Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley

Had this book been available before my visit to Kensington Palace in May, it would have added much to the experience of The Enchanted Palace. At the time, I only had a cursory knowledge about Peter the Wild Boy, Queen Caroline's Cabinet of Curiosities and the like. But it is never too late to learn more about this magical palace and the people who once lived there.

In the soon-to-be released book The Courtiers, Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace, Lucy Worsely, the chief curator at the Historic Royal Palaces in Britain, makes history between 1714 and 1760 sparkle.

This particular period in British history is rife with plots, passion, preening, and politicking due to the unfolding of the Hanoverian succession. The German-born Protestant George the I of Hanover had became King of Great Britain instead of fifty other relatives closer to the crown who were regrettably Catholic. His enduring reputation of being an "honest, dull German gentleman" is cast aside when the author recounts his hot temper and vindictive nature, especially towards his wife (who languished in a German prison for many years after taking a lover) and his son, Prince George Augustus (with whom he did not speak for a period of two years). Survival in the court of a king who treated his own family so harshly required a considerable wit, guile, and a solid understanding of the nuances of court etiquette.

In her book The Courtiers, Lucy Worsely goes beyond a dull recitation of facts. By using seven of the characters in a mural by William Kent along the king's staircase at Kensington Palace as the focus of her research, she creates a vivid portrait of what it was like to be in the king's court. Written in a captivating and lively style, this is a delightful book to read.

One of the most appealing characters in the book is Caroline of Ansbach, who became Queen to George II. Having a great love of books, learning and philosophy, she was a witty conversationalist and her private parties were "a strange picture of the motley character and manners of a queen and a learned woman...learned men and divines were intermixed with courtiers and ladies of the household: the conversation turned upon metaphysical subjects, blended with repartees, sallies of mirth, and the title-tattle of a drawing-room". (page 37)

Of course, my favourite passages include details of the courtiers dressing rituals, something that is rarely dealt with in such books even though dressing for court was an elaborate and time consuming ritual:

"Next Caroline's hairdresser, Mrs. Purcell, would spread a short muslin cape over the queen's shoulders to protect her dress while her hair was arranged into a high bun. Once a conical powder mask had been placed over Caroline's face, her tight curls were clotted all over with white particles. Hairdressing was not terribly hygienic, and a Georgian lady could find her head being patted with 'a paste of composition  rare/sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair." (page 175)

The only anomaly in this book are the small line drawings interspersed through the text to illustrate the characters of this historical drama. Somewhat simplistic and bland in style, the drawings are not of the same high quality as the writing. Perhaps it is my bias as an artist that I would point this out, but the book deserves better. However, it is a very minor flaw and probably something that most people would not even notice.

The Courtiers is a rare gem in the realm of history books. With her entertaining and engaging voice, Lucy Worsely has set a new standard of excellence for historians.

Title: The Courtiers, Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace
Author: Lucy Worsley
Publisher: Walker & Company, New York
Release date: August 17, 2010
Category: Non-fiction, history
Number of Pages: 334 (402 including after notes)
Price: $30 hardcover