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  • Written by Flora Fraser
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The Six Daughters of George III

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In this sumptuous group portrait of the six daughters of “Mad” King George III, acclaimed biographer Flora Fraser takes us into the heart of the British royal family during the tumultuous period of the American and French revolutions.

Drawing on their extraordinary private correspondence, Fraser gives voice to these handsome, accomplished, extremely well-educated women: Princess Royal, the eldest, constantly at odds with her mother; home-loving, family-minded Augusta; plump Elizabeth, a gifted amateur artist; Mary, the bland beauty of the family; Sophia, emotional and prone to take refuge in illness; and Amelia, “the most turbulent and tempestuous of all the Princesses.” Never before has the historical searchlight been turned with such sympathy and acuity on George III and his family.


Chapter 1
Early Days

Towards the end of September 1766 the Prince of Wales, who was only four, told a lady at Court that “about next week” he reckoned they should have “a little princess.” George Augustus Frederick, the eldest son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, was known to be precocious. His mother’s Mistress of the Robes called him “the forwardest child in understanding” that she ever saw. And so, far from doubting the child’s prediction, his confidante, Lady Mary Coke, added in her journal, “I find the King and Queen are very desirous it should be one [a girl] and hope they shall have no more sons.”

The additional information probably issued from Lady Mary’s friend Lady Charlotte Finch, who had been appointed royal governess the day after the Prince of Wales’s birth on 12 August 1762. Lady Charlotte and her deputy, or sub-governess, Mrs. Cotesworth had since received into the nursery establishment two further princes, Frederick and William, in 1763 and 1765. To these ladies, who looked after their boisterous charges in the summer at Richmond and Kew, and in the winter at the Queen’s House in London, as much as to the royal parents, a baby girl represented a hope of dulcet peace and feminine charms.

In the event, George, Prince of Wales was confirmed as a prophet in the land when his mother Queen Charlotte, at the age of twenty-two, gave birth in London to a baby princess the following Monday—Michaelmas Day, 29 September. The celebrated anatomist and royal obstetrician Dr. William Hunter hovered with the King and the King’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales, in an adjoining room at the Queen’s House, the royal family’s private residence overlooking the Mall and St. James’s Park.* But nothing untoward took place in the crimson damask bedchamber next door to require their presence. Lady Charlotte Finch, who had moved up to nearby apartments at St. James’s Palace the evening before to oversee the practical arrangements for the new baby, wrote in her journal that night: “At a quarter past eight this morning the Queen was safely delivered of a Princess Royal. Passed all morning at the Queen’s House . . .” That date, 29 September—the quarter-day when, in the greater world, rents became due and, in the royal household, salaries were paid—was to be long dear to the Queen, who was not sentimental by nature, as the day she gave birth to her “Michaelmas goose.”

Names were awaiting the baby Princess: Charlotte, for her mother; Augusta, for her father’s mother; and Matilda, for the King’s sister Caroline Matilda, who, aged fifteen, was leaving England within a few days to marry the King of Denmark. (The English Houses of Parliament gave economical thanks on the same occasion for the birth of the Princess and the marriage of her aunt.) But, as her new governess’s journal entry indicates, by none of her Christian names was King George III and Queen Charlotte’s eldest daughter to be known. At birth, her proud father and sovereign of England had bestowed on her for life the style of Princess Royal, and this (shortened to Royal by her family) is how she was always known in England—although, curiously, the style was only officially granted her years later on 22 June 1789.

The Stuart King Charles I’s eldest daughter Mary had been, in 1642, the first English princess to have been styled Princess Royal. She was eleven and leaving England to be the bride of William of Orange, the future Stadholder in Holland. No other princess was so honoured until 1727, when the Hanoverian King George II of England styled his daughter Anne—who also became a princess of Orange and lived until 1759—Princess Royal, when she was nineteen years old. King George III’s decision in 1766 to make his daughter while still a baby a princess royal in part reflected England’s recent surge in prestige since his accession in 1760, notably with the successful outcome of the Seven Years War in 1763. But it also reflected the unreserved and almost awestruck delight that he exhibited as a young father—some felt, to the detriment of royal dignity—in his infant daughter.

