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A Note on George the Fourth

THEY say that when King George was dying, a special form
of prayer for his recovery, composed by one of the Arch-
bishops, was read aloud to him, and that his Majesty, after saying
Amen “thrice, with great fervour,” begged that his thanks
might be conveyed to its author. To the student of royalty in
modern times there is something rather suggestive in this
incident. I like to think of the drug-scented room at Windsor,
and of the King, livid and immobile among his pillows, waiting,
in superstitious awe, for the near moment when he must stand, a
spirit, in the presence of a perpetual King. I like to think of him
following the futile prayer with eyes and lips, and then, custom
resurgent in him and a touch of pride that, so long as the
blood moved ever so little in his veins, he was still a king,
expressing a desire that the dutiful feeling and admirable taste of
the Prelate should receive a suitable acknowledgment. It would
have been impossible for a real monarch like George, even after
the gout had turned his thoughts heavenward, really to abase him-
self before his Maker. But he could, so to say, treat with him,
as he might have treated with a fellow-sovereign, long after
diplomacy was quite useless. How strange it must be to be a king !
How delicate and difficult a task it is to judge him ! So far


                        248 A Note on George the Fourth

as I know, no fair attempt has been made to form an estimate
of George the Fourth. The hundred and one eulogies and
lampoons, published irresponsibly during and immediately after
his reign, are not worth a wooden hoop in Hades. Mr. Percy
Fitzgerald has published a history of George’s reign, in which
he has so artistically subordinated his own personality to his
subject, that I can scarcely find from beginning to end of the
two bulky volumes a single opinion expressed, a single idea, a
single deduction from the admirably arranged facts. All that
most of us know of George is from Thackeray’s brilliant denun-
ciation. Now, I yield to few in my admiration of Thackeray’s
powers. He had a charming style. We never find him searching
for the mot juste as for a needle in a bottle of hay. Could he
have looked through a certain window by the river at Croisset,
or in the quadrangle at Brasenose, how he would have laughed !
He blew on his pipe, and words came tripping round him, like
children, like pretty little children who are perfectly drilled for
the dance, or came, did he will it, treading in their precedence,
like kings, gloomily. And I think it is to the credit of the
reading mob that, by reason of his beautiful style, all that he
said was taken for the truth, without questioning. But truth
after all is eternal, and style transient, and now that Thackeray’s
style is becoming, if I may say so, a trifle 1860, it may not
be amiss that we should inquire whether his estimate of George
is in substance and fact worth anything at all. It seems to me
that, as in his novels, so in his history of the four Georges,
Thackeray made no attempt at psychology. He dealt simply
with types. One George he insisted upon regarding as a buffoon,
another as a yokel. The Fourth George he chose to hold up
for reprobation as a drunken, vapid cad. Every action, every
phase of his life that went to disprove this view, he either


                        By Max Beerbohm 249

suppressed or distorted utterly. “History,” he would seem to
have chuckled, “has nothing to do with the First Gentleman.
But I will give him a niche in Natural History. He shall be
king of the Beasts.” He made no allowance for the extraordinary
conditions under which any monarch finds himself, none for the
unfortunate circumstances by which George was from the first
hampered. He judged him as he judged Barnes Newcome and
all the scoundrels he created. Moreover, he judged him by the
moral standard of the Victorian Age. In fact he applied to
his subject the wrong method in the wrong manner, and at the
wrong time. And yet every one has taken him at his word. I
feel that my essay may be scouted as a paradox ; but I hope
that many may recognise that I am not, out of mere boredom,
endeavouring to stop my ears against popular platitude, but rather,
in a spirit of real earnestness, to point out to the mob how it has
been cruel to George. I do not despair of success. I think I
shall make converts. For the mob is notoriously fickle, and so
occasionally cheers the truth.

None, at all events, will deny that England to-day stands other-
wise than she stood a hundred and thirty-two years ago, when
George was born. We to-day are living a decadent life. All
the while that we are prating of progress, we are really so deterio-
rate ! There is nothing but feebleness in us. Our youths who
spend their days in trying to build up their constitutions by sport or
athletics, and their evenings in undermining them with poisonous
and dyed drinks, our daughters who are ever searching for some
new quack remedy for new imaginary megrim, what strength is
there in them ? We have our societies for the prevention of this
and the promotion of that and the propagation of the other, because
there are no individuals among us. Our sexes are already nearly
assimilate. Real women are becoming nearly as rare as real ladies,


                        250 A Note on George the Fourth

and it is only at the music halls that we are privileged to see
strong men. We are born into a poor, weak age. We are not
strong enough to be wicked, and the Nonconformist Conscience
makes cowards of us all.

