Love's Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865

By Helen Small | Go to book overview

3
Hyperbole and the Love-Mad Woman: George III, 'Rosa Matilda', and Jane Austen in 1811

IN May 1811 George III was suffering a renewed attack of the severe physical and mental breakdown which had periodically de­bilitated him since 1788. His doctors, seeking to divert their patient during one of his more lucid spells, invited him to choose the programme for a concert to held on 'the Duke of Cambridge's night' at Windsor Castle. The King had long been a dedicated admirer of Handel, and selected a programme of arias from his operas and oratorios: 'This consisted of all the finest passages to be found in Handel, descriptive of madness and blindness; particularly those in the opera of Samson; there was one also upon madness from love, and the lamentation of Jephthah upon the loss of his daughter; and it closed with "God Save the King" to make sure the application of all that went before.' It was, as the MP Francis Horner noted in a letter to his father, 'very affecting proof of [the King's] melancholy state' and a 'singular instance of sensibility; that in the intervals of reason he should dwell upon the worst circum­stances of his situation, and have a sort of indulgence in soliciting the public sympathy'.1 This would be one of the last such intervals of sanity he would enjoy.

George III furnishes the historian of madness with the most potent symbol of, and justification for, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries' concern with madness. The strait-jacketed mad monarch signified 'constitutional crisis' of a public as well as private kind: a double threat which found ready expression in a language resonant with metaphors of the body politic.2 European

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1
Francis Horner to his father, 16 May 1811. The Horner Papers: Selections from the Letters & Miscellaneous Writings of Francis Horner, M.P. 1795-1817, ed. Kenneth Bourne and William Banks Taylor ( Edinburgh, 1994), 689.
2
As Allan Ingram has shown, it was a culture which found the contemplation of insanity, and sometimes the direct experience of insanity, a spur to eloquence-- TheMadhouse of Language: Writing and Reading Madness in the Eighteenth Century

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