Postal Reading group
July 2019
Notes on the book The Visit of the royal physician by Per Olov Enquist

Per Olov Enquist’s The visit of the royal physician is based on a true story, set during the reign of King Christian 7th of Denmark. A royal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, was appointed in 1768 in an attempt to cure, or at least control the King’s fits of madness. Just four years later he was executed. Of course, there’s no way that such a story can end well, given that Struensee was given a virtually impossible task. After all, even today, mental illness is so poorly understood. While the whole story is variously surprising, shocking and horrifying in the details, many of the broader themes seem all too predictable, especially by the standards of the time.

Firstly, at this point I should admit that I am not an avid reader of historical fiction. Although there are some notable exceptions, most recently for Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy, or Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge novels, all too often I find that historical novels can read like a catalogue of events, while books concerning royal families often have little connection with the life of the ordinary people. Sadly, Per Olov Enquist’s novel does very little to revise my opinion.

I found the book very difficult to read, and the story seems to move only very slowly. To be more objective, there is a lot of repetition, the writing is heavily punctuated, and the occasional sections of emphasis in block capitals seem unnecessary. To give an example from page 139: “I truly am working, but not as much as I should be. Unfortunately, I know quite well what I’m not doing, your Majesty, unfortunately ... work on cutting the royal household by at least half!, At least! But I’m not doing that either. Work on changing the laws so that mothers of illegitimate children are no longer punished, ARE NO LONGER PUNISHED!”. Does the repetition, the unusual number of exclamation marks, and the emphasis serve any particular purpose?

Beyond this, the writing seems to recount a series of unconnected scenes, rather than any continuous narrative. The entire book is split into several sections, each of which is divided into chapters, which are in turn further subdivided into numbered parts. To be fair this can sometimes help readability, but in this case it seems more like an official report than a novel. On the other hand I wonder whether, without the division into short sections, it would simply be unreadable. Similarly, this is a book about Danish history, written in Swedish and translated into English; is it possible that we are losing something in translation here?

Conversely, there are some aspects of this book which do make you think, and it is a pity that more attempts haven’t been made to explore these issues. From the beginning, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the young Christian who clearly did not wish to become king. On the other hand, he seemed to display some interest in the theatre, so one wonders whether his mental health may have been more easily managed if he’d been able to follow these interests and become an actor?

Similarly, the King was to be seen as the absolute ruler, but it was similarly expected that it was the government officials who would exercise real power (page 25). Although I am not advocating a return to an absolute monarchy as a system of government, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy with the king who is required to authorise laws he had no part in making, and whose attendance is required at what are little more than social events. I wonder, does our own Queen feel such an existence to be similarly tedious?

Finally, it is worth noting that without a proper procedure to be followed, the king’s implicit abdication of responsibility led to a power vacuum which others were only too happy to fill: whether Struensee with his hopefully well intentioned reforming spirit, or Guldberg with his religious zeal.

In conclusion I found this book to be a difficult read with a rather disjointed narrative. While I am not, in general, a fan of the genre, the best historical novels can either bring history to life, or help you learn from it. Sadly, in my opinion, The Visit of the royal physician does neither. Although there are occasional sections which are thought provoking, these do little to prevent the book from reading like a report complete with biographical details of historical figures that I feel little connection with.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler