The Countess: The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey by Tim Clarke
|The Countess: The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey by Tim Clarke|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey, has long been portrayed as one of the most selfish and unattractive personalities of the Georgian age. Tim Clarke’s biography, the result of much painstaking research, is scrupulously fair in that he does not accept all the sordid stories about her at face value, but even so leaves us with the feeling that she was almost beyond redemption.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 400||Date: July 2016|
The reputation of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey, has never stood very high. It has long been difficult to avoid the impression that she was one of the most selfish and unattractive personalities of the Georgian age.
Known in the contemporary press as ‘The Enchantress’, she was clearly an unprincipled woman who duly provided her husband with an heir, then cast aside dull respectability – and him with it - and then proceeded to enjoy a number of high-profile and scandalous affairs with little regard for what others might have thought of her. The most notable of these was with George, Prince of Wales and later Prince Regent, whom she allegedly lured away from Maria Fitzherbert, the ‘wife’ whom the heir to the throne had secretly married in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act and defiance of the King. Moreover she was the ‘bad fairy’ who helped to ensure that his marriage to his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick was virtually doomed from the very start.
This first biography ever written of her life chronicles her rather sordid story in great detail. As a young woman she seems to have led a dutiful, well-behaved existence until she became restless and started to look outside her wedding ring. She was clearly quite unscrupulous in seeking pleasures, putting her own needs (or rather personal desires) above those of her family and particularly her long-suffering children. Moreover, though the blurb describes her as ‘one of the great beauties of Georgian society’, the picture on the dust jacket and the plates in the centre of the book suggest that even Regency portrait painters found it difficult to flatter her.
The author is prepared to state that some of the stories about the Countess, notably that of her forcing Princess Caroline to change into an unflattering dress and rouging her cheeks on her first arrival in England in order to create a bad impression on her husband-to-be, and later spiking her drinks with brandy to get her drunk and make a fool of herself in front of the people who might otherwise have become her friends, are untrue and owe more to spiteful gossip than fact. Nevertheless her encouragement of the Prince’s cruel treatment of his wife did much to provoke immense public anger against husband and mistress, and corresponding sympathy for the Princess – as well as create division within the royal family. For most of the time she managed to retain the favour of Queen Charlotte, who always had a soft spot for her eldest son (and became one of the bitterest enemies in the family of her unfortunate daughter-in-law), but few others cared much for her. It is stated categorically that by 1797, two years after the Prince of Wales’s disastrous marriage, the Countess was ‘now without doubt the most unpopular woman in the kingdom’.
Perhaps it comes as little surprise to learn that at length even the Prince wearied of her and sought another mistress. In her ill-tempered retirement she continued to cause trouble and embarrassment to those around her, particularly the royal family. She paid the penalty by leading an embittered, unhappy last few years, spurned by all. It must have come as a relief to not only her but those around her when she suddenly fell ill and died only a few days after the coronation of her former beau, now King George IV, in 1821.
Tim Clarke tells the rather sorry saga well, and his biography is clearly the result of much painstaking research. As he says, she has been demonised by historians and subjected to rumour and myth, and as a result he is scrupulously fair in refusing to accept all the most sordid stories about his subject at face value. All the same he can do little to whitewash her, demonstrating that like most of her contemporaries he found her behaviour much of the time beyond the pale. The reader is left with the feeling that the Countess of Jersey was almost beyond redemption.
For another account of scandal at the Georgian court, A Royal Affair: George III and His Troublesome Siblings by Stella Tillyard is also recommended.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Countess: The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey by Tim Clarke at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Countess: The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey by Tim Clarke at Amazon.com.
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