The day after the Princess Royal’s birth, her three brothers, George, Prince of Wales, Prince Frederick and thirteen-month-old William, came up to London to inspect their new sister. Prince William, till now the baby of the family, was a general favourite at Richmond Lodge, the King’s house in woods adjacent to Kew Gardens, where the royal children generally lived during the summer months. As it was not a large house, the children’s attendants—their governess Lady Charlotte Finch among them—were mostly lodged in houses grouped around the King’s mother’s house, the White House in Kew Gardens, and the children spent much of their time there.

A few weeks before the Princess Royal was born in September 1766, Miss Henrietta Finch, one of Lady Charlotte’s daughters, wrote to an absent sister:

We saw the King and Queen last night, they was in Mama’s parlour. We stayed in the room the whole time, they was vastly good humoured and enquired vastly after you. Little Prince William was undressed quite naked and laid upon a cushion, the King made him stand up upon it. I thought I should have died with laughing at his little ridiculous white figure.

The King adored Prince William’s sturdy elder brother Prince Frederick, who was aged three when his sister was born. A year earlier Lady Charlotte Finch recorded the royal father’s close involvement in all his second son’s doings in the autumn of 1765:

Mr. Glenton the tailor is the happiest man in the kingdom. He has been sent for to make a coat for Prince Frederick, and when he came, was ordered to go and take measure of him in the room where the King was. At which he was so astonished and so terrified that his knees knocked together so, they could hardly persuade him to go in. And when he was there, he did not know what he did. And when he came upstairs, he begged he might stay till the prince came up, for he owned he did not know anything of his measures. However, he has made the clothes so excessively neat and fit, that when he brought them home, the King spoke to him himself and commended them. And he is now so happy you cannot conceive anything like his spirits. He is now making another suit for Prince Frederick. However, it is only by way of dressing him in them sometimes, as the King is fond of seeing him in breeches . . . The Queen likes to keep him a little longer in petticoats.

It was evident that the King did not dote on his heir, a less manly child than Frederick. In this sultry summer of 1766, Miss Henrietta Finch noted encouragingly, “I think the King grows very fond of the Prince of Wales, though he does certainly snap [at] him sometimes.” The King’s coolness towards his heir was not lamented as it might have been. It was understood by all that, in the Hanoverian succession, there was an unfortunate tendency for the monarch and his heir to have differences. And the Prince of Wales’s sophistication and insouciant charm continued to attract many admirers, not least his mother and governess. Queen Charlotte was always to love her firstborn best of all her children, and Lady Charlotte recounted her eldest royal charge’s bons mots with pride.

Asked earlier that year if he found tedious the hours spent in a darkened room that custom prescribed following inoculation against smallpox, the Prince replied, “Not at all, I lie awake and make reflections.” Lady Mary Coke, visiting Lady Charlotte Finch and her charges at Kew shortly before the Princess Royal’s birth, found the Prince, as she graciously put it, “comical.” When she left off playing with him, explaining that she was expected at his great-aunt Princess Amelia’s, the Prince looked her up and down before asking, “Pray, are you well enough dressed to visit her?”

The princes were among the few privileged visitors to view the Princess Royal at the Queen’s House at this point. From the fashionable sandy Mall, and indeed from Green Park and from St. James’s Park north and south of it, the courtyard and modest redbrick façade of this royal residence were open to view. But while all Society made formal enquiries after the health of mother and child, they made them at St. James’s Palace, that warren of great antiquity with suites of apartments for royal servants jostling state rooms and throne rooms which sprawled north of the Mall. At this palace, as well, officials of the Court of St. James’s received royal and imperial felicitations from other Courts of Europe on the Princess’s birth—and took in coachloads of mayoral addresses on the subject besides.

Here at St. James’s, in the dilapidated state apartments, the King held his levees and gave audience to ministers. Here ambassadors presented their credentials. Here the Queen received Society twice a week at formal drawing rooms. And here, on the King and Queen’s birthdays, Court balls followed the drawing rooms. Other high days and holidays of the reign—Accession Day, Coronation Day and the King and Queen’s wedding day—were all marked too. Here, in due course, the Princess Royal would make her debut, signalling that she was of an age to take a husband. But for the moment the only ceremony beckoning her there was her baptism, which would take place in October in the Chapel Royal, St. James’s.

