Friday, February 17, 2006

Lord Hervey projects a bed-trick

I have been reading the Memoirs of Lord Hervey… but there, another book. I do have other things in my life, I allege. Why nobody has dramatised these memoirs yet I cannot imagine: they cry out for it. Hervey was Vice-Chamberlain at the Court of George II, or rather, at the Court of Queen Caroline, who was his major ally there, and anyway acts as Regent when George hauls off to Hanover to spend time in the nation he preferred, and with his mistress. Hervey commands a waspishness about the malfunctioning Royal ‘family’, and a fabulous regard for his own sagacity about these ‘purpled children’, as he calls them, that makes him the most entertaining and biased of witnesses. As you read – and this would happen if the Memoirs were dramatised – Caroline keeps mutating in your mind into Good Queen Brenda, the foul-humoured George II into her consort, and the Prince of Wales is the Prince of Wales, rendered as an object of contempt.

Frederick, Prince of Wales, never got to the throne (George III was his son). He seems to have manoeuvred for popularity, and thoroughly alienated his abjectly German father and mother by doing so. Hervey is completely in accord with the Queen about ‘Fretz’ as an object of contempt. The two men had quite a back story: a possible liaison between them, and a shared mistress in Anne Vane.

In one stupefying passage, the Queen is trying to get Hervey to disclose from Anne Vane’s conversations, or worm out of Lady Dudley, another reputed mistress of the Prince (by seducing her), if her son is really capable of fathering a child on his wife, Princess Augusta. She is aware that the Prince’s political ambitions make him willing to do anything to have his spouse produce one. Could Hervey, for instance, father one for him:

'Do you think then you could contrive, if he and you were both willing, without her knowledge to go to bed to her instead of him?’ ‘Nothing so easy’ ‘My God, how is it possible?’ said the Queen. ‘Why, for a month before and after the time of putting this design in execution I would advise the Prince to go to bed several hours after his wife, and to pretend to get up for a flux several times in the night, to perfume himself always with some predominant smell, and by the help of these tricks it would be very easy, not using himself to talk to her in bed, to put the change of any man near his own size upon her that he pleased.’

There it is: the Shakespearean bed-trick, really thought through. In the end, Frederick does seem to have managed on his own. With his wife in labour, her waters ('filthy inundations', Hervey calls them) breaking in the coach, he hastens her to St James’ Palace, because he is determined to have her deliver a London-born Prince. As Hervey puts it in his inimitable style: ‘At a quarter before eleven she was delivered of a little rat of a girl, about the bigness of a good large toothpick case, none of the Lords in Council being present but my Lord President Wilmington, and my lord Godolphin, Privy Seal’. You’d have thought two witnesses quite enough for the poor woman to have to endure, but Hervey is caught up in the Queen’s fixation that the Prince cannot have fathered the child, and that ‘a chairman’s brat’ will have been smuggled in (though she later concedes that ‘this poor, little, ugly she-mouse’ persuades her that it is a bona-fide offspring of ‘my filthy beast of a son’, while a ‘brave, large, fat, jolly boy’ would have confirmed all her worst suspicions).

Of course, television might mess it all up. The BBC would never cast a quasi-British Queen as quite the neglected 'fat Venus' Hervey describes, or show George II as being as insufferably tedious as Hervey makes him. Fairness and loyalty would intervene. Channel 4 might get someone as epicene as Hervey, and might have the nerve to carry it all through. It would be construed as the most outrageous attack on the Windsors.

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