- - Monday, January 5, 2015



By Janice Hadlow

Henry Holt, $40, 704 pages

In this massively detailed royal biography it seems unfortunate and even unlikely that it takes more than 300 pages to reach the topic of porphyria, the strange disease that made England’s George III known as “the mad king” and came close to wrecking his monarchy.

Even modern medicine remains uncertain about the cause and effect of porphyria, and in the 18th century treatment was brutal and probably ineffective. The author notes that the doctors did not know what had caused the king’s sudden descent into madness. They speculate that the cause might be “a humour” moving through the royal body to the brain. Procedures used as cures were either “benign if useless” or downright dangerous such as raising blisters on the legs as a method of “drawing out the humor that had settled on his brain.” The blistering was extremely painful and “added hugely to the discomfort and misery.”

The king’s plight, which lasted for many months in his middle years, was exacerbated by his struggle to cope with the American War of Independence and his disagreements with his brilliant but tough prime minister, William Pitt. It was also tragic that the ambition of King George and Queen Charlotte took the form of a social experiment to cleanse the Hanoverian reputation of brutality and corruption, and create a royal family of impeccable behavior. They had 13 children, and they strove to raise them in an atmosphere of domestic stability.

Janice Hadlow, who reportedly spent 10 years compiling the biography, is painstaking about every family detail, which makes it puzzling that she does not concede and focus more on the misfortune that prevented the well-meaning monarch from fulfilling his ambition of a new and commendable kind of royalty. His illness was ghastly in that it destroyed the communication that the king treasured with his family and reached the point that his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, was ready to take over from his father.

Ms. Hadlow acknowledges that it was not surprising that doctors were baffled by the king’s wildly fluctuating state. Porphyria still has no cure, she observes, and is treated by “careful management of lifestyle, with significant avoidance of stress.” In the late 18th century, she asserts, there was nothing that could have been done for the king except to leave him alone and hope for spontaneous recovery as the severity of the attack receded. Meantime, the king’s family were also in misery, with a royal father who rarely slept and never stopped talking. His “occasional moments of clarity were inevitably succeeded by acute confusion” and he also suffered from violent convulsions. He raged at his attendants, his wife and his family and on one occasion refused to shave more than half his face for weeks. And the kind of oaths and indecencies never heard from him before poured from the lips of the monarch.

He did recover, after a fashion, and in 1788, on the 50th anniversary of his accession, at the age of 72, he, made a “halting, eccentric appearance at court.” Sadly, he was not unaware of what was happening, and on one occasion observed that “perhaps it was time for him to think of retirement.” The author provides perhaps excessive information on what happened to the king’s family, which was gravely damaged psychologically by the bizarre nature of life with a wildly irrational father.

George died in an atmosphere forever tainted by his strange malady, and when he died in 1820, the last words he was heard to utter were “an application for some jelly.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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