Friday, February 20, 2015

A Royal Experiment by Janice Hadlow

I looked forward to reading A Royal Experiment The Private Life of George III by Janice Hadlow.   This is the first major biography on George III since 1972 when John Brooke's George III was published.

The underlying themes of this excellent biography are the influences that formed George's life and personality.  He succeeded to the throne at the age of 22, following the death of his grandfather.  George III's life had a moral purpose.  He wanted to be a king admired by his people, and he wanted a successful and happy family life.

Familiar with his own family's dysfunction, George III wanted to create a new family life for his children.  His marriage to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was loving and successful.

Charlotte was something of a blue stocking, who enjoyed the company of well-educated, well-informed women.   She gave birth to 13 children, thus creating a large royal family that could have become the standard of morality.

But it would come all crashing down as political (loss of American colonies) and ill-health brought great strains into George and Charlotte's family lives.  It was not until 1969 when two psychiatrists linked porphyria to George III.  But more recent research appears to undermine Macalpine and Hunter's theories.  Re-examining some of the earliest medical information from George III's own doctors,  there have been new medical journal reports that George may have suffered from a "bi-polar disorder with recurrent manic episodes" that occurred during periods of "extreme stress" in the king's life. 

At first, family life was harmonious but the dysfunction that had run rampant in earlier generations reappeared with George's children. The organized, functional life that George and Charlotte were eager to maintain soon fell apart as their surviving children grew up.

The king was a domestic tyrant.  It was easy for his sons to rebel (and rebel they did with drink, unsuitable women, illegitimate children).  But George III would never have acknowledged, as Haddow wrote, that he had "deliberately thwarted his daughters' happiness."  The princesses were eager for marriage, for families of their own, but George III made little effort to secure the proper alliances.

I found the lives of George's daughters (Charlotte, Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia and Amelia) to be sad, poignant and bittersweet.   Charlotte was the second wife of  the Hereditary Prince of Wurttemberg, and Elizabeth and Mary would find husbands late in life, to Prince Friedrich of Hesse-Homburg and Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, respectively.  There would love affairs and attachments for Augusta, Sophia and the frail Amelia, who was so much in love with General Charles Fitzroy.  Sophia gave birth to an illegitimate son, by her lover, Major General Thomas Garth.

The royal experiment to maintain a private, harmonious life failed on so many levels, compounded by the king's illness and the ever changing politics in late 18th century Britain, leaving a fractured and dysfunctional family.

Janice Hadlow, a BBC staffer, has brought George and Charlotte to the forefront by giving them a new focus.  Americans tends to see George in a different light, the mad king who was responsible for all those crazy laws that led to the Declaration on Independence.  (Actually, Parliament passed the restrictive laws, not the King.)

George III's life was hampered by illness.  But when he married and started a family, he was determined to have a different family life that he had witnessed.   His failure lead to a difficult relationship with his eldest son, George, and the further breakdown of family relationships.  He would never know about the deaths of his wife nor his granddaughter, Charlotte, in childbirth, nor of the birth of a granddaughter, Victoria, in May 1819.

Princess Charlotte of Wales, heiress presumptive, got it right when she said "No family was ever composed of such odd people."

This is a powerful biography-cum-history book that offers new insight and perspective into George's life.  One can only wonder how his life, public and private, would have been different if he had not become ill or if his determination to create a more family oriented royal family had succeeded.  (George was certainly perspicacious in this matter, but it would take a few more generations for his views to take hold.)

I have a new appreciation for Queen Charlotte, sympathy for George, and empathy and sadness for the king's daughters.

A Royal Experiment was published by Henry Holt ($40.00.)

This is Janice Hadlow's first book.  Janice, welcome to the world of royal biography.  It is safe to say you have hit a home run with this book.   This is one of those well-researched books that most writers can only dream about. 

I look forward with anticipation to Janice Hadlow's next book.

[George III and Charlotte were supports of Sir Edward Jenner's vaccination against smallpox and made sure their children were vaccinated.]

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