Wednesday, September 20, 2017

George III by Christopher Hibbert

George III by Christopher Hibbert is a comprehensive biography of the British king. This book delves into the personal, social and political world of this monarch. Hibbert describes the monarch and his life without inserting too many of his own opinions into the history. 

The picture that this book paints is that of a moderate and ethical leader. He reined over Great Britain before and during the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. George III was a constitutional monarch who was very constrained by Parliament and law. A modern American president or British prime minister has more power than this king. Hibbert's book describes a monarch who appointed government ministers and other officials, occasionally approved domestic and foreign policy initiatives and gave advice to the government. Of course, he was the symbol of Great Britain and her government. 

George III was a cultured and curious man. He was interested in art, literature and science as well as more practical matters relating to governing. Hibbert writes,

“the king’s talk revealed the breadth of his reading and the wide range of his interests. He was knowledgeable about botany and agriculture well as architecture, genealogy, astronomy and horology. He made himself conversant withy the state of the country’s manufacturing industries.”

Astronomy was also one of his interests,

“It was the King’s curiosity about optical instruments which led to his interest in astronomy”

His marriage to Queen Charlotte was in some ways unusual as the two were faithful to one another. It was an arranged union. The pair never met before it was planned. Yet, for many years, at least until they become much older, they were a happy couple. In this time period, male royalty, and sometimes female royalty, typically engaged in lengthy extramarital affairs. Neither George III nor Queen Charlotte engaged in such liaisons.

The book also touches upon the king’s flaws. George III treated his sons harshly when young and forced them into near exile when older. Both he and Queen Charlotte were terribly controlling of their daughters, even by the standards of the time. He was also complacent and supported discrimination aimed at Catholics.

Starting in his fifties, George III unfortunately went through periods where he suffered bouts of serious mental illness. These periods were characterized by delusions and wild outbursts. These spells were intermittent and he enjoyed many years of stability between them. Many historians, including Hibbert, believe that the king suffered from porphyria.

My version of this book was just titled George III; however, some versions come with the subtitle: A Personal History. With that, there is a lot of politics included in this book, almost enough to dispense with the personal history label. However, had these politics been described in a little more detail, I feel that this book would have been a little stronger and could easily have been called a full history. As it stands, the work feels 95 percent complete. My version of the book was 410 large pages of text. The book would have benefitted from about 20 additional pages of political detail. 

I want to write a few words about how this book is presented by the publisher, blurb writers and public opinion as it relates to George III. 

Many of the blurbs relating to the book, as well as the cover jacket description, describe this work as something a reassessment of George III. This biography is presented as a book aimed at restoring George III’s reputation. This is not reflected in the text, however. Hibbert never claims to be rehabilitating George III’s character. However, if his character needed restoring, this book has the effect of doing so. This is the portrait of a competent leader and a fairly ethical man who was intelligent and cultured. Having read a lot about The American Revolutionary generation, I have seen the common theme amongst them of labeling this man as a repressive tyrant. The American Declaration of Independence describes him as 

A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

These assertions become laughable when the man and his rule are actually examined. 

I have also seen the film version of The Madness of King George. That film was fairly accurate in that it depicted the king’s mental illness as temporary. However, in the television series Turn, George III is depicted as being insane and petty during the American Revolution. As per Hibbert’s account, the king’s malady did not start until well after that conflict ended. He was also anything but petty.

I am not sure how George III is viewed in Great Britain. My impression, based upon interactions with individuals and observation of media sources, is that many Americans think of him as a repressive king that the American Revolutionary generation rebelled against. I also find that some people have a vague notion that he was insane. Thus, this book is a good resource to counter certain incorrect and unfair narratives.

This is a very worthwhile biography for anyone who wants to know about this often-misunderstood monarch. It is detailed as well as readable. I did a little research before reading this and found that it is respected among historians. It is balanced. Hibbert writes fairly and is careful about facts. I highly recommend this to those interested in this period of history or in British royalty in general.

41 comments:

baili said...

Sounds really Interesting book Brain!

i just read little about the king after viewing your title which is only basic knowledge about him.