At the Queen’s House—which the King had bought two years after he ascended the throne as a London home to which he and the Queen could retreat from the fatigue of public life at St. James’s Palace—mother and daughter recovered. The Queen rested in rooms decorated in a style reflecting her Continental upbringing and showing a great deal of taste, as a visitor to the Queen’s House recorded the following spring when the royal mistress was not in residence: “The Queen’s apartments are ornamented, as one expects a Queen’s should be, with curiosities from every nation that can deserve her notice. The most capital pictures, the finest Dresden and other china, cabinets of more minute curiosities . . . On her toilet, besides the gilt plate, innumerable knick-knacks . . . By the Queen’s bed . . . an elegant case with twenty-five watches, all highly adorned with jewels.”

Evidence of children on that occasion was lacking, and now too, in September 1766, the focus of celebration, the Princess Royal, was nowhere in sight downstairs at the Queen’s House. Queen Charlotte, observing the prevalent custom among Royalty and Society at this time, did not breastfeed her children. Shortly after birth the Princess Royal had been whisked upstairs to somewhat different surroundings—the attic storey, far from frescoed staircases and damask chambers—to forge an intimate relationship with a mother of two named Mrs. Muttlebury, who had been selected as her wet-nurse.

Mrs. Muttlebury had been carefully vetted as a milk-cow in August 1766—not only by Lady Charlotte Finch, a mother of four herself, but also by Dr. Hunter and even by Mr. Caesar Hawkins, the King’s Serjeant-Surgeon, and by his brother Mr. Pennell Hawkins, Surgeon to the Queen—in preparation for her important task. First she had had to bring for her critics’ inspection the child she was then suckling, then she was asked to show her elder child too, to see if it thrived. Only then, in return for a formidable salary of 200 pounds, and a hundred, after her employment ceased, for life—with the interest of the royal family permanently engaged for her own children—was Mrs. Muttlebury retained to devote herself for six months unconditionally to breastfeeding the royal baby. (A limner’s or painter’s wife was put on warning as a substitute wet-nurse should Mrs. Muttlebury’s milk fail before the royal infant appeared.)

But Mrs. Muttlebury remained somewhat bewildered by the honour done her. “She told Mama she had not the least notion of anything she was to do,” recorded Lady Charlotte’s daughter Sophia, “and begged her to tell her . . .” She was surprised to hear she must provide a maid—“I suppose from a notion of having people to do everything for her,” commented Miss Sophia. “Mama told her of several other expenses, viz providing her own washing, always wearing silk gowns morning and evening . . .” The royal baby should come into contact only with superior materials—tussore and brocade and Mechlin lace for ruffles, as supplied by Lady Charlotte.

It was a world unto itself, that of the Princess Royal and Mrs. Muttlebury. The wet-nurse was allowed no visitors, not even her own children, to divert her from her duty. Up on the attic floor of the Queen’s House, among plain mahogany furniture and striped ticking mattresses, and at Richmond Lodge, the country retreat which the King and Queen inhabited from May to November, the Princess Royal grew. Lady Charlotte Finch, the royal governess, supervised the arrangements for this new addition to the royal nursery. But, mostly, she was engaged with the three princes, who spent their days with her at her house in adjoining Kew Gardens.

The attention of the Princess Royal’s parents downstairs was meanwhile diverted elsewhere. Two days after her birth, as we have seen, on 1 October 1766, her aunt Princess Caroline Matilda married King Christian VII of Denmark by proxy in London in the Great Drawing Room at St. James’s. For want of a husband her brother Edward, Duke of York stood groom. And for want of a father—the fifteen-year-old Princess had been born posthumously, months after a cricket ball fatally injured her father, Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1751—her brother William Henry, Duke of Gloucester gave her away. “Before she set out in the procession,” a wedding guest noted, “she cried so much that she was near falling into fits. Her brother the Duke of Gloucester who led her was so shocked at seeing her in such a situation that he looked as pale as death and as if he was ready to faint away.”

When the Archbishop of Canterbury christened the Princess Royal on 27 October 1766, the new Queen of Denmark was among her godparents, but that in its turn was a proxy appearance. Caroline Matilda had embarked for Copenhagen and for a fateful dynastic marriage overseas that her brother, King George III, was bitterly to regret having arranged.

