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Fascinating And Infuriating King George IV

Thursday, January 10, 2008

You're not gonna sell a lot of copies with that picture on the cover...

George IV

By Christopher Hibbert

It took me three years to read this book. Now, I’ve read many other books in the three years it has taken me to read this one, some of them even longer. But this is one of those books that one needs to allow a good deal of time to get into – I’d say roughly 2 years and 10 months. Hibbert assumes that even the most casual of readers will have an idea of who many of people are before one cracks the spine, and, I suppose considering the niche subject matter, this isn’t an unfair assumption. However, not being a scholar of England from 1760 to 1830, it took me some time to remember all the names.

This is a biography that refuses to be drawn into any ‘great men history’ debates. George is not depicted as anything but what he probably was: a well-meaning, yet deeply flawed individual, with a flair for the dramatic, and a penchant for over-spending London’s coffers by millions of pounds (them’s 1805 pounds).

By all accounts, George IV (1762-1830) should have been a very good king. He was intelligent, extremely personable, and good-looking to boot. The problem was, and this is not an uncommon problem among royalty, that he was that he was raised to be a king. His whole childhood was spent in preparation for the moment when he would ascend the thrown and rule over the vast (and becoming ‘vaster’ all the time) British Empire. He had nannies, and teachers, and a whole retinue of people to care for him, and show him how to behave. What he lacked was a proper, healthy relationship with his parents. His father, George III, was very strict, and his mother, Queen Charlotte, was also strict, and was also always pregnant; she had fifteen children in all. Proliferate they may have been, but loving parents they were not. As an aside, Queen Charlotte didn’t allow any of her daughters to marry until they were too old to have children (incredibly, out of 15 children, only one heir was produced, Victoria, and she was the daughter of the Duke of York – number two heir to the throne). The sisters called their residence that they shared with the queen, and their mad father, The Nunnery.

The prince’s adolescence was wild, and his 20s were even wilder. Drinking and parties accounted for much of his time during his ‘formative’ years. He even married his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, and get this – she was a Catholic (Shock! Horror!). The marriage was quietly annulled, but the cavorting, and the drinking, and partying, and the carrying on, continued. When George III was going through his first bout of insanity, The Prince of Wales was given the limited powers of a Regent, due to his young age, and his immature ways.

Who are you calling Mr. Fancypants??

There is no lack of information about George IV; he was a voluminous letter-writer, and he had volumes written about him, either in personal diaries, newspaper articles, or official government documents. We know pretty much where he was for every single day of his life. Thankfully, Hibbert doesn’t go into minute detail, although, the detail he does include can be overwhelming at times.

George’s relationship with his wife, Queen Caroline is fascinating, and the trial of the Queen in 1820 caused a period of great unrest in England – something that I found surprising, as it is a period of history that is always overshadowed, either by the Napoleonic era before, or the Industrial Revolution, and Victoria after.

George and Caroline never got along. They had a child together, Princess Charlotte, who later died while giving birth to her own, stillborn child (the medical practice of bleeding, still very much in vogue in the early 1800s, did nothing to help the exhausted woman after a very hard and traumatic labour). But the Prince and Princess of Wales rarely lived in the same premises, and grew to hate each other. Caroline moved to Europe, and it was only when the Prince of Wales was elevated to King, that she returned to England, amid much fanfare from certain groups of the population. It wasn’t that Caroline was a deeply respected, or even well-liked person; her popularity was directly related to George’s unpopularity. George wanted to divorce her, and have her name removed from the liturgy; there had even been a parliamentary investigation into her lewd conduct with an Italian army officer while she had been living in Europe. Parliament ultimately ruled that it was unclear whether she had acted inappropriately, but this issue proved incredibly divisive. The Princess was even barred from George’s coronation. When she turned up in front of Westminster Abbey while the coronation was going on, she was refused entry. Hibbert evidently loves telling these little stories, and they make for great reading.

A modest affair.

Hibbert does an amazing job of amalgamating all kinds of different, and often contradictory, sources, and his gift as a writer is to make the history exciting and readable. Famous names are dropped, like Byron, Walter Scott, and the Duke of Wellington, who plays a large role in George’s life later on. George IV comes across as a fascinatingly infuriating individual. By all accounts he could be the most charming man when he wanted to be, while at the same time he could be thrown into rages, or deep fits of melancholic despair. He was a great patron of the arts – architecture, painting, sculpture, literature – and he was an avid collector, yet on the other hand, he was constantly in debt, and proved an easily persuaded and indecisive monarch. He excelled in drinking and over-eating, and all of his physical complaints meant that he was constantly taking does of laudanum towards the end of his life. This is not a glamourous book, but it is, I think, a fair one. Extremely scholarly and entertaining.

By George Cruikshank, 1819


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah P permalink
    Thursday, January 10, 2008 5:42 pm

    The vignettes and silly asides that Hibbert offers to flesh out the story are very entertaining. They really help to “paint the picture,” especially those social qualities that are no longer found in our own society. Although I didn’t read the book myself, I feel that after three years of hearing about it (and the fact that G kept up with reading it for that long) I can safely offer my own, small recommendation.

  2. Thursday, January 10, 2008 7:36 pm

    Sounds fascinating. But as you’ve provided a lovely overview and some entertaining anecdotes, I don’t think I’ll spend three years reading it!

    I love hearing about other people’s reading habits: it makes me feel glad that there are others who will continue to plough through.


  3. James17930 permalink
    Friday, January 11, 2008 1:20 pm

    That’s what’s so great about biographies — they’re eminently pick-up-and-put-down-able.

  4. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, January 15, 2008 3:11 am

    Also, from the looks of that portrait, he was somewhat disproportionate (what’s up with that neck?)

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