Sunday, September 30, 2007

Book Review: "George III: America's Last King"

The latest installment in Yale University Press' English Monarchs Series is Exeter University historian Jeremy Black's George III: America's Last King. This first full-scale scholarly biography of George III in many years is a welcome addition to the series as well as a fine example of the biographer's craft. Black has worked diligently (his subtitle notwithstanding) to broaden the focus of George III's life and reign; while the American crisis and the king's later illnesses are covered, they form only appropriately-scaled portions of the book, as they should.

Black takes a useful approach here, interspersing narrative chapters on the political machinations and military goings-on with more wide-ranging thematic treatments of different aspects of the monarch's life - his relations with family, his cultural and religious inclinations, his lifestyle and his concerns for how to deal with Hanover, his ancestral continental possession. These thematic chapters were what I enjoyed most about the book - the others, while interesting, were filled to bursting with names and titles and political volleys that I found difficult to keep straight.

George III, Black argues, "instinctually knew what his duty was ... a major weaknes was that this conviction was not always illuminated by careful reflection, and could therefore seem both obtuse and stubborn" (p. 115). It was this commitment to what he perceived as his duty to his country and to his subjects that led him to take such a firm stand against the American crisis (unsuccessfully) and also against Catholic emancipation, parliamentary reform, and Franco-European aggression (more successfully). "George was a nicer man than his two predecessors and he meant well, but his obstinacy helped create serious political difficulties," Black concludes, putting it mildly.

Naturally I was drawn to Black's discussion of George's reading habits: the king accumulated a large working library (some 65,250 books by 1820, plus 19,000 tracts), which later became part of the British Museum. He opened his main library - next to his bedroom - to use by scholars (Samuel Johnson was a frequent visitor), and was known to visit Windsor bookshops. Black writes "George was particularly interested in works on theology, history, jurisprudence, science, the arts and the Classical inheritance, and less so in fiction ... Indeed, George did not really take to novels until he became blind, when one of his daughters read them to him nightly" (p. 170). The king liked to read interesting portions of his books aloud, and preferred "his books unbound for his first reading and afterwards bound to match his other books" (p. 171).

Black's excellently-researched and richly-footnoted study will, I hope, prompt others to take a fresh look at the life of one of Britain's most longest-serving and - frankly - most interesting, monarchs.