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.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Stephen King’s The Shining

Stephen King’s The Shining was a reread for me. I first read this a very long time ago, probably in the late 1980s. I decided to read this book again after many years because I rewatched the film and then saw the movie version of its sequel, Doctor Sleep. I decided to read Doctor Sleep for the first time but I wanted to reread this book first. I was surprised at how much that I liked this novel the second time around. I found this to be an effective combination of horror and character study. This was first published in 1977.

When I blog about a book, I do not usually like to talk about the film version as do not see much value in comparing books and movies. However, the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film is so famous and so many people have seen it that I need to share few thoughts about it here. King did not approve of that movie. While I thought that the film was brilliant, I understand King’s objections. This book, in addition to being a horror story, is also an effective character study. Much of the deep psychological insights that are present in the novel were only hinted at in the film. In particular, most of the complexity of the story’s adult main character, Jack Torrance, was lost. I think that movie version, like most Kubrick films was innovative, effective and is endowed with more positives then I could list here. It was not however, the deeply complex look into a person’s psychology that the novel was. There was a 1997 television miniseries version of the story that King was the executive producer of and that he approved of. I have not seen that version. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, the story revolves around the Torrance family. There is Jack, his wife Wendy, and his son Danny. The Torrances are troubled. Jack is a young writer and teacher who still holds promise, but he has a drinking problem and has an issue with his temper. However, he is not a monster and is a complex mix of good and bad traits. Jack is a masterful creation as he is balanced between positive and negative. His drinking and temper have gotten him into trouble and he has lost a good teaching job as a result. He has let is family down in serious ways and their well - being is in jeopardy because of him. In one incident he inadvertently injured Danny when he was drunk. King gets into his head and he is sometimes, but not always, angry and cynical. He is also intelligent and perceptive. But he is not abusive and his wife and son do not fear him. In fact, he has a strong and warm relationship with Danny and an up and down relationship with Wendy. He has also quit drinking. He is self - aware and is never in denial and recognizes and acknowledges his problems and understands that he must overcome them. He is also wracked with guilt over his past behavior. He is a well - done and interesting mix of traits. 

Danny is not only gifted with intelligence and perception, but he also manifests psychic powers. The boy is able to know things, read minds and see the future. Wendy is intelligent and capable of standing up for Danny and herself. Her character is stronger and more competent then it was in the film.

Jack takes the job of the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. The hotel is forty miles from civilization and once the snows begin the Torrances will be completely isolated from civilization. Before the family arrives at The Overlook, Danny begins to have horrendous and bloody visions about the hotel. 

On the last day that the hotel is open, as all the guests and staff are preparing to depart and the Torrances are settling in, the family encounters Dick Hallorann, who is the Overlook’s cook. Hallorann immediately recognizes Danny’s abilities which he also shares. The cook calls this these powers “Shining” based on old folk stories that Hallorann has heard from his grandmother. Hallorann also indicates that The Overlook is haunted and that there are bad forces at play there. He is headed off to Florida for the winter but indicates that if Danny gets into trouble, he may be able to psychically call out for help. 

As the winter sets in and The Overlook is cut off by snow, each of the Torrances begins to see ghosts and manifestations. These phenomena range from visions of past murders that occurred at the hotel to hedge animals that come alive. Both Danny’s psychic abilities and Jack’s character weaknesses stimulate and attract the evil spirits. The ghosts begin to play off Jack’s dark side encouraging him to drink, become angry, resentful and abusive towards his wife and son, and eventually to murder them. As things deteriorate Jack does become murderous, Danny attempts to call Hallorann for help. 

In think that the strongest aspect of this book is the nuanced and complex portrait of Jack. His drinking has been a problem for his family and himself. Jack walked into the Overlook on a knife edge between the positive and the negative, between good and evil. The evil that dwells at the hotel jumps right into Jack’s mind. Jack, who is at least self – aware, realizes, 

everything became clear to him. It was not just Danny the Overlook was working on. It was working on him, too. It wasn’t Danny who was the weak link, it was him. He was the vulnerable one, the one who could be bent and twisted until something snapped.

The dark spirits in the hotel proceed to push Jack over the edge. One wonders how Jack and his family would have made out in life had they never gone to The Overlook. 

As for the book being scary or chilling, King does write a few very effective passages. For instance, when the Torrances wake in the middle of the night, in the completely cut off and isolated hotel and they hear then elevator running,

The illuminated clock on his nightstand said it was five minutes to twelve. The humming sound again. Loud and steady, varying the slightest bit. Followed by a clank as the humming ceased. A rattling bang. A thump. Then the humming resumed. It was the elevator.

There are a lot of chilling and spooky moments in the book, but I found that them to be mostly laid back and moderate. Character takes center stage in this work. With that, the Overlook is a fantastic setting for all of this and the novel has a lot of atmosphere. 

I have always felt that King was not the most original novelist. At least for the books that I have read and films that I have seen that were based upon those books, his plots usually share a commonality with older works. Before this was written there were lots of stories about a person going to a bad place and being unduly influenced by that place. One strong influence here is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, King pays tribute to that other work as it is mentioned in the text. What I think that King does vey well, is to retell these older stories in a very effective way. 

I thought that novel was better than I remembered it. It is a superb character study that evolves into a battle between good and evil inside one person’s head. The setting of the Overlook is also a perfect place to set such a tale. Fans of this type of story who have not read this book will probably get a lot out of it. I should also mention that as the novel nears its end the plot deviates from the 1977 film so those who only know that story can at least expect a different resolution. I think that many non - horror fans might also find this worthwhile. I plan to move on to Doctor Sleep soon.