Another of the Princess Royal’s aunts, Princess Augusta, had not fared well in a foreign land either. Her sophisticated soldier husband, the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick, taunted her with a succession of mistresses, and she took disconsolately to religion, and to trumpeting the superiority of her native land. In England two years after her 1764 marriage, and with an infant son, Prince Charles of Brunswick, in tow, she told anyone who would listen that she hoped he would in due course marry his new cousin, the Princess Royal.

From the Hardcover edition.
Flora Fraser|Author Q&A

About Flora Fraser

Flora Fraser - Princesses

Photo © Elena Siebert

Flora Fraser, daughter of bestselling biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, is the author of Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III, Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton and Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire. She lives in London with her husband and three children.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with

author of
The Six Daughters of George III

Q: Biography is clearly in your blood. Not only because your mother, Lady Antonia Fraser, and your grandmother, Lady Elizabeth Longford, were successful biographers but this is now your third biography.

A: I suppose it is rather striking that we are three generations of biographers. But of course to me it seems entirely natural, and enjoyable to have my mother—and, until her recent death, my grandmother—as colleagues in this feminine, or even feminist family business. At any rate, I owe them both an enormous amount. First, they were both expert storytellers when we were young children, and the subject matter of their stories was as often historical—Robin Hood, King Arthur, Robert the Bruce—as it was myth, legend or fairytale. Later, when I was growing up, the subjects on whom my mother and grandmother worked (Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria, Wellington, and Cromwell) were like extra characters—and very colorful characters—around the house.

Additionally, my mother and grandmother paid me as a fact-checker in the school holidays. I had a reader’s pass for the British Library at the age of 15, I think. Meanwhile tap-tap-tap went the typewriter upstairs, and every four years, not at all as if by magic but very plainly as a result of hard work, my mother produced another book. So I grew up thinking writing biography was an interesting, paying, demanding, but rewarding trade to go into. I did rebel in my teens, but by the age of 22 I was embarked on a life of Emma Hamilton. And I’ve never looked back.

Q: What led you to the subjects of Emma, Lady Hamilton, Queen Caroline and now to the relatively unknown six daughters of George III?

A: I suppose I never really got over the satisfaction of Jane Austen’s prose and plots, and I have of course read all of Georgette Heyer’s books at least twice. So it seemed natural, after Oxford, when I decided to write a biography, to choose someone eighteenth century. It was my mother who suggested the subject of Emma Hamilton. I had studied classics at Oxford and initially wanted to write the biography of her husband, Sir William, a distinguished diplomat and antiquarian. But it turned out that there was an excellent, recent biography of him so I turned to his notorious wife Emma, Lord Nelson’s great love. As I had had a childhood passion for Nelson ever since I saw his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, I was happy to make the change.

As for Queen Caroline, George IV’s estranged wife, it was my editor at Knopf, Bob Gottlieb, who suggested it. He had got a book about her trial for adultery in the House of Lords off a second-hand bookstall, and rang me from New York to recommend my writing her life. An inspired suggestion. That book took me into the treasure trove that is the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, and to twenty-nine boxes of papers concerning Queen Caroline and her very rocky relations with her husband when they were Prince and Princess of Wales. While I was working in the Royal Archives, the voices of Queen Caroline’s sisters-in-law, ‘mad’ King George III’s daughters so intrigued me that I decided to write their group biography. Princesses is the result.

Q: How unusual was it for these princesses (among the European royalty of the era) to have parents who treated their education as seriously as their sons’?

A: It was most unusual. The daughters of George III were fortunate in their mother, Queen Charlotte, who believed strongly in female education. She drew the line at Latin and Greek, but ruthlessly purloined tutors in every other subject—from German to physics—intended for her nine sons’ education, and set them to educating her daughters. Queen Charlotte sat in on lessons herself, ruing her own inadequate education in Northern Germany. She also hired tutors and teachers for her daughters in the more usual feminine branches of knowledge, embroidery, flower-painting, drawing. But here again the princesses were educated way above the norm, for they were assiduous and gifted students. Princess Elizabeth became a celebrated amateur artist and published her work. And their mother, although parsimonious in other areas, was almost reckless in her payments to artists and musicians and others who taught her daughters. Besides this, the princesses and their mother read non-stop in English, French, German, and Italian, as their booksellers’ bills show. History, fiction, belle-lettres, natural science, theology, you name it. In fact, Queen Charlotte got quite into debt in pursuit of her wish that her daughters should be educated to what we would now call university standard and beyond.

