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Saturday, September 19, 2020

George III by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black’s George III is a somewhat unusual look at the English monarch. This biography has a fairly unconventional structure and style to it. In some ways the book is a challenging read and seems to be aimed at a specific audience of people who already know something of its subject. With that, I personally found this work to be educational and interesting. Black is a Professor of History at Exeter University.This was first published in 2008. 

Though I am interested in many historical topics, my initial interest in George III stemmed from the fact that he was the British monarch who reigned during The American Revolution. The Revolution is the area of history that I am most interested in. Like any biography of this man, a number of pages here are dedicated to the Revolution. In fact, some versions of this book are subtitled America's Last King. I think that subtitle is a little misleading as this is a full biography that does not put special influence on the Revolution. I would guess that the subtitle is part of a marketing strategy as interest in the American Revolution is high in The United States. I am not complaining about this as I was looking to read a full biography. George was a generally interesting figure who is worth knowing about. 

This is the second biography of George that I have read. I had previously read George III: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert. My commentary on that book is here. Though I enjoyed Hibbert’s work and found it educational, I thought that, as that book is advertised, there was not enough detail about politics or national and international affairs in it. Black’s book, though very detailed in those areas, has its own quirks that I will talk about below. Thus, while I am glad that I read both books, I have not found a single, satisfying and comprehensive book on George III.

George was born in 1738 and reigned as King from 1760 until his death in 1820. Great Britain was a constitutional monarchy at the time, thus, while George wielded real power, he shared that power with Parliament and other components of government. George was King during both The American Revolution and The Napoleonic Wars.

There are many aspects of George’s life and reign worth focusing on. I cannot do any kind of comprehensive assessment within a single blog post. Instead, I will do what I am sometimes known to do and focus on a couple of things that I find interesting. One ironic point, in light of the fascination that so many people have about George’s mental illness, is how stable and balanced he was. He was also principled and ethical in comparison to most royalty of the time. In George’s time when almost all royalty had extramarital affairs, he fell in love with his wife, who he had married as the result of an arraignment, and had no affairs. At a time when so many members of royalty, including sovereigns, were known to gamble and drink to excess, he did no such thing. In a world filled with royalty and monarchs that had volatile tempers, were arrogant and petty he was known to be even tempered, not arrogant and often made an effort to put nervous visitors at ease. At the same he was almost never described as weak. Black writes,

George's personality as a mature man was already clear in some respects when he came to the throne. His sense of propriety, diligence and commitment had been honed by his upbringing. It was to be put under brutal pressure in the maelstrom of politics, and yet the personality that matured was an attractive one. King George was generally good-humoured, and a kindly, gentlemanly, often (but not always) generous, charitable, worrying person.

The above is consistent with other sources that I have read. 

I am not contending that George was perfect or saintly. This book, as well as other sources that I have read does not whitewash George. He was imperfect. For instance, he restricted his daughters’ freedom terribly, even by the standards of the time. He was known to be stubborn to the point where it caused him problems both politically and personally. He also supported some policies involving slavery and discrimination against Catholics that many objected to in his own time. However, he does stand out as a stable person who had a sense of ethics in a sea of bad characters. As for his mental issues, they occupied fairly brief periods during the prime of his reign. Unfortunately, they completely debilitated him during the last ten years of his life. These issues were probably caused by porphyria.

On policy George was something of a moderate conservative. When he took the throne the power of the British monarchy was waning in the face of Parliament and other aspects of constitutional monarchy. He endeavored, somewhat successfully, to strengthen royal powers. He also sought to eliminate waste and inefficiency in government. He made serious mistakes as Britain and America fell headlong into the American Revolution and George presided over the losing side in that conflict. However, he also presided over the Britain’s early wars and opposition to Napoleon with some success and it can be argued that he helped keep Britain stable in the face of worldwide revolution. 