But this was not so in the days when George was walking by
his tutor’s side in the gardens of Kew or of Windsor. London
must have been a splendid place in those days—full of life and
colour and wrong and revelry. There was no absurd press nor
vestry to see that everything should be neatly ordered, nor to
protect the poor at the expense of the rich. Every man had to
shift for himself and, in consequence, men were, as Mr. Clement
Scott would say, manly, and women, as Mr. Clement Scott would
say, womanly. A young man of wealth and family in that period
found open to him a vista of such license as had been unknown
to any since the barbatuli of the Roman Empire. To spend the
early morning with his valet, gradually assuming the rich apparel
that was not then tabooed by a false sumptuary standard ; to
saunter round to White’s for ale and tittle-tattle and the making
of wagers ; to attend a “drunken déjeûner” in honour of “la
très belle Rosaline” or the Strappini ; to drive a friend out into
the country in his pretty curricle, “followed by two well-dressed
and well-mounted grooms, of singular elegance certainly,” and stop
at every tavern on the road to curse the host for not keeping better
ale and a wench of more charm ; to reach St. James’ in time for
a random toilet and so off to dinner. Which of our dandies could
survive a day of pleasures such as this ? Which would be ready,
dinner done, to scamper off again to Ranelagh and dance and skip
and sup in the rotunda there ? Yet the youth of this period would
not dream of going to bed before he had looked in at White’s or
Crockford’s for a few hours’ faro.

This was the kind of life that young George found opened to


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him, when, in his nineteenth year, he at length was given an estab-
lishment of his own in Buckingham House. How his young eyes
must have sparkled, and with what glad gasps must he have taken
the air of freedom into his lungs. Rumour had long been busy
with the confounded surveillance under which his childhood had
been passed. A paper of the time says significantly that “the
Prince of Wales, with a spirit which does him honour, has three
times requested a change in that system.” For a long time King
George had postponed permission for his son to appear at any balls,
and the year before had only given it, lest he should offend the
Spanish Minister, who begged it as a personal favour. I know few
pictures more pathetic than that of George, then an overgrown
boy of fourteen, tearing the childish frill from around his neck
and crying to one of the royal servants, “See how they treat
me !” Childhood has always seemed to me the tragic period of
life—to be subject to the most odious espionage at the one age when
you never dream of doing wrong, to be deceived by your parents,
thwarted of your smallest wish, oppressed by the terrors of manhood
and of the world to come, and to believe, as you are told, that child-
hood is the only happiness known : all this is quite terrible. And all
Royal children, of whom I have read, particularly George, seem to
have passed through greater trials in childhood than do the children
of any other class. Mr. Fitzgerald, hazarding for once an opinion,
thinks that “the stupid, odious, German, sergeant-system of disci-
pline that had been so rigorously applied, was, in fact, responsible for
the blemishes of the young Prince’s character.” Even Thackeray,
in his essay upon George III., asks what wonder that the son,
finding himself free at last, should have plunged, without looking,
into the vortex of dissipation. In Torrens’s “Life of Lord Mel-
bourne” we learn that Lord Essex, riding one day with the King,
met the young prince wearing a wig, and that the culprit, being


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sternly reprimanded by his father, replied that he had “been
ordered by his doctor to wear a wig, for he was subject to cold.”
Whereupon the King, whether to vent the aversion he already felt
for his son or in complacence at the satisfactory result of his
discipline, turned to Lord Essex and remarked, “A lie is ever
ready when it is wanted.” George never lost this early-engrained
habit of lies. It is to George’s childish fear of his guardians
that we must trace that extraordinary power of bamboozling his
courtiers, his ministry and his mistresses that distinguished him
through his long life. It is characteristic of the man that he
should himself have bitterly deplored his own untruthfulness.
When, in after years, he was consulting Lady Spencer upon the
choice of a governess for his child he made this remarkable speech,
“Above all, she must be taught the truth. You know that I
don’t speak the truth and my brothers don’t, and I find it a great
defect, from which I would have my daughter free. We have
been brought up badly, the Queen having taught us to equivocate
You may laugh at the picture of the little chubby, curly-heeded
fellows learning to equivocate at their mother’s knee, but you
must remember that the wisest master of ethics himself, in his
theory of έξεις άποϭείκτικαι, similarly raised virtues, such as telling
the truth, to the level of regular accomplishments, and before you
judge poor George harshly, in his entanglements of lying, re-
member the cruelly unwise education he had undergone.

