The Royal Physician's Visitby Per Olov Enquist, Tiina Nunnally, Tiina Nunnally
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An international sensation, The Royal Physician's Visit magnificently recasts the dramatic era of Danish history when Johann Friedrich Struensee -- court physician to mad young King Christian -- stepped through an aperture in history and became the holder of absolute power in Denmark. His is a gripping tale of power, sex, love, and the life of the mind, and it is superbly rendered here by one of Sweden's most acclaimed writers. A charismatic German doctor and brilliant intellectual, Struensee used his influence to introduce hundreds of reforms in Denmark in the 1760s. He had a tender and erotic affair with Queen Caroline Mathilde, who was unsatisfied by her unstable, childlike husband. Yet Struensee lacked the subtlety of a skilled politician and the cunning to choose enemies wisely; these flaws proved fatal, and would eventually lead to his tragic demise.
"An extraordinarily elegant and gorgeous novel." Los Angeles Times
"An enthralling fable of the temptations of powerand a surprisingly poignant love story." Time
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The Wine Treader
On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.
Ten years after that, on September 21, 1782, by the time "the Struensee era" had become a common expression, Robert Murray Keith, the British ambassador to Copenhagen, reported to his government about an incident he had witnessed. He considered the incident puzzling.
That was why he reported it.
He had attended a dramatic performance at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. Also in the audience was King Christian VII, along with Ove Høegh-Guldberg, the actual holder of power in Denmark and in practice the absolute ruler.
He had assumed the title of "Prime Minister."
The report concerned Ambassador Keith's encounter with the King.
He begins with his impressions of the King's appearance; Christian VII was only thirty-three years old. "He looks as if he is already an old man, very short and gaunt, with a sunken face, his smoldering eyes testifying to the sickly state of his mind." He writes that before the performance the "mad" King Christian began wandering around among the audience, muttering, his face twitching oddly.
Guldberg kept a watchful eye on him the whole time.
The strange thing was the relationship between them. It might be described as that of an orderly and his patient,or a pair of siblings, or as if Guldberg were the father of an unruly or sick child; but Keith uses the expression "almost loving."
At the same time, he writes that the two seemed to be united in an "almost perverse way."
The perverse thing was not that these two, whom he knew had played such important roles during the Danish revolution, then as enemies, were now dependent on each other in this way. What was "perverse" was that the King behaved like a frightened but obedient dog, and Guldberg his stern but loving master.
His Majesty acted as if he were cringing ingratiatingly, almost cowering. The members of the court showed no deference toward the monarch, but instead ignored him or retreated with a laugh whenever he approached, as if they wished to avoid his embarrassing presence.
As if he were a difficult child they had tired of long ago.
The only one who took any notice of the King was Guldberg. The King consistently kept three or four paces behind Guldberg, following him obsequiously, seeming anxious not to be abandoned. Occasionally Guldberg, with a gesture or look, would give the King a small signal. This happened whenever he muttered too loudly, behaved disruptively, or moved too far away from Guldberg.
At the signal, King Christian would hastily and obediently "come scurrying."
Once, when the King's muttering was particularly disruptive and loud, Guldberg went over to him, gently took him by the arm, and whispered something. The King then began bowing mechanically, over and over, with fitful, almost spastic movements, as if the Danish King were a dog seeking to declare his utter submission and devotion to his beloved master. He kept on bowing until Guldberg, with another whispered remark, brought the peculiar movements of the royal personage to a halt.
Then Guldberg patted the King on the cheek and was in turn rewarded with a smile so full of gratitude and submission that Ambassador Keith's eyes "filled with tears." He writes that the scene was so charged with despair that it was almost unbearable. He made note of Guldberg's kindness or, as he writes, "his willingness to take responsibility for the ill little King," and that the contempt and derision expressed by the rest of the audience were not evident in Guldberg. He seemed to be the only one paying any heed to the King.
Yet there was one recurring expression in the report: "like a dog." The absolute ruler of Denmark was treated like a dog. The difference was that Guldberg seemed to show a loving sense of responsibility for this dog.