As I mentioned above, this book is somewhat unusually structured. It is only partially chronological. Multiple chapters focus on a specific part of George’s life. For instance, one chapter is dedicated to George’s family and personnel life, another chapter is dedicated to his mental illness. Some of the chapters do cover specific time periods such as the American Revolution and several Napoleonic Wars, however, even these chapters tend to jump around in time. In addition, the author focuses his concentration in unusual directions. He tends to delve into great detail when it comes to British politics but then ignores the big picture. For instance, Catholic Emancipation was an issue that continued to reoccur throughout George’s rule. This controversy arose because discrimination against Catholics was codified into law during George’s time. Many wanted to reduce or remove those discriminatory laws. There were moves within both Parliament and George’s ministries to relax these restrictions. George generally opposed emancipation. In various parts of the book the text goes into minute detail on the political wrangling behind all of this. Yet the underlying issues and history involving Catholics and discrimination aimed at them is skirted and never explored in any kind of comprehensive or satisfying manor. Likewise, unlike many other biographies that I have read, this book is very sparse when it comes to the background detail of people who were connected to George. There is a paucity of information about George’s family and associates. We get a detailed look at their interactions with George, but not much background. This is not to say that the book is not detailed. The work is comprised of 452 dense pages. It is just what Black concentrates on that is different. He is most interested in the workings of government and politics. When it comes to George personal relationships, as mentioned above, the work looks deeply into George’s actions and motivations, but reveals little about others. 

All this adds up to a book that almost presupposes that the reader is already knowledgeable about George and the time and place that he lived in. Black almost seems like it is trying to fill in and discuss details about knowledge that is already known by the reader. Personally, I have read other biographies and details about George’s life. I am also somewhat familiar with other details related to Great Britain and the rest of the world of the time. Thus, I was OK with this approach. However, I would have appreciated if more of this book concentrated on these omitted things. Also, this book would not be the first choice for someone who started off knowing little about George III or his times. In addition, Black’s writing style can also be a little challenging, his sentences are packed with information and sometimes worded awkwardly. 

This was a different kind of biography. I learned a lot from it. The book was well researched, and was interesting. Black appears to be a good and unbiased historian. I am glad that I read this. However, due to its odd attributes I would not recommend this to someone new to the subjects covered. I am still on the lookout for a more conventional and mainstream biography of George III.

41 comments:

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, great review. Out of curiosity I searched and there is a bio by
Janice Hadlow about the private lives of George III and Queen Charlotte which has gotten very good reviews. George III sounds like a decent King and it's to his credit because he had all this power and could have abused it. Parliament kept him in check. The American Revolutionary era such a fascinating period. So many players.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Kathy - I never looked into the Hadlow book. I think that the term “private lives” put me off. It really should not as this book shows, titles are often about marketing.

George did my abuse power. That is fairly rare in history.

James said...

Sounds like an interesting, if somewhat challenging, book. I am fond of Alan Bennett's play, "The Madness of George III", and the film which was adapted from it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I saw the movie. I loved it. The story only covered a very small segment of George’s life though.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Was not one of the George III's nicknames "Farmer George" because he liked to putter around on his farms getting his hands dirty with agricultural things? That's pretty down to earth for any monarch.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra - Yes it was his nickname because he liked to play around with farming stuff. He was less ostentatious then a lot of royalty.

Dorothy Borders said...

I confess I know very little about George III, mostly having to do with his relationship to the American rebellion. This biography sounds quite sympathetic toward him and seems to have done a good job of explicating his character. Your review, as always, is excellent.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Dorothy- Those of us who delve into The American Revolution know George best via that way. Though this book was somewhat sympathetic it does look at his negative aspects.

Lark said...

I'm only familiar with George III in connection with the American Revolution (also a favorite time period of mine). This book intrigues me because it does tell about the rest of his life. But after reading your review I think I should probably start with a different, more easily accessible biography about him before attempting this one.

Judy Krueger said...

Interesting that you had another biography with which to compare this one. In my reading of American Presidential biographies, I have only chosen one per president due to how long they usually are, but I have wondered about the slant the biographer brings to the book.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Great review. It reminds me of a movie about his life made back in the nineties. It focused a great deal on his illness and his stubborn views about monarchy. I have not read a biography of King George but I want to. However since I don't know much about him, per your suggestion, I may look for something more basic to start with.

Kirk said...

In a Fourth of July post I did on my own blog a few years ago, I humorously referred to George III as "the Man" in order to give the Founding Fathers some street cred, but I knew full well the actual history was a bit more complicated than that, as it always is. I'd be interested in reading this book.

mudpuddle said...

i just finished a bio of Jonathon Swift. altho he lived before G.111, the prejudices against Catholics and Presbyterians both were already pretty severe. He was appointed Dean of St. Patrick's cathedral in Dublin, but he had to pay his first year's wages to the authorities as a sort of initiation present... apparently this was pretty common... his hopes of achieving a bishopric in the Anglican church were squashed because he was Irish and in some way associated with the Catholics and Presbyterians in that country...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- I really liked The Madness of King George. But it only focused on a short segment of his life.

