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Stephen C. Behrendt, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte

Thursday, August 24, 2000 - 04:31
Stephen C. Behrendt, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte. London: Macmillan, 1997.  xii + 268pp. illus: 8 portrait plates. £50.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-69580-1).

Reviewed by
Simon Bainbridge
Keele University

"The great historical event of 1817," according to Harriet Martineau, was the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte Augusta, the twenty-one year old heiress to the throne and the daughter of the Prince of Wales. Martineau described the reaction to what was seen as a tragic event as follows: "never was a whole nation plunged in such deep and universal grief. From the highest to the lowest, this death was felt as a calamity that demanded the intense sorrow of domestic misfortune" (1). In Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte, Stephen C. Behrendt provides an extensive survey and scholarly examination of the many and varied for&ms taken by the extraordinary outpourings of grief for Charlotte, investigating particularly the appropriation and "commoditization" of Charlotte's death by "writers, clergymen, politicians, artists, artisans and commentators" (2). For Behrendt, whose previous work in the period has often focused on the relation between history and myth, Charlotte's death is not only a "great historical event" in which a potential political disaster was transformed into a "normative, ultimately calming event by a variety of cultural forces" (2), it is also a subject which enables us to study mythmaking—"the ways in which historical figures and events come to be invested with qualities of myth, not just by an intellectual and aesthetic elite but also by the general public" (23). For Behrendt, mythmaking is a process central to both the Romantic period and our own times, and the outpouring of literary and extra-literary responses to the princess's death "reveals what prove to be not historically remote (and isolated) but rather perennially compelling intellectual, spiritual and cultural impulses, which drive the mythologizing of a popular subject in times of domestic instability and cultural or spiritual crisis" (26). Behrendt's claim for the contemporary relevance of his study was underlined by the death of Princess Diana and the subsequent mourning, appropriation and commodification of her in the same year as the publication of Royal Mourning and Regency Culture.

Behrendt examines an impressive range of the responses to the princess's life and death: educational writings addressed to the young princess, an allegorical Oriental tale (Gulzara: Princess of Persia: or, The Virgin Queen), poems by Barbauld, Byron, Southey, Hemans, and Landon as well as by less familiar writers, sermons, political pamphlets, memorial cards, china, ceramics, jewellery, textiles, music, engravings, commemorative prints, and sculptures. Through lengthy summaries, detailed analysis and generous extracts, Behrendt builds up a convincing verbal and visual iconography for Charlotte, tracing, for example, her association with flower and tree imagery (especially the rose and the oak) and her representation in terms of abstractions ("England's Hope"), key figures (Britannia) and iconographic traditions (the Madonna).

Behrendt's accumulation of key tropes from across this wide range of forms is meticulous and detailed. Perhaps understandably, given the huge amount of material he has clearly worked through, at times he seems to lose patience with his chosen approach, the critical judgement of the literary scholar occasionally sitting a little awkwardly alongside the tropological methodology of the cultural historian. For example, writing of the "poem after poem" which appeared in the months following Charlotte's death, Behrendt comments that these "poems were almost invariably formulaic and artificial, perhaps because the general insincerity of the sentiments they expressed was often matched only by the affectation reflected in their ornate and laboriously allusive inkhorn style" (89). Elsewhere Behrendt refers to the "frankly wretched writers (in all genres)" (32) who wrote on Charlotte's death and dismisses as "unremarkable" a poem to which he dedicates a page and a half of analysis (103). As literary judgments, Behrendt's dismissal of these texts may well be justified but they seem unnecessary in what he is keen to emphasise is a cultural rather than a literary project. It is not just that the "secondary" literature is important as raw material to be appropriated and manipulated by "more sophisticated writers" (31) (though some of the high points of the book are Behrendt's analysis of this process, especially the excellent final chapter on Percy Shelley's An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess, in which Shelley "turns" Princess Charlotte into Liberty). Rather the formulaic and conventional nature of these works is central to Behrendt's argument for the workings of myth. As Behrendt explains:

As poet after poet manipulated the collection of increasingly familiar materials the poems invariably took on more and more similarities. And the reiteration of these similarities—with or without significant variations—itself furthers the enactment of ritual and hence the formulation of myth. For by their continual reiteration, the details, descriptions, tropes, figures, allusions and iconographic indicators—the numerous signifiers, in short—come gradually to be perceived as universals that by their very omnipresence transcend the "mereness" of individual being located in the actual person of Charlotte. (94)

It is through his study of "poem after poem," text after text, that Behrendt establishes his argument for the ritualization of mourning.