"To see them togetherand both of them were physically of remarkably short and stunted staturewas for me a strange and unsettling experience, since all power in the land, formally and practically, emanated from those two peculiar dwarfs."
The report dwells the most, however, on what happened during and after the theater performance.
In the middle of the play, which was Le Méchant, a comedy by the French playwright Gresset, King Christian suddenly got up from his seat in the front row, staggered up onto the stage, and began behaving as if he were one of the actors. He took up an actor's pose and recited what might be assumed to be lines; the words "tracasserie" and "anthropophagie" were the only ones distinguishable. Keith took particular note of the latter, which he knew meant "cannibalism." It was clear that the King was strongly engaged in the play and believed himself to be one of the actors, but Guldberg calmly went up on stage and kindly took the King by the hand. The monarch fell silent at once and allowed himself to be led back to his seat.
The audience, which consisted solely of members of the court, seemed accustomed to this type of interruption. No one reacted with consternation. Scattered laughter could be heard.
After the performance, wine was served. Keith then happened to be standing near the King. The monarch turned to Keith, whom he apparently recognized as the British ambassador, and made a stammering attempt to explain the central theme of the drama. "The King told me that the play was about evil existing to such a high degree among members of the court that they resembled apes or devils. They rejoiced at others' misfortunes and grieved over their successes; this was what was called, in the time of the druids, cannibalism, anthropophagie. That was why we found ourselves among cannibals."
The King's "outburst," coming as it did from a madman, was extraordinarily well formulated from a linguistic point of view.
Keith had merely nodded with an expression of interest, as if everything the King said was interesting and sensible. He did note, however, that Christian had not given an entirely incorrect analysis of the satirical content of the play.
The King had spoken in a whisper, as if confiding an important secret to Keith.
Guldberg, from a distance of a few yards, kept a watchful or uneasy eye on their conversation. Slowly he approached them.
Christian noticed this and tried to end the conversation. Raising his voice, almost as if in provocation, he exclaimed:
"They're lying. Lying! Brandt was a clever but wild man. Struensee was a fine man. I wasn't the one who killed them. Do you understand?"
Keith merely bowed in silence.
Christian then added:
"But he's alive! They think he was executed! But Struensee is alive. Do you know that?"
By this time Guldberg had come so close that he could hear the last words. He took a firm grip on the King's arm and with a stony but soothing smile he said:
"Struensee is dead, Your Majesty. We know that, don't we? Don't we know that? We've agreed on that, haven't we? Haven't we?"
His tone was kindly but reproving. Christian immediately began his strange, mechanical bowing again but then stopped and said:
"But people talk about the Struensee era, don't they? Not about the Guldberg era. Struensee's era!!! How odd!!!"
For a moment Guldberg looked at the King in silence, as if he had been struck dumb or didn't know what to say. Keith noted that he seemed tense or distressed; then Guldberg pulled himself together and said quite calmly:
"His Majesty must compose himself. We think His Majesty must soon retire for the night, to sleep. We are quite sure of this."
He then gave a signal with his hand and withdrew. Christian started up his manic bowing again, but then stopped; as if in thought, he turned toward Ambassador Keith and in a voice that was completely calm and collected said:
"I'm in danger. That's why I must seek out my benefactress, who is the Sovereign of the Universe."
A few minutes later he was gone. This was the incident, in its entirety, as British Ambassador Keith reported it to his government.
Today there is not a single monument to Struensee in Denmark.
During his Danish visit a large number of portraits were made of him: engravings, pencil sketches, and oil paintings. Since no portraits were made after his death, most of them are idealized and none of them is offensive. This is only natural. Before his visit he had no power, so there was no reason to immortalize him; after his death no one wanted to be reminded of his existence.
Why should any monuments be erected? An equestrian statue perhaps?
Of all the rulers of Denmark who were so often immortalized on horseback, he was no doubt the most capable rider and the one who loved horses the most. When Struensee was led to the scaffold at Østre Fælled, General Eichstedt, perhaps as an expression of contempt or subtle cruelty toward the condemned man, had come riding up on Struensee's own horse, a white mare he had named Margrethe, an unusual name for a horse. But if the intention was to cause the condemned man further pain, it failed. Struensee's eyes lit up, he stopped, raised his hand as if he wanted to pat the horse on the muzzle, and a faint, almost happy smile passed over his face, as if he thought the horse had come to bid him farewell.
