The Princess of Celle actually takes place almost entirely in Germany, with scant coverage of George I's English reign. No matter. The story of the family of German dukes who eventually produced the English heir was fascinating enough in its own right. The novel is a sprawling, absorbing family saga which chiefly tells the tale of how Sophia Dorothea came to marry her coarse, vindictive cousin George Lewis and eventually was imprisoned by him for 30 years.
The events of the book revolve around four women:
- Duchess Sophia of Hanover - Mother of George Lewis and cousin to Charles II of England, she is an intensely practical woman with fixed notions of how nobility should conduct itself. She ignores the affairs of her husband, Duke Ernest Augustus, as long as she reigns supreme at their court. However, she never forgets how Ernest's brother, George William, her original betrothed, spurned her, giving up his birthright and inheritance to Ernest if he married her in George William's place. Because of that rejection, she harbors an irrational dislike of George William's beloved duchess, Eleonore, and of her daughter, Sophia Dorothea.
- Eleonore d'Olbreuse - A French noblewoman with whom George William unexpectedly falls in love after committing himself to a life of bachelorhood. She causes George William to regret his rash promise to his brother that he would never marry or have children to claim his lands and titles. She works tirelessly for the interests and happy future of their only child, Sophia Dorothea, the Princess of Celle.
- Clara von Platen - Ernest Augustus's scheming mistress who endlessly plots against Sophia Dorothea, first to put the girl's dowry in her lover's hands and then to ruin her utterly because Sophia loves a man Clara desires, Count Konigsmarck of Sweden.
- Sophia Dorothea - The beautiful, pampered daughter of George William and Eleonore whose life takes a tragic turn when she is forced to marry her despised cousin George Lewis.
The first half of the book focuses on the brothers George William and Ernest Augustus, who shared adventures in their youth traveling around Europe and bedding beautiful women. When their older brother's wife proves barren, it falls to George William, the second eldest, to produce a heir for their family. Horrified by the idea of marriage, George William begs his younger brother to marry in his stead, promising that Ernest Augustus and his children will eventually inherit everything.
However, the brothers' relationship becomes strained when George William falls in love with Eleonore and endangers their agreement. George William also retains his dukedom of Celle, a richer province than Ernest Augustus's Hanover. Although Eleonore plans a marriage for her daughter to another German prince, Ernest Augustus, his wife Sophia and mistress Clara scheme together to persuade George William to give her to her cousin, the thoroughly disagreeable and ill-mannered George Lewis, so the wealth of Celle will eventually come to their family. George William, a weak and easily manipulated man, agrees, a decision which will have tragic consequences and lose him the love of his wife and daughter.
The book's second half focuses on how Sophia Dorothea tries to make the best of her marriage to the uncouth, philandering George Lewis. She is continually made wretched, however, by George's flaunting of his mistresses and Clara's constant scheming. Clara is a thoroughly evil character and, consequently, one of the most interesting in the book. I wish Plaidy had told more of the story from her point of view and explored her motives in more depth. Clara is like the wicked stepmother in Snow White - she wants everyone to consider her "the fairest one of all." Sophia Dorothea's youth, beauty and charm all threaten her. When Sophia falls in love with Count Konigsmarck, a man Clara desires, the princess's fate is sealed.
Sophia is the weakest of the book's primary female characters because of her impossible position. Her story serves to highlight how miserable life could be for noblewomen in unhappy marriages - their husbands could philander at will, but if they took lovers, they risked losing everything. Her sheltered childhood left her utterly incapable of dealing with the cunning plots of others, and her happiness with Count Konigsmarck could not be anything but short-lived. I felt sorry for her throughout the book as I knew her story would have a tragic ending.
Plaidy's prose became a bit dry at times, and I felt she rushed through the last quarter of the book, but the novel was an absorbing read overall that made me want to continue to the next in the series. My grade: B