Writer seems to put lot of effort to clear the reputation of monarch in this book.
How interesting that In seventies there were arranged marriages and more interesting that unlike others couple did not involved in extramarital affairs.

the point where writer deals with the insanity of the king sounds really appealing to e .


brilliant review!!!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili. I think outside of The UK, many people have heard of George III but many also do not know many details about him.

The happiness of his arraignmed marriage is surprising.

James said...

Great review of what sounds like a fine biography of this King that was so influential in early American history. I was fortunate to attend a production of The Madness of George III, a play by Alan Bennett. I would recommend the play or the film version directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James . I saw the film version of The Maddness of King George. I agree that it is excellent.

Kate Scott said...

Sounds like a fascinating book! George III is such an interesting historical figure. I've always been interesting in reading the modern theories about what caused his mental illness. And I very much enjoyed the film The Madness of King George as well.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Great review and George III sounds like a decent man which is impressive because as a King he would have had alot of power he could have abused. The Kings and Queens of England are so fascinating. For a long time I focused only on the Tudors but there is so much more history when it comes to British Royalty and thank you for bringing it to us.

Evelina said...

It's not so often that someone says that a book could benefit from added political commentary, it's usually the other way round :) glad you enjoyed it.

Stephen said...

Histories of the period (as opposed to histories of the American Revolution) always praise George, prior to his madness. He seems like a good man given a hard job. One fact I often see is that he was the first of the Georges to speak English natively and fluently.

CyberKitten said...

Not a monarch I'm overly familiar with I'm afraid. I can't remember learning much about him in school. I guess we wanted to forget the whole losing America thing - rather embarrassing and all that.... [grin]

Suko said...

Interesting commentary! This sounds like an excellent biography.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - I guess we will never know for certain what caused his mental illness, but Hibbett makes a strong case for porphyria.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I need to read more on The Tudors. Without a doubt George III was mire decent then many of his predecessors. he also had a lot less power and was constrained by law.

Brian Joseph said...

You made me laugh Evelina :) The comment about more politics was my inner geek talking!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - He was indeed on e of the few Kings of his era who was born in England and who's first language was English.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - It really was a good book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - In contrast to what happened in America, he was the monarch who presided over the Napoleonic Was. A very big success for Britain!

Mudpuddle said...

did Hibbert say anything about George being sensitive to light? according to what i read in the dictionary, that's one of the principle indicators of porphyria... excellent review on an interesting subject...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle - I do not think that light sensitivity was covered. If there was no sign of it, that would perhaps be evidence that George III suffered from something else.

Gently Mad said...

I love biographies like these. It does seem to be the fashion these days in historical books to want to change traditional viewpoints about historical characters. I.e. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson weren't really nice guys after all and now King George really was.

Having said that, I would love to read this book as well as many other sources about this king, which is the only way one can hopefully get any kind of grasp of what the reality might have been.

I saw the movie about King George back in the nineties and I doubt if he was any worse than anyone in the same situation and same historical context.

His sons, based on what I read from a biography on William Wilberforce, were ridiculous and basically emptied the royal coffers for their personal predilections.

And I had to laugh at your inner geek that wanted more after 400 odd pages. A true history buff!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - This book was not too complementary in regards to George III's sons. Several were excessive spenders and gamblers.

I am also leary of a certain kind of historical revisionism, but in this case I think that Hibbert is taking a line that many historians have shared a long time.

Have a great week!

Kate Scott said...

Porphyria is what I came across my reading on the subject too. There must be some kind of consensus on that.

thecuecard said...

Yeah I think students in the U.S. learn from textbooks that this King was a tyrant to the colonies - so it does seem his reputation is in need of restoring -- or at least the balance of views about him. I didn't realize how prolific Hibbert was -- but all his books listed on Wikipedia are quite in abundance, wow. Some of these popular historians are quite enjoyable to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - That is the impression that I got from Hibbert.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - He was called a tyrant so much.

Hibbard seems to be a very popular historian, at least in Great Britain.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Thank you very much for the review, Brian. This is the kind of work I must read to challenge my comfort zone.

