One of my favourite periods of history is that known as the Age of Enlightenment, those years between about 1700 and, arguably, 1820. This was a time of huge strides forward in scientific experimentation and, of course, gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. In Britain, this time span encompassed the years of Hanoverian rule during which the country was reigned over by the four Georges. For approximately a decade before George IV's accession to the throne, during the periods when his father, George III was considered too mad to rule the country, he also acted as Prince Regent, giving his name to that brief span of years known as the English Regency. This small epoch was noted for its style, glamour and artistry and is a period much beloved of historical novelists. Despite enjoying the history of this era, I admit to knowing very little about the man who gave his name to those years between 1811 and 1820 and I hoped this book by Steven Parissien would shed some light on him.
Steven Parissien is an Oxford graduate with doctorate in 18th century Architectural History who has carved a niche for himself in the worlds of publishing and of TV as something of an expert on the style and architecture of this period and of the Hanoverians too.
The book rather strangely begins at the end with George's death and debates the actual cause of death which was officially given at the time as due to a tumour on the bladder and an enlarged heart but historians now consider may have actually been due to porphyria and would account for his frequent bouts of illness throughout his life. Whatever the cause, it seems George had acquired a huge tolerance for alcohol and laudanum (an addictive derivative of opium) and had spent his final years more or less hidden away at Windsor. Although some noted figures eulogised over his life, he was largely unlamented and even his successor, his brother William, was keen to remove all traces of his predecessor, including selling off all George's clothes which raised a very disappointing amount.
Steven Parissien reflects that most of George IV's problems in later life stemmed from his relationship with his parents. Poor George was on a hiding to nothing with his rather dull, strict and unloving parents who seem to have spent most of his childhood and youth criticising his every action whilst praising their second son, Frederick, Duke of York, in everything he did. I think most psychologists maintain that when parents try to enforce their beliefs upon a child or show marked favouritism towards another sibling, it's either going to result in that child becoming a clone of the parents or in him kicking against the traces. Young George took the latter route embarking on a life of dissolution and debauchery.
Throughout his childhood and youth, his parents ruled his life with a rod of iron, inflicting on him and his siblings, a spartan regime with instructions on his every move, even as to when he should attend church and this went on into his early adulthood. Like the current Prince of Wales, George also had no specific role and once when his father reprimanded him for consistently rising late, he replied "I find, Sir, however late I rise, that the day is long enough for doing nothing."
With such unloving parents plus a lonely and secluded childhood, it's scant wonder that George looked for his friendships amongst older men such as George Brummell, Charles Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, all of whom, it was remarked "had all a spice of vice in their nature." Likewise with his mistresses, after a few youthful dalliances, he turned to older, motherly women for physical comfort.
As the book progressed, I began to feel a little sorry for George. True, he became a free-spending, pompous and rather vain man, full of self-aggrandisement with a propensity for dressing up in ridiculous military uniforms. For the most part, he was also a laughing stock, frequently the butt of the press but given the circumstances of his life, it became easier to recognise and feel some sympathy for the lost little boy that was surely hidden inside the increasingly corpulent and unattractive body.
One thing that struck me throughout the book were the remarkable similarities with the current Royal Family: George IV considered himself to be a patron of the arts, unwisely dabbled in politics, married his mistress (although George IV's marriage was a morganatic one) who was a Roman Catholic divorcee and he (officially) married a woman he didn't love. The treatment of George's wife, Queen Caroline, even down to the lack of support from almost every member of the Royal Family was every bit as reprehensible as the treatment meted out to Princess Diana. George's brother, the Duke of York, was a bit of an idiot whose mistress sold military commissions on his behalf from which they both made considerable money and one of his sisters fell in love with a royal equerry, a relationship quickly squashed by the Queen.
I suppose George IV's legacy could well be that he was a patron of the arts, although according to Steven Parissien, George was rather sporadic in his support. His lasting monument, of course, must be Brighton Pavilion which so perfectly personifies the man in its over embellishment both inside and out. His move to Brighton, or Brighthelmstone as it was originally known, was encouraged by his disreputable uncle, the Duke of Cumberland and Brighton became almost an alternative court from the official and rather boring one of George III. It was certainly a more exciting place to be and eventually became part of the social season with members of the aristocracy spending the summer months by the seaside well away from the stink and disease of the capital.
Although I found this an interesting read and one which has increased my knowledge of the life and times of George IV, I did find the style slightly confusing largely because the book didn't record George IV's life chronologically but is compartmentalised into his role as a son and sibling, patron of the arts, a husband and lover, etc, so the narrative jumps from death to early childhood, to the beginning of the Regency and then back to his youth again, all of which made for a somewhat disjointed read. What emerges from this book is that George IV was a rather shallow and selfish man who had great difficulty in maintaining relationships, platonic or physical, and one who left very little to be admired about his reign and, in fact, I gained the distinct impression that the author found little to admire in George IV either. This book details George's excesses in almost every aspect of his life, a life in which he consistently failed to make his mark.
The book is well researched with copious notes and several photographs of contemporary cartoons and paintings of George IV (none of which show him in a very flattering light) but I didn't find it the easiest of reads and I'm sure there are probably better biographies out there. There is much about the Regency period to be admired: great strides were made at this time both artistically and industrially but those strides were made by people other than the man who gave his name to the era. Personally, I've read enough here about George IV to realise that I really don't want to further my acquaintance with the man.
The book is available from Amazon in both hardback and paperback formats with prices beginning at 1p plus postage.