“George III: A Personal History” by Christopher Hibbert
I found this lying around the parents’ house and thought I would give it a go. It’s alright. It feels a little bit like history by numbers. The author finds the pertinent facts, orders them and gives them to us with extensive references at the back.
Despite being described as “a personal history”, much of it deals with George III’s public life. Aside from the loss of the colonies, we get the Gordon riots, and lots and lots of politics. Prime Ministers (or First Lords of the Treasury) come and go with monotonous regularity – though lots of Pitts was a big feature. Forming governments appears to be a very vexed issue.
The author seems to sympathise with the king’s concerns about catholic emancipation (on coronation he had taken an oath to uphold the protestant faith and not promote any other and he took it seriously) but this view isn’t really likely to go over well with an Irish reader. Ireland gets pretty short shrift and apart from the question of emancipation which was particularly relevant to Ireland, I think the only reference to Ireland was when the Prince of Wales asked to be made Lord Lieutenant and was, mercifully, told no. Despite the many wrongs visited by England on Ireland, the authorities drew the line there.
I expected a bit more about George III’s family life. There is quite a lot about Queen Charlotte (of Mecklenburg after whom the most notorious street in Dublin was named – it was the core of the red light district in the 19th century – I throw in this fact, not covered by our author, for free) but all of his many sons and daughters (15 children of whom 13 survived to adulthood), other than the Prince Regent are largely dealt with in two chapters at the end. He seems to have mostly sent the boys abroad and not let them come home (odd, when he himself never travelled abroad) and kept the girls locked up and unmarried. I can’t help feeling that his relationships with his children deserved a bit more attention. I know far more about the King’s relationship with the Pitts than with his children. Surely, the wrong way round for a “personal history”.
All in all, it’s a pretty sympathetic portrait of a monarch who is mostly remembered for going mad. To paraphrase Johnston (who has a cameo in the book), worth reading but not worth buying to read.
“The Blue Afternoon” by William Boyd
I very much enjoyed “Any Human Heart” and “A Good Man in Africa” by this author. I quite liked “Restless” and I thought that I would give this early work a go. Apparently it won some prizes. He is a good writer and his research seems to be pretty good – although given what I know about the fields he covers in this novel (architecture on the west coast of America in the 30s and surgery and aeronautics in Manila at the turn of the last century), I suppose he could fool me pretty easily.
The story is essentially about a surgeon in the Philippines in the very early years of the 20th century. It is unnecessarily framed by a meeting in the 1930s. The first part of the book deals with an architect in 1930s America. It’s engaging, a whole lot of interesting plot lines are set up, then the architect meets this man who claims to be her father and we’re whisked back to Manila in the 1900s. None of the early plot lines are resolved and you’re wondering what they were there for in the first place other than to give you the author’s views about 30s architecture (v.interesting but perhaps for another place).
The main storyline looks at a number of things. Early 20th surgery is one strand. If I might summarise – very nasty but very interesting. Early 20th century aeronautics is another. If I might summarise – very dull and a completely unnecessary subplot. This story has more unresolved storylines than any other work of this kind I have read. It is littered with red herrings that are never dealt with – who murdered the Americans? who indeed? was the other murder related? what nefarious role did Dr. Cruz play? We will never know. Now, I know it’s all high literary concept to have lots of uncertainty but to my mind, when you write it like a detective story, it’s a complete cop out not to resolve it. That said one of the things that I really enjoyed about the book was the description of social strata in Manila, the sense of place and the history of the war with the Americans.
The final piece is set in Lisbon. This read very much as though the author had had a good holiday in Lisbon and was determined to do a piece on it. Some of the earlier strands were resolved but by no means all. It was by far the weakest part of the book and I think it was written as the author was staring at the disparate bits of his novel and losing the will to live. It knots things together in a desperate, inconclusive kind of way.
I would try another William Boyd. He shines in two areas – nice writing and excellent research brilliantly conveyed.
“The Last Weekend” by Blake Morrison
Blake Morrison is terrific. He is a poet and he writes beautifully. I can find the language in poets’ novels a bit overwhelming but this is not the case here. You read this feeling that each word was chosen with care and is just right; not demanding attention but conveying perfectly and sometimes lyrically the author’s meaning.
And then, as though this were not enough, it’s really cleverly plotted. It’s narrated by Ian who seems like a slightly chippy everyman who is indulging in a mid-life crisis. Not an entirely promising narrator and he is never appealing. I can’t really tell you what it’s about without ruining the story but it is creepy and quite brilliant. Highly recommended.
“Life in Georgian England” by E. N. Williams
I picked this up in the parents’ house. It was written in 1962 by a “senior history master in a leading public school” and it reads that way too. The preface contains the rather endearing line “Above all, I must thank my pupils, who teach me my history.” The preface also contains the lines “Since it has not been thought suitable to quote sources in a work of this nature, my first duty is to thank (and apologise to) those authorities whose works I have ransacked. To one of these I am especially grateful and that is Dr. J. H. Plumb, whose criticisms have been invaluable and whose kindness, inexhaustible.” This may make the review from the Sunday Times on the dust jacket less impressive “Mr. Williams has produced a first-class boook, packed with vivid incident; wise, well-balanced and revealing.” So says Dr. J.H. Plumb.
Aaannnyhow, there is lots of information and the book tries to give a general appreciation of the era across the social spectrum but at 170 odd pages it’s all, of necessity, rather superficial. I found the statistics at the beginning really fascinating (which, I think, makes me officially sad). England and Wales grew from a population of some 5.5 million in 1696 to just over 9 million at the time of the battle of Waterloo. That’s a lot of growth over 100 odd years. The chapter on the upper classes covers a lot of ground that is, I would have thought, pretty familiar to most readers. I did enjoy the chapter on lower class life though. How about this little piece on the Vagrancy Laws:
“..the pauper after whipping and/or imprisonment, was not ‘removed’ but ‘passed’: that is, trundled in a cart from one parish boundary to the next till he was home…Professional beggars, like some of the Irish returning home after the London hay-making season, found it a convenient mode of transport.”
This is, I think the only reference to Ireland in the text. As an Irish reader, it’s a little bit surprising to see 1798 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Rebellion_of_1798 and 1801 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Act_of_Union_1800 pass without even a slight reference to momentous events across the water. To an Irish person, late 18th century revolutions go like this 1. America, 2. France, 3. United Irishmen.
This book explicitly refers to 1798 thus: “But with the excesses of the Terror and the aggressions of French nationalism, the dream became a nightmare….Their disappointment was intense, Coeridge wrote that he had withdrawn from “French metaphysics, French politics, French ethics and French theology”. In the same year, 1798, he and Wordsworth published the first edition of their Lyrical Ballads….”
Surprising. I suppose that this is the problem of the colonised, we always think our misfortunes are foremost in the coloniser’s mind but really, they are worrying away about the romantic poets.
It is interesting that this book goes on quite a bit about the French revolution and its profound and shocking impact on late Georgian England. Did the author/the English forget that they themselves had form on regicide?
Still, I rather liked this neat little volume covering the basics; I see it is part of a series and am mulling on acquiring some more, assuming they are still in print.