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April 05, 2006

A Contentious Royal Link: The King's Wife: George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert - Valerie Irvine

Posted by Jeremy Black

The King's Wife: George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert
by Valerie Irvine
Pp. ix+251. London: Hambledon & London, 2005
Hardback, 19.99

The King's Wife is a pleasant work in a well-trodden field. This book is, however, interesting less for its content than for the light it throws on the publishing world. The combination of royalty, sex/romance and female interest, provides a heady theme that appears to bring out the purchasers. This may well be leading to an emphasis that is not particularly helpful.

Already, with Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998), we had the tendency to exaggerate the role of the protagonist. There is something of the same in Valerie Irvine's account. Part of her subject's tragedy was that she trusted in her importance to George, but he was at once impulsive and lazy and that ensured that he was not willing to keep commitments that were likely to be inconvenient. Maria Fitzherbert believed their marriage secure, but this was a serious misreading. Irvine brings out the pain this caused, and her account presents Maria in a very noble light.

George, himself, was angered that many chose to remain her friend rather than his, as he found it difficult to accept that Maria's company could be sought above his own. Their closest friends, Lord Hugh and Lady Horatio Seymour, were shocked by George's behaviour. Lord Hugh told George that his conduct was dishonourable, earning dismissal from George's household.

For the historian, there is particular interest in the fate of documents, including the burning of some of George's papers in 1833 and the secreting of the documents retained by Maria. Sealed and deposited in Coutts' Bank, the box was moved to the Royal Archives by Edward VII. An appendix discusses whether George and Maria had children, concluding that there is no strong evidence either way. Irvine, who lives in Brighton, has a welcome sense of place, writes with an easy tone, and the book is handsomely produced, with an attractive typeface and twenty black and white illustrations.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Prof. Black's life of George III will be published later this year by Yale University Press.

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