Andrea here, juggling a multitude of pressing deadlines, and so invoking the Wenchly privilege of posting an oldie but goodie blog from the past. It seemed worthy of repeat, given all the controversy concerning the current Duke of Sussex. So without further ado . . .
I'm musing today on minor characters in a story, and how they can surprise you. Take, for example, my Wrexford & Sloane mystery, Murder at Kensington Palace. In doing research for the book, I had come across a paragraph or two that mentioned scientific soirees were occasionally held at Kensington Palace during the Regency because King George III’s sixth son (and ninth child), Prince Augustus Frederick, lived in one of the state apartments and was very interested in science.
Aha! I think—it’s the perfect place for my opening scene! So, I make a note of it, doubly happy because I now have a great title for the book. When it comes down to writing the scene, I shuffle through all my notes and photos from my visit to the palace, as well as research I’ve done on the real-life scientific scholars who might have attended, as I have fun putting a few small cameos of actual people interacting with my fictional characters. And course, I remind myself to made a very brief mention of Prince Augustus Frederick—or the Duke of Sussex, the title he was granted by his father in 1801.
Naturally, I imagine this will only take a minute down rabbit hole. I only intend to have him walk by, and then have a few other people comment on some of his habits to make him a little individuality . . . However, I ended up being really surprised by what an interesting man he was. I had always thought of George III’s sons as a rather undistinguished lot (if not downright dislikable fellows.) And for me, Augustus Frederick was sort of lost in the shuffle of the 15 children.
By all accounts, he was a “bookish and thoughtful” boy. He suffered from severe asthma—even so, at age thirteen he was packed off to study at university in Germany with two of his brothers, under the guidance of an English tutor. He was deemed too weak to undergo military training, and the plan was to go into the Church. He was very ill in the summer of1790, and after his studies were done, he was advised to avoid English winters because of his health. His travels took him through southern France and Italy, where he met another young Englishman whose liberal ideas on prison reform and other social ills greatly influenced him.
The King seemed to lose interest in the young prince—many letters about his next steps in life went unanswered. At loose end, Augustus ended up in Rome, where he stayed for some time. There, he met and fell in love with Lady Augusta Murray, daughter of the Earl of Dunmore. They married, but without permission of his father, which was in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act. Infuriated, the King refused to sanction the match. The couple returned to England—with Augusta pregnant—and tried again, this time at St. George’s of Hanover Square. Again, it was wasn’t recognized. Nonetheless, the couple remained together for a long time, and when they eventually parted, Augusta received a stipend from the prince, and he took an interest in his illegitimate children’s lives.
Historians think one of the reasons the King was hard on his son was because of Augustus’s very liberal views on society. He supported the abolition of slavery as well as Catholic emancipation and the end of all civil restrictions on Jews and dissenters. He called for the repeal of the hated Corn Laws and also championed parliamentary reform—none of which endeared him to the highest circles of the aristocracy.
He was also a great supporter of the arts and sciences. He was served as president of the Society of the Arts as well as President of the Royal Society, one of the leading intellectual organizations in Britain. He was an avid book collector (a man after our own hearts!) and his private library contained over 50,000 books, which over 1,000 Bibles, and a collection of ancient manuscripts.
Augustus remained a rebel all his life. He married for the second time in 1831—and once again chose to thumb his nose at the Royal Marriage Act and didn’t ask for the King’s permission. The match lasted until his death (and Queen Victoria, who was very fond of her uncle, made his wife the Duchess of Inverness because she couldn’t officially be the Duchess of Sussex.) His wishes stated that he was not to receive a state funeral. Instead he was buried in a public cemetery, so his wife could be buried next to him when her time came.
An interesting side note is that Augustus’s title of Duke of Sussex remained dormant after his death until Queen Elizabeth bestowed it on Prince Harry . . . another royal rebel. (Some people wonder whether she chose that particular title because of Augustus’s stand on abolition, and the fact that Meghan Markle would be the Duchess of Sussex. I find that a rather nice thought, and I imagine Augustus would approve.)
As I said, the Duke of Sussex was hardly mentioned in my book, and his name appears only as a small homage to the fact that scientific soirees did in fact take place at Kensington Palace. However, I was both surprised and happy to learn his story, and it’s one of those tiny details that makes research sucht a richly rewarding experience.
So what about you? Do you enjoy seeing cameo appearances of real-life [people in historical novels? Do you think they add a touch of authenticity or texture to fiction? (And if you care to dip a toe in the water, you are welcome to comment on Harry and his travails!)