Posts tagged ‘Theodore I of Corsica’

16/01/2017

A royal liar

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There’s a much more interesting story behind my latest Reading Roulette pick, Emily Clark’s Ermina Montrose; or, The Cottage Of The Vale, than we find between its covers.

That reference on the title page of this sentimental novel from 1800 to “the late Colonel Frederick” is shorter and more discreet than that which graces the title page of Clark’s earlier novel, Ianthé; or, The Flower Of Caernarvon, where the author’s grandfather is boldly announced to be “son of Theodore, King of Corsica”: all in all, a statement which for all its brevity contains a considerable amount of misleading information.

Theodor Stephan Freiherr von Neuhoff was a German soldier of fortune who, in the course of a career dabbling in political intrigue all over Europe and the Mediterranean, convinced a group of Corsican rebels that he could help them overthrow the Genoese rule of their island—and promised to do so in exchange for being crowned king of Corsica. Somehow von Neuhoff managed to acquire military backing from the Bey of Tunis, and landed on the island in March, 1736. The locals held up their end of the bargain and had the adventurer crowned as Theodore I of Corsica, but the conflict against the Genoese forces was a failure. Theodore fled Corsica in November, ostensibly to raise more support and funds: a project which ended ignominiously when he was imprisoned for debt in Amsterdam.

Somewhat surprisingly, Theodore did not give up his efforts, but arranged to supply the rebels with arms, and himself returned to the conflict on several occasions; but the rebels made no headway against the incumbent forces. Theodore’s next stop was England, again with the aim of raising support—and where again he ended up in debtors’ prison, where he was confined for some six years. This time he did give up, freeing himself by declaring bankruptcy—and by making over his kingdom to his creditors (!). He died only a year later, in 1756, having been supported to the end by various friends, including Horace Walpole.

In 1750, shortly after King Theodore was imprisoned in London, a certain Colonel Frederick appeared upon the scene. He too was German, and had served in the army of Frederick II of Prussia, before entering the service of the Duke of Württemberg. When Theodore died, Colonel Frederick began publicly mourning his father and calling himself the Prince of Capera; establishing his position more firmly by publishing Memoirs of Corsica, Containing the Natural and Political History of that Important Island in 1768.

Over the following years, the Colonel managed to manoeuvre his way into high society, becoming an intimate of the royal princes (for whose benefit he tried, but failed, to raise loans on the Continent); but at length his life began to unravel. For many years he had been sustained – just – by a pension paid by the Duchess of Württemberg; and when this was stopped his situation became desperate. He began to show signs of mental instability and to talk of suicide—and in 1797 he acted on his threat, shooting himself outside Westminster Abbey. A kind coroner’s jury ruled that he had been of unsound mind, and he was buried in the churchyard of St Ann’s Church in Soho—next to his “father”. Friends who had failed to assist him while he was alive arranged for a plaque near his grave, declaring Colonel Frederick to be indeed the son of Theodore, and, A finished Gentleman; in honour, honesty, and truth, he was princely.

However, The European Magazine; and London Review, reporting the story, appended to it a statement from “a Gentleman who was for many years on terms of intimacy with him”, who declared his royal heritage a fabrication, but agreed that he was very like Theodore in being also a German adventurer:

“He arrived much about the same time that Theodore died, and finding the people take a kind of interest in the hapless fate of a man who they were told was a King, Mr Frederick hit upon the expedient of passing as his son, and it succeeded. The assertion could not easily be contradicted. The fact did not merit investigation, and it was everywhere believed that he was the son of Theodore… Excessive vanity was the weak point of Colonel Frederick’s character, but in almost every other point of view his qualities were of the most estimable kind.”

Aside from describing Colonel Frederick’s personal tragedy, the magazine report makes mention of the fact that he left behind, A daughter and, we believe, four grand-children. One of the latter was Emily Clark, already earning money as a painter of miniatures, and whose work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1799. Like so many other women across the 18th and 19th centuries, Clark also tried to supplement her family’s slender income by writing. She published Ianthé in 1798, by subscription: the reviewers were kind, if not effusive, and subscribers – including the royal princes – were generous. When she tried the same expedient two years later, however, she was less successful; no doubt the story had worn a little thin. She continued to publish, writing poetry and three more novels over the following twenty years; but the truth is, she wasn’t a very good writer, and no-one took much notice.

Nothing much else is known about Emily Clark, although her situation and her attempt to address it via subscription publication was referenced in Peter Garside’s essay, Subscribing Fiction in Britain, 1780–1829, which brackets her with the unfortunate young widow, Lady Leigh, who published her husband’s Munster Abbey by subscription after his premature death.

Alas! – would that Ermina Montrose were half as entertaining as Sir Samuel Edgerton’s Leigh’s magnum opus

Though the subscriptions themselves dropped off, and princes and members of the aristocracy are largely conspicuous by their absence in spite of the novel’s dedication to the Countess of Shaftesbury, there is one name of interest on the list which prefaces Clark’s novel—though we may suspect it is there out of charity rather than judgement:

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(I’m guessing those are the same Dashwoods who subscribed to Munster Abbey.)

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