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Courtiers: The Secret History of Kensington Palace.


The Secret History of Kensington Palace

Lucy Worsley

Faber 408pp 20 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0571238897


Lucy Worsley's book is an appealing romp through the powdered and bewigged world of the early Georgian court, bringing to life all its spite, gossip, intrigue and rancour.

The book promises a 'secret history' of the court servants at Kensington Palace depicted by William Kent in his 1726 painting of the King's Grand Staircase, but also delivers an intimate portrait of the palace's royal inhabitants, George I, Prince Augustus (later George II) and the latter's canny wife, Caroline.

Worsley sets out to rescue the Georges from their reputation for dullness and succeeds in making their world glitter. We hear what an acrimonious lot they were; of the awful rift between George I and his heir, which led to the king chucking his wife and son out of their home at Kensington, but retaining the king's young children, and how history repeated itself when, as king, George II expelled his son, Prince Frederick, from St James's Palace. We learn of Frederick's probable homosexual relationship with Queen Caroline's favourite, John Hervey, and the bizarre love triangle between George II, his unwanted mistress Henrietta Howard and Queen Caroline, who kept Henrietta at court despite her jealousies.

Worsley's delightful writing is the real strength of the book. She notes that Mary Cowper (1685-1724), a diligent observer of the court,' brilliantly skewered many a drawing-room skirmish upon the nib of her pen' and the author does the same. She skewers some of her poor subjects too. George I's mistress is 'skinny and ageing', with 'three dreary daughters'. Worsley imaginatively fills in the historical gaps with literary devices: 'The late afternoon saw Prince George Augustus berating a clumsy servant as he struggled into an outfit of peacock splendour: Her light and witty prose is frequently evocative and colourful, sometimes irreverent ('dinky little principalities'; or Queen Anne's 'futile attempt to squeeze out an heir') and occasionally jarringly creative ('hyper-elegant' or 'ravishingly weird').

Although some of the subject matter is familiar (one thinks of Tracy Borman's work on Henrietta Howard), Worsley is, above all, a talented storyteller who breathes new life into old and forgotten tales that well deserve an airing. The result is an engaging and entertaining introduction to a pampered and ruthless world.

Suzannah Upscomb is the author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII (Lion Hudson, 2009).

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Author:Lipscomb, Suzannah
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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