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