The King’s Mistress by Claudia Gold (Book Review)

When the Elector of Hanover succeeded to the British throne as King George I in 1714, he was not accompanied by a Queen but by two women whom the English public presumed to be his mistresses. Sophia Charlotte von Platen and Melusine von der Shulenburg were cruelly dubbed “The Elephant” and “The Maypole” because of their physiques while the King’s former wife, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, was pitied for her long imprisonment in spite of her known adultery.

Although eighteenth century women were expected to be faithful to their husbands, whose lives were not governed by the same constraints, observers throughout Europe judged Sophia Dorothea to be the innocent party because George had “preferred two hideous mistresses to a beautiful, innocent wife.” In The King’s Mistress: The True and Scandalous Story of the Woman Who Stole the Heart of George I., Claudia Gold reminds her readers that Sophia Charlotte “the Elephant” von Platen was actually King George’s much loved half sister and attempts to rehabilitate Melusine “the Maypole” von der Schulenburg as his unofficial consort.

The reconstruction of Melusine’s life was a difficult task for the author. Although the eighteenth century was a golden age of correspondence among European elites, George and Melusine never wrote personal letters to each other, leaving Gold to speculate about key aspects of the relationship. Noblewomen such as Melusine were expected to make strategic marriages rather than accept the socially inferior position of mistress. Gold speculates that Melusine may have fallen in love with the young, married Elector, suggesting that his character was closer to the sympathetic portrayal by his recent biographer Ragnhild Hatton in George I than the unflattering traditional depiction.

Despite the absence of key sources, Gold successfully reconstructs Melusine’s significance to George’s life and reign. Since the majority of the book covers the period after George ascended to the throne, Melusine’s significance to British politics and culture is particularly well analyzed. In contrast to George, Melusine spoke fluent English and became a mediator between the King and his ministers, developing a particularly successful working relationship with Prime Minister Horace Walpole. Melusine had less success to her attempts to act as peacemaker within George I’s fractious family. The future George II never forgave his father for the imprisonment of his mother and quarreled repeatedly with George I until his own ascension to the throne.

Melusine shared George I’s interest in Italian opera and the music of George Frederic Handel and the couple had a profound influence on English high culture in the early eighteenth century. Handel’s Water Music was written for George’s and Melusine’s journeys on the Thames and had the added benefit of drowning out scurrilous remarks made by the river’s “foul mouthed boatmen.” George I’s ascension to the British throne had been highly controversial because there was widespread support for the legitimacy of James Edward Stuart “The Old Pretender.” Attacks on Melusine “the Maypole” were an effective way for Jacobites to attack Hanoverian rule over the British Isles, particularly as she became involved in the South Sea Bubble, and developed a reputation for corruption.

Gold is understandably sympathetic to Melusine’s situation as the unofficial royal consort. Her narrative, however often shows the same disproportionate hostility toward George’s repudiated wife, Sophia Dorothea, that previous authors displayed toward Melusine. While Melusine is depicted as a gentle woman who found true love with George I, Gold dismisses Sophia Dorothea as “a silly woman” because of the high expectations she brought to her marriage. The author argues that her indiscreet correspondence with her admirer, Count Konigsmark, made her the author of her own fate. Since European public opinion nearly unanimously sided with Sophia Dorothea despite her adultery, her contemporaries clearly did not agree that it was silly for her to be affronted by Melusine’s residence at the Hanoverian court.

The King’s Mistress: The True and Scandalous Story of the Woman Who Stole the Heart of George I illuminates the historical significance of an obscure royal mistress. Claudia Gold demonstrates that Melusine von der Schulenburg was not simply “the Maypole” who replaced King George I’s Queen but a political actor and cultural patron during the first decades of Hanoverian rule over the British Isles.

 

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