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Thursday, July 21, 2016

“George III: A Personal History”, by Christopher Hibbert

464 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465027231

Mr. Jefferson gave HRH George III quite a scolding in the Declaration of Independence, but one can’t come away from George III: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert without warming to much-maligned monarch. So much attention has been paid lately to the madness of George III that it is refreshing to be forced to ponder on his alleged goodness to which tribute was paid on many occasions before 1820 when already mad he celebrated the jubilee of his accession. In 1763 his 25th birthday had been celebrated at the Queen’s command by fireworks and music by Handel. In 1810 the celebrations were public, popular and not confined to one place. Lord Berkeley had written a year earlier about the King’s “great popularity…the mass of the people look up to his good moral character and to his age and to a comparison with his sons”. “Good moral character” was deemed to be a main explanation of George’s popularity, obvious both at his death in 1820 and his apotheosis ten years before, yet cartoonists had not always accepted the version of Georgian values that the King presented (often in confused fashion) and he was by no means uniformly popular at all points in his long reign. He stood out by comparison, however, not only with his sons but with his brothers, and in 1810, at least, because he was “father of the people” in time of war when loyalty was at a premium. His madness, well-covered by Hibbert, helped him too. He not only benefited from compassion but gained in compassion himself. When mad and believing himself to be already dead, he decided on occasion to wear mourning “in memory of George III, for he was a good man”. That was his own perspective.

Hibbert brings the routines of George III’s court back to life. He deals with the politics of the reign less fully, while noting that the King’s dislike of politicians as a group was as strong as his dislike of the whole medical tribe. He did not trust either the knowledge or the commitment to service of either group, convinced that he was living in a most profligate age. He believed without thought that old ways were good ways without always knowing what the old ways had been. Another feature of his character that doubtless added to his subjects’ appreciation of him was that he disliked travel; he never once crossed the Channel and, even in Britain (a term to which, as Linda Colley has shown, he gave new meaning) he never went to Wales or to Ireland and probably never to Scotland, either. Particularly interesting are the glimpses one gets of everyday life: “terracing” (evening walks during the summer) by the Royal Family, the King’s pleasure in interactions with common folks, suggestions of a sincere Christian faith, and pithy (sometimes snide) remarks by or about one person or the other. One feels sympathy while reading about the mental illness that claimed his later years. 18th Century/American Revolution enthusiasts should enjoy this fuller picture of the “Other George” across the pond.

Hibbert has chapters that deal with the American Revolution which are reasonably good summaries, given his focus in the book. The only real aspect I did not like in the book was that, after the American Revolution, we know almost nothing about the effect of the larger world on the British nation. The major events on the continent like the French Revolution and Napoleon are barely touched upon. It would have been out of the book’s focus to give any detailed account of these as related to England; this is not at all a political biography. But I do wish that Hibbert had chapters at least summarizing these events and their effect on England. Granted, this is a personal biography but surely the King’s chief ministers, with whom he consulted in the long stretches of time when he was stable, had their hands full with these issues. For the reader it would be important context for the reign of this monarch. I thought the last third of the book was so intensely focused on the King, his illness, and his family that I was missing what was happening to the nation around him at that time. This biography marks a turn in English history that began a hundred years before George. Though George tried in the first part of his life, he and later monarchs no longer had the power to direct the nation's policies in a way that existed before the Glorious Revolution. So it makes sense that a biography of a king could be much more personal and less political. This book is thoroughly enjoyable reading and Hibbert is an excellent writer. But I do wish he would have included a little more context about events after 1789 that changed the world and that had an important effect on the direction of English history.

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