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Customer Review

27 July 2012
Charlotte Frost's readable life is an instructive story of Georgian guanxi based on scrupulous use of new primary sources, showing what ambitious young men will allow themselves to do for too long in pursuit of ambition and fame.

The real Black Adder worked himself up from resentful Devon farmer by judicious use of patronage to become George IV's personal physician, gofer and factotum. For ten years he was the in the cockpit of power, or rather, the cesspit of "distasteful (king's) business" in a system of rotten pre-reform politics dominated by money, harlots and hangers-on. William Knighton's intimate relationship with "His Royal Highness, the pinhead of Wales" meant being a tireless father figure to a lazy, irresponsible and extravagant man who created horrendous problems: constitutional crises by early marriage to the Catholic widow, Fitzherbert, followed by an unwise one to Caroline of Brunswick; numerous incriminating affairs; massive , criminally-unpaid debts; and the tricky waters of unforgiving Whig/Tory politics. In the end the derided Knighton, who preferred to suppress his moral sensibilities for ambition, was worn down. Unsurprisingly, in the shadow of death(1830-6), he exchanged earthly guanxi for metaphysical preferment by re-adopting the equally unreliable patronage of his youthful evangelical God.

Charlotte Frost is more balanced and sympathetic to her subject in this well-sourced history with no cumbersome footnotes for nit-picking historians. She says he ambitiously tried to escape the penury of a primogeniture-ly dispossessed, drunken father's early death and the millstone of being a poorly-educated middle class yeoman farmer in an age when no one below this social level mattered - an advantage we might envy. She shows how the public and private intertwined, with collateral damage on his private life as he came to dominate national politics from 1820-30.

She damns him with faint praise by trying to show that, unlike others, he was "discriminate" in his patronage, as she charts his zig zag rise from his first Wittington-esque move to London, then Edinburgh and Aberdeen to get medical qualifications, and finally back to London. With growing influence as physician, he moved in influential circles, cultivating important people like Richard Wellesley and Canning. Finally, in the 1820's, as George's intimate, he was given the keys to the intimate secrets of Canning's Foreign Office papers, becoming the eminence noir who knew too much and raising anxious questions in Parliament.

Why , in view of his national importance, does Knighton have to be rescued from "impenetrable obscurity" - the man you meet on the stairs leading to the king's bedroom, but historically isn't there? And why are there are so many conflicting stories about him?

Frost offers several reasons: paucity of contemporary and recent secondary sources; a widow's grieving gloss in her memoirs; the fact that he misled her and many other people for various professional reasons; and finally, after wearing himself out in ten years intimate service to an ungrateful king, he became political dynamite and fair game for enemies through his "unctuous familiarity" with George. In fact, the latter had to pretend to abolish his post of Private Secretary to appease the politicians - even as Knighton ceased to be a physician and devoted himself entirely after 1822 as censor protector, guarding News of the World secrets. Finally, in a snobbish society, Knighton's "necessary" omissions and lies blight the sources.

How did he manage to climb the greasy pole and cling on for over ten years? Apart from intelligence and an ability to earn and give love, Frost suggests that his secret was that he always kept his tact and impeccable courtesy, a relative pearl in a vicious "nest of jobbers". His restless rise began with a leg up by the aptly-named courtesan, Mrs Lashley, who introduced him to the wealthy Richard Wellesley - a man whose financial shenanigans as Governor General of India, like Clive of India's, might make even 21st century bankers blush. His devotion taught him he had an ability to attract the confidence of superiors - one imagines to the point of fawning, but Ms Frost might call it simply earning necessary patronage.

Introduced by Wellesley at Court, he became George's number one personal physician, rising - or should that be sinking? - to become George's emotional, physical and financial fixer, which wore him out, increased his own self-disgust and caused him to neglect his beloved wife, Dorothea, who wisely never wanted to be presented at court, preferring their Hampshire home. Perhaps she thought, like Mrs Miggins, "In the winter it's cold, in the summer it's hot, but all the year round Prince George is a clot!"

Knighton's main career as physician is well-covered with a graphic description of the work of accoucheur; and the description: Knighton "administered brandy and water and Macahon's sanity returned" is a most revealing - and amusing - quote about the state of the medical profession. One recalls here the physician Tobias Smollett, and Laurence Sterne in a relaxed moral English atmosphere more akin to the 20th century than surface pieties of Victorian England, when hyperbolic scatology fell out of favour and prim Evangelicals ideologically warped the integrating possibilities of Empire.

With success, Knighton's cares increased, as he took on the gargantuan problems of his silly Prince Regent, often travelling the Continent, hiding incriminating information and neglecting home. It was not surprising that this "turncoat.. barber", this "dreadful public evil" and "the secret influence behind the throne" began to get depressed by constant unsavoury political machinations, like the infamous scandal of the King's Criterion, involving an unpaid £300,000 borrowed from the Continent.

By 1830, he was ill and wished for the quiet life to escape his bloated, dying patron: the wonder is that he allowed it all to go on for so long. One is therefore puzzled to read that he was financially independent of his Prince and we are forced to look for his motives: vanity? an inability to say no? misplaced sense of duty? or simply exhilaration on the merry-go-round of power.

Black Adder would not ultimately have allowed the king to treat him so badly but, like Knighton he, too, is exasperated for having constantly "to tell his king which side of his mother was serving the drinks". After tirelessly doing everything he had been asked, Knighton's health and peace of mind were shot, for, unlike Black Adder, he was conscientious and - at least later - conscience-troubled. Both men might have argued the Prince was "young and had a peanut for brain", but Knighton was the ultimate fall guy, whereas Black Adder was not.

Sam Merry - author of Blue Cheese and Chou Mian Blue Cheese and Chou Mian

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