Reassessment of historical figures is an on-going process, but for 25 years Christopher Hibberts's authoritative two-volume biography of George IV (published in 1972 and 1973), had effectively precluded other writers finding new ways of approaching this quixotic and fascinating king. But this volume, by art historian Steven Parissien, is the third such biography in as many years - we have had Saul David's interesting 'Prince of Pleasure' which dealt lightly with George IV's early life and E. A. Smith's serious political study that gives George IV's life a new dimension of gravitas. It is also, it must be said, the most condemnatory of the three, hardly finding a redeeming feature in any aspect of the king's life, even those aspects of his life, like his patronage of British artists, architects, and his collecting, which have been considered since the Thirties to have been seen to have been unfairly judged by George IV's contemporaries and successors. Parissien, an award-winning art historian, seems to have all the bias of a Clive Ponting writing about Churchill, and has decided that George IV's biographers are all wrong. Whereas Hibbert and Smith, for example, gave some credence to the view of the Duke of Wellington in 1830 that he was 'an extraordinary compound of talent, wit, obstinacy and buffoonery, with a great preponderance of good,'Parissien prefers to follow George IV's earliest biographer Robert Huish (1830) in ensuring that the image of the king that he presents is one of the most unflattering. Throughout this book, the author seeks any source that will show just how venal, vain and selfish the king was, and largely ignores the views of his contemporaries who saw the king in a more positive light. Parissien makes no allowances for the frustrations the prince felt in not being permitted by his father George III to go soldiering, and the inevitable consequences of too much pleasure and privilege on a young man whose energies, inevitably, were directed elsewhere. The book, alas, also suffers from rather poor editing, quite unworthy of the publishers (and which may well have been corrected in the paperback and US editions that came out after this hardback in 2001) with spelling mistakes and factual inconsistencies and repetition throughout the text. For example, on one page the king is crowned on the 19th July 1821 and a few pages later appears to be crowned on 21st July; a footnote implies that Queen Victoria's first child was born in 1842 when it was actually 1840; and so on. The opportunity to write a brilliant book on George IV as a patron and collector has been missed by this over-praised art historian, and regrettably, he gives us here a somewhat tedious revisionist saga of ill-judge dirt-raking that would have been better written by a hack from the gutter press. If that is how you like your history you will not be disappointed. I drafted this review in 2001 when the book appeared, and re-reading the book, I do not change my opinion that this is an unworthy revisionist biography and a huge disappointment from an award winning writer.
Steven Parissien has managed to write a four-hundred-odd page biography of a thoroughly objectionable man, and make it a rip-roaring page-turner. I am not a big fan of historical biographies but I am very glad I tried this one. Mrs Bull's review is accurate, but unlike her I had no previous ideas about George IV and enormously enjoyed Parissien's dissection of his extraordinary personality. It's all here, the insane, irresponsible extravagance, the strange combination of promiscuity and childish histrionics, the fickle political meddling, the complete "lack of affect" - inability to see others as real beings with an emotional life apart from one's own concerns: over the course of the book we build an impression which, for all its unavoidable humour, is also quite terrifying. What is quite plain is that this was a man who, if he had not been restrained by a parliament and constitution, could in other circumstances have been another Nero or Idi Amin.
As Parissien traces George's early life, we find ourselves unsure whether the subject's problems are the product of his strict upbringing, or whether George III kept him on such a tight rein because he saw his son's dangerous flaws. No doubt the Prince Regent would have said the former. He was always obsessed with his image and previous biographies have been a little too keen to take him at his own estimation as victim and connoisseur. If Parissien has been cruel, one feels the truth of his portrait, and the sense of a balance redressed in this assessment of his life. There have been some suggestions that the disease porphyria, the cause of George III's supposed "madness", was also implicated in the Prince Regent's behaviour. Parissien does not address this hypothesis; the portrait he paints seems more like a sociopath, or a narcissistic personality disorder. At the distance of 200 years we can see him as a joke; at the time he must have been a nightmare.
Steven Parissien's work on George IV is crammed with many facts and is well researched. Perhaps unusually, the chapters are divided by subject, rather than a chronological description of Georges' life. It is the first book that I have read on the subject that makes me actively dislike Goerge IV. In the past, I have always felt that whilst he was an unpopular king, he at least had some redeeming features (a 'gentleman', a lover of art, and his magnificent buildings - ie the wonderful Brighton Pavillion). However, this book made me realise what a truly selfish man he was.
The final chapter (a conclusion) was fascinating - very few books do this. It was interesting to read how his life and his actions affected the monarchy and the country. This book was well researched (the bibliography is immense)and enjoyable to read. I do think that you have to already be familiar with George IV. I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to read about George IV in terms of his actions and influences, rather than a straightforward biography.