Fiction at its best can immerse the reader in another person’s experience, so that even unsympathetic characters become somewhat understandable. Historical fiction faces the test of maintaining verisimilitude so the reader stays in the setting. But when historical fiction keeps that sense of reality while finding the universal in real people from a very different time, it fulfills its promise. Such is Per Olaf Enquist’s achievement in The Royal Physician’s Visit.
Set in the Danish court between 1768 and 1772, it sets two royal personages against two commoners of vision and determination, and comes out with an odd mixture of victory and defeat. The four characters at the center of the story are Christian VII, King of Denmark; his Queen Caroline Mathilde; the Royal Physician Johann Struensee; and Christian’s brother’s tutor, Ove-Hoegh Guldburg. Enquist uses the omniscient narrator to bring us into the most private thoughts of most of his characters, so we are privy to to their motivations and fears.
Christian and Caroline Mathilde stand astride a fulcrum. The forces of continuity, represented by Guldberg, are at one end, while the forces of change, embodied in Struensee, are at the other. Guldberg and Struensee are both reformers – Guldberg from the zeal of religious conviction, and Struensee from his belief in the revolutionary thinking of the Enlightenment. These two are cast as foes from their first meeting, although only one is aware of that relationship. We know from the first sentence of the book which one will triumph, and how hollow that victory will be for him.
Christian is widely reputed to be mad, but Dr. Struensee sees flashes of discernment and insight that lead him to believe that Christian is, at least in part, feigning his insanity to preserve his life. A man of the Enlightenment, Struensee is dedicated not only to fighting disease, but to fighting the conditions that oppress the vast majority of the people. Tapped by Christian to become the de facto ruler of Denmark, he embarks on a mission to eliminate social injustice through sweeping reforms. But his work is characterized by fear: fear of the people he wants to free, fear of the Danish court, fear of the personal consequences of his crusade.
Guldberg, on the other hand, is supremely confident. He believes that the lusts and intrigues of the court can be swept away by his cleansing fire, and that he can rise from insignificance to power. Paradoxically, he is also determined to ruthlessly quash the ideas of the Enlightenment and maintain the power of the nobility. Guldberg is a manipulator, able to arrange events to serve his grand strategy. And he is a master of realpolitik, searching out weakness to exploit it, regardless of the wealth or position of his targets.
Married to Christian when she was 15 and he 17, Caroline Mathilde considers herself a high-status brood mare. She is a passionate though not licentious young woman, fully aware of the combined impact of her beauty and untouchable position on lesser men, but unable to arouse the king. She finds in Struensee a sympathetic ear, then a companion, and finally a lover. With the king’s encouragement, the queen and the physician embark on a tender and erotic affair.
Christian is an absolute ruler who has little actual power. Although he is convinced that his many bizarre ideas are true, we do not know whether he is insane, or, like Hamlet, using madness to conceal his nature. His behavior is certainly odd – spending days playing with his dog, telling others that a prostitute is God, and talking about the world of theatre as the only reality. But he also believes in the goals of the Enlightenment, has insight into the characters of those around him, and uses what little influence he has to elevate some and rescue others from the madness of the court.
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that we have privileged insight into their minds, it still feels as though Enquist keeps his characters’ actions at arms’ length from the reader. Perhaps it is his reliance on the historical record (which he uses accurately as far as I can tell), and perhaps it is a deliberate choice to contrast their goals with what they are actually able to do. The tension between the two is what make this a truly thoughtful story.
Check the WRL catalog for The Royal Physician’s Visit