I am lucky enough to live a short drive from Holyrood Palace, the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The palace includes the Queen’s Gallery, which features an ever-changing array of exhibitions from the Royal Collection that never fail to inspire me (an exhibition of Maria Merian’s drawings inspired a key scenes with Mr Darcy in Miss Price’s Decision).
Last year I went to see an exhibition titled Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs, which explored the links between the Imperial Russian and the British Royal families. It included an exhibit that led me to discover a fascinating link between a British Royal and Jane Austen.
A Russian-inspired Little Blue Dress
The item that drew my attention was a blue silk dress with golden trimmings. It had the empire silhouette so popular during the Regency, and it was in surprisingly good condition, bearing in mind that it dated from 1817.
The dress was cut in a Russian-inspired style – a trend that emerged following a visit of Emperor Alexander I to London in 1814. An impressive portrait next to it depicted its illustrious owner: Princess Charlotte of Wales.
The Regency Princess
Princess Charlotte was born in 1796, when Jane Austen was around 21 years old. The only daughter of George, Prince of Wales (later King George IV), she was the granddaughter of King George III and second-in-line to the throne after her father.
Charlotte was a happy little girl, despite the very tense relationship between her parents, who separated when she was very little. Vivacious, energetic and mischievous, like most accomplished young ladies of her time she had a good command of foreign languages, was a competent artist and played the harp, the piano and the guitar.
A Royal Marianne?
Princess Charlotte was also a voracious reader, and it is said that Sense and Sensibility was one of her favourite novels. The novel, published when she was 15, made quite an impression on the young princess – although she would never know the name of the authoress (“A Lady”), as Austen’s name didn’t appear on her novels during her lifetime.
Perhaps given her romantic temperament, the princess compared herself to Marianne Dashwood. Little did Charlotte know that, just like her favourite heroine, her fate was to also suffer from a broken heart brought about by an infatuation with an unsuitable man.
In 1814, Charlotte became engaged to William, the Hereditary Prince of Orange. However, she was already in love with her Willoughby: Frederick of Prussia, a dashing prince with a dark reputation. Unable to marry without being in love, she broke up the engagement with William and waited for Frederick to propose.
Like Marianne’s, her wait was in vain. Frederick of Prussia never showed up with a marriage proposal, a refusal that broke her heart. She then accepted prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield as husband, and the young couple married in 1816.
A Happy Marriage Marred by Tragedy
Despite the devastating rejection of the first man she ever loved, Charlotte found contentment and happiness with the man she married – just like Marianne with Colonel Brandon.
Charlotte and Leopold were a golden couple, often seen around London, and very popular amongst the public. When Princess Charlotte fell pregnant after two miscarriages, the whole of Britain was expectant and full of hope for the future. However, things took a tragic turn.
After a long and difficult labour, the princess gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. The princess died the day after, aged only 21 years old. It was November 5, 1817 – less than four months after the death of the anonymous author of Sense and Sensibility, the novel she so admired.
According to contemporary sources, Princess Charlotte loved her people and was particularly interested in social reform. Had she lived, she might have become a queen as influential as her cousin, Queen Victoria.
But, to me, Princess Charlotte will always be Queen Marianne.
Were you familiar with Queen Charlotte’s story? What do you think of the blue dress?