He wanted to pat the horse on the muzzle but was unable to reach that far.
But why an equestrian statue? It was only victors who were honored in that way.
It's possible to imagine an equestrian statue of Struensee in Østre Fælled where he was executed, portrayed astride his horse Margrethe, whom he loved so much, in the park that is still there today, now used for demonstrations and public events, next to the athletic field. A park for sports and festivals that almost resembles the royal parks Struensee once opened for a populace that until then had been shown little gratitude. The park is still there today, a marvelously open expanse where, on an October evening in 1941 Niels Bohr and Heisenberg took their famous stroll and had that mysterious conversation, the result of which was that Hitler never managed to build his atomic bomb. One of history's crossroads. It is still there, although the scaffold is gone, just as the memory of Struensee is. And there are no equestrian statues to commemorate a loser.
Guldberg was not given an equestrian statue either.
And yet he was the victor and the one who crushed the Danish revolution; but equestrian statues are not given to a little upstart whose name was Høegh before he took the name of Guldberg and who was the son of an undertaker from Horsens.
Indeed both of them were upstarts, but few have left as clear a mark on history as they did; for that matter, they both deserve equestrian statues. "No one talks about the Guldberg era"that was obviously unfair.
Guldberg was justified in reacting. He was the victor, after all. Posterity would indeed speak of "the Guldberg era." It lasted twelve years.
Then it too came to an end.
Guldberg had learned to handle the scorn with composure.
He knew his enemies. They spoke of light but spread darkness. His enemies undoubtedly believed that the Struensee era would last forever. That's what they thought. That was their characteristic infamy, and it had no relation to reality. They wished for it to be so. But he had always known how to restrain himself, for instance when the British ambassador was listening. That was necessary for a person who was slight in stature.
Guldberg was slight in stature. Yet his role in the Danish revolution and the period that followed was not slight. Guldberg had always wished that his biography would begin with the words: "There once was a man named Guldberg." This was the style of the Icelandic sagas, in which a man's greatness was not judged by his outward appearance.
Guldberg was four feet ten inches tall; his skin was gray and prematurely aged, crisscrossed with tiny wrinkles that he had acquired as quite a young man. He seemed to have been prematurely transformed into an old man; that was why at first he was scorned and overlooked because of his insignificance, and later on feared.
After he came to power, people learned to ignore his outward insignificance. After he seized power he had himself portrayed with an iron jaw. The best portraits of him were done while he was in power. They express his inner self, which was great, and show him with an iron jaw. The paintings express his brilliance, education, and brutality, not his outward appearance. And that was only proper. In his opinion, that was the purpose of art.
His eyes were icy-gray like a wolf's and he never blinked as he fixed his gaze on the person who was speaking. Before he crushed the Danish revolution they called him "the Lizard."
Afterward they no longer did.
There once was a man named Guldberg, of outwardly slight appearance but filled with inner greatness; that was the proper tone.
He himself never used the expression "the Danish revolution."
In the existing portraits from the time, everyone bas exceedingly big eyes.
Since the eyes are regarded as the mirror of the soul, the eyes were painted very big, much too big; they seem to be forcing their way out of the face, they are gleaming and shrewd; the eyes are significantly, almost grotesquely insistent. A person's innermost self is documented in the eyes.
The interpretation of the eyes is then left to the beholder.
Guldberg himself supposedly dismissed with disgust any thought of an equestrian statue. He hated horses and harbored a real fear of them. Not once in his life had he ever sat on a horse.
His books, his writings, what he created before his days as a politician and afterward, were monument enough. In all the portraits of Guldberg he is depicted as strong and robust, never as prematurely old. He controlled the way he was portrayed by possessing power; he never had to give instructions about the nature of the portraits. The artists complied without being told, as always.
He regarded artists and portraitists as the servants of politics. They were supposed to shape the facts, which in this case meant the inner truths that were disguised by his outward slightness.