However much we may deplore this exaggerated tyranny, by
reason of its evil effect upon his moral nature, we cannot but feel
glad that it existed, to afford a piquant contrast to the life awaiting
him. Had he passed through the callow dissipations of Eton and
Oxford, like other young men of his age, he would assuredly have
lacked much of that splendid pent vigour with which he rushed
headlong into London life. He was so young and so handsome,


                        By Max Beerbohm 253

and so strong, that can we wonder if all the women fell at his feet ?
“The graces of his person,” says one whom he honoured by an
intrigue, “the irresistible sweetness of his smile, the tenderness of
his melodious, yet manly voice, will be remembered by me till every
vision of this changing scene are forgotten. The polished and
fascinating ingenuousness of his manners contributed not a little
to enliven our promenade. He sang with exquisite taste, and the
tones of his voice, breaking on the silence of the night, have often
appeared to my entranced senses like more than mortal melody.”
But besides his graces of person, he had a most delightful wit, he
was a scholar who could bandy quotations with Fox or Sheridan ;
and, like the young men of to-day, he knew all about Art. He
spoke French, Italian, and German perfectly, and Crossdill had
taught him the violoncello. At first, as was right for one of
his age, he cared more for the pleasures of the table and of the
ring, for cards and love. He was wont to go down to Ranelagh
surrounded by a retinue of bruisers—rapscallions, such as used to
follow Clodius through the streets of Rome, and he loved to join
in the scuffles like any commoner. He learnt to box from Angelo,
and was considered by some to be a fine performer. On one
occasion, too, at an exposition d’escrime, he handled the foils against
the maître, and “was highly complimented upon his graceful
postures.” In fact, in spite of his accomplishments, he seems to
have been a thoroughly manly young fellow. He was just the
kind of figure-head Society had long been in need of. A certain
lack of tone had crept into the amusements of the haut monde,
and this was doubtless due to the lack of an acknowledged
leader. The King was not yet mad, but he was always bucolic,
and socially out of the question. So at the coming of his son
Society broke into a gallop. Balls and masquerades were given in
his honour night after night. Good Samaritans must have

The Yellow Book—Vol. III. P


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approved when they found that at these entertainments great
ladies and courtesans brushed beautiful shoulders in utmost
familiarity, but those who delighted in the high charm of society
doubtless shook their heads. We need not, however, find it a
flaw in George’s social bearing that he did not check this kind of
freedom. At the first, as a young man full of life, of course he
took everything as it came, joyfully. No one knew better than
he did, in later life, that there is a time for laughing with great
ladies and a time for laughing with courtesans. But as yet it
was not possible for him to exert influence. How great that
influence became I will indicate later on.

I like to think of him as he was at this period, charging about,
in pursuit of pleasure, like a young bull. The splendid taste for
building had not yet come to him. His father would not hear of
him patronising the turf. But already he was implected with a
passion for dress, and seems to have erred somewhat on the side
of dressing up, as is the way of young men. It is fearful to think
of him, as Cyrus Redding saw him, “arrayed in deep-brown
velvet, silver embroidered, with cut-steel buttons, and a gold net
thrown over all.” Before that “gold net thrown over all,” all the
mistakes of his after-life seem to me to grow almost insignificant.
Time, however, toned his too florid sense of costume, and we
should at any rate be thankful that his imagination never deserted
him. All the delightful munditis? that we find in the contem-
porary “fashion-plates for gentlemen” can be traced to George
himself. His were the much-approved “quadruple stock of great
dimension,” the “cocked grey-beaver,” the pantaloons of mauve
silk “negligently crinkled” and any number of other little pomps
and foibles of the kind. As he grew older and was obliged to
abandon many of his more vigorous pastimes, he grew more and
more enamoured of the pleasures of the wardrobe. He would


                        By Max Beerbohm 255

spend hours, it is said, in designing coats for his friends and
liveries for his servants, and even uniforms. Nor did he ever
make the mistake of giving away outmoded clothes to his valets,
but kept them to form what must have been the finest collection
of clothes that has been seen in modern times. With a sentiment-
ality that is characteristic of him he would often, as he sat,
crippled by gout, in his room at Windsor, direct his servant to
bring him this or that coat, which he had worn ten or twenty or
thirty years before, and, when it was brought to him, spend much
time in laughing or sobbing over the memories that lay in its
folds. It is pleasant to know that George, during his long and
various life, never forgot a coat, however long ago worn, however

But in the early days of which I speak he had not yet touched
that self-conscious note which, in manner and mode of life, as well
as in costume, he was to touch later. He was too violently
enamoured of all around him to think very deeply of himself.
But he had already realised the tragedy of the voluptuary, which
is, after a little time, not that he must go on living, but that he
cannot live in two places at once. We have, at this end of the
century, tempered this tragedy by the perfection of railways,
and it is possible for that splendid exemplar of the delectable life,
our good Prince, whom Heaven bless, to waken to the sound of the
Braemar bagpipes, while the music of Mdlle. Guilbert’s latest song,
cooed over the footlights of the Concerts Parisiens, still rings in his
ears. But in the time of our Prince’s illustrious great-uncle there
were not railways ; and we find George perpetually driving, for
wagers, to Brighton and back (he had already acquired that taste
for Brighton which was one of his most loveable qualities) in
incredibly short periods of time. The rustics who lived along the
road were well accustomed to the sight of a high, tremulous


                        256 A Note on George the Fourth

phaeton, flashing past them, and the crimson face of the young
prince bending over the horses. There is something absurd in
representing George as, even before he came of age, a hardened
and cynical profligate, an Elagabalus in trousers. His blood
flowed fast enough through his veins. All his escapades were those
of a healthful young man of the time. Need we blame him if
he sought, every day, to live faster and more fully ?