The Bookworm said...

This sounds like an interesting biography, glad you enjoyed it! That is rare that his arranged marriage actually worked out happily.
Great post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Deepika - I also need to get out of my comfort zone a bot when reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Though I have heard of arraigned marriages working before, it was so unusual at this time for a member male royal to not engage in affairs.

HKatz said...

I watched The Madness of King George years ago but hardly remember it or know much about him, so I appreciate that you presented a picture of him here. It makes sense that the colonists would greatly overstate the extent of his power (though you're right, it's still funny, especially considering that there were people like Ben Franklin who initially thought to come to some sort of agreement with Parliament and remain a part of the empire, not become totally independent - or at least that's what I remember reading).

Maria Behar said...

FASCINATING post, Brian!! :) :)

What I remember being taught in my American History classes, back in high school, is that George III was a tyrant, and that, because of his repressive actions and total indifference to the needs of the American colonists, they (the colonists) finally had to take action to throw off his tyranny. So this biography presents a picture of this monarch, that, I'm sure, will surprise many of us.

I certainly retained the picture of King George III, tyrant! It's interesting that, in the case of revolutions, the ruler(s) being rebelled against are always seen as evil and oppressive. Sometimes this is indeed the case, but apparently it wasn't so here. However, the question remains as to how aware this ruler was of the needs and frustrations of the colonists.

I was amazed at this king's breadth of knowledge. He DEFINITELY makes President Trump look VERY bad! Trump has proven himself to be an IGNORAMUS in many areas. His "definition" of uranium is a horribly HILARIOUS, as well as SAD example: "You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons like lots of things are done with uranium including some bad things." OH.MY.GOSH. It's embarrassing to compare Trump with George III in the area of general and scientific knowledge! (Please pass the covfefe!)

Of course, no one is perfect, but, as this biography makes very clear, George III had MANY good points. And I am TOTALLY surprised by the fact that he and his wife remained faithful to each other! What does sadden me is the way he treated his children. But then, the needs of children weren't really taken into account at the time. They were considered "little adults". We've come a LOOOONG way in this area!

Thanks for your insightful thoughts on this biography, which was a real eye-opener, Brian! <3 :)

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I just read your comment to Sharon regarding George's sons being spendthrifts and gamblers. I had gotten the impression that he was mean to his sons when they were little. So maybe the king was justified in his treatment of them, after all.

JaneGS said...

Sounds like a terrific book--GIII is a very interesting monarch during a particularly volatile time. The fact that he suffered from temporary insanity simply compounds the difficulty of his reign.

Excellent review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

As per the book George III treated his sons unfairly when they were very young before the overspending started.

The American Revolutionaries almost had to demonize him.

It is interesting, I am hearing a lot of comparisons between George III and Trump lately. Such comparisons are really unfair to George III who was competent, intelligent and not vindictive.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - The Madness of King George was a really good film. It only covered a potion of George III's life however.

Franklin's views were mostly shared by all The Revolutionaries early on. It took them awhile to reach the point where they decided that they wanted independence.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - It really was a volatile. Ironically, except for his insane period, during which rime he exercised almost no power, George III was a very non volatile leader.

So many books, so little time said...

Ooooh this is certainly one to put on my want to read list. I read a book by Denis Lehane on holiday and whilst fiction it covered some historical moments. I really aim to read more from history so maybe this will be one I can start with. Never seen any movies about this chap! xxx


Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Tracy Terry said...

His mental illness aside this isn't one of the English kings I know a particular lot about. Well done o yet another comprehensive post Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I tend to love history. I recall The Madness of King George being a good film.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy - It seems that many folks know mostly about his mental illness. As this book shows, there was so much more to the story.

Caroline said...

Very interesting, Brian. He’s not one of the kings I’m familiar with. I know the English queens and Henry VIII better. I totally forgot that he was called the mad king. I haven’t seen the movie.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline. Though he went through bouts of mental illness, I think that the relative stability of his reign leads him to be less famous then other English monarchs.