And yet for a long time this slightness proved useful. He was the one during the Danish revolution who was protected by his insignificance. Those who were significant fell, destroying each other. Until only Guldberg remained, insignificant and yet the largest thing in the landscape of fallen trees all around him.
He found the image of the huge but fallen trees insidious. In a letter he writes about the relative smallness of the great living trees and about their demise. For many hundreds of years the Crown had been cutting down all the great trees in Denmark. This was particularly the case with oak trees. They were felled for shipbuilding, until what remained was a kingdom with no significant oaks. Guldberg tells of growing up in this devastated landscape, like a shrub rising above the stumps of the fallen and vanquished great trees.
He doesn't put it into writing, but the meaning is clear. This is how greatness springs from insignificance.
He considered himself an artist who had given up his art and chosen the realm of politics. That was why he admired and disdained artists.
His dissertation on Milton's Paradise Lost, which was published in 1761 during his time as professor at Sorø Academy, is an analysis that repudiates fictional depictions of heaven; fictional in the sense that the poem takes liberties regarding the objective facts that were established in the Bible. Milton, he writes, was a magnificent poet but he must be rebuked for being speculative. He takes liberties. The "so-called sacred poetry" takes liberties. In chapter sixteen he presents pointed arguments to repudiate the "apostles of emancipated thinking" as "fabricators." They create ambiguity, causing the dikes to burst and the poem's filth to defile everything.
The poem should not distort the document. The poem is a defiler of the document. Though in his view a painting is not.
It was often the case that artists took liberties. These liberties could lead to unrest, chaos, and filth. For this reason the pious poets also had to be rebuked. And yet he admired Milton, albeit reluctantly. He labeled him "magnificent." He is a magnificent poet who takes liberties.
Holberg he despised.
The book about Milton brought him success. It was particularly admired by the pious Dowager Queen who praised its razor-sharp, pious analysis. For that reason she appointed Guldberg as tutor to the Crown Prince, who was King Christian's half-brother and feeble-minded, or, to use a word that was often employed: moronic.
In this manner he began his political career: through an analysis of the relationship between facts, as clearly evidenced in the Bible, and fiction, as represented by Milton's Paradise Lost.
So no equestrian statues.
Guldberg's paradise was what he conquered along his path from the undertaker in Horsens to the palace of Christiansborg. It made him tenacious, and it taught him to hate filth.
Guldberg's paradise was something he conquered on his own. He did not inherit it. He conquered it.
He was hounded for several years by a nasty rumor. People had maliciously interpreted his unassuming appearancethe same appearance that in the end was corrected and enhanced, with the help of artists, after he seized power in 1772. According to the rumor, when he was four years old and his singing voice filled everyone with amazement and admiration, he was castrated by his loving but impoverished parents who had heard that in Italy there were great opportunities for singers. But to their disappointment and sorrow, he refused to sing after he turned fifteen and instead entered the political arena.
None of this was true.
His father was a poor undertaker from Horsens who had never seen an opera and never dreamed of earning money from a castrated child. Guldberg was convinced that this smear had come from the Italian opera divas at the court in Copenhagen, who were all whores. All the blasphemers and men of the Enlightenment, particularly in Altona, which was the vipers' nest of the Enlightenment, made use of the Italian whores. From them came all filth, including the filthy rumor.
The peculiar premature aging, which, however, manifested itself only outwardly, had set in early, at the age of fifteen, and could not be explained by the doctors. For this reason he despised doctors. Struensee was a doctor.
Regarding the rumor of his "operation": he could not get rid of it until he came to power and he no longer appeared insignificant. He knew that the assertion that he had been "cut" filled everyone with a feeling of discomfort. He had learned to live with this.
And yet he seized hold of the rumor's inner significance, although untrue. The inner truth was that his pious parents had assigned him the role of undertaker, which he rejected.
He assigned himself the role of politician.
The British ambassador's portrait of the King and Guldberg from the year 1782 is astonishing and yet contains an inner truth.
