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May 30, 2006

The Problems of Biography: The Case of George III

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black, Professor of History, University of Exeter, has recently completed a biography of George III - George III: America's Last King - to be published in November 2006 by Yale University Press. Here Prof. Black explores some of the challenges and difficulties that face today's biographer.

With modern writers everything is either vice or virtue.
Thus complained the anonymous author of the Reflections on Ancient and Modern History (1746) (p. 26). However, moral he sought to be, the life of George III (1738-1820) is not a simple morality tale. It contained strongly-etched episodes, and the last years of the king had a pathos in apparently blind, neglected madness that led to unfounded comparisons with King Lear; but much of the life lacked the dramatic darkness of the Neo-Gothic, however much contemporaries, particularly Horace Walpole, searched for such a secret history. Yet, if, as biography, there is not what those craving sensation sought indeed the notorious madness has been explained as the symptoms of the disease porphyria; this is still a life full of importance and interest, necessarily so for America's last king.

However, a problem faces authors and readers at the outset of any biography, and mine of George III, published by Yale University Press is due for publication this November.

There is, in particular, the key problem of the preface in an age of the author as hero, or, at least focus of sales campaigns. If, like me, you like interpretation to arise with the text, and to follow the author through the discussion, you now need to stop, read the book, and return to the Preface at the close. This is not only because to offer interpretation at the outset may unreasonably foreclose your analysis, but also because the authorial voice should possibly be more subdued than in the current celebrity cult of the writer. My biography of George III, indeed, was originally written without a Preface, but both the readers employed by the publisher wanted to know my "stated intention". I prefer the focus to be on George, not me, and the interpretation to unfold, not to be "made clear at the outset", but then I am a reader of detective novels. For me, history is not an unbroken mirror, reflecting either the past or our views on it, but a fractured glass swinging in the wind, with pieces missing or opaque, and a general pattern that is difficult to distinguish, and impossible to do so to general satisfaction.

This is true even for George, an oh-so-industrious correspondent, who believed in integrity as a moral goal, guide and support.

I never put pen to paper without wishing to convey in the most explicit manner the sentiments of my heart
wrote the king in 1800 [George to William, Lord Grenville, Foreign Secretary, 17 July 1800, BL. Add. 58861 fol. 116.], and this is a fair statement. Furthermore, there are masses of letters, as well as numerous memoranda, and accounts of quite a few conversations with the king. My biography makes use of these, including of much British and foreign material not in any of the extensive printed sources, and, as a result, it can claim to be the most extensively-based biography of George.

Documents of course present problems: they were intended to persuade, and can mislead, particularly if quoted selectively. However, there should be much citation of original material, because historical works are most valuable if they are securely based on as wide a mastery of the archival sources as is possible. These sources enable one to grasp the uncertainties of the past and the roles of chance and perception, and to restore a human perspective to an historical imagination too often dominated by impersonal forces and/or the search for a quick explanation.

Even, however, for an individual who wrote as much as George there is still much that is unclear, and there are major gaps in the evidence. Relatively little correspondence, certainly compared to what comes later, survives for his youth and for his early years as king, in part possibly because he sought to have compromising political material destroyed [George to Lord Egmont, 7 Feb. 1766, BL. Add. 47012 fol. 114.]. Furthermore, in common with most of his contemporaries, George kept no diary. Partly as a consequence, all interpretations need to be cautious.

In addition, even when royal goals can be readily established, there are major difficulties in assessing the consequences of George's role. This arises repeatedly, not only in the case of American policy, which is treated more critically in my book than has been the norm of late, but also as far as his attitudes to British domestic politics are concerned.

These caveats are offered because I believe in treating the reader as intelligent. It is absurd to pretend, as so many historians, particularly celebrity historians, do, that there is only one interpretation. Indeed, much of George's importance arises from the contrasting roles he played in the perception of contemporaries and of subsequent commentators. These are given full rein throughout my text, while George's later reputation is treated as an important aspect of his evaluation; necessarily so as that serves as a reminder that our evaluations are part of the swell of the tide.

If it is absurd to pretend that there is one correct interpretation, one I can browbeat you with using my command of the material, it is, nevertheless, reasonable for you to ask what guidance I offer, having worked so long on the material, and also where my book is different. The latter is easiest. Distinctive features include the attempt to shape the discussion and evaluation of George within the comparative context of rulership in the Western world, a context which indeed was changing. This approach is not an authorial conceit. Contemporaries compared George with figures as various as George II and George IV of Britain, Louis XV and Louis XVI of France, Gustavus III of Sweden, George Washington, and Napoleon; and I find this a very important, as well as fascinatingly varied, perspective.

