‘We were ushered into the dirtiest room I ever beheld, empty, and devoid of comfort. A few filthy lamps, stood on a sideboard - common chairs were placed around very dingy walls - and in the middle of this empty space, sat the old Duchess, a melancholy specimen of decayed royalty.’ So wrote Lady Charlotte Campbell (later Bury) exactly 200 years ago in the very first entry of a private diary which would become famous some 30 years later. Charlotte had just begun working for the Princess of Wales, also known as the Duchess of Brunswick, and the diary is full of intimate - and not always flattering details - about her and royal society.
Charlotte, born in 1775, was the daughter of Elizabeth Gunning Campbell, Duchess of Hamilton, and the 5th Duke of Argyll. As a young lady in society, she was considered both beautiful and charming. In 1796, she married her distant cousin Colonel John Campbell with whom she had nine children - although only two survived her. On becoming a widow (Campbell died in 1809), she was made lady-in-waiting in the household of George IV’s wife, otherwise known as the Princess of Wales, Duchess of Brunswick, and afterwards Queen Caroline.
Subsequently, Charlotte married Rev Edward Bury, and wrote a number of novels - such as Flirtation and The Divorced. She died in Chelsea in 1861. A little further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, and some links can be found at The Diary Junction.
Lady Bury is remembered today largely because of a diary she kept while working for the Princess of Wales, and which first appeared in two volumes in 1838 as Diary Illustrative of the Times of George IV. It was published anonymously by Henry Colburn in London, and Charlotte herself never admitted she was the author. Various magazines of the day, though, argued that given the intimate details depicted, the author could only be Lady Charlotte. The book proved very popular, and further editions followed. The full texts of the 1838 and other versions are available at Internet Archive.
The book begins with no other introduction or preface than a first paragraph entitled ‘Advertisement’: The authenticity of the following Diary and Letters is too apparent to be questioned. The reader, however, cannot fail to notice certain discrepancies which occur in the work, and more particularly in the earlier portions of it, by which it would appear to have been the intention of the editor who first undertook to prepare it for the press, to disguise - by assuming the masculine style in the Journal, and substituting the feigned for the real sex of the personage addressed in the Letters - the evident fact of the former having been written by a female, and of the latter being communications to one of the same sex. The reader, by being made aware of this circumstance, will be the less surprised at the other discrepancies which occur, with regard to dates; some of the Letters being brought i at periods quite at variance with the dates of the Journal.’
The author herself begins: ‘Courts are strange, mysterious places; those who pretend most to despise them covet being within their precincts - those who once obtain an entrance there generally lament their fate, and yet, somehow or other, they cannot break their chains. I believe, nevertheless, that it is all one whether these circles of society, which stand apart from the rest of the world, exist under one form of government, or under another; whether under Emperors, Kings, Protectors or Consuls; they may vary as to modes and designations, but courts are courts still, from the earliest times even to these days. Intrigues, jealousies, heart-burnings, lies, dissimulation, thrive in them as mushrooms in a hot-bed. Notwithstanding, they are necessary evils, and they afford a great school both for the heart and head. It is utterly impossible, so long as the world exists, that similar societies should not exist also; and one may as well declaim against every other defect attendant upon humanity, and endeavour to extirpate crime from the world, as pretend to put down courts and their concomitant evils.’
‘Lady M_ C_ called upon me by appointment; we went together to Her Royal Highness the Duchess of B_k. She thought more of me than she had ever done before, because I was on the road to royal favour, she herself being in her own estimation an engrafted sprig of royalty. We rumbled in her old tub all the way to New-street, Spring Gardens, much to the discomfiture of my bones; for if ever the vehicle had springs, time had stiffened their joints as completely as it has done those of its soi-disant royal mistress. Lady M_ C_ was grandly gracious, and gave me dissertations on etiquette, such as it existed in her young days, till we reached our destination. We were ushered into the dirtiest room I ever beheld, empty, and devoid of comfort. A few filthy lamps, stood on a sideboard - common chairs were placed around very dingy walls - and in the middle of this empty space, sat the old Duchess, a melancholy specimen of decayed royalty. There is much goodness in her countenance, and a candour and sincerity in her manner, and even in her abrupt and rough conversation, which is invaluable in a person of her rank, whose life must necessarily have been passed in the society of those whose very essence is deceit. Her former friendship, for friends very dear to me, of whom she spoke in terms of respect and love, gave an interest to the visit which it could not otherwise have had. I sat, therefore, patiently listening to Lady M_ C_ and Her Royal Highness, who talked of lords and ladies of the last century, and wondered at those of the present, and passed trippingly over the peccadillos of their own contemporaries, to vent all their moral indignation upon those of mine.
