Tag Archives: opera

A Day At The Opera

As the day for the visit to the opera approached, Charlotte also agreed to dine with her father on that evening. There was no conflict in this. It was customary in these days to dine before going to the opera or the theatre; the Prince Regent, like most people, dined in the late afternoon.

There were sixteen at the dinner, among them the Duke of York, but not the Duchess, and politicians from both parties, including Sheridan and Adam. As it was bound to do, the conversation turned to politics. When too much wine had been consumed, the Prince launched into a vehement attack on the Whigs. He censured the leader of the Whig opposition, Earl Grey, for not having joined a coalition in the previous year when he was offered the opportunity, and he censured the Duke of York for corresponding with him about a possible future government.

Until he was sworn in as Regent, the Prince had been an ostentatious Whig himself. At one of his daughter’s birthday parties he has told the guests proudly that he was having her educated to espouse the ideals of Charles James Fox. Once he became Regent, therefore, the Whigs fully expected that, after a year, when he would have the power to do so, he would dismiss the government and call a general election.

By now, however, it was clear to everyone that he was never going to do any such thing. After all, it was the Tory government, now led by Spencer Perceval, that had made him Regent, and it was the Tory government that was winning the war in Spain. It was neither in his interest nor the nation’s to risk a general election at such moment.

To Charlotte her father’s conduct was nothing short of a betrayal. She was the Whig he once wanted her to be, despite the influence of Tory tutors. She could never be as fickle as he was. As a Whig she was sincere, committed and above all radical. Her letters to Mercer are full of recommendations of Whig pamphlets and journals. Shortly before the dinner she had written to her about what her father and his government were doing to suppress the Roman Catholic majority in Ireland. In a letter so passionate that her respect for grammar and syntax was even less evident than usual, she wrote:

I do indeed feel very very unhappy & uneasy about this business in Ireland; it but too too clearly shows the side he has taken. Good God, what will become of us! Of Ireland! We shall without doubt lose that, & as English people all faith & confidence in their Prince. Don’t call me a croker after all this, nor a republican for saying that the Irish will be justified in anything they do, if their long promised freedom is not granted.

As the conversation at the dinner table became more and more heated, Charlotte became more and more agitated. The Duke of York defended himself. Lord Lauderdale defended Lord Grey, who was no longer welcome at Carlton House. Eventually Charlotte burst into tears, stood up and turned to leave. Sheridan, not yet too drunk not to be chivalrous, left his seat and escorted her to the door.

Back at Warwick House Charlotte composed herself enough to make the short journey to Covent Garden. As she and the Duchess of York entered their box at the opera house, she waved over-excitedly to everyone she knew in the stalls. A few judged her behaviour a little undignified, but to most people it was charming. Then she noticed that the box opposite was occupied by Earl Grey. Here was a chance to tell the world where her political loyalties lay. Having already attracted his attention, she leaned out and, for all to see, blew kisses at the leader of the opposition.

A few days later, after the Whig gossips had spread the story of the dinner party throughout London, ‘dear Lord Byron’, whom Charlotte had been ‘seeing a great deal lately’, wrote a short poem in praise of the Princess who did not yet know how popular she was. It was entitled ‘To a Lady Weeping’.

Weep, daughter of a noble line,
A sire’s disgrace, a realm’s decay –
Ah! happy if each tear of thine
Could wash a father’s fault away!

Weep, for thy tears are virtue’s tears,
Auspicious to these suffering isles –
And be each drop, in future years,
Repaid thee of thy people’s smiles.

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

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Portrait of Charles Grey 2nd Earl Grey,  Sir Thomas Lawrence, circa 1828, National Portrait Gallery

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Charlotte’s Lamentable Dinner With Her Father

Charlotte, to her intense relief, was back in London. Even though Miss Knight described Warwick House as ‘miserably out of repair, and almost falling into ruins’, it was, she said ‘a seat of happiness to Princess Charlotte compared to Lower Lodge at Windsor’. The present arrangement was that she and her charge were to be one week in London and one at Lower Lodge. But Charlotte was ‘anxiously desirous’, said Miss Knight, ‘to remain in Town as much as possible.’ There, the prospect of a more entertaining life opened out: ‘when in Town we were to dine at Carlton House, to go to the Play and Opera, and to have a party at Warwick House, besides balls and great parties at Carlton House.’ And indeed, this gay life seemed to be beginning when Miss Knight, two days after her arrival, was invited to accompany the young Princess to dinner with her father.

‘We went at 7, and I was presented to the Regent in form.’ But she was surprised to find no ladies present, only Miss Goldsworthy, the Princesses’ governess, now very old, very deaf, and inclined to drop asleep over her dinner. However, there were three Royal Dukes, York, Cumberland and Cambridge, and Miss Knight’s feelings, so easily upset, were appeased by their princely graciousness. She could find no fault with the meal or with the surroundings; the rooms were ‘fitted up with great splendour and elegance’, though far too hot.

But she could not approve of her host’s manner to his daughter. He hardly spoke to her, and showed her no affection. ‘His greatest attentions,’ she wrote, ‘were for Miss Goldsworthy,’ to whom he evidently chose to show more favour than the daughter of Sir Joseph Knight. Her conclusion was that ‘every consideration was to be sacrificed to the plan of keeping the Princess Charlotte as long as possible a child; and consequently, whoever belonged to her was to be thought a nurse or preceptress, inferior, of course, to the nurses and preceptresses of the Princesses her aunts’. Although inclined to be huffy on her own account, Miss Knight was far more concerned on Charlotte’s, now that she had seen her vis-a-vis her father.

