Book review: A Humble Companion by Laurie Graham

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From the dark humour of A Humble Companion’s opening lines through its 60 exhilarating years alongside the eccentric House of Hanover, you know you are in the company of a very special author.

Laurie Graham – humourist, novelist and creative conjuror of history – produces some of the most original and entertaining books in today’s market. She is observant, sardonic, humane and supremely literate, and her moving, funny books speak loudly of a sophisticated talent.

Here she lets loose an enchanting and irreverent observer – Nellie Welche, a royal steward’s daughter and ‘humble’ friend of a royal princess – and gives her the character and razor-sharp wit to lift the lid on Hanoverian high drama.

From the first rumblings of revolution in France to the exciting, modern times of gaslight and steam trains, and from poor mad King George III to safe and steady Queen Victoria, Nellie is perfectly placed to be the sharp-penned narrator of a changing world and the unchanging, cloistered lives of Princess Sofia and her sisters.

The result is a revealing and often heart-rending account of what it was to be the offspring , and particularly the female offspring , of a monarch over 200 years ago – freezing palaces, little pleasure, few privileges and plenty of paternalistic pedantry.

In 1788, 13-year-old Nellie, only child of a high-ranking steward in the household of Prinnie, Prince of Wales, becomes the subject of a ‘royal experiment’ when she is selected to be playfellow and humble companion to his sister, young Princess Sofia (Sofy,) so that the girl might gain ‘a better understanding of the world.’

An only child, Nellie has a birthmark on her face but has never allowed a mirror or the disfigurement to change her view of life and, like her father, she wears her ‘servitude’ lightly and ‘uses it cannily.’

Sensible, cheerful and cherished by her parents, she is unfazed by her new role in a household with 15 children, particularly after being assured by her family’s own general servant, the amazing Mr Morphew, that the royals ‘might have thrones under them but they’re still sitting on their rumps.’

But the reality of the princesses’ claustrophobic existence is an eye-opener for Nellie. Separated from their parents and brothers, closeted in comfortless houses with nurses and unsympathetic governesses, the younger girls thread beads, embroider tray cloths, eat yesterday’s mutton and kill time until a German cousin offers them marriage.

Despite their very different backgrounds, the two girls become friends for life with Nellie proving a hawk-eyed witness to the increasingly bizarre behaviour of affable, gentle King George, the wanton neglect of his imperious wife Queen Charlotte, the fall-out from the French Revolution and the birth of little Princess Alexandrina, the future Queen Victoria.

Nellie is the family’s keeper of secrets and her memoir lifts the lid on the House of Hanover’s worst excesses, most blatant lies and greatest vulnerabilities...

A Humble Companion has been painstakingly researched but Graham uses her knowledge with a light touch and a keen eye for the genuine human plight of the Georgian princesses in their shuttered and gilded cages.

Using superb comic timing and a faultless storytelling technique, she finds colour, poignancy and humour in the lives of the royals and the colourful characters, both real and fictional, drawn from all levels of society.

An extraordinary novel from an extraordinary writer...

(Quercus, hardback, £16.99)