I HAVE just been reading what is not only a very excellent biography, but a very much-needed book. It. is a study of ‘George the Fourth’ by Mr Shane Leslie. It is in no sense what even shallow people would call a whitewashing of George IV, though it is the restoration of a blackened portrait. It has not the tone of an advocate for the defence any more than for the prosecution. But it is a criticism of the critics of George. And it is a very dam aging criticism too.
The truth is that poor George has been the victim of a prolonged effort of Propaganda. It was partly Whig and partly Victorian propaganda. But because it went on for a very long time and enlisted many literary men of what may be called the Whig patronage, it has come to seem to many of my generation and the next a normal truth of English history. It is quite obvious that, long before we come to the really fine qualities of the man, even his ordinary qualities were caricatured in the most unscrupulous and scandalous fashion. In weakness and in strength he was very much of a man — of what we call a man’s man. He has not only been represented as a ladies’ man — which perhaps he was; he has been talked of as a lady-killer almost in the literal sense of Bluebeard. The truth is that George’s conduct, while wrong by a Christian standard, was very far from being exceptionally wrong by the ordinary heathen standard of hundreds of such men of the world. Very few of those men have risked so much as he did for the one heroic love of his life; and, if he had risked more, he might well have been called a hero. But he was not a hero; he was a very human being; a man, but not a monster. Yet it certainly is as a monster, swollen, bloated, and abominable, that he haunted even our nurseries like a nightmare.
A coincidence of two causes, I think, produced this lurid transformation and tradition. The first was aristocratic and the second democratic; and together they turned both the Whig and the Radical against the King’s memory. The first was that he had been in every sense, and even remained in some sense, a Radical himself. At least he was once a Liberal even with a large ‘L’, and was always a liberal with a small one But he had changed sides in the ordinary party sense, and joined in the ordinary shuffling and inconsistency of the party system. The Whigs hated him for having been a Whig more than for being a Tory. But the aristocrats who had known him knew he was intelligent, knew he had understood what he was doing and what he was undoing His very intelligence let him in for a charge of intellectual treason. That was the sort of monster he was — a constitutional monarch who could not act for himself, and yet could think for himself.
The second cause that coincides with this was the genuine popular legend of the pathos and innocence of Queen Caroline. Now about that the King may have been wrong, but he certainly was not inhumanly or inconceivably wrong; and the wrong certainly was not all on one side. George was really wrong not in divorcing Caroline, but in marrying Caroline. In divorcing her, as a matter of fact, he was simply ceasing to be a bigamist. For he was already married to a much better woman. But the mob has a mysterious sort of power of hitting the right nail with the wrong hammer. George was very properly pelted for being false to his wife; only he was really being false to quite another wife. Anyhow, his popularity with posterity was killed by those two combining forces. It was killed by the horror of the populace who knew nothing about him, and the jealousy of the gentry who knew too much about him. But the time has come when a more rational and reliable estimate can be made than was possible to the Whig tradition which Thackeray inherited from Macaulay; and with admirable wit, sympathy, and compact criticism, Mr Shane Leslie has made it.
In truth, there is a great deal to praise in George IV. At any rate, there was a very great deal to praise in the Prince Regent. It was not entirely his fault if there was less to praise in the King than there had been in the Prince. If ever a man’s life was broken and brutally mismanaged by other people, it was his. His father was a fool who repeatedly relieved the monotony of that fact by becoming a lunatic. If anything, he was quieter and less mischievous as a lunatic than he was as a fool. He pestered and oppressed his children, and drove them into dark and devious ways. Yet even here there is a good example of the way in which the world is unjust to the Prince Regent. It has often been repeated that he wanted his child to be trained to be truthful, and admitted that he had fallen into lax ways in such matters, through the false position into which the old family tyranny had forced him in his youth. This is used as evidence against him — that he had himself confessed to being a liar. But no real liar ever confesses to being a liar. The confession is not a proof of how false he was, but of how candid he was.
He was forbidden by bigots and tyrants to call his wife his wife, and that is a situation which no man’s sense of honour will ever perfectly survive. It broke George’s career across the middle; and the second half was a crippled thing. Yet even as a cripple he did things that the active and ambitious around him did not think of doing. Mr Shane Leslie, among his many admirable phrases, uses one that is especially vivid and veracious; George had ‘a fierce streak of humanity’. His acts of mercy were abrupt, angry, and even militant. They had the flash of finality; they were absolute renunciations or abject apologies. He was devoted to pugilism; but when a pugilist was killed in the ring at Brighton he took a vow never to see a prize-fight again. He had a profoundly Christian hatred of the callous spirit in the criminal law, which executes men as if by clockwork, and he paved the world with pardons for condemned men. He pardoned them not in a patronizing and facile fashion, as much meaner enemies have implied, but, on the contrary, with vigilance and vivid worry and a sort of insomnia of responsibility. He sat up all night looking for a loophole in the law by which he could let some obscure criminal free. He took trouble in exactly the type of cases in which most men (especially men of his position) would never think of taking it. He happened to turn down a street where a man stood in pillory for a political offence — having, indeed, been put there by the police and the lawyers for a libel upon George himself. George was so much distressed at the thought that he might conceivably be supposed to have triumphed ungenerously over his slanderer that he wrote a personal letter apologizing for the ‘indelicacy’ of his conduct. A man moved in such a case to such an apology ought not to be called, merely with a sneer, the First Gentleman of Europe.
George’s liberality was anything but a mere party pose and the making of a cabal against his father. He was liberal about the very things on which most party Whigs were not liberal at all — for instance, he sympathized with the point of view of the Irish. If he could have come to the throne with his real wife as a Queen, it is possible that the whole tragedy of a hundred years might have been averted. There are a great many good things that might have happened if the younger and more generous George could have become a normal and national King. There is nothing that can be done now except do reasonable justice to his memory; and it was long before anybody thought of doing it. But nobody who reads Mr Shane Leslie’s lively and pointed paragraphs has any excuse for thinking that Thackeray exhausted the subject or that there is no picture of George except in the cartoons of Gilray. He will know well enough that the man who kept a complete set of Jane Austen in each of his houses, that he might read at any moment, was not a coarse and comic drunkard understanding nothing but bruisers and cock-fighting. He will know that the man who endangered his crown out of chivalrous devotion to a devout and religious woman was not an utterly selfish satyr whose very appetite was cold. He will know that the friend of Fox and Sheridan cannot possibly have been a mere dummy dressed up as a dandy; and that the man whom Canning and Castlereagh often thought too clever for them can hardly have been entirely a fool.