In a brief essay like this, I cannot attempt to write, as I hope
one day to do, in any detail a history of George’s career, during
the time when he was successively Prince of Wales and Regent
and King. Merely is it my wish at present to examine some of the
principal accusations that have been brought against him, and
to point out in what ways he has been harshly and hastily judged.
Perhaps the greatest indignation against him was, and is to this
day, felt by reason of his treatment of his two wives, Mrs.
Fitzherbert and Queen Caroline. There are some scandals that
never grow old, and I think the story of George’s married life is
one of them. I can feel it. It has vitality. Often have I
wondered whether the blood with which the young Prince’s shirt
was covered when Mrs. Fitzherbert first was induced to visit
him at Carlton House, was merely red paint, or if, in a frenzy
of love, he had truly gashed himself with a razor. Certain
it is that his passion for the virtuous and obdurate lady was
a very real one. Lord Holland describes how the Prince used
to visit Mrs. Fox, and there indulge in “the most extravagant
expressions and actions—rolling on the floor, striking his fore-
head, tearing his hair, falling into hysterics, and swearing that
he would abandon the country, forego the crown, &c.” He
was indeed still a child, for royalties, not being ever brought
inco contact with the realities of life, remain young longer than
most people. He had a truly royal lack of self-control, and


                        By Max Beerbohm 257

was unable to bear the idea of being thwarted in any wish. Every
day he sent off couriers to Holland, whither Mrs. Fitzherbert
had retreated, imploring her to return to him, offering her formal
marriage. At length, as we know, she yielded to his importunity
and returned. It is difficult indeed to realise exactly what was
Mrs. Fitzherbert’s feeling in the matter. The marriage must be,
as she knew, illegal, and would lead, as Charles James Fox pointed
out in his powerful letter to the Prince, to endless and intricate
difficulties. For the present she could only live with him as his
mistress. If, when he reached the legal age of twenty-five, he
were to apply to Parliament for permission to marry her, how
could permission be given, when she had been living with him
irregularly ? Doubtless, she was flattered by the attentions of the
Heir to the Throne, but, had she really returned his passion, she
would surely have preferred “any other species of connection
with His Royal Highness to one leading to so much misery and
mischief.” Really to understand her marriage, one must look at
the portraits of her that are extant. That beautiful and silly face
explains much. One can well fancy such a lady being pleased to
live after the performance of a mock-ceremony with a prince for
whom she felt no passion. Her view of the matter can only
have been social, for, in the eyes of the Church, she could
only live with the Prince as his mistress. Society, however, once
satisfied that a ceremony of some kind had been enacted, never
regarded her as anything but his wife. The day after Fox,
inspired by the Prince, had formally denied that any ceremony
had taken place, “the knocker of her door,” to quote her own
complacent phrase, “was never still.” The Duchesses of
Portland, Devonshire, and Cumberland were among her visitors.

Now, much pop-limbo has been talked about the Prince’s
denial of the marriage. I grant that it was highly improper


                        258 A Note on George the Fourth

to marry Mrs. Fitzherbert at all. But George was always weak
and wayward, and he did, in his great passion, marry her. That
he should afterwards deny it officially seems to me to have been
utterly inevitable. His denial did her not the faintest damage, as
I have pointed out. It was, so to speak, an official quibble,
rendered necessary by the circumstances of the case. Not to
have denied the marriage in the House of Commons would have
meant ruin to both of them. As months passed, more serious
difficulties awaited the unhappily wedded pair. The story of the
Prince’s great debts and desperation need not be repeated. It was
clear that there was but one way of getting his head above water,
and that was to yield to his father’s wishes and contract a real
marriage with a foreign princess. Fate was dogging his footsteps
relentlessly. Placed as he was, George could not but offer to
marry, as his father willed. It is well, also, to remember that
George was not ruthlessly and suddenly turning his shoulder upon
Mrs. Fitzherbert. For some time before the British pleni-
potentiary went to fetch him a bride from over the waters, his
name had been associated with that of the beautiful and un-
scrupulous Countess of Jersey.

