Despite the success of books such as Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, the 18th century remains the poor relation of history, often passed over in favour of the Tudors and Victorians. Any study that attempts to redress the balance is therefore welcome.
Lucy Worsley’s Courtiers introduces us to a cast of colourful characters who schemed, fawned and flattered their way into royal favour during the reigns of the first two Georges. It is with some justification that the book has been described as “an 18th-century version of Heat magazine”.
Gossip, fashion and trivia predominate. The clipped, pacey style and frequent use of the present tense adds to the impression of this being more tabloid than serious history.
Although Worsley paints a vivid picture of life in the Georgian court, she strays dangerously close to the realms of fiction when, for example, she describes how Princess Caroline’s ladies in waiting emerged “gingerly” into the waiting throng, to be met with “loud sighs of admiration”.
The use of frivolous language such as “dinky little principalities” to describe George II and Queen Caroline’s native lands also jars with the historical context.
Undoubtedly, Worsley’s strength is in describing the minutiae of daily life in the Georgian court: the sights, smells, tastes and sounds with which the royal palaces would have been filled. Although there is little new research, her eye for historical details is impressive, particularly those facets of daily life that would have remained firmly behind closed doors.
The book is structured around a number of key characters – not all of them obvious – which is an innovative approach, although sometimes feels rather disjointed. It ends with George II’s death in 1760 and a brief glimpse ahead at the characters who survived the “skulduggery, politicking and flick knives” of this most dazzling of courts.
Tracy Borman is the author of several books, including King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard (Vintage, 2010)