because he had lost his left eye, and I was not sure what was more terrifying—the glimpse of that empty socket or the black mask he sometimes wore over it. But perhaps it was not so much Uncle Ernest's appearance as his reputation that struck those chords of alarm in my youthful heart.
But his reputation fitted his appearance and this was largely due to the fact that about nine years before my birth he had been involved in a very unsavory case when his valet, a man called Sellis, was found in his bed with his throat cut. The Duke himself was wounded in the head, and this could have been fatal if the weapon that had struck him had not come into contact with his sword. There was no explanation of what happened but Sellis did have a beautiful wife and Ernest's reputation with regard to women was rather shady. The general belief was that Uncle Ernest had quarreled with his valet over the latter's wife and had wounded himself in the affray. It was a most unpleasant case and never forgotten.
About three years before Charlotte's death he had married a woman whose reputation was as sinister as his own. This was his cousin Frederica, daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg—so her aunt was Queen Charlotte of England—who had been married twice, once to Frederick of Prussia and once to Frederick of Solms-Braunfels, both of whom had died mysteriously.
So there was Uncle Ernest with Aunt Frederica, and suspicion of murder had been attached to them both; and it was not entirely due to my mother's hatred of them that I felt this repugnance.
Uncle Sussex was the sixth son and ninth child of King George and Queen Charlotte. He lived in Kensington Palace so I saw him now and then during my childhood. He was what is known as an eccentric; and his contribution to the family scandal was, as had come to be expected, through marriage. He was not promiscuous. As a matter of fact, that was not really a great sin of the uncles. Even George IV was faithful—more or less—to his women while they kept their positions. Uncle Sussex fell in love with Lady Augusta Murray when he was on the Continent and they were married there; and when they came to England they went through the ceremony once more. Alas, although it was a love match it was not approved of by the King and Parliament, so it was not recognized as a marriage. The happy pair did not mind that at first. But such considerations blight a marriage, I suppose. Sussex had always been a rebel. I remembered hearing that when he was very young he had been locked in his bedroom for wearing Admiral Keppel's colors at the time of an election—and the King was against Admiral Keppel. It may have been that there was such a strict rule in the household that the children were certain to rebel. Uncle Sussex went on rebelling all his life.
From the Trade Paperback edition.