The ambassador seems to express surprise at Guldberg's "love" for the King, whose power he had stolen and whose reputation he had destroyed. But hadn't Guldberg himself always been astonished by the manifestations of love? How could it possibly be described? He had always asked himself this question. Those handsome, imposing, distinguished people, those who had a knowledge of love and yet were so blind! Politics was a mechanism that could be analyzed and constructed; in that sense it was a machine. But those strong, prominent people who possessed knowledge of love, how naively they allowed the clear political game to be obscured by the hydra of passion!
That ceaseless confusion of emotion and reason on the part of the intellectual men of the Enlightenment! Guldberg knew that this was the soft vulnerable point in the monster's belly. And he realized how close he had once come to succumbing to the contagion of this sin. It had come from "the little English whore." He had been forced to his knees at his bedside.
He would never forget it.
It is in this connection that he speaks of the mighty oak forest where the trees were felled and only the insignificant shrub remained as victor. Then he describes what happened in the felled forest and how he, stunted and insignificant, was allowed to grow and prevail from the site where he watched everything happen, among the sprawled trunks in the felled forest.
And he thought he was the only one to see it.
Guldberg must be regarded with respect. He is still nearly invisible. Soon he will make himself visible.
He saw and understood early on.
In the autumn of 1769 Guldberg writes in a note that the young Queen is to him "an ever-growing mystery."
He calls her "the little English whore." He was quite familiar with the filth at court. He knew its history. Frederik IV was pious and had countless mistresses. Christian VI was a Pietist but lived a lecherous life. At night Frederik V frequented the Copenhagen whorehouses, passing the time with drinking, gambling, and vulgar, lewd conversations. He drank himself to death. The whores flocked around his bed. It was the same everywhere in Europe. It started in Paris and then spread like a disease to all the courts. Filth everywhere.
Who would defend purity?
As a child he had learned to live with corpses. His father, whose profession it was to tend to the bodies, had allowed Guldberg to assist him in his work. How many rigid, ice-cold limbs had he clutched and buried? The dead were pure. They did not roll in filth. They awaited the great purifying fire that would either deliver them or eternally plague them in Eternity.
He had seen filth. But never as bad as at court.
After the little English whore arrived and was married to the King, Fru von Plessen was appointed chief lady-in-waiting. Fru von Plessen was pure. It was her nature. She wished to protect the young girl from life's filth, and for a long time she succeeded.
An event in June 1767 had particularly disturbed Guldberg. It was important that up until this date, no sexual relations had taken place between the royal couple, despite the fact that they had been married for seven months.
Lady-in-waiting Fru von Plessen came to complain to Guldberg on the morning of June 3, 1767. Unannounced she entered the room he used for his tutoring, and without mincing words, she began castigating the Queen's behavior. Guldberg is said to have regarded Fru von Plessen as a thoroughly repulsive creature but, because of her inner purity, of value to the Queen. Fru von Plessen smelled. It was not the odor of a stall, of sweat, or of any other secretion, but rather the odor of old woman, like mildew.
And yet she was only forty-one years old.
The Queen, Caroline Mathilde, was fifteen at the time. Fru von Plessen had, as usual, gone to the Queen's bedchamber to keep her company or to play chess, and by her presence ease the Queen's loneliness. The Queen was lying on her bed, which was quite large, and staring up at the ceiling. She was fully dressed. Fru von Plessen asked the Queen why she did not speak. The Queen was silent for a long time, not moving either her fully dressed form or her head, not replying. Finally she said:
Excerpted from The Royal Physician's Visit by Per Olov Enquist. Copyright © 1999 by Per Olov Enquist. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
What People are Saying About This
"An extraordinarily elegant and gorgeous novel." Los Angeles Times
"An enthralling fable of the temptations of powerand a surprisingly poignant love story." Time
Meet the Author
Per Olov Enquist is a journalist, playwright and novelist. He has garnered international recognition for his work, including the novels The Royal Physician's Visit, The Book about Blanche and Marie, and Lewi's Journey.
Tiina Nunnally has translated work by Astrid Lindgren, Henning Mankell, and Peter Hoeg, among others.
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A haunting tale. Beautiful.