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Books: Quennell’s Queen

5 minute read

CAROLINE OF ENGLAND—Peter Quenne//— Viking ($3.75).

Few writers can handle an early 18th-Century English subject with a grace and sang-froid that would have passed muster in that brilliant age. Peter Quennell (pronounced Kweneir) is (with Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell, Lord David Cecil) one of the few. An Oxonian of ascetic good looks and elegant manners, Quennell was turned loose six years ago on a great collection of Byron’s letters owned by Publisher John Murray. His Byron: The Years of Fame was the sprightly result; his preoccupation with the 18th Century followed. In the spirit of the age, Quennell has rapidly taken three wives, all blondes and beauties. As a 20th-century Englishman short of cash, he works full time for an advertising agency (now moved to Brighton).

Caroline of England, subtitled An Augustan Portrait, is the story of the smooth-bosomed, strong-minded Princess of Brandenburg-Anspach who married George Augustus of Hanover (George II) and contrived to rule him and England in the spacious years 1727-37. Peter Quennell’s biography of Caroline is the second to appear within the last six months. Less formal than the first, Caroline of Anspach by R. L. Arkell (TIME, Aug. 7) it is actually less a history of the queen than an able and entertaining study of the society in which she moved.

Soon after their marriage in Germany in 1705, Prince George Augustus, who regarded gallantry as the duty of a prince, punctiliously took a mistress in the person of an English visitor, the charming Henrietta Howard, later Lady Suffolk. Caroline allowed no displeasure to appear and his foresighted grandmother “regarded the affair as eminently suitable, since her grandson would now have a chance of improving his English.” Prince George, his wife and mistress amicably made their way to the English court on the accession of the House of Hanover in 1714.

As soon as he had a chance, George Augustus’ bored father, George I, fled from England to his beloved Hanover for a long vacation. Prince George Augustus and lively Caroline proceeded to ingratiate themselves with the English at cheerful Hampton Court, surrounded by learned English divines and delightful English ladies. To the stolid, jealous King, who already detested his son and feared his daughter-in-law, their merrymaking was impertinent. A year later George Augustus and Caroline were summarily expelled from the royal household, set up an “opposition court” at Leicester House, where Careerists Pope and Gay and the ugly Philip Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield, exerted their strenuous good manners.

A reconciliation with the King was at last effected by Caroline and her close friend, the astute and redoubtable Sir Robert Walpole. In 1720 the South Sea Bubble expanded (accompanied by a wave of speculation in other fantasies such as “Puckle’s Machine Gun, designed to discharge ’round and square cannon balls and bullets . . . making a total revolution in the Art of War’ “) and deflated (“the proprietors of private madhouses had their hands so full that they were obliged to shut their doors . . .”). In 1727 the old King died and the coronation of George Augustus and pomp-loving Caroline (who had a “petticoat so heavily jewel-encrusted that it was found necessary to contrive a sort of pulley that en abled her to raise the hem when she knelt down”) ushered in the Augustan Age.

Up to this point Biographer Quennell is amusing, then his story begins to take on a savor of majesty as Queen Caroline moves into middle age. George II was pig headed, rude and outrageous with Caroline but she remained irresistible to him to the end. With his mistress, Lady Suffolk, he was dutiful, visiting her punctually every evening at nine; with Caroline he was romantic, and his vast letters to her from abroad are, even in their descriptions of his passing affairs, among the most eloquent and moving love letters of the time. Ever affectionate and submissive, adroit enough to let the King be kingly, Caroline soon ruled him completely, sharing her power only with Walpole.

A curious confidant of the Queen was the febrile, effeminate Lord Hervey, whose microscopically detailed and exhaustingly brilliant Memoirs are one of Quennell’s main sources. When Frederick Louis, the Prince of Wales, had a Hanoverian brawl with his father and mother, Hervey took pleasure in infuriating the Prince by composing long letters of wounded virtue to be copied and sent by the Prince’s discarded mistress.

Queen Caroline was a tireless walker, card player, controversialist. She appreciated Dean Swift, she corresponded with the Philosopher Leibniz, she promoted the great Berkeley to his Irish bishopric. Her courage was not fully known until she was on her death bed, when the King learned what she had desperately kept secret from him: that she had suffered for years from a painful umbilical rupture. An operation brought on gangrene. Quennell’s re-creation of these full-blooded, uncomfortable people is nowhere more penetrating than in his account of the Queen’s noble and terrible last days, during which George Augustus attended her with great devotion and once observed in his old bullying tones that she “resembled a calf that had just had its throat cut.”

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