In 1811, when Jane Austen was 35, Parliament passed “The Regency Act,” which transferred power from George III to his son, the Prince of Whales. George III was diagnosed with porphyria (a rare disease where blood hemoglobin is metabolized abnormally) but initially, the transfer of power happened because George III’s doctors simply believed he had gone mad. While his father was sick, the Prince was racking up debt, playing with expensive mistresses, eating and drinking excessively and even planning to remodel buildings. By 1786, HRH for the Carlton House refurbishment, stables, gambling, entertainment, tailoring, and Ms. Fitzherbert totaled over £269,000. (Sprayberry). However, even before the Prince became the Prince Regent, his antics had made him a popular joke in the British tabloids, while some drawings even portraying him as a stuffed sausage. James Gillray's 1792 caricature of the Prince Regent, titled "A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion," serves as a specific example of how the Prince was often mocked by the press.
For example, in 1784, he began pursuing the widowed Maria Fitzherbert but after their illegal marriage, the Prince soon began looking for a legitimate wife so that Parliament would increase his stipend and pay of his increasing debts (Sheehan). The German Princess Caroline of Brunswick was chosen for the Prince. She was actually the Prince’s cousin, although they had never before met. Upon her arrival to England, he was immediately unhappy with her. Their marriage consisted of scandal, hatred, and separation. Caroline and the Prince Regent had one child together, Princess Charlotte of Whales. Although both Caroline and the Prince reportedly kept lovers, the papers represented George as a libertine and Caroline as the wronged wife and she garnered public support while he was increasingly disliked, especially by Austen herself. According to scholar, Marie Sprayberry, Austen probably read about HRH’s mistreatment of Caroline in the Hampshire Telegraph.
In the fall of 1815, Austen arrived in London to stay with her brother Henry at his residence in Hans Place. Henry fell ill and his condition was serious enough to require a second opinion, and another physician, Dr. Baillie, who happened to be the Prince Regent’s physician, was called in. Dr. Baillie told Austen that the HRH was an admirer of Austen’s work. Next, Rev. James Stanier Clarke, the Regent’s librarian, contacted Austen to invite the author to tour the Carlton House (his London residence). Despite her hatred for HRH due to his debauchery and mistreatment of his wife, Austen accepted the invitation. While at the Carlton House (on November 13, 1815), Stanier Clarke informed Austen that the Prince Regent kept a set of Austen’s novels at each of his residences and by his permission, Austen was “at liberty to dedicate any future novel to him” (Sheehan). Austen recognized the commercial value of such a dedication and thus, in her publication of Emma (December 25, 1815), she wrote, “To His Royal Highness, The Prince Regent. This work is, by his Royal Highness’s permission, most respectfully dedicated by His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant, The Author.” Given that Austen mentioned the Prince’s titled in her dedication three times, scholars have interpreted it to be a mockery of the Prince’s character and his unscrupulous habits, though the author never explained the wording she chose (Sheehan).
Suggestions for Further Reading:
"George IV (r. 1820-1830)." The Official Website of the British Monarchy. The Royal Household, 2009. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
Murray, Douglas. “Jane Austen’s ‘passion for taking likenesses’: Portraits of the Prince Regent in Emma.” Persuasions 29 (2007): 132-44.
Sheehan, Colleen A. “Jane Austen’s Tribute to the Prince Regent: A Gentleman Riddled with Difficulty.” Persuasions On-Line 27.1 (2006).
Sprayberry, Marie A. "Sex, Power, and Other People’s Money: The Prince Regent and His Impact on Jane Austen’s Life and Work." Jane Austen Society of North America. Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.