Thursday, 21 June 2012

Still running

  Atalanta by Heinrich Keller, 1802,  Kunsthaus, Zurich. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

It was a time of high taxes, low wages, rising unemployment, failed revolutions, reactionary oppression, and deepening social inequality while the poor despaired and the rich luxuriated in power....



testing the limits of self-determination

part ten: Heredity and Rebellion

During the European revolutionary wars of 1792-1815, while women's rights were given theoretical vindication by feminist intellectuals like Mary Wollstonecraft and Germaine de Staël, other female writers, actors and painters continued the daily struggle to earn their own livings, young aristocrats, still confined within traditional patriarchy, had leisure to glut their imaginations on Romantic literature. 

Like Louise, queen of Prussia, in the moment she first saw the Schneekoppe mountain, they could feel themselves at one with the most powerful forces in nature, or, like her relative Princess Charlotte of Wales a generation later, they could identify themselves with the passions and impulses of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, and determine to shape their own lives.

Louise (1776-1810) and Charlotte (1796-1817) were both national symbols during a time of European crisis; their early deaths released floods of grief in their respective countries, collective emotional breakdowns that are frequently compared to the late 20th century hysteria surrounding Diana, Princess of Wales

Louise was a paragon of regal behaviour and beauty; Charlotte was a rowdy teenage rebel against paternal authority. Queen Louise had personal influence over German policy while Charlotte was a might-have-been of British history, famous for dying young rather than for anything she did in life, one of the lost heirs to the throne, and the only one known for “rolling about". 

She was the only child of mismatched cousins, the grossly epicurean Prince Regent and the uncouth Caroline of Brunswick, shocked some contemporary royal watchers for behaving more like a country hoyden than a princess.They struggled to reconcile her "masculine rigour" and "acts" to her traditional feminine role. 

Her impetuosity and candour, her instinctual behaviour, her sensual appetites, her enthusiasms, her wildness that were characteristics of the Romantic struggle for personal freedom were disapprovingly held in check by adults. “Doucement, chèrie”, her urbane husband (the future “Uncle Leopold” of her cousin Victoria) would whisper to her whenever she got out of control in public, as if he was breaking in a horse. Charlotte took his corrections with good humour; she seems to have laughed a lot.

A face of heredity and rebellion: detail of the 1816 marble bust by the neoclassicist Peter Turnerelli, sculpted when Charlotte was twenty, showing a strong facial resemblance to her grandfather, George III. Her parents were first cousins, sharing Frederick, Prince of Wales (son of George II, father of George III) as a grandfather. Charlotte rebelled against paternal authority by insisting she marry a man she wanted.and shape her own life. It has been hypothesized that part of her genetic inheritance was the blood disorder, porphyria, that may have caused George III's dementia. In her portraits, her face looks troubled, and worryingly overweight for such a young woman, but she had a clear mind and a sense of humour. National Portrait Gallery collection
Charlotte had been a symbol of hope in the future, after decades of doubt, hardship and unrest during which her father and other members of the ruling class had scandalized instead of inspired the people with their profligate pursuit of pleasure. Twenty-three years of almost uninterrupted war with France had raised taxes and disrupted family and commercial life; industrial innovations had pushed traditional workers into lower wages or unemployment, while the privileged classes flaunted their wealth and consolidated power. The terrifying excesses of the French Revolution rather than approval of the constitutional monarchy had deterred popular support of republicanism in mainland Britain.

People wanted stability, fairness and fertility, they wanted Charlotte to be their mother-goddess presiding over a better world, not to be struck down like a sacrificial daughter.

Like all young heirs presumptive, Charlotte benefitted from a halo effect; a lot of her popularity was simply due to her not being her father, resented for his self-indulgent extravagance, the epitome of over-fed, parasitic inherited wealth. Her personal rebellion against him over her marriage appealed to the public imagination and the political Opposition readily took advantage of her filial disaffection. 

Her alliance with the populist Whigs won her the reputation of having reformist sympathies. The public were reassured by reports of her independent spirit, kind heart and wholesomeness. She cultivated her common touch, sometimes with a swagger by boarding a ship she wanted to inspect by climbing the ladder like a common sailor rather than be hoisted in a chair of state, and sometimes quietly in unostentatious charity to the poor.  She and her husband Leopold, a gifted diplomat, had a flair for public relations unknown in British royalty since the Stuart Charles II and his niece Mary II in the late 17th century. Inevitably, Charlotte was the focus of unwanted press attention, before and after her marriage.

Nothing in her character or life conformed to stereotype. In one of the first courtly biographies after her death, Robert Huish wrote that "the princess had a sort of masculine rigour". In her conflicted personality, struggling to find and shape her own identity, she was a typical product of the Romantic Age.The neglected child of a broken marriage, embarrassed by her self-dramatizing, sleazy parents, a rowdy, uninhibited girl, greedy for life, eating too much and falling in love too much, bored by protocol, she may not have been dignified or feminine enough for a conventional princess, but Charlotte herself had the will to reign even if it meant challenging paternal authority. She demonstrated it by rejecting the Regent's choice of husband for her, by her insistence that she not be married out of Britain and that she be united only with a man she personally respected and loved. 