Poor George ! Half-married to a woman whom he no longer
worshipped, compelled to marry a woman whom he was to hate at
first sight ! Surely we should not judge a prince harshly.
“Princess Caroline very gauche at cards,” “Princess Caroline
very missish at supper,” are among the entries made in his diary
by Lord Malmesbury while he was at the little German Court.
I can conceive no scene more tragic than that of her presentation
to the Prince, as related by the same nobleman. “I, accordingly
to the established etiquette,” so he writers, “introduced the
Princess Caroline to him. She, very properly, in consequence of
my saying it was the right mode of proceeding, attempted to


                        By Max Beerbohm 259

kneel to him. He raised her gracefully enough, and embraced
her, said barely one word, turned round, retired to a distant part of
the apartment, and, calling to me, said: ‘Harris, I am not well :
pray get me a glass of brandy.'” At dinner that evening, in the
presence of her betrothed, the Princess was “flippant, rattling,
affecting wit.” Poor George, I say again ! Deportment was
his ruling passion, and his bride did not know how to behave.
Vulgarity—hard, implacable, German vulgarity—was in every-
thing she did to the very day of her death. The marriage was
solemnised on Wednesday, April 8th, 1795, and the royal bride-
groom was drunk.

So soon as they were seperated, George became implected with
a morbid hatred for his wife, that was hardly in accord with his
light and variant nature, and shows how bitterly he had been
mortified by his marriage of necessity. It is sad that so much of
his life should have been wasted in futile strainings after divorce.
Yet we can scrcely blame him for seizing upon every scrap of
scandal that was whispered of his wife. Besides his not unnatural
wish to be free, it was derogatory to the dignity of a Prince and a
Regent that his wife should be living an eccentric life at Black-
heath with a family of singers named Sapio. Indeed, Caroline’s
conduct during this time was as indiscreet as ever. Wherever
she went she made ribald jokes about her husband, “in such a
voice that all, by-standing, might hear.” “After dinner,” writes
one of her servants, “Her Royal Highness made a wax figure as
usual, and gave it an amiable pair of large horns ; then took three
pins out of her garment and stuck them through and through, and
put the figure to roast and melt at the fire. What a silly piece of
spite! Yet it is impossible not to laugh when one sees it done.”
Imagine the feelings of the First Gentleman in Europe when
such pranks were whispered to him!


                        260 A Note on George the Fourth

For my own part, I fancy Caroline was innocent of any in-
fidelity to her unhappy husband. But that is neither here nor
there. Her behaviour was certainly not above suspicion. It
fully justified him in trying to establish a case for her divorce.
When, at length, she went abroad, her vagaries were such that
the whole of her English suite left her, and we hear of her
travelling about the Holy Land attended by another family,
named Bergami. When her husband succeeded to the throne,
and her name was struck out of the liturgy, she despatched
expostulations in absurd English to Lord Liverpool. Receiving
no answer, she decided to return and claim her right to be
crowned Queen of England. Whatever the unhappy lady did,
she always was ridiculous. One cannot but smile as one reads of
her posting along the French roads in a yellow travelling-chariot
drawn by cart-horses, with a retinue that included an alderman, a
reclaimed lady-in-waiting, an Italian Count, the eldest son of the
alderman, and “a fine little female child, about three years old,
whom her Majesty, in conformity with her benevolent practices
on former occasions, had adopted.” The breakdown of her
impeachment, and her acceptance of an income, formed a fitting
anti-climax to the terrible absurdities of her position. She died
from the effects of a chill caught when she was trying vainly
to force a way to her husband’s coronation. Unhappy woman !
Our sympathy for her is not misplaced. Fate wrote her a most
tremendous tragedy, and she played it in tights. Let us pity
her, but not forget to pity her husband, the King, also. It is
another common accusation against George that he was an
undutiful and unfeeling son. If this was so, it is certain that not
all the blame is to be laid upon him alone. There is more than
one anecdote which shows that King George disliked his eldest
son, and took no trouble to conceal his dislike, long before the


                        By Max Beerbohm 261

boy had been freed from his tutors. It was the coldness of his
father and the petty restrictions he loved to enforce that first
drove George to seek the companionship of such men as the
Duke of Cumberland and the Duc d’Orleans, each of whom were
quick to inflame his impressionable mind to angry resentment.
Yet when Margaret Nicholson attempted the life of the King, the
Prince immediately posted off from Brighton that he might wait
upon his father at Windsor—a graceful act of piety that was
rewarded by his father’s refusal to see him. Hated by the Queen,
who at this time did all she could to keep her husband and his son
apart, surrounded by intriguers, who did all they could to set him
against his father, George seems to have behaved with great
discretion. In the years that follow, I can conceive no position
more difficult than that in which he found himself every time his
father relapsed into lunacy. That he should have by every means
opposed those who through jealousy stood between him and the
regency was only natural. It cannot be said that at any time did
he show anxiety to rule, so long as there was any immediate
chance of the King’s recovery. On the contrary, all impartial
seers of that chaotic Court agreed that the Prince bore himself
throughout the intrigues, wherein he himself was bound to be, in
a notably filial way.

