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The Visit of the Royal Physician

The madness of King Christian VII

There’s something special about novels based on real events, particularly when the story is crazy as that of the The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist. It’s the late 1700s and the time of absolute rulers. In Denmark, a German doctor is hired to take care of the 16-year-old mentally disturbed King Christian VII. Within months, Struensee becomes the Queen’s lover and de-facto sovereign while living alongside King Christian. How was this possible? And was this Struensee’s intention all along? A wild journey into the madness of 18th century court life, revolutionary ideas and an absolute treat of a novel.

King Christian is 16 years old when he takes over as regent after the death of his drunkard, whoremongering father Frederik. A marriage to the seemingly ‘weak-willed’ 13-year-old Caroline Mathilde, the sister to King George III of England, is hastily arranged.

Physically and emotionally abused throughout childhood, Christian is convinced he’s a changeling and really the son of a peasant. He plays his ‘rôle’ as King as just that, hires a black boy as a playmate and appoints his dog as Imperial Counsellor.  The laughingstock of the entire court, the thin, pale and delusional King soon turns into a puppet ruler while power hungry men line up to pull the strings.

But King Christian is not devoid of intelligence or intellectual curiosity and inspired by his long-time tutor Reverdil he becomes interested in the controversial ideas of the Enlightenment. When his mental state further deteriorates the German doctor Struensee is hired as Royal Physician. Soon, Struensee is calling all the shots, sleeping with the Queen, even fathering her child.

It’s Enquist’s dry wit and piercing observations that make this novel such a great read. We’re hovering over the spectacle, watching as this incredible drama unfolds. There’s passion, plotting and back stabbings mixed with the seeds of revolutionary ideas such as freedom of speech, a belief in science, tolerance and liberty, all of which we today take for granted. Maybe for all his madness, it was King Christian who really was the sane one.

The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist is translated by Tiina Nunnally and published by Vintage, 320 pages.

Love books that are set during the Enlightenment? Then try one of these. The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell or The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald.

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