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A Royal Affair by Stella Tillyard

A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings - Stella Tillyard

This is a very interesting historical biography, though weirdly conceived. The subtitle should be read not as a description of George III’s siblings but a qualification on who the book is about, and it's not George III, despite the cover image. Of the nine siblings, the youngest, Caroline Matilda, gets more than half of this book, and for good reason. Married at age 15 to the young King of Denmark, whose mental health was deteriorating rapidly, she embarked on an increasingly blatant affair with her husband’s doctor, Johann Struensee, and the pair grabbed the opportunity to take over the government of Denmark, dismiss all the old guard, and institute various Enlightenment reforms. Then within a couple of years everything came crashing down.

So, that’s a wild and fascinating story, and if her life had been a little longer maybe the whole book would have been about Caroline Matilda. As is the author fills out the rest of the book with the, by comparison, run-of-the-mill scandals of three of her brothers, Edward, William, and Henry, who being wealthy and privileged young men with no responsibilities, partied a lot and had love affairs and got secretly married. I think even Tillyard was a bit bored with them, especially the latter two, because her writing about their shenanigans tends to focus more on the women in their lives – who come across as more interesting, maybe because they had more to lose or maybe because Tillyard just finds women’s history more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining to read about royal princes running about in disguise and being mistaken for highwaymen, but the brothers’ sections boil down to 18th century celebrity gossip, without larger import.

In the Introduction, Tillyard offers an enticing rationale for her choice of subject: “Biography . . . rarely dwells for very long on brothers and sisters and the importance they can have in one another’s lives. Perhaps because I am from a large family myself, my work has tended to go the other way, to be horizontal, seeking in the tangled web of brotherly and sisterly relations other clues to what makes us who we are.” But in focusing only on the scandalous siblings, I don’t think she quite lives up to that promise. George III is here for the role he plays in his younger siblings’ lives, but it’s in no way a biography of him; the three siblings who died between the ages of 15 and 20 get barely a mention; and Augusta, the eldest, who survived but was not scandalous, rarely appears. And there's no particular indication that the playboy brothers influenced Caroline Matilda or vice versa; these segments seem totally separate.

But it’s an interesting book nonetheless; Tillyard is a strong writer and storyteller, bringing the scenes of history to life, and seems to have done her research well. It felt a little dense – which may be as much an issue of typesetting as writing – and took longer to read than I’d have estimated from the page count, but for Caroline Matilda’s story in particular it is worth the read.