Q: Queen Charlotte bore 15 children and even though she started at the relatively young age of 20, wasn’t this a bit unusual for a royal, once there were enough heirs?

A: As with so much about George III and Queen Charlotte, I think it was a matter of personal preference for a large family, rather than any anxiety about the succession. George III loved his children best—certainly his sons—when they were children. Psychologists might read a lot into that. The Queen became less happy with the pattern of childbearing as she grew older, and once, when heavily pregnant, said that no prisoner prayed more to be released from his chains than she. But she would not have dreamt of resisting the King’s wish for a happy, domestic, and Christian home (the opposite of his own childhood experience).

Q: Thanks to playwright Alan Bennett, many people today know about the “madness” of King George. We know he did not want his daughters to marry and leave him. Do you think his reluctance, when he was of sound mind, had more to do with the unhappy fates of his sisters, who’d married and lived abroad, or was it something else?

A: I think the King did regret having assented to marriages that made his sisters so unhappy. But I think he was also in some ways a man of very simple wants, and he wanted to keep his daughters, whom he loved greatly, at home. Not being imaginative, he could not imagine how they could be happier elsewhere. As far as we can see, he was very rarely questioned on this policy, which ensured that none of his six daughters—the premier marital prizes in Europe—ever bore even one legitimate grandchild, and few of them gained the husbands, households and independence which were then most women’s goal.

Q: How much do you think the King’s mental illness affected his daughters emotionally?

A: Oh, they were devastated. The winter of 1788 -89 changed the pattern of their lives, even though the King recovered after six months. From then on their mother, Queen Charlotte, was a broken woman. And the unexpected recurrence of the King’s illness in 1794 was the death blow to their chances of happiness. Though he recovered again, from then on, as Princesses makes clear, the Royal Family, and indeed the Government, feared further recurrences. There were two topics that were deemed likely to bring on another attack if they were mentioned to the King: Catholic emancipation, which he refused to contemplate, and his daughters’ marriages, to which he was still more firmly opposed.

Q: You manage to incorporate so much history and information in a narrative that moves so swiftly, which must not have been an easy task. How long did all the research and piecing together of their lives take you and where did you do most of the research?

A: I began researching Princesses following the publication of The Unruly Queen in 1997, when I was a divorced mother with a nine-year-old daughter. Re-marriage and the births of two sons in the space of thirteen months altered my timetable a little, as did the discovery of a crucial stash of papers in an English manor house. Visiting the German homes of those princesses who ultimately married there was another splendid diversion. But my main research was in the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle, where they ring a bell at eleven and very kindly give researchers a cup of coffee. That’s where the princesses’ letters to their brothers are stored, and it’s a goldmine for the eighteenth-century scholar. Seven years in all, a year’s research per each of the six princesses, as I see it, and one for luck.

Q: What is often most moving are the letters these women wrote describing their lives. Were you surprised by how much there was in this source material and was it hard to choose what to include?

A: The princesses’ letters are intensely moving and they take readers right back there: to the Gothic horror times when their father was ill, to their idyllic childhood at Kew, to a time when hope again dawned, and even to their old age. I knew that the princesses’ voices and personalities were very distinctive from reading their letters when I was researching Queen Caroline. But when I began, I had no idea of the subterranean world of sex, scandal, and family fights that a closer inspection of their letters would reveal.

Q: Was the princesses’ desperate wish to get married primarily for the sake of freedom from their restrained lives at court or do you think they were as interested in romance and love as they were in escape?