 Slimmed down and feminized by Thomas Lawrence's flattering art to look like a conventional princess, Charlotte's wild, boisterous personality has been diminished, too. Detail of engraving by Richard Golding, c.1822 (NPG Collection) of Lawrence's portrait of Charlotte during her pregnancy, 1817.

Charlotte won the battle for personal happiness denied most women of her time and class. She disobeyed her father, and when she was deferential to her husband, it was because she had chosen him. Her idealistic views on marriage with a sensible man who would be an equal friend and mentor seem inspired by her reading of Jane Austen as much as her determination not to repeat the mistakes of her warring parents. 

Her story starts as a Regency romp about the tom-boy heiress of licentious and selfish parents who is being forced into a marriage of convenience with a buffoon, “Silly Billy” of Orange; inspired from her reading of Romantic novels to marry true to her own feelings, she defies her father and runs away from home in a hackney cab; she is wooed by various highly unsuitable fortune-hunting German princelings, sexily swashbuckling in their cavalry uniforms, until she is tamed by the one she truly loves, the most handsome, silver-tongued and poor of her suitors, a man who will be lover and substitute father; conscious of her superiority in class though not in merit, she proposes to him, and they are married to universal approval, acclaimed at the end as a model couple settling down into new, respectable 19th century domesticity; only that is not the end, the comedy is twisted into tragedy with the shocking, unnecessary death in childbirth, the loss of young mother and baby and the suicide of the doctor unjustly blamed for killing off two generations of royalty.

Matthew Wyatt’s marble cenotaph to Charlotte (sculpted 1820-24), which was commissioned by public subscription, was eventually opened for view in St George's Chapel, Windsor in 1826, after complaints in the press about the management committee’s long delay.
Much admired at the time, it idealized the nation’s mourning in the gracefully shrouded figures seated round the tomb and the angels lifting the hefty Hanoverian princess
along with her stillborn baby to heaven.
The unrestrained sentiment, and the presence of gothic angels redolent of conventional piety, are signs of how far the neoclassical style in Romantic art had been diluted by the 1820s into a softer, less rational expression of romanticised realism.
The ideal Victorian woman, complaisant mother, victim and martyr,
is being created out of unruly Charlotte's apotheosis.

For most of her contemporaries, her death was a quasi-religious symbol of lost innocence and redemption at a time of acute national anxiety, for those with a vested interest in the Hanoverian settlement it was a political disaster, threatening the Hanoverian dynasty with extinction, that demanded prompt pragmatic action. 

The undignified race of middle-aged, over-weight debauchees, the Regent’s brothers, to beget a legitimate heir yielded Victoria within eighteen months of Charlotte’s death. The mother, yet another woman doing her unromantic duty, was Leopold’s sister. 

Leopold, cheated by Charlotte’s death of being the father of a future British monarch and of being prince consort himself, was prepared to play a long game. His biggest match-making success was the marriage twenty-three years later of his niece, Victoria, to his nephew, Albert. With characteristic diplomatic grace, he named his only daughter, by his second marriage, Charlotte. A champion of European constitutional monarchy, he was elected King of the newly independent Belgians in 1831.

Charlotte’s death giving birth is a reminder of the physical risk all women took, from the least to the most privileged, whether a radical intellectual like Wollstonecraft who had to earn her own living while she fought for women’s independence or a princess fighting in luxury for her personal right to a normal life, because of a fault in human evolutionary biology that a few improvements in medical procedures and hygiene were needed to correct.

Speculation about another medical tragedy hovers over Charlotte's memory, the possibility that she had inherited porphyria, the blood disorder reputedly passed on to the Stuarts and Hanoverians from Mary Queen of Scots that is a putative cause of George III's episodic madness. Her miscarriages and the complications of her final pregnancy have been attributed to the disease.

As yet unproven, these claims provide a neat pattern, the reassuring sound of cogs clicking into place, a sensationalist explanation, dressed up in medical terms, similar to belief in a family curse, or conspiracy theories, more comforting for us to accept, and easier to sell, than random mutations of nature and human error.   

Making certain diseases more glamorous, vampiric or royal, than others does nothing to relieve the sum of human suffering or help us understand how to deal with genetic susceptibility. It is just as plausible that George III was afflicted with a bi-polar disorder, that could have been genetic, and Charlotte's death in labour was due to Amniotic Fluid Embolism, a critical but not genetic condition that is still difficult to treat and sometimes fatal today.

Another way we like to tidily dispose of our mortal coil through the example of famous personalities is to make selected individuals take moral responsibility for their fate, while others are seen as unlucky victims. 

Unlike his father, who was respectably middle-class when he wasn't mad, the far more intelligent George IV's miserable end - obese, alcoholic, delusional and unloved - is always blamed on his personal lifestyle choices, not on an inherited predisposition to manic depression, caused by chemical imbalance exacerbated by his substance abuse.  

Self-aggrandizing, obsessed with the theatricality of monarchy, subconsciously revulsed by his own princely uselessness, he hallucinated that he had won the Battle of Waterloo.