Friday, June 13, 2014

Book review: Queen of Bedlam, by Laura Purcell

It's about time a new author saw the possibilities in historical novels about Britain's Hanoverian dynasty. The personal lives and politics of the first four King Georges and their families have been neglected in favor of the more glamorous-seeming Tudors and Stuarts, but Laura Purcell is passionately interested in these people and has, fortunately for readers, brought them back into the spotlight.

Her first novel, Queen of Bedlam (previously self-published as God Save the King) concerns the plight of the long-suffering Queen Charlotte and her six daughters after her beloved husband of many years, George III, begins suffering from a mysterious illness that leaves him confused, delusional, and unable to rule. Their story unfolds from the king’s first signs of madness in 1788 through the ups and downs of his malady and finally to the later years of the inevitable regency of his son, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), in 1818.

Although the sadness of the tale is unavoidable, there are many lively moments, and it’s full of well-rendered characters whose interactions held my attention. I empathized with Charlotte, who is forced to endure George’s erratic behavior, including his lusty pursuit of another woman; she comes to dread previously normal events such as sleeping alongside him in bed as much as she fears the anti-monarchical zeal sweeping through nearby France. At the same time, I couldn’t help siding with her restless daughters, who aren’t allowed to wed and who suffer not only their father’s madness but also their mother’s increasing bitterness and jealousy.

Wisely, Purcell chooses just two of their viewpoints to focus on: the younger Charlotte, nicknamed Royal, whose desire to marry and leave the court leads her into a match both problematic and rewarding in turns; and Sophia, daughter number five, whose passion for a socially inappropriate older man leads to trouble. Both young women are strong, likeable, and interesting, and given their intolerable situation, their misguided choices are hardly their fault.

Through their eyes, readers also get to observe their youngest sister, the beautiful Amelia, their father’s favorite; and their brother’s ill-chosen spouse, their cousin Caroline of Brunswick, whose outspoken ways and vulgar appearance makes her an unexpectedly fun distraction in the sisters' lives. How refreshing for a novel to show the much-maligned Caroline in a positive light!

The plot feels repetitive over the novel’s first third, with the king’s condition getting no better and his wife and children continuing to worry and growing more frustrated. However, Purcell doesn’t downplay their circumstances and, especially as the daughters grow older, allows their personalities to emerge as they – with great difficulty – struggle to pursue lives of their choosing.

Readers who grew up reading Jean Plaidy’s Georgian Saga may find themselves, like me, preferring Purcell’s storytelling ability due to her deeper characterizations and more realistic dialogue, among other factors. The author’s website details her plans for additional novels in the Hanoverian Series, each focusing on different women, and I'll be eagerly awaiting them.

Queen of Bedlam was published this week by Myrmidon (£8.99, pb, 432pp).   This review forms part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.


  1. Went looking for an ebook edition of this and had no luck. And don't even get me started on what B&N offered.

    1. The ebook's not available in the US yet. Looks like November is the US pub date. You can try Book Depository or Amazon UK for the print.