A: I think the fact that three of the princesses—Augusta, Sophia, and Amelia—threw themselves into clandestine relationships with their father’s equerries and doctors (whoever was at hand) shows they felt starved for romance and love. Princess Amelia’s letters to her equerry lover are positively pornographic. She revels in their every sexual encounter. However, some of the princesses—Elizabeth and Mary among them—were keener on marriage than romance. (In the dynastic politics of eighteenth-century Europe, princesses were unlikely to get both.) The eldest princess, Royal, was so desperate to marry and acquire a household, independence, and children, that she got her doctors to tell the King she would die if she did not marry. Her plan worked, and she married a man with a stomach so large that his card table had to have a section cut out to accommodate it. He was a domestic tyrant and possibly a wife-beater, but Princess Royal had been so frustrated at home that she never regretted her marriage.

Q: If you had one, who was your favorite princess (or least)? And what did you come to appreciate most about them once you knew them better?

A: Oh Augusta, beyond doubt: from the beginning Princess Augusta was my favorite. I have to admit I am a second sister myself, so I suppose I was naturally drawn to her. But Augusta enthralled me with her loving, witty, irreverent family letters, as much as with her meditations on her father’s illness. Anyone who relishes Jane Austen’s letters, as I do, will enjoy Augusta’s—pleasure laced with pain.

The princess whom I came to appreciate most once I knew her better, was the youngest one, Princess Amelia. Amelia is Byronically reckless in her declarations of love for her soldier lover, and of course she is nearly twenty years younger than her eldest sister. She really does belong to the Romantic generation. Her letters grow wilder and more passionate as illness overtakes her. It was extremely painful to write her death scene, but I believe a success: my mother, when reading it, cried.

Q: Do you have a subject in mind for your next biography?

A: I have just started researching the life of a fascinating woman of the eighteenth century: Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s favorite sister. It is a fantastic story, starting in Corsica, darting off to Paris and Rome and even Haiti, and taking in Tuscany and the South of France. Nice research opportunities! Lots of palaces. But more seriously, it is also a story about family loyalty and betrayal at the heart of Napoleonic Europe. It will be published in 2008.

Q: How does the present Royal Family compare with the ones you write about?

A: In the early 1990s, when I was writing about Queen Caroline, who did not get on with her husband the Prince Regent, the disagreements of Prince Charles and Princess Diana were continually all over the newspapers in England. I did think that these twentieth-century Royal disagreements did not reach the level of acrimony that existed in the eighteenth century between George and Caroline, and that the twentieth-century newspaper coverage of the Royal Family was not as scurrilous and intrusive as that of the eighteenth century. Nowadays, since the coverage of Princess Diana’s death and other events, I am not so sure.

Nevertheless, the stories of George and Caroline, and of Charles and Diana, have a great deal in common. In both cases, the public resented the Prince of Wales’s treatment of his bride, and regarded her as an “injured wife.” It was well known that George, Prince of Wales had secretly and illegally married a Catholic widow, Mrs. Fitzherbert, before he married Caroline, and he neglected his young bride for this mistress or first “wife.” In the case of Prince Charles, it was again known that his now soon-to-be second wife, Mrs. Parker Bowles, was the true love of his life, and again it became known that he neglected Princess Diana early on for Mrs. Parker Bowles. Hence the indignation when Prince Charles marries the woman who made Princess Diana so unhappy.

The British public, rightly or wrongly, regards the Royal Family as a sort of morality, or even immorality play, or perhaps as akin to a never-ending TV series, in which we, the taxpayers, are part audience, part participant. The public takes up stern positions on new twists in the plot, softens when a prince is young and charming, tut-tuts when another one is young and foolish. Occasionally they think about pulling the plug on the whole series, as in abandoning the monarchy for a republic. But Royal watching is a national sport, and on the whole the Royal Family saga is a lively one, which doesn’t look likely to be banned any day yet.

From the Hardcover edition.



“A rich and richly hued Regency tale. . . . Fraser is splendidly at home in the 18th century.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Remarkably intimate. . . . Full and revealing. . . . Princesses opens an invaluable new window into the often troubled private world of these royal women.”
Los Angeles Times

“Riveting and wonderfully detailed. . . . Thanks to Flora Fraser’s new book, George III’s daughters can step out of the shadows of history and take their rightful places with the rest of the House of Hanover.”
The Washington Times

“Memorable. . . . Compelling and poignant. . . . With elegant felicity, Fraser paints a picture out of Jane Austen.” –Vogue

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