When they returned to Windsor, Cornelia found this opinion confirmed. The Duchess of Leeds’s daughter was considered by the Queen to be a suitable companion for Charlotte, and parties were to be given of ‘young ladies not present’ – or, as Miss Knight put it scornfully, ‘children’s balls’. She was as indignant as Charlotte, whom she described as having ‘in understanding, penetration and stature…become a woman’.

It must also be remembered that Charlotte had already had a love affair, was attractive to men, and enjoyed their company. The Prince was aware of this, and warned Miss Knight in the course of an evening party that she must see that there was no nonsense with the Duke of Gloucester. The Duke, who was known as Silly Billy, was thirty-seven and a gift to the caricaturists, but he was kind and friendly: perhaps, though, from later events, the Prince’s instincts were right, for the time came when Charlotte was quite ready to accept her goggle-eyed cousin Gloucester as a suitor.

[an extract from ‘Prinny’s Daughter: A Biography of Princess Charlotte of Wales’ by Thea Home]

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Picture: Portrait of Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh by an unknown artist, 1813-22

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A Visit In Oatlands

Like the rest of the royal family, Charles’s father, the Duke of York, was at least aware of the inappropriate meetings in the park. But he did not feel inclined to reproach anyone. He was one of the many who disapproved of the way in which the Prince Regent prevented his daughter from appearing in public or even in society. If the Princess was lonely, she could hardly be criticised for taking pleasure in such company as she could find. His Duchess agreed with him. So they decided that, if the Regent was not prepared to bring his daughter out, they would do it for him. They would invite Princess Charlotte to stay at Oatlands, their country house in Surrey, and while she was there they would give a ball.

The childless Duchess of York, whose uncle was Frederick the Great, respected her husband as a soldier, but in most other ways she preferred the company of her menagerie to his. Nevertheless she knew her duty. She tolerated his infidelities with dignity. She turned his country house into a comfortable home. When he went there with his many crude companions, she had a warm welcome for all of them. She was a generous hostess. She served dinner much later than anyone else in England, and like her husband she was happy to sit up all nights afterwards playing cards. She hated ceremony. At Oatlands there was none of the stiff formality that pervaded the households of the other royal dukes. In atmosphere it was more like a little German palace or the home of an English country gentleman. Everyone who went there spoke well of it. The only drawbacks, they said, were the smell and the insanitary condition of the carpets – very few of the Duchess’s forty dogs were house-trained.

Charlotte went to Oatlands in November. The Duchess had laid on everything possible to make the stay enjoyable. Among the guests in the houseparty there were several of Charlotte’s age, including Anne and Georgiana Fitzroy, the nieces of Lord Wellington. Expeditions were arranged almost every day. On one day they went to Hampton Court Palace, which Charlotte described to Mercer as having ‘an air of gloom & coldness about it which is frightful’. On another they went to ‘the famous house’ at Paines Hill. And then they visited a house called Claremont.

The drove over to Claremont twice. On the first day they were shown round the elegant Palladian mansion, which Clive of India had begun to build over forty years earlier. On the second they inspected the splendid park, which had been designed by ‘Capability’ Brown. Clive had committed suicide before he could enjoy it, and since then there had been so many owners that no family had lived there long enough to make it a home.

Charlotte did not share her first impression of Claremont with Mercer. But another visitor, a few months later, gave hers. ‘It is’, wrote Jane Austen sadly and prophetically, ‘a house that seems never to have prospered’.

The climax of the visit was not one ball but two. The first, according to Charlotte’s letters, did not end until after 2 am, and on the on the following night the walzing went on until after four. Charlotte ‘enjoyed it of all things’, despite the conduct of her father, who had grudgingly agreed to be among the many guests. On the first evening he hurt her, and shocked everyone else, by ignoring her. On the second, while the Scottish Member of Parliament William Adam was attempting to teach her the ‘Highland Flurry’, he insisted on joining in the demonstration.

For a moment or two the Regent and Mr Adam, who was Mercer’s uncle, reeled round the room together. Then the Prince struck his shoe against the leg of a sofa, fell over and tore a tendon in his foot. Being the man he was, he made a fuss, retired to bed and remained at Oatlands for over a fortnight.

Inevitably, when the story got out, the Prince’s many enemies said that he had obviously been drunk. But, if he had been, Charlotte would have admitted it to Mercer. According to her letters the only guest who got ‘beastly drunk’ was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, remembered now as a playwright but equally well known then as a leading member of the Whig opposition.

Having introduced the Princess to the waltz, clearly the Duchess of York’s next duty was to take her to the opera. The visit was arranged to take place on 22 February the following year, when Charlotte would have passed sixteenth birthday. Meanwhile the Duke attempted to improved her mind, and perhaps her English, by lending her an anonymous novel, which both he and she believed had been written by Lady Anne Paget.

Charlotte loved it and wrote to Mercer. “Sense and Sensibility” I have just finished reading; it certainly is interesting, & you feel quite one of the company. I think Maryanne & me are very like in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c, however remain very like.’

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

the duke and duchess of york

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