The Princess diaries

WHEN FLORA FRASER TOLD FRIENDS she was researching a book about George III’s daughters, none of them, she admits, showed more than the slightest interest. Once she had told them that none of the six princesses married anybody famous and that none of the marriages had the slightest dynastic consequence, they couldn’t find anything else to ask.

It’s an understandable reaction. These were, after all, lives of suppressed longing, obedience and patience, not ones consumed by a grand passion, like that of Emma Hamilton, about whom Fraser wrote her first book. And the six princesses were certainly the temperamental opposites of their sister-in-law, Queen Caroline - the subject of her second biography - who brought Britain to the edge of a constitutional crisis and turned George IV’s coronation into pure melodrama.

No: Princesses Charlotte, Augusta, Elizabeth, Sophia, Amelia and Mary (in the all-important order of seniority, which meant closeness to power, which meant bossiness) were altogether more dutiful. Without Fraser, who had become intrigued by their conspiratorial, secretive letters when researching her life of Queen Caroline, they might well have slid off unregarded into the footnotes of academic history.

Their biographer is, at least genetically, a natural-born biographer. At 17, she was already working in the British Museum, helping to research books such as her mother’s biography of Charles II and her grandmother’s books about Victorian women. Mother is, of course, Lady Antonia Fraser; grandmother was Elizabeth Longford: search the massed ranks of British biographers and you won’t find a purer professional pedigree.

Nor is she the last of the fabulously talented Fraser girls. One of her sisters, Rebecca, is the biographer of Charlotte Bront; another one, Natasha, European editor of Harper’s Bazaar, last year produced a biography of Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel. This, then, is a family with formidable literary connections that link up across generations.

There is, she insists, nothing particularly special about her family background: lots of other families have members in the same line of business and so on. Certainly her mother read Princesses when it was nearly finished and offered helpful suggestions, and her grandmother was another "invaluable" source of advice.

WHETHER CONSCIOUSLY OR NOT, however, Fraser has chosen to concentrate on a different era from either of them. "I’ve always enjoyed the literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s the language of Jane Austen, with the sensibility of the modernity, but not yet the institutional brickwork, of the Victorians.

"I loved doing the research, because as you read the princesses’ letters you can see them finding ways to express emotions that would have been masked only a generation before. You see their private feelings about very public events, like their father’s madness. And in all their lives - far more than their brothers’ - you see just how much they had to endure."

That endurance took many forms. Above all, it lay in seeing their father lose his sanity, and knowing that the slightest upset they caused him might worsen his condition. As he had seen his own sisters make miserable dynastic marriages, he wanted to avoid his daughters suffering the same fate, so he passed an Act denying them permission to marry without his consent or, once they were over 25, that of parliament.

The princesses paid a heavy price for their father’s over-protectiveness. Although the Princess Royal was allowed to marry at the age of 30, the remaining five found the restrictive life at court impossible to escape. "We go on vegetating, as we have done for the last 20 years," wrote 38-year-old Princess Elizabeth in 1808.

If the king was blind to this, it was because while his sons were rebellious, corrupt and generally unimpressive in command, his daughters gave him nothing but love. "I am like poor Lear," he said, at the height of his madness in the Regency crisis of 1788-9, "but thank God I have no Regan, no Goneril, only three [remaining of six] Cordelias." As Fraser points out, his daughters returned that love, even though it had blighted their happiness: after his death, they long treasured memories of their "excellent parents" or found themselves wondering "what the dear King would approve".

Perhaps they were thinking back, past all the years of madness, to their own childhoods. "He really was the most tender of fathers," says Fraser, and she shows how he would call into his children’s bedrooms at 6am (much to his servants’ discomfiture) just to watch them sleep, would get down on the floor to play with them, and be "sad to part with them in the afternoon even though he would see them again in the evening".

If his first descent into madness in 1788 was compounded by the death of his infant son Octavius, it was the death of his daughter Amelia in 1810 that finally pushed him over the edge of sanity. On her deathbed, she gave him a ring which he pledged to wear on his own deathbed "for she was in his heart’s core". Within days of her death, the mania has started. The king imagined that Amelia was still alive and living in Weymouth, and that all his sons, apart from Octavius, were dead.

The princesses’ lives, overshadowed by the king’s madness and restricted by royal decree, might seem to offer little for the biographer, and there are indeed times when you wonder whether they constitute little more than a historical footnote. In August 1792, for example, while across the Channel the mob was tearing into the Tuileries, George III’s daughters were blithely taking the waters in Weymouth, their only complaint being the quality of plum cake offered them on the journey back to Windsor.

Not all the princesses, however, were as docile as their parents imagined. Sophia had an illegitimate baby by one of the king’s equerries, Augusta had a doomed decade-long relationship with one of Wellington’s star generals, and the ill-fated Amelia, who contracted venereal disease when she was 15, had a similarly long-lasting and passionate affair with General Fitzroy, whose initials she entwined around her own on the cutlery she commissioned ahead of a marriage that never took place.

Telling all six of their stories, says Fraser, required huge amounts of research. "Along with their own letters, there were those of their mother and seven brothers, their friends, even their wet nurses. The number of letters was almost overpowering.

"They did at least teach me everything about the subjects the princesses were alluding to. But I didn’t have their private thoughts. That only came in their correspondence with Lady Elizabeth Harcourt, a lifelong confidante to all of them. There was a whole range of sensitive subjects - the king’s madness, Sophia’s illegitimate child, everything. This one woman was the repository of all the royal family’s secrets."

Fraser was determined to use this abundance of source material to tell the story as far as possible through the princesses’ eyes. With so many characters, this inevitably complicates the narrative, although the source material still speaks movingly across the years.

Despite all the literature on the madness of king George III, for example, nothing is quite as poignant as the scene Fraser gives us, in which the king’s doctors, hoping the sight of his children will restore his sanity, parade them in the garden while he looks down from a tower window. At first the younger princesses are unaware of being watched, then they glance up and see their father, looking haggard and still wearing a nightgown and nightcap even though it’s midday, banging on the window in frustration. Men the princesses don’t know bundle him away.

Fraser doesn’t tell the story as a novelist would do, highlighting the fact that this is the first the young girls would have known that their father was mad. She doesn’t need to. She sticks to the sources and they (the Harcourt files again) reveal that the princesses "all seemed more dead than alive when they got into the house".

It’s a richly detailed story Fraser has to tell, and at times she doubted whether she’d be able to do justice to its complexity. She has, although she promises she’ll revert to one subject instead of six for her next biography.

She won’t say who her next subject will be, but she adds with a smile that it will be a lot simpler. Why? "For the first time, I’ll be writing a book about a man."

• Princesses, by Flora Fraser, is published by John Murray, price 25