Secondly, there is an emphasis in this book on George's strong religious faith, belief in the ever-active role of Divine Providence, and powerful sense of moral duty and personal responsibility, all of which are seen as crucial in his life, not only his policies and practices as king, but also his character as a man. In 1801, George, on holiday in Weymouth, wrote [George to Lord Hawkesbury, 16 July 1801, BL. Loan 72/1 fol. 80.], criticizing the lack of

sufficient firmness of mind
on the part of a fellow monarch, and observed that his strictures were
equally binding to a man in his political as well as private conduct.
This book addresses both and the chapters on "Character and Behaviour" and "Faith and Morality" are the most crucial to the discussion and evaluation of the king.

Thirdly, there is an attempt to engage with George's range of interests. The major advance in discussion of George since John Brooke's biography appeared in 1972 has focused on his cultural and intellectual interests. These are considered in a specific chapter and also play a role in the chapter "The Quest for Empire", the most varied section in the book but one that reflects the multiple worlds on which George impinged.

Fourthly, there is a chapter on George as Elector of Hanover. This reflects the important scholarship produced since Brooke's biography. Indeed, most other biographies have neglected this role, which is unfortunate as George became increasingly committed to Hanover during his reign.

Nevertheless, Hanover did not engage him as the struggle for America did in the 1770s and early 1780s, and this plays a major central role in the book. George's attitude to American demands before and, even more, during the war, reveal much about his personality. Furthermore, as the lengthy quotation from the Declaration of Independence, retained despite the advice of both readers, indicates, George himself, his intentions and his policies, were a key issue in the struggle, and this helped mould his subsequent reputation, particularly, but not only, in the USA. An understanding not only of George but also of British monarchy helps explain much about the American Revolution, not least the absence or exhaustion of other constitutional or political remedies.

This is the third, and by far the longest, life I have attempted, George following William Pitt the Elder and Sir Robert Walpole. Cambridge University Press approached me at the start of the 1990s to tackle George for their British Lives series, but they were only willing to allow 80,000 words, and that was not enough for a monarch of George's range and importance. I did Pitt, instead, for Cambridge, and then Walpole for Sutton Publishing. Yale University Press subsequently offered me George II or George III or both. I plumped for George III because I felt I could get to grips better with a man who wrote far more than his predecessor, while I am also fascinated by the American dimension.

For each of my subjects, I have read all their surviving writings and as much about them as I can, and I have followed them to many places, seeking some echo or empathy. I have become fond of each of them. They were not without serious faults: Walpole was corrupt, Pitt a megalomaniac, and George overly inclined to assume that he had a monopoly of integrity.

Yet, I feel in each case that I have come a long way to understand them, and I would love to have spent much time in the company of each. One of my tests for an historical character is whether I would like to have dinner with them. Of the three, George was most wideranging culturally and intellectually, and he was also the most considerate as a human being, sensitive to others, and with an endearing shy integrity. The latter speaks powerfully to me from throughout his reign, although, as an atheist, I cannot share George's faith. As I hope, however, the biography reveals, my sympathy is not uncritical.

An anonymous article in the Test, a London newspaper, on 12 February 1757, declared:

when the historian gives his narrative of facts, when he rejudges the actions of the great, and, from the ends which they had in view, and the means by which they pursued those ends, ascertains the colour of their characters, then the minds of men are opened, and they perceive honour and conquest, or disappointment and disgrace, naturally following one another, like necessary effects from their apparent respective causes.
Sixteen years later, the cleric William Cooke, in his dedication of The Way to the Temple of True Honour and Fame by the Paths of Heroic Virtue Exemplified in the Most Entertaining Lives of the Most Eminent Persons of Both Sexes stated:
Real history, which imparts the knowledge of past events, affords the best instructions for the regulation and good conduct of human life.
Such confidence, whether in the historian's capacity to explain, or to offer moral guidance, is not part of the modern scholarly world, but there is much in George's life that prompts wider reflection. The role of individuals, the play of contingency, and the impact of unexpected consequences, all feature in the attempt to analyze the reign. At the personal level, we see the gaining of experience [George to William Grenville, 22 Nov. 1796, BL. Add. 58859 fol. 98], the retention of integrity, sometimes with unfortunate consequences, and a life of duty and conviction.

George was a man, exalted by birth, who never lost his sense of public service nor his interest in others. Neither grand nor great, but good, and that I hope is a verdict we all can admire and seek.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006). Prof. Black's biography of George III - George III: America's Last King - will be published by Yale University Press in November 2006.


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