|Photo credit: James Greed|
Charlotte Betts is a multi-award-winning author of six historical novels with a dash of adventure and romance. A daydreamer and a bookworm, Charlotte has enjoyed careers in fashion, interior design and property. She is currently working on her seventh novel, set in India. Charlotte lives on the Berkshire/Hampshire border in a seventeenth century cottage in the woods.
I didn’t enjoy history at school, finding all those lists of dates repeated by rote stultifyingly dull. How people used to live, however, was an entirely different matter and I loved the weekends when my parents would pile us into the old Wolseley and drive us to a National Trust property for a day out. I’d wander through cavernous kitchens imagining a dog turning the spit, pretend I was a housemaid cleaning out the fires or, better still, Lady Someone-or-other sitting up in the four poster sipping my chocolate. Strangely, it never occurred to me this was a history lesson, too.
I have a very visual imagination and most of my working life has been involved with design. When I started to write historical novels I discovered that the writing happened more easily if I’d read everything I could about the period and, if possible, visited the settings for the book. Once I was able to close my eyes and picture the details while walking around my heroine’s imaginary home or setting off with her on a journey, then the story flowed just as if it were a film taking place in my mind.
Learning about history is as important to me as writing the novel. The process of self-educating is fascinating because I choose to research something that really interests me. It was in this way that I came across Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the Prince Regent. The more I read about her extraordinary and tragic life, the more I knew I had to write about her.
Whilst Caroline isn’t the main character in The Dressmaker’s Secret, the factual events of her life frame the plot for my heroine, Emilia. She becomes a member of Caroline’s household in Italy, before travelling to England to find her lost family and unravel the mystery of priceless stolen paintings.
In 1794 Princess Caroline of Brunswick was twenty-six years old and longing for marriage and children. In London, the Prince of Wales’s extravagant lifestyle had plunged him into severe debt but Parliament promise to increase his allowance if he would marry his cousin, Caroline.
Lord Malmesbury was sent to Brunswick as the Prince’s envoy to arrange the marriage treaty. He reported that blonde and blue-eyed Caroline had ‘a pretty face, tolerable teeth’ and a ‘good bust’. He was, however, perturbed by her free and easy manner. The lively Princess was impulsive, indiscreet and careless about her toilette and he took on the challenging task of preparing her for the cool formality of the English court.
The Prince of Wales appointed his mistress, Lady Jersey, as Caroline’s Lady-in-Waiting. She met Caroline on her arrival at Greenwich but, in the first of many snubs, kept her waiting. The Prince and Princess met for the first time three days before their wedding. Caroline, wearing an unflattering dress that Lady Jersey provided for her, kneeled to the Prince, who formally embraced her. He recoiled, called for his equerry to bring him brandy and left the room. Affronted, Caroline commented that he was fatter and not as handsome as his picture. Later, it transpired that Lord Malmesbury’s efforts to teach the Princess to be particular about her personal hygiene had failed.
The wedding was equally disastrous. The Prince of Wales was agitated and by the evening had consumed so much brandy he collapsed by the fireplace in the bridal chamber. Despite this, nine months later Caroline gave birth to Princess Charlotte.
The unhappy marriage was made worse by the malicious gossip spread by Lady Jersey. Regardless of his own infidelities, the Prince was desperate to divorce his wife but the government wouldn’t sanction it without proof of Caroline’s adultery. Three days after Princess Charlotte’s birth the Prince drew up a will leaving all his property to Roman Catholic commoner Maria Fitzherbert, whom he had married illegally and without royal permission ten years before. He referred to Maria as ‘the wife of my heart and soul’ and to ‘the woman who is call’d the Princess of Wales’, he bequeathed one shilling.
The humiliations continued and, deeply hurt, Caroline reacted with increasingly reckless behaviour. In 1796 the papers carried reports that Lady Jersey had intercepted and opened letters written by Caroline to her mother, in which she made rude comments about the royal family and referred to the Queen as ‘Old Stuffy’. The press took Caroline’s side against the already unpopular Prince of Wales and called for Lady Jersey’s dismissal as Lady-in-Waiting. The couple separated but the cruelties continued. Caroline was denied proper access to her daughter and a suitable allowance and home.
The Princess rented a house in middle-class Blackheath, where she held some kind of a court, encouraging politicians and society figures to visit. She hosted eccentric and sometimes wild parties, entertaining visitors while she sat on the ground eating raw onions or romped on her knees on the carpet with Princess Charlotte. She indulged in flirtations with a number of her guests and she formed intense, but often short-lived, friendships without regard as to whether they were appropriate.
Caroline became the protector of seven or eight orphan children, supervising their education. Her fondness for children and for irresponsible jokes lead to a national scandal. She adopted a baby and teased her friend, Lady Douglas, by pretending that she had given birth to the boy herself. Later, following a quarrel between them, Lady Douglas spread vindictive rumours about the purportedly illegitimate baby. At once a secret committee was set up by the King, called The Delicate Investigation but, to the Prince of Wales’s chagrin, it was proved the child was not Caroline’s natural child. Caroline, however, was left with a stain upon her character.
In 1814, the Napoleonic wars ended. The Prince Regent hosted celebrations attended by royalty, peers of the realm and ministers of state. Caroline was incensed at not being invited and the press considered her treatment was shameful. The populace cheered her in the streets but, exhausted by her continuing humiliations, Caroline, now forty-six years old, left the country.
In Milan she hired a courier, thirty-year old Bartolomeo Pergami, who became indispensable to her. Following a sojourn at Villa d’Este by Lake Como, they set off on extensive travels abroad. Caroline elevated Pergami to chamberlain and purchased land and a title for him before they travelled back to Italy, eventually arriving in Pesaro in 1818. The events of her life from 1819 to her death in 1821 are outlined in The Dressmaker’s Secret.
Caroline was her own worst enemy and impossibly unsuited to life as a Princess. Although her common touch was popular with the people, her sometimes outrageous behaviour made her a painful burr in the side of the Royal Family. Despite that, she was courageous and loving. She tried to live for the moment, squeezing as much joy as possible into a life lived under difficult and often extremely unfair circumstances.
Last June, I travelled to Pesaro, a small town on the Adriatic coast. I walked on the Monte San Bartolo looking for the Villa Caprile and the Villa Vittoria where she lived, ambled around what was left of the town walls, dipped my fingers in the fountain in the Piazza del Poppolo and swam in the Baia Flaminia where she liked to bathe. All the while I had the feeling that Caroline was looking over my shoulder and smiling at the places where she had been happy.
|Baia Flaminia, Pesaro, Italy|
The Dressmaker’s Secret will be published by Piatkus on 26th May 2017 and is now available for pre-order on Amazon.