Fuss, Fatigue and Rage

Ian Gilmour

  • George IV by E.A. Smith
    Yale, 306 pp, £25.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 300 07685 1

George IV was highly unpopular in his lifetime, and almost equally unpopular after it. Nobody regretted his death except his mercenary mistress, Lady Conyngham – the supply of jewels and trinkets had been cut off – and even she was bored with him. Grief was absent at his funeral. ‘A coronation could hardly be gayer,’ noted a peer, and the Times reported that there was ‘not a single mark of sympathy’ in the congregation. It seemed, wrote Mme de Lieven, that George IV had ‘never seriously inspired anyone with attachment’. Later observers viewed him no more favourably, Thackeray catching the prevailing flavour in 1855 and fixing it for future generations in his brilliant essay in The Four Georges.

The 20th century has seen several biographies of the last of the four, much the best of which is Christopher Hibbert’s two-volume study published nearly thirty years ago. The late E.A. Smith, who sadly died between the writing and the publication of this biography, thought that all previous studies were ‘to some degree superficial, and most follow the view that George IV was a dissolute, pleasure-loving dilettante and a feeble, ineffective monarch who dissipated the popularity of the throne created by his father, allowed the constitutional power of the crown to be eroded by unscrupulous politicians, and brought the royal family into a disrepute from which it was rescued only by the virtuous reign of his niece Victoria and her husband Prince Albert.’ He therefore decided to take ‘a more balanced view’ and to rehabilitate George IV. Smith was a notable scholar with some excellent books on this period to his credit, and this one is every bit as good as his others. Yet the rehabilitation of George IV is an uphill struggle, and to my mind Smith gets at the most halfway up the hill, sometimes indeed sliding further down it. That, though, is in a sense intentional. After making a claim on behalf of George, the author’s scholarly integrity occasionally leads him to undermine it by providing detailed evidence to the contrary.

A year or so before he died, according to Charles Greville, George IV slept badly and used to ring his bell ‘forty times in the night’. He had a watch close by him, but he sent for his valet de chambre rather than look at it. ‘The same thing if he wants a glass of water; he won’t stretch out his hand to get it.’ This selfishness was not a reversion to his second childhood, for George never grew out of his first one. He was a spoilt child all his life. Yet as a child he had not been spoilt. Although his father, George III, cannot have been unaware that an over-disciplined schooling had proved disastrous with his fairly dreadful siblings, he subjected his own sons to the same strict upbringing. And, like his uncles and brothers, George IV became the worst possible advertisement for such treatment.

He was extremely intelligent. Leaving aside Henry VIII, Charles II and William III, he was perhaps our cleverest King since the Middle Ages. He had polished manners, and was also musical, a lover of literature and a patron of the arts. But there his virtues ended. He was selfish, idle, self-pitying, cruel and unscrupulous. Nor were his brothers much better. Probably, as David Cannadine has written, the lives, loves and morals of George III’s children made them ‘the most unloved royal generation in English history’; though the previous one, the brothers of George III, must have run them pretty close.

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