T hough generations of young American girls have never experienced monarchy, they’ve still wanted to be princesses. Fed by movies, toys and countless other influences, they’ve gotten a vivid and alluring sense of what the title confers: fame, privilege, glamor, luxury.
When they grew up, many came to view princesses quite differently: as symbols of female disempowerment. After all, compared to her male relatives, the archetypal princess is a bit player. Because of her gender, she’s at best a backup plan when it comes to accession. In the meantime, coddling has made her weak and entitled. She doesn’t seem to aspire or achieve. She doesn’t shape policy and isn’t independent. Particularly in fictional representations, she’s usually a damsel in distress, needing rescuing by a king, prince or knight.
In short, princesses aren’t good examples for non-princesses. So, in 2017, when little girls are encouraged to fantasize in that direction—while watching TV or reading books or playing video games or browsing Halloween store racks—their parents often cringe.
At the moment, however, there’s at least one princess-y place they needn’t worry about bringing their daughters to: the Yale Center for British Art, whose latest exhibit, Enlightened Princesses, focuses on a trio of royal women who not only had substantive impacts on their domains (and beyond) but also led rich personal lives of purpose and achievement. Defying another troubling aspect of princess fantasies—and honoring a vital aspect of scholarship—the storytellers, a.k.a. the curators, don’t idealize the stars of this show. The exhibit’s vast array of collected objects—paintings, etchings, books, chalices, dresses, medallions and much, much more—may be especially magnificent, but as the foreword to the companion volume notes, both the princesses’ “many admirable accomplishments” and “the more questionable aspects of their endeavours” are highlighted. So too is some of the criticism, fair or otherwise, they endured from the public.
Their names were Caroline (of Ansbach), Augusta (of Saxe-Gotha) and Charlotte (of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), and together they spanned the entirety of the 18th century. Caroline (1683-1737), who entered the British royal family with her marriage to George Augustus—crowned later as King George II—was the pioneer. Married in 1705, she became Queen Consort in 1727 and, during her decade on that perch, counseled her husband with unusual influence. She was trusted enough that, during several extended trips to their native land of present-day Germany, George named her the country’s “regent” in charge of “all ‘matters domestic,’” as lead curator Joanna Marschner writes.
Along the way, Caroline holistically pushed the boundaries of what a woman in her position could do—a development made more palatable by the boundary-pushing ordinary British women had already done. (“… the traditional injunctions that women should be chaste, silent and obedient had been undermined by a generation which wrote, preached and even petitioned Parliament,” Marschner notes.) Among her achievements, Caroline “[played] the crucial role in the appointment of at least four, and possibly as many eight, of the 13 bishops consecrated between 1727 and 1737,” and, variously inviting scorn from some observers and praise from others, Caroline maintained fruitful relationships with leading intellectuals like Leibniz and Newton; composers such as Handel; literary figures including Voltaire; and politicians like Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister.
Unlike Caroline, Augusta (1719-1772) wouldn’t grace the top of Britain’s ticket. She entered the royal family in 1736 upon marrying Caroline’s son Frederick, who was heir to the throne but died too early to claim it. At the time of their marriage, when Augusta was 17 years old, she was a “competent harpsichord player” whose “affability, good sense” and favorable family connections secured the arrangement. Not speaking English to start, she became fluent within a couple of years, and she was so influential with her husband that gaining her support for a proposal was quietly regarded by those in royal circles as the “best way of shaping Frederick’s policy.”
George II seems to have trusted her just as much. After his son Frederick’s death, he backed legislation that would’ve put her in charge (“albeit with the support of a council,” Marschner notes) had the king perished before the next heir, Augusta’s son George, came of age. She was also beloved by the people, at least until a sad episode of what modern vernacular refers to as “slut-shaming.” After her husband’s death, and based purely on conjecture, Augusta was accused of having an affair with John Stuart, Earl of Bute, the man she’d chosen to tutor her son Prince George, who would later become King George III. Gleefully entertained by the press and fanned by opportunistic politicians in an era of strict sexual mores, the speculation was so damaging that, according to Marschner, “in her last years the Princess, who had been such a favourite of Londoners, rarely ventured… beyond her royal homes.”
There are worse fates, however. Begun under Caroline, who had lived there also, and expanded greatly by Augusta, the grounds of one of those estates, known as Kew Gardens, had been turned into an idyllic wonderland of pastoral pleasures and increasingly rigorous botanical study.
Charlotte (1744-1818), who would become Augusta’s daughter-in-law, shared her forerunners’ passion for wide-ranging scholarship. Though neither she nor her family expected her, as “a younger daughter of a minor branch of an ancient family,” to be arranged into marriage with the king of England—which is exactly what happened—she grew up with an education that would prepare her well for life at court. She studied music and art, “acquired a taste for serious reading—of theology in particular” and learned Latin, French and Italian, Marschner writes.
Upon marrying Augusta’s son, King George III, in 1761, Charlotte, like Caroline and Augusta, “[bore] children without difficulty, swiftly fulfilling one of her principal functions, to secure an heir for the dynasty.” The fruits of an especially happy marriage, Charlotte herself didn’t view motherhood as a political function but as a happiness. She and her husband would have 15 children, which, among other things, added a sheen of stability and relatability to the royal image.
Marschner observes that unlike Caroline or Augusta—and though she would find herself forced into it, when her husband’s mental and physical health became erratic later in life—Charlotte wasn’t interested in shaping political affairs. But she was interested in many other things. She took up the mantle of botany and amassed what English gardening expert Mark Laird, in his contribution to the exhibit’s companion book, calls a “wide-ranging and impressive” library of topical works. Other companion essays note that she took lessons in architectural drawing; maintained an active interest in astronomy, albeit one undergirded by theological motivations; and had a printing press established to whose output she directly contributed. She was also an early promoter of women’s health as a discrete field of medicine, particularly surrounding childbirth, and her generosity when it came to charitable giving “long alarmed her financial advisers.”
The curators of Enlightened Princesses have been similarly generous. An article such as this can only scratch the surface of the show’s many hundreds of artifacts and countless insights—and of its central figures, who were princesses, sure, but also so much more.
Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World
1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through April 30, 2017
Written by Dan Mims. Images, provided courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art and cropped here to fit, depict, in the following order, Caroline Wilhelmina of Brandenburg-Ansbach by Charles Jervas, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha by Jeremiah Davison and Queen Charlotte by Johan Joseph Zoffany.