There are many things that I regret in the career of George IV.,
and what I most of all regret is the part that he played in
the politics of the period. Englishmen to-day have at length
decided that royalty shall not set foot in the political arena. I do
not despair that some day we shall place politics upon a sound
commercial basis, as they have already done in America and
France, or leave them entirely in the hands of the police, as they
do in Russia. It is horrible to think that under our existing
régime all the men of noblest blood and highest intellect should


                        262 A Note on George the Fourth

waste their time in the sordid atmosphere of the House of
Commons, listening for hours to nonentities talking nonsense, or
searching enormous volumes to prove that somebody said some-
thing some years ago that does not quite tally with something he
said the other day, or standing tremulous before the whips in the
lobbies and the scorpions in the constituencies. In the political
machine are crushed and lost all our best men. That Mr. Glad-
stone did not choose to be a cardinal is a blow under which the
Roman Catholic Church still staggers. In Mr. Chamberlain
Scotland Yard missed its smartest detective. What a fine volup-
tuary might Lord Rosebery have been ! It is a platitude that
the country is ruled best by the permanent officials, and I look
forward to the time when Mr. Keir Hardie shall hang his cap
in the hall of No. 10 Downing Street, and a Conservative
working man shall lead her Majesty’s Opposition. In the life-
time of George, politics were not a whit finer than they are
to-day. I feel a genuine indignation that he should have
wasted so much of tissue in mean intrigues about ministries and
bills. That he should have been fascinated by that splendid
fellow, Fox, is quite right. That he should have thrown himself
with all his heart into the storm of the Westminster election is
most natural. But it is inverideed sad to find him, long after
he had reached man’s estate, indulging in back-stair intrigues with
Whigs and Tories. It is, of course, absurd to charge him with
deserting his first friends, the Whigs. His love and fidelity were
given, not to the Whigs, but to the men who led them. Even
after the death of Fox, he did, in misplaced piety, do all he could
for Fox’s party. What wonder that, when he found he was
ignored by the Ministry that owed its existence to him, he turned
his back upon that sombre couple, the “Lords G. and G.,” whom
he had always hated, and went over to the Tories ? Among the


                        By Max Beerbohm 263

Tories he hoped to find men who would faithfully perform their
duties and leave him leisure to live his own beautiful life. I
regret immensely that his part in politics did not cease here.
The state of the country and of his own finances, and also, I
fear, a certain love that he had imbibed for political manipula-
tion, prevented him from standing aside. How useless was all the
finesse he displayed in the long-drawn question of Catholic
Emancipation ! How lamentable his terror of Lord Wellesley’s
rude dragooning ! And is there not something pitiable in the
thought of the Regent at a time of ministerial complications
lying prone on his bed with a sprained ankle, and taking, as was
whispered, in one day as many as seven hundred drops of lauda-
num ? Some said he took these doses to deaden the pain. But
others, and among them his brother Cumberland, declared that
the sprain was all a sham. I hope it was. The thought of a
voluptuary in pain is very terrible. In any case, I cannot but
feel angry, for George’s own sake and that of his kingdom,
that he found it impossible to keep further aloof from the
wearisome troubles of political life. His wretched indecision
of character made him an easy prey to unscrupulous ministers,
while his extraordinary diplomatic powers and almost extrava-
gant tact made them, in their turn, an easy prey to him. In
these two processes much of his genius was uselessly spent. I
must confess that he did not quite realise where his duties ended.
He wished always to do too much. If you read his repeated
appeals to his father that he might be permitted to serve actively
in the British army against the French, you will acknowledge
that it was through no fault of his own that he did not fight. It
touches me to think that in his declining years he actually thought
that he had led one of the charges at Waterloo. He would often
describe the whole scene as it appeared to him at that supreme


                        264 A Note on George the Fourth

moment, and refer to the Duke of Wellington, saying, “Was it
not so, Duke ?” “I have often heard you say so, your Majesty,”
the old soldier would reply, grimly. I am not sure that the old
soldier was at Waterloo himself. In a room full of people he
once referred to the battle as having been won upon the playing-
fields of Eton. This was certainly a most unfortunate slip,
seeing that all historians are agreed that it was fought on a
certain field situate a few miles from Brussels.

