Jane Austen actively detested the Prince Regent, as many people did. In her case it was particularly acute, because she not only found him lacking in moral rectitude or any worthy quality she admired, he was a decided political thorn in the side of the Tory party, which the Austen family strongly favored over the Whigs.
One of the reasons for the wild unpopularity of the future George IV was his treatment of his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. From the very beginning he was cruel, even allowing a mistress to the wedding jewels he had given Caroline in front of her. While no one claimed that Caroline was a paragon, everyone knew that George was much worse, and his accusations of infidelity against her were seen as a bit rich coming from him by the general public. To add insult to injury the Prince Regent decided that Caroline was unfit to see their six year old daughter, Princess Charlotte. Although she was not the best mother in creation, Caroline was still a mother and had a mother’s love for her daughter, and she was incensed she had been forbidden to see her only child. Caroline therefore:
“wrote a long and most impassioned letter of remonstrance to the regent on 12 January 1813. This letter was laid before the privy council, and in their report they ‘were of opinion that, under all the circumstances of the case, it is highly fit and proper, with a view to the welfare of her royal highness the Princess Charlotte, in which are equally involved the happiness of your royal highness in your parental and royal character, and the most important interests of the state, that the intercourse between her royal highness the Princess of Wales and her royal highness the Princess Charlotte should continue to be subject to regulation and restraint.’ The princess then addressed a letter to the speaker of the House of Commons on the subject, which was read to the house, and a debate was raised, but the sense of the house was that the regent was the sole judge of the conduct to be observed in the education of his daughter.”
Legally, children belong to their fathers and mothers had ZERO rights to make decisions regarding their children, or to even see their children, so Parliament was within the letter of the law to side with George. The public, however, were furious. Women had no legal rights, but mother-love was already being enshrined as the Holiest of Holies in the British heart, so George’s behavior toward the wife he had already wronged in so many ways was seen as vile.
Austen, like the rest of Great Britain, had an opinion on the matter. She wrote to her friend and sister-in-law’s sister, Martha Lloyd, regarding the scandal:
“I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad — I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. –”
I love this letter, because it not only lets us know Austen positively hated the Prince Regent, but also because it shows Austen’s staunch morality had some merciful leeway. Her novels are thought to deal so harshly (by modern standards) with women who go sexually astray that Austen has been constructed as unduly judgmental in this regard. In truth, other than her eternal condemnation of Maria Bertram Rushworth in Mansfield Park, the unvirtuous women in her novels are either redeemed or excused in some way by their circumstances. Only poor Mrs Rushworth is condemned to the “hell” of living with Mrs Norris without any foreshadowing of future respite.
Ironically, the Prince Regent loved Jane Austen’s books. He loved them so much that he sent word he would “allow” her to dedicate the next one to him. So poor Jane had no choice but to dedicate Emma to a man she heartily detested. Moreover, there are several places in Emma where Austen skewers the Prince (but thankfully he was too dense to see it). At first Austen tries to just make the unpleasant task simple, offering the dedication, “Emma, Dedicated by Permission to H. R. H. The Prince Regent.” He publisher, John Murray, was appalled and wanted something more obsequious. So Jane poured it on as thickly as her toffee-nosed characters Mr Collins or Mr Elton would have done. The final dedication reads, “To His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s permission, most respectfully dedicated by His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant, the author”.
Seriously, how did George not get the insult in that load of tosh?