If much of Royal Mourning and Regency Culture works to establish a common set of tropes and figures used to represent Charlotte, it also draws attention to the many different ways in which the princess was understood through the process of mythmaking; as Behrendt comments, Charlotte "could be read as person (and specifically as woman), as princess, as emblem of the nation, as symbol for the aspirations of the disenfranchised and as figurehead for an emerging cult of domesticity" (34). Charlotte was a figure of what Behrendt terms "symbolic utility" (158), a means of writing about other matters, whose life and death could be presented as a lesson to the nation, as a parable or as a moral exemplar. As Behrendt comments of one educational pamphlet, "Princess Charlotte becomes merely the occasion for discourse: her private person and her public signification are appropriated to the purposes of an author who writes with a very different audience in view" (61). For sermon writers, the life and death of the princess could be used for didactic purposes while historical works such as memoirs and biographies politicized the same events.

As Behrendt's bifurcated title suggests, then, he moves beyond the specific topic of "elegies and memorials of Princess Charlotte" to use these material for a more ambitious consideration of the much broader subject of Regency culture: "How an event like the princess's death is viewed by various segments of the public, moreover, tells us a great deal about how that public is constituted, about what are the sources and applications of its governing values, and about what are its responses to the changing relationship among the private and family-oriented individual, the politically-conscious public citizen and the members of the royal establishment, viewed both as symbolic figureheads for the government and as 'real people'" (23). In considering the constitution of the regency public, Behrendt links the mourning for the princess and the forms it took with the development of a domestic ideology of womanhood and with the emergence of the middle class. As a figure of woman, wife and mother, tragically dying in childbirth, Charlotte was someone with whom "womencould and did identify physically and psychologically" (29). Dedicating a chapter to "Women's Responses," Behrendt examines women's writing on the princess through the framework of Anne Mellor's concept of "Feminine Romanticism" with its celebration of the values of "sympathy, tolerance, generosity and a commitment to the preservation of familial values" (123). The version of Charlotte produced through this compact of the female subject, female poet, and female audience is at once elevating and levelling in its equation of the princess with the non-royal subject: "Not only are the circumstances of Charlotte's life and death as wife and mother rendered comparable to the 'average' Englishwoman's in this mythic construction, so too are the moral and cultural values ascribed to Charlotte in her time those which Mellor in our own time associated with feminine Romanticism" (123). For Behrendt, Charlotte becomes one of the key figures in the development of the Victorian concept of woman, celebrated by writers such as Hannah More, Leigh Hunt and Robert Huish (who collected together excerpts from sermons) for her domestic affections, inborn piety, fortitude, moral excellence and obedience to authority, and exemplifying the traits that characterize the "angel in the house." This process itself Behrendt sees as part of a larger shift in the constitution of the public, the emergence of a middle class community consolidated through mourning for Charlotte and through the commodification of her: "This was a community of mourning, to be sure, but it was also a community of human experience in which rank and distinction, like time and place, were rendered largely irrelevant by the fact that the artifacts—the 'relics', as it were—were eminently portable, easily affordable, and therefore 'consumable' in a way that lent them the status of secular 'icons' in the home, while nevertheless allowing them at the same time to be objects of trade and commerce: commodities, in short" (175).

As Behrendt's conclusions would suggest, his interesting readings of texts are placed within the richly established contexts of the Regency period and particularly of the years of economic crisis that followed the battle of Waterloo. The only contextual element that I felt was missing from Behrendt's study was a sense of how the mourning for Charlotte was related to other contemporary examples of public and private mourning; how does it compare, for example, with the national grief expressed in the previous decade for Nelson whose death prompted a similar if not greater outpouring of mourning, memorials, and commemorations? By maintaining such a close focus on Charlotte, Behrendt certainly alerts us to what became the conventions of mourning the princess but we lose some sense ofhow these conventions drew on or transformed those of a wartime and post-war culture in which grief and mourning were key elements. However, such a project is perhaps beyond the scope of any single volume and this work makes an important contribution to this field of study. As a "case study" (23), Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte is a very valuable work, both for its careful cataloguing and detailed analyses of the wide variety of responses to Charlotte's life and death and for its broader investigation into the workings of myth in society.