In one of his letters to the King, craving for a military appoint-
ment, George urges that, whilst his next brother, the Duke of
York, commanded the army, and the younger branches of the
family were either generals or lieutenant-generals, he, who was
Prince of Wales, remained colonel of dragoons. And herein,
could he have known it, lay the right limiting of his life. As
royalty was and is constituted, it is for the younger sons to take
an active part in the services, whilst the eldest son is left as the
ruler of Society. Thousands and thousands of guineas were given
by the nation that the Prince of Wales, the Regent, the King,
might be, in the best sense of the word, ornamental. It is not for
us, at this moment, to consider whether Royalty, as a wholly Pagan
institution, is not out of place in a community of Christians. It
is enough that we should inquire whether the god whom our
grandfathers set up and worshipped and crowned with offerings,
gave grace to his worshippers.

That George was a moral man, in our modern sense, I do not for
one moment pretend. When he died there were found in one of
his cabinets more than a hundred locks of women’s hair. Some of
these were still plastered with powder and pomatum, others were
mere little golden curls, such as grow low down upon a girl’s neck,
others were streaked with grey. The whole of this collection
subsequently passed into the hands of Adam, the famous Scotch


                        By Max Beerbohm 265

henchman of the Regent, and in his family, now resident in
Glasgow, it is treasured as an heirloom. I myself have been
privileged to look at all these locks of hair, and I have seen a
clairvoyante take them one by one, and, pinching them between
her lithe fingers, tell of the love that each symbolised. I have
heard her tell of long rides by night, of a boudoir hung with
grass-green satin, and of a tryst at Windsor ; of one, the wife of a
hussar at York, whose little lap-dog used to bark angrily whenever
the Regent came near his mistress ; of a milk-maid who, in her
great simpleness, thought that her child would one day be king of
England ; of an arch-duchess with blue eyes, and a silly little
flautist from Portugal ; of women that were wantons and fought
for his favour, great ladies that he loved dearly, girls that gave
themselves to him humbly. If we lay all pleasures at the feet of
our prince, we can scarcely hope he will remain virtuous. Indeed,
we do not wish our prince to be an exemplar of godliness, but a
perfect type of happiness. It may be foolish of us to insist upon
apolaustic happiness, but that is the kind of happiness that we can
ourselves, most of us, best understand, and so we offer it to our
ideal. In Royalty we find our Bacchus, our Venus.

Certainly George was, in the practical sense of the word, a fine
king. His wonderful physique, his wealth, his brilliant talents, he
gave them all without stint to Society. His development from the
time when, at Madame Cornely’s, he gallivanted with rips and
demireps, to the time when he sat, a stout and solitary old king,
fishing in the artificial pond at Windsor, was beautifully ordered.
During his life he indulged himself to the full in all the delights
that life could offer him. That he should have, in his old age,
suddenly abandoned his career of vigorous enjoyment is, I confess,
rather surprising. The royal voluptuary generally remains young
to the last. No one ever tires of pleasure. It is the pursuit of


                        266 A Note on George the Fourth

pleasure, the trouble to grasp it, that makes us old. Only the
soldiers who enter Capua with wounded feet leave it demoralised.
And yet George, who never had to wait or fight for a pleasure,
most certainly broke up long before his death. I can but attribute
this to the constant persecution to which he was subjected by
duns and ministers, parents and wives.

Not that I regret the manner in which he spent his last years.
On the contrary, I think it was exceedingly cosy. I like to think
of the King, at Windsor, lying a-bed all the morning in his dark-
ened room, with all the newspapers scattered over his quilt, and a
little decanter of the favourite cherry-brandy within easy reach.
I like to think of him sitting by his fire in the afternoon and
hearing his ministers asking for him at the door and piling
another log upon the fire, as he hears them sent away by his ser-
vant. After all, he had lived his life ; he had lived more fully than
any other man.

And it is right that we should remember him first as a
voluptuary. Only let us note that his nature never became, as do
the natures of most voluptuaries, corroded by a cruel indifference
to the happiness of others. When all the town was agog for the
fête to be given by the Regent in honour of the French King,
Sheridan sent a forged card of invitation to Romeo Coates, the
half-witted dandy, who used at this time to walk about in absurd
ribbons and buckles, and was the butt of all the streetsters. When
the poor fellow arrived at the entrance of Carlton House, proud as
a peacock, he was greeted with a tremendous cheer from the by-
standing mob, but when he came to the lacqueys he was told that
his card was a hoax, and was sent about his business. The tears
were rolling down his cheeks as he shambled back into the street.
The Regent heard later in the evening of this sorry joke, and next
day despatched a kindly-worded message, in which he prayed that

