Nellie Welche is the daughter of a high-ranking steward in the household of Prinnie, Prince of Wales. In 1788, at the age of twelve, she’s proposed as a suitably humble companion to Princess Sophia, one of George III’s enormous brood of children. Nellie and Sofy become friends for life. From the first rumblings of revolution in France to the exciting, modern times of gas light and steam trains, from poor mad George to safe and steady Victoria, Nellie is the sharp-penned narrator of a changing world and the unchanging, cloistered lives of Princess Sofy and her sisters. Nellie proves to be more a hawk-eyed witness than a Humble Companion, as her memoir lifts the lid on the House of Hanover’s secrets and lies.
In the past, I’ve made no secret of my love for historical fiction concerning royalty and aristocracy and in fact, Laurie Graham’s A Humble Companion made my Anticipated Reads post for the first half of this year. What interested me about this novel in particular was the era it dealt with, as the Hanoverian George’s are some of the kings in British history I’m least familiar with. To say that I now know lots more about them, would be an exaggeration, but what I did learn more about is the life of Georgian princesses and how limited, lonely and none too happy their life was.
The life the daughters of King George III led wasn’t even close to how you’d imagine a princess’ life to be: no endless parties, gorgeous clothes, stunning palaces and princes vying for their hands in marriage. Instead, they lived lives of relative simplicity, restricted in their movements and ruled with an iron hand by their mother, Queen Charlotte, and weren’t allowed to marry until they were almost middle-aged. Graham sketches a sad life for her princesses, which despite its security in regards to the necessities of life – food, clothes, shelter – seems to have been a lot less happy than that of their father’s subjects. Nellie, the daughter of a successful tradesman who’s risen to become steward for the Prince of Wales, seems to be far happier and more free than Sophie could ever dream to be, even if she had been able to escape the clutches of her mother through marriage.
The narrator of the story is Nellie Welche, only child of the Prince of Wales’ steward. A smart and surprisingly educated girl, who is cherished by her parents, Nellie has one physical feature that sets her apart, a port-wine stain across one side of her face. Nellie is used to people staring at her because of it, but she never comes across as ashamed of it or insecure because of it. I loved Nellie’s tone of voice. She’s irreverent, acerbic, humorous and a keen observer, but she is also wise and has a kind heart. I loved the way she lost her awe of the ‘Royalties’, as she calls them, and sees through their foibles and eccentricities to their humanity. She’s very loyal to Sophie, while at the same time very well aware of what she will and won’t accept from her. She values their friendship, but isn’t afraid to lose her place as Humble Companion and thus tells Sofy truths others won’t, something Sophie doesn’t always appreciate.
We follow Nellie from about her twelfth year until her death and during this we meet not just most of the royal family, we also meet Nellie’s family: her Dutch/German-descended parents, their cook, their manservant, Morphew, who stays with Nellie when she gets married. And later we meet her husband, the orphans they take in and their families. I loved the contrast between Nellie’s world which is open and industrious and Sofy’s shuttered and insulated existence within the walls of the different royal houses she occupies. The different characters Graham creates for the non-royals in her book are lovely and diverse and I really enjoyed the glimpses of Nellie’s life we got. These were far fewer than I would have liked, because in the end this is as much or more Sofy’s story as it is Nellie’s and most of Nellie’s narration focuses on her interactions with Sofy.
And that would be my biggest complaint: Sofy. For most of the narrative she remains rather flat; she is a mousy, quiet girl, snowed under by the stronger personalities of her sisters and it’s not quite clear why she’d deserve such devotion from Nellie. Only once we get halfway through the book does she show a more developed spark of personality. At the same time, this is also the point where the friendship between the two becomes quite strained by circumstances best not revealed so as not to spoil the story, so it also means a shift in the relationship. It is only by the end of the book that they truly seem equal in friendship, if not in station, then in feeling and devotion. When going out they seem like any other set of old, grey ladies, albeit that one of them is a little strange in the ways of the real world. The scenes were Sophie finally visits Nellie’s house and the confectionery shop she runs with her husband, Jack, were lovely and some of my favourites in the book.
Another recurring thread throughout the story is Nellie’s love of writing and her wish to become a published author. The flames of this desire only get fanned when she meets Fanny Burney, one of the first female novelists and attendant to Queen Charlotte. The scenes she and Nellie share are just wonderful and she seems to speak not just to Nellie, but to any budding author. Nellie eventually gets her wish and becomes a published author. But in the end, it seems her greatest writing wasn’t to be her fiction, but the commitment to paper of her memories of a princess, her princess, Sofy, Her Royal Highness The Princess Sophia.
A Humble Companion is the tale of a friendship between two unlikely girls. It is a story of loyalty, secrets and the strength of character of its narrator. I found it compelling reading, because of Nellie’s wonderful voice and, not least, because of Graham’s smooth writing and the fascinating look at the late Hanoverian period. If you enjoy historical fiction centred on royalty or set in British history, A Humble Companion is a book well worth reading.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.