Desert Isle Keeper
The Royal Physician's Visit
“On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later was executed.”
I found myself fascinated by the above quote at the beginning of The Royal Physician’s Visit – struggles for power can make for delicious reading. Booklist magazine, a veritable librarian’s bible, recently named Enquist’s book one of the best from 2001 and deservedly so; it’s everything I expected it to be, a marvelous historical novel with political intrigue, a royal affair, and a courtier’s swift descent from the heights of power.
After constant torture at the hands of Count Reventlow, Lord Chancellor and Finance Minister, young Christian VII of Denmark is hardly fit to rule. He is a fidgeting, mad thing that Reventlow calls his “puppet.” After becoming King at the age of sixteen, Christian marries his cousin Princess Caroline Mathilde of England, sister of King George III. Caroline Mathilde, just fifteen when she is sent to Denmark, is immature herself, and hardly someone who could be of any help to her husband. The influence of Fru von Plessen, Caroline’s chief lady-in-waiting, makes matters even worse between the royal couple, whose sex life can hardly be called . . . well, can hardly be called much of anything. Desperate for succor, Christian finds some semblance of peace with Bottine Caterine, a prostitute who becomes the royal mistress, but who is made to leave when she threatens to gain too much power.
It is when the courtiers decide to send Christian on a trip abroad that Dr. Struensee comes into the picture. The King, with his nervous habits and violent outbursts, is bound to attract the wrong kind of attention, and it’s decided that a doctor should accompany him in order to keep him in check as much as possible. Struensee is the chosen one, and despite his lukewarm reception of the idea, he eventually agrees to help the King, and ends up changing his fate by wanting to change Denmark. Struensee soom becomes the real power behind the useless King, and embarks upon a love affair with Caroline Mathilde, who has already borne Christian a son and heir, product of their less-than-meager sex life. Eventually Caroline Mathilde bears Struensee a daughter.
“But you have another problem.”
“And what is that?” asked Struensee.
“You lack the ability to choose the proper enemies.”
How true this exchange proves to be. Although in a very short period of time Struensee issues more than 600 decrees in the name of the king that improve the lives of ordinary Danes, disaster is close at hand. All the power in the world isn’t enough to save the doctor from his enemies at court who are resistent to the changes sweeping Europe at the start of the Enlightenment movement. Those enemies include the underestimated Dowager Queen and Ove HØegh Guldberg, a bureaucrat who becomes Denmark’s prime minister. As swiftly as he has climbed, Struensee falls, and the German doctor who became the behind-the-scenes ruler of Denmark meets his final fate, as does does Caroline Mathilde.
The Royal Physician’s Visit is written in an elegant, lyrical prose. It presents an account of real events, as Enquist fills in the blanks with dialogue and character’s thoughts that sound thoroughly authentic. While the events of the novel and the historical events took place in the 18th century, desire and power resonate in any era, and in this case, they made for very intriguing reading.