Anybody wondering whether people were concerned with cleanliness before Beau Brummell’s reign might want to consider the Prince of Wales and his bride, Caroline of Brunswick.
The Earl of Malmesbury, charged with bringing Caroline to England, had grave misgivings about the pair’s compatibility. In his diary he wrote, of his attempts to encourage her to bathe: “‘I endeavoured, as far as was possible for a man, to inculcate the necessity of great and nice attention to every part of dress, as well as to what was hid, as to what was seen.’”
“‘I knew she wore coarse petticoats, coarse shifts, and thread stockings, which were never well washed or changed often enough,’” and he asked her dresser to explain to her “‘that the Prince was extremely fastidious and would expect from his wife a long and very careful toilette, which at present she neglected sadly--‘and is offensive from this neglect.’” (From Caroline: A Biography of Caroline of Brunswick by Thea Holme).
Since Malmesbury made these observations before Brummell’s influence was being felt in London, it’s clear that cleanliness was in fashion at least in some circles by the late 1700s.
The era is deeply misogynistic, and I’ve learned to view the caricatures and negative characterizations of women with a jaundiced eye. Still, it seems pretty clear that Caroline fell well below court standards of personal hygiene.
“In fact she frequently stank,” writes Kenneth Baker in George IV: A Life in Caricature. “She seldom washed her hair or feet.” This was a marriage made in hell, obviously: “George was fastidious in his clothes, his manners and his life. He did not want a wife who smelt.”
The Baker book contains a marvelous collection of caricatures. One, by Isaac Cruikshank, shows the Prince standing in his nightshirt next to the bridal bed, holding his mouth and looking as though he’s gagging. The caption is “Oh! Che Boccone! (Oh, what a mouthful!)
Oddly enough, this caricature of her with her lover Bartolomeo Pergami, shows her bathing.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.