                                                Mr. Coates

                        By Max Beerbohm 267

Mr. Coates would not refuse to come and “view the decorations,
nevertheless.” Though he does not appear to have treated his
inferiors with that extreme servility that is now in vogue, George
was beloved by the whole of his household, and many are the little
tales that are told to illustrate the kindliness and consideration
he showed to his valets and his jockeys and his stable-boys. That
from time to time he dropped certain of his favourites is no cause
for blaming him. Remember that a Great Personage, like a great
genius, is dangerous to his fellow-creatures. The favourites of
Royalty live in an intoxicant atmosphere. They become
unaccountable for their behaviour. Either they get beyond them-
selves, and, like Brummel, forget that the King, their friend,
is also their master ; or they outrun the constable, and go bankrupt,
or cheat at cards in order to keep up their position, or do some
other foolish thing that makes it impossible for the King to
favour them more. Remember, too, that old friends are generally
the refuge of unsociable persons, and how great must be the
temptation besetting the head of Society to form fresh friendships,
when all the cleverest and most charming persons in the land are
standing ready, like supers at the wings, to come on and please
him. At Carlton House there was a constant succession of wits.
Minds were preserved for the Prince of Wales, as coverts are
preserved for him to-day. For him Sheridan would say his best
bon-mot, and Theodore Hook contrive his most practical jokes,
his swiftest chansonette. And Fox would talk, as only he could,
of Liberty and of Patriotism, and Byron would look more than
ever like Isidore de Lara as he recited his own bad verses, and Sir
Walter Scott would “pour out with an endless generosity his
store of old-world learning, kindness, and humour.” Of such men
George was a splendid patron. He did not merely sit in his chair,
gaping princely at their wit and their wisdom, but quoted with the


                        268 A Note on George the Fourth

scholars, and argued with the statesmen, and jested with the wits.
Doctor Burney, an impartial observer, says that he was amazed by
the knowledge of music that the Regent displayed in a half-
hour’s discussion over the wine. Croker says that “the Prince
and Scott were the two most brilliant story-tellers, in their
several ways, he had ever happened to meet. Both exerted them-
selves, and it was hard to say which shone the most.” The
Prince seems indeed to have been a fine conversationalist, with a
wide range of knowledge and great humour. We, who have
come at length to look upon stupidity as one of the most sacred
prerogatives of Royalty, can scarcely realise that, if George’s
birth had been never so humble, he would have been known to us
as a fine scholar and wit or as a connoisseur of the arts. It is
pleasing to think of his love for the Flemish school of painting,
for Wilkie and Sir Thomas Lawrence. The splendid portraits of
foreign potentates that hang in the Banqueting Room at Windsor
bear witness to his sense of the canvas. In his later years he
exerted himself strenuously in raising the tone of the drama.
His love of the classics never left him. We know he was fond of
quoting those incomparable poets, Homer, at great length, and
that he was prominent in the “papyrus-craze.” Indeed, he
inspired Society with a love of something more than mere
pleasure, a love of the “humaner delights.” He was a giver of
tone. The bluff, disgusting ways of the Tom and Jerry period
gave way to those florid graces that are still called Georgian.

A pity that George’s predecessor was not a man, like the Prince
Consort, of strong chastening influence ! Then might the bright
flamboyance which George gave to Society have made his reign
more beautiful than any other—a real renaissance. But he found
London a wild city of taverns and cock-pits, and the grace which
in the course of years he gave to his subjects never really entered


                        By Max Beerbohm 269

into them. The cock-pits were gilded and the taverns painted
with colour, but the heart of the city was vulgar, even as before.
The simulation of higher things did indeed give the note of a
very interesting period, but how shallow that simulation was, and
how merely it was due to George’s own influence, we may see in
the light of what happened after his death. The good that he
had done died with him. The refinement he had laid upon vul-
garity fell away, like enamel from withered cheeks. It was only
George himself who had made the sham endure. The Victorian
Era came soon, and the angels rushed in and drove the nymphs
away and hung the land with reps.

I have often wondered whether it was with a feeling that his
influence would be no more than life-long, that George allowed
Carlton House, that dear structure, the very work of his life and
symbol of his being, to be rased. I wish that Carlton House were
still standing. I wish we could still walk through those corridors,
whose walls were “crusted with ormolu,” and parquet-floors were
“so glossy that, were Narcissus to come down from heaven, he
would, I maintain, need no other mirror for his beauté.” I wish
that we could see the pier-glasses and the girandoles and the
twisted sofas, the fauns foisted upon the ceiling and the rident
goddesses along the wall. These things would make George’s
memory dearer to us, help us to a fuller knowledge of him. I am
glad that the Pavilion still stands here in Brighton. Its trite
lawns and cheeky minarets have taught me much. As I write
this essay, I can see them from my window. Last night I sat
there in a crowd of vulgar people, whilst a band played us tunes.
Once I fancied I saw the shade of a swaying figure and of a wine-
red face.

The Yellow Book—Vol. III. Q

MLA citation:

Beerbohm, Max. “A Note on George the Fourth.” The Yellow Book, vol. 3, October 1894, pp. 247-69. Yellow Nineties Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.