Old Mr L_ne was announced: poor man, what did he get by his attendance on royalty? the ill will of all parties. He knows many things which, if told, would set London on fire. Soon after his entrance, Lady M_ C_ arose, and, kicking her train behind her, backed out of the room in capital style. How the heart dilates or closes in the presence of different persons! It must surely be very unwholesome to be with those in whose society the latter is the case.
Went to Kensington - a great ball - every body of the highest fashion - Dukes of Portland and Beaufort, Earl Harrowby, &c. &c. As I always wished the royal hostess well, I was glad to observe that the company then frequenting the palace were of the best. I sat down by some old friends, and felt that to be near them was a comfort, surrounded as I was by persons for whom I cared not, and who cared not for me; but the Princess beckoned to me, and taking my arm, leant upon it, parading me around the apartments. The inner room was set out with refreshments, and a profusion of gold plate - which, by the way, in after times I never saw: was it taken away, or was it otherwise disposed of? I know not. Sofas were placed around the tables, and the whole thing was well managed.
Her Royal Highness wished the company to come into this banquetting room; but, either out of respect, and not knowing whether they ought to do so or not, or because they preferred the outer room, no one would come in, except Lady O_d, Lord H Fitzgerald, and Lord G_r, who was forcibly seized upon by Lady _d. Altogether, in my quality of looker-on, I could not but think that lady was no honour to society; and it was only surprising to remark in her instance, as well as in that of many others, how well impudence succeeds, even with the mild and the noble, who are often subdued by its arrogant assumption of command.
The Princess complained of the weight of some jewels she wore in her head, and said they gave her the head-ache; then turning to a person who was evidently a favourite, asked, “May I not take them off now that the first parade is over?” He replied in his own doucereux voice, “Your Royal Highness is the best judge; but, now that you have shown off the magnificence of the ornament, I think it would be cruel that you should condemn yourself to suffer by wearing it longer. In my opinion you will be just as handsome wiliiout it.”
I was convinced from the manner in which these words were spoken, that that man loved her. Poor soul! of all those on whom she conferred benefits, I think he was the only man or woman who could be said to have loved her, - and he ought not to have done so.
I dined again at Kensington. There were assembled a company of the very first persons of the realm. I was glad to see that what had been told me of low company, was not true.’
9 December 1810
‘This day, I found Her Royal Highness sitting for her picture. She received me with her usual graciousness of manner, and desired me to “come and sit,” - her phrase for feeling comfortable and at one’s ease. She informed me that Mr S_, the painter, engaged upon the picture, was only altering the costume of a portrait taken many years back, which she said was by no means doing his talent justice. Certainly the picture was frightful, and I have often regretted that I never saw a tolerable likeness painted of her. Although during the last years of her life she was bloated and disfigured by sorrow, and by the life she led, the Princess was in her early youth a pretty woman; fine light hair - very delicately formed features, and a fine complexion - quick, glancing, penetrating eyes, long cut, and rather sunk in the head, which gave them much expression - and a remarkably delicately formed mouth; but her head was always too large for her body, and her neck too short; and latterly, her whole figure was like a ball, and her countenance became hardened, and an expression of defiance and boldness took possession of it, that was very unpleasant. Nevertheless, when she chose to assume it, she had a very noble air, and I have seen her on more than one occasion, put on a dignified carriage, which became her much more than the affectation of girlishness which she generally preferred.’