Saturday, September 22, 2012

100 Books #91 - Jean Plaidy's CAROLINE THE QUEEN

Like a lot of readers of my generation, I first encountered the fascinating figure of Caroline of Ansbach in Neal Stephenson's giant Baroque Cycle, which touched upon her early life as a refugee princess in Germany who finally washed up in the court of the redoubtable Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Hanover and there was a pupil of Gottfried Liebniz. She finished those novels as the wife of Sophie's grandson George Augustus, the future Prince of Wales and thus the future George II of England. All signs at the end of the third novel, The System of the World, pointed to her as being a figure on which many hopes are to be pinned, a future champion of reason and science, the reconciler of Liebniz and Isaac Newton, perhaps even a latter-day Elizabeth, albeit with a lunkheaded husband...

It's hard to reconcile that portrait with Jean Plaidy's though. Caroline the Queen picks up Caroline's life many years after the Hanoverians came to power on a wave of Whig adoration. She has learned to manage her difficult husband and endured many years of his father's somewhat ridiculous rule, but at great cost to her intellectual life and continued education. The death of George I, who had all but exiled George Louis and his pretty, clever wife, is the first act of this novel and caused a flutter in this Baroque Cycle lover's heart, but this Baroque Cycle lover knew better than to expect anything remotely like more of Stephenson's version of Caroline and her life and times. No, this is Jean Plaidy -- not really a bad thing, just a very different thing.

Long before Stephenson was anything but just another beardy, computer nerdy face in the crowd, Jean Plaidy (and her various alters ego, Victoria Holt, Philippa Carr, Eleanor Hibbert, et al) reigned supreme as a chronicler of the lives and times of British royalty, especially those of its queens. Some of the first books I truly shared with my mother were Plaidy's cycle of Plantagenet novels, chiefly concerned with the amazing Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of both Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, mother of Richard the Lion-Hearted and John Lackland, Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers and kickass heroine in her very own right (she even accompanied her first husband on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land). Plaidy's books made Eleanor one of my first not-made-up heroines, even though I knew I was reading fiction. So when I found out she had written a book about Caroline, I knew I was going to have to hunt it up at some point.

But so, like in her Eleanor books, Plaidy is much more interested in the domestic and personal life of Queen Caroline than in any of her intellectual pursuits -- except for Caroline's exercising of her considerable political acumen in partnership with Robert Walpole, the Whig Prime-Minister-before-there-was-a-Prime-Minister whose power was already considerable before Caroline became queen but who really came into his prime at her side and with her help. Plaidy's version of this duo* is the real governing power in Britain, with Walpole proposing and Caroline persuading her husband that disposing was all his own idea in the first place through a campaign of swallowing insults and bad behavior in public and making subtle suggestions during royal pillow talk, the latter form of influence she was only able to exercise by concealing from pretty much everyone the umbilical hernia (a result of multiple pregnancies and bad luck) that ultimately claimed her life when it caused her womb to rupture. But in her heyday, as depicted in Caroline the Queen, she winds up ruling Britain outright as Regent four times when her husband hares off to Hanover, his native land which she has convinced him he prefers to Britain. After all, there's no Parliament or Cabinet to deal with there, and the Hanoverians are ever so much more docile and respectful than the bratty, chatty English, aren't they, dear? I'll miss you terribly while you're away, and I'm just a girl in the world, but I'll do my best to make do... Hey, Sir Robert, dust off all those treaties and plans we've been saving up!

Thus Plaidy's Caroline is a poster child for the most old-fashioned version of female power: great indirect influence at great personal cost and sacrifice. She may be brilliant, she may be educated, she may have more ability in her little finger than her husband has in his whole strutting body, but she's still a she, so that's how it has to be. Did Caroline dream of better? I'm pretty sure Eleanor did. Did Plaidy?

In any case, the real fun of the book doesn't surface until just past the halfway mark, when the redoubtable Sarah Churchill, the dowager Duchess of Marlborough (widow of John Churchill, whose exploits are given a fun airing in the Baroque Cycle) turns up as a minor villainess, trying, mostly in vain, to recover her lost glory from the days when she bullied Queen Anne and ruled behind the scenes the way Caroline does now. Proud, shrewd, calculating, litigious, shrewish, scheming, she is by far the most entertaining character in the book, and never more so than in defeat. This may not be an entirely fair portrait of her, but it's an amusing one. I would have liked to have seen more of this, but alas, Sarah and Caroline were too far apart in age to have much to do with each other, and it's likely that Plaidy beefed up Sarah's part as it is.

But of course the real villain of this piece is Caroline's eldest son, Frederick, the Prince of Wales**, raised in Hanover on the orders of George I, come as an adult stranger to his family to take up his post after a long delay he has always resented, ready and willing to be a tool for Walpole's enemies once he realizes that his parents are going to keep him on a tight leash in perceived poverty. He spends most of the novel doing what he considers to be his best to annoy them (though of course he never stoops to attempting to improve his means by his own actual efforts). The courtiers jockeying for his favor reminded me rather tiresomely of perhaps my least favorite of Plaidy's books, The Follies of the King, though here, at least, none of the men are competing to be the Prince's lover, just his pal and maybe also his creditor.

The result of all this is an entertaining little stew of a book, if salted a bit too much by the repetition of the same observations over and over again. Yes, Ms. Plaidy, we get that George liked to write letters to Caroline about his love affairs; yes, we get that Caroline found Lord Hervey especially amusing; yes, we get that Frederick liked making his parents angry. Telling us once and then just showing us would have been fine, really.

As I look over Plaidy's catalog, I see that I've only read maybe 15-20% of her total output (and that's just using this particular pen name). I can't at this point decide if I feel like a peasant at a banquet or a student in a cafeteria, contemplating this fact. I can't decide if all of those other books are going to be richly varied courses and delicacies or blandly similar steam-table offerings. Right now I'm inclined to suspect the latter -- but I believe I have felt that way before. And sometimes, one is just plain hungry.

*Which seems pretty factual. Plaidy always did her homework, that's for certain.

**Whom we know from history never got to be king, but whose son grew up to be George III. Yeah, that George III. Which maybe makes Frederick an even better villain, eh?

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