History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 February 2008

At the Court of the Mad King

Hello, all! This post may be rather less organized than intended, since I’m all in a flurry packing to begin my author tour extravaganza. I leave for Boston in, er, an hour, to read from my new book, “The Seduction of the Crimson Rose”, and from there on to various other cities (if anyone’s in Boston, I’ll be at the Harvard Coop tonight at 7:00!). Flurry and disorganization, however, are entirely appropriate for what I intended to write about today: the madnesses of King George.

The book on which I am currently working (still untitled), takes place in 1804 at the court of George III, where my heroine is a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte. Has anyone else ever noticed that historical fiction seems to make a leap from THE madness of King George in 1788 (the one popularized in film) to the Regency? And yet, there is a twenty-three year stretch between that first madness and the Regency, twenty-three years where court life went on much as usual. Twenty-three years in which the King went mad again… and again, and, even more miraculously, recovered and continued to rule.

The King suffered relapses in 1801 and 1804. On both occasions, the same symptoms reappeared. The King suffered from what his intimates referred to as “hurry,” a tendency to speak quickly and unceasingly, until the royal voice grew hoarse. He became coarse in his speech and vulgar in his attentions to women. Princess Caroline (no slouch in the vulgarity department herself) later claimed that the King had chased her around the room with lascivious intent, and there is also some question, reading between the lines of letters, as to whether he made sexual advances towards his own daughter and staunchest supporter, the Princess Sophia.

In his madnesses, the King was simultaneously a pathetic and a grotesque figure. The treatments inflicted on him, while considered the norm in the “mad-doctoring” profession at the time, sound horrifying to modern ears. The Willis brothers, immortalized in “The Madness of King George”, applied hot vinegar to his feet, blisters to various parts of his body, dosing him with preparations of quinine, musk, digitalis, camphor, and emetics of tartarized antimony so strong that the King prayed to be allowed to die. Sometimes the sores left by the blistering treatment supporated and festered, leaving the King in indescribable agony. By the illness of 1804, the King flat out refused to have anything to do with the Willises. Two of his younger sons, the Dukes of Kent and Cumberland, barred the doors to the Willises and called instead for Dr. Simmons of St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. Simmons’, methods, however, were much the same as those of the Willis brothers, including liberal use of the straight waistcoat. If the King hadn’t been mad before, it’s a wonder the pain of his treatment didn’t drive him mad. (That picture, by the way, is of Dr. Simmons).

Astoundingly, the treatments worked—or, at least, the King recovered—in 1788, 1801, and 1804. In 1801, the King credited his recovery to a pillow of hops suggested by Addington. On such small things did the fate of the nation rest. It becomes even more incredible and frightening when you consider that England was at war with France and the King’s signature required to ratify vital treaties and legislation. Although the Prince of Wales behaved rather badly throughout the whole affair, often working more to exacerbate his father’s illness than cure it, there was some justification to his complaint that it was absurd to have the country ruled from a straightjacket.

I did mean to also write about court life in general—aside from George’s mad moments. The later Georgian court represents an interesting transitional period where power was shifting towards Parliament and the traditional avenues of influence (personal service to the King and Queen) no longer yielded the fruits they once had. Fanny Burney, for example, could not even use her personal position with the Queen to successfully advance her brother’s career. During that period, maids of honor (like my heroine) went from living in the royal residences with the monarchs as an integral part of court life to “living out,” and just coming in when needed to stand behind the Queen on public occasions.

I was most struck by the bizarre mix of formality and informality one sees—the royal princesses had all sorts of gushing, affectionate nicknames for their attendants; the Queen cried on Burney’s shoulder; the King liked popping in on friends in Kew and Windsor unannounced. But, at the same time, the Queen refused to allow a pregnant attendant to sit in contravention of etiquette and, when the King popped in on his friends, they had to stand with their backs against the wall lest they accidentally turn their backs on the King.

Has anyone else looked into the court of George III? I’d be interested to hear your takes on court life, particularly during that stretch between his first and last madness. My own sense is that Burney’s journals, especially that one famous passage on court etiquette, tend to get over-emphasized, but I’d love to hear other opinions on the matter!


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lauren, good luck with your book tour!!

I don't know much about the Georgian court itself during the intermittent-bouts-of-madness period, so your post was fascinating, especially in the highlighting of certain minutiae, like the hops pillow! In the course of researching ROYAL AFFAIRS, I did come across some of the things you referred to in your post (such as the king's eldest son's thorny relationship with him, and tidbits from Fanny Burney's journals). Did you come up with the impression that she was an insufferable prude when she was a lady in waiting?

7:07 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Lauren, have fun on your book tour! I loved your point about how in the later Georgian court, ladies in waiting and maids of honor had little influence. Imagine if Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough had born during the reigns of George III and IV, she would never have gotten Blenheim for the Duke!

Have you read Flora Fraser's book about George III and his daughters?

7:56 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Have a fabulous time on your book tour, Lauren! I loved reading about the Georgian court. I too don't know much about it. I should know way more, considering my books are set in the Regency, but I've tended to write in the 1810s-20s decade and mostly about Whigs who are more centered round parliament. Oddly enough, I don't think I've ever read a novel with a heroine who was a lady-in-waiting at the Georgian court.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

A court in historical transition. What an interesting background for a novel.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I never thought Burney was a prude. I just got the impression that she was very unhappy as a lady in waiting but that it was nearly impossible to get out once you were in.

I love all the tidbits of info about the King's bout with madness. I even make a passing reference to it in LORD SIN (the 1788 bout had him shaking a tree's "hand" and attempting conversation with it, which was too delicious to pass up).

3:47 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Safe journey, Lauren!! Get some good photos of yourself signing books to share with us! I think the Georgian court sounds like a fascinating setting for a novel. Most of what I have read about Mad King George has been rather sad, sometimes comic, sometimes intriguing, but for the most part sad.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Hi, all! Sorry to be checking back in so belatedly... I was internet access-less for a whole day. Horrors!

I think part of the problem with Burney was that she wasn't properly a lady-in-waiting. She held a salaried post as the Queen's Mistress of the Robes, under the supervision of the draconian Mme von Schwellenberg (legendary for tormenting her subordinates), so she was literally in service in a way that the Queen's other ladies weren't. One thing that caught my attention reading Burney's journals was that, aside from the maid of honor who steals Burney's beau, you get no references at all to maids of honor. It's as though they weren't even there. It really says something about how their role in the court had shifted.

Poor Burney-- she also never wanted to take the post (she had a very happy literary life exchanging quips with Dr. Johnson, et al), but was persuaded to it by her family, on the grounds that she could advance the family by so doing. And then she was denied even that!

Amanda, I do see what you mean about the prudishness... not even so much prudishness as a certain gushing nicey-niceness. I think it's why I adored her books so much when I was sixteen, and also rather on the prudish/nicey-nice side.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Kalen, the tree story is fabulous! Another of my favorites has him threatening to open Parliament by addressing the body as "My Lords and Peacocks...."

Elizabeth, the Flora Fraser book has been a great help. I've tried to incorporate some of the princesses into my story (especially Sophia and Mary), and Fraser's book provides such a strong sense of their characters and habits.

11:48 AM  

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