I may try one more biography of George. I will blog about it if I do.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lark - I think many of us who are interested in The Revolution only know of George from one angle. This is one reason that big books are great.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - it is so interesting how biographies vary. When possible I try to read more then one. But if course, time to read them is always an issue.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kirk - I guess that George was the man! LOL. Seriously. from the point of view of the colonists, it makes sense.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle - The situation with religious minorities throughout the world was often bad. That is interesting about Swift. I need to learn more about the entire issue.

The Liberty Belle said...

George III sounds far more complex than I had perceived him to be. Great review of the book. Have a blessed and beautiful week.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Belle. He was indeed complex.

Have a great week!

thecuecard said...

I had to sort of laugh that you mention the book is comprised of 452 dense pages ... that's usually not too good of a sign. As for the other biographer Christopher Hibbert: I have liked his book on the French Revolution ... more of a popular historian ... which is fine by me. You might soon be the candidate to write the new biography of George III ..... just saying

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Lol. I will probably read at least one more biography of George. I liked Hibbert’s book but I felt that it was incomplete, even for a popular biography.

the bookworm said...

Glad you enjoyed this one Brian. I know nothing about George III but I hope you find the perfect book on him one day. Interesting that he had no affairs, I've read about a few other historical figures who were the same, they loved their wives and didn't keep mistresses.
Great post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I think that George was unusual because he was average in a sea of outrageousness.

I plan to give one more George biography a try. Hopefully the third time will be the charm.

baili said...


thank you for another incredibly done post dear Brain

as i know little about George third so it was quite an opportunity for me learn more and for this thanks again !

as because writer is professor of history it seems he is really inspired by George ,i hardly learnt such qualities in peoples who were in power ,specially easing nervous visitors sounds amazing ,i think this quality points out how strong person he was inwardly

he supported slavery probably to remain in good book of friends who wanted it then (just guess )

i learnt lot form this review about era and the personality and thoroughly enjoyed knowing it through your insightful views
blessings to your world !

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - The calming of visitors is actually very impressive.

As for slavery, at that time, some people were beginning to see that it was evil. The majority of people did not yet hold those values.

The Padre said...

Brother Brian, Reads Like A Different Kind Of Bio And Stoked You Were Able To Expand Your Knowledge - Hope You Find What You Are Looking For - Congrats On The Gym Work - Be Well And Enjoy Your Weekend

Cheers

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Padre - Expanding knowledge is such a satisfying thing to do.

Carol said...

Hi Brian, I agree with cuecard above - write a bio of him yourself. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - You are all making me laugh 😆

Sue Bursztynski said...

Somewhere on my shelves is a book about his daughters - he had quite a few kids, as I recall. The things you say about him as a person all seem to appear in the film The Madness Of King George, which does indeed suggest porphyria. The servants are under orders to check his urine daily, not knowing why. (Finally, one of them says he has had enough and he is going off to open a nice grocery shop. Fictional, of course, but amusing, as his name is Fortnum)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Yes, I saw the film. It was very good. It was almost like someone knew that urine testing would one day be important.

The story of his daughters must be interesting.

Susan Kane said...

Quite a guy, 60 years on the throne?

A basic history of that time period with a focus on George's actions would be the book for me to read. The aspects of history with its dates, events has to be chronological for me to enjoy.

Have you seen "Hamilton"? King George has a solo, You'll be back, telling the colonies that they love him and they'll come back to him.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - He did reign for a long time.

I am still searching for a more conventional biography.

That scene In Hamilton reflected the attitude of many of the British at the time.

ashok said...

Good book

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,

I have been away from blogging for a few weeks, but am back again. This biography sounds intriguing to me, because of your intelligent commentary. It sounds as if George was a solid person and leader.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko and welcome back. Solid person is a good way to put it.

Richard said...

The lack of a chronological focus wouldn't faze me so much in a history book although I guess it is a little odd for a biography. Does Black explain why he approached things thematically rather than chronologically at all?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard. Black does not go into the reason for the book’s structure. I just got the impression that it reflects the way he thinks.

JaneGS said...

As an American, I grew up believing George III was a bad king. He had his challenges, but he didn't lose his head and England didn't abandon the monarchy during those turbulent times. I would also like to read a good bio of GIII.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - The Patriot side did indeed see George as a villain and those sentiments led led down through today to some extent. He did indeed make lots of mistakes in regards to America. But he did have his virtues.