Today in Edinburgh I shall pay my respects to Queen Elizabeth II before her casket continues her journey down to London, where her funeral is due to take place next Monday. It’s a sobering time here in the United Kingdom: the Queen was such a stable presence in our lives that many forgot she was also an elderly lady that couldn’t live forever.
A Momentous Occasion
Kings and queens, especially those blessed with long reigns, become quietly reliable presences for their subjects. Stamps, postboxes, police badges, bills and coins bear their effigy. No wonder, then, that their passing is considered a historical event.
Jane Austen didn’t live to see the accession or death of a monarch, but some of what is happening today in the UK has echoes of what she experienced in her lifetime, when George III was King of Great Britain and Ireland. Here are some parallels that come to mind.
Queen Elizabeth was undeniably popular. There has been an outpouring of grief at her death in the last few days, with many admiring her sense of duty and steadfast dedication to serving her country. Even resolute republicans have declared their affection for a woman who was also an icon.
In Jane Austen’s time, George III’s reputation in the colonies was (understandably) dreadful, but back in England, his people also had a deep affection for him. He was seen as a pious and frugal family man, faithful to his wife and devoted to his children.“Farmer George”, as he was called, shared with Queen Elizabeth a predilection for unfussy simplicity that proved very popular with his subjects.
Two Exceptionally Long Reigns
Queen Elizabeth II reigned for over 70 years and is the longest-serving monarch of the United Kingdom, followed by Queen Victoria (63 years on the throne). The third place on the list goes to George III, who reigned for 59 years.
His was a long but bittersweet reign during a time of intense change and transformation, but many only remember him as the mad king who lost America. George III’s ailing health meant that the then Prince of Wales (and future George IV) had to act as Regent during much of his father’s reign. Thankfully, this wasn’t necessary during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Her physical health had been faltering of late, but she remained sharp as a tack until the very end.
Two Controversial Families
Both Queen Elizabeth and King George had a large family for the standards of the day. Queen Elizabeth, a mother of four, had a discreet and “boring” private life. In contrast, her descendants have often been in the news, and not always for pleasant reasons. Her children and grandchildren have provided plenty of material to the tabloid press, and the scandals are too numerous to mention.
Likewise, many of King George III’s 13 children led shocking lives and were a source of disappointment to her their father. Their extravagant lifestyles, lavish spending, mounting gambling debts, secret marriages and unsuitable liaisons appalled the general population. Worst of all for the descendants of a monarch, they very nearly failed to provide legitimate heirs to the Hanoverian line.
Queen Elizabeth’s son and the former Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, assumes the throne at a mature 73 years of age. In another striking parallel, George III’s son was 48 when he became Regent, and 57 when he finally succeeded to the throne as Georges IV.
Considering that the life expectancy in 1820 was around 40, George IV was well beyond middle-age when he finally became king – just like Charles III, who has become the oldest person to be crowned in Britain.
One Royal Admirer
We don’t know what Elizabeth II thought of Jane Austen. However, there is ample evidence indicating that the Prince Regent and future George IV was a fan of Austen’s. The royal admiration was such that Austen was effectively forced into dedicating Emma to him despite the disdain she felt for the man.
Interestingly, George III is barely mentioned in her novels and correspondence. To me, it says that she generally approved of the monarch. Jane Austen’s juvenilia also makes it clear that she despised Queen Elizabeth I, but I like to think she would have liked the eficient, unfussy and dutiful approach of Queen Elizabeth II.
Have you been following the news about Queen Elizabeth II’s passing? What do you think Jane Austen would have made of her reign? And what do you associate with King George III?