The Royal Physician's Visit

The Royal Physician's Visit

3.0 2
by Per Olov Enquist, Tiina Nunnally, Tiina Nunnally

View All Available Formats & Editions

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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Lost Angeles Times
Mixing reportage with philosophy, barbarity with eroticism, the masterful Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist has fashioned an extraordinarily elegant and gorgeous novel.
Wall Street Journal
Denmark’s most influential contributions to world literature are the bleak, beautiful fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the trenchant existentialist essays of Soren Kierkefaard. These two apparently antithetical straings find themselves entwined in this brilliant novel set in 18th-century Denmark…. "The Royal Physician’s Visit” is a masterpiece.
Enquist’s portent-filled style and skillful repetitions create a spell that draws the reader through scenes of hush-hush sex, court hugger-mugger and paralyzing fear toward the final brutal catastrophe.
New York Times Book Review
Enquist...has shaped this remarkable story into a gripping, fast-paced narrative....Principal characters are realized with a vididness and subtlety that place the book in the front ranks of contemporary literature....Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this story that astonishes at every turn is that it took this long for someone to tell it. We are fortunate that it is Per Olov Enquiest who has done so.
Enquist, a celebrated Swedish novelist, turns this actual historical incident into an enthralling fable of the temptations of power—and a surprisingly poignant love story
Kirkus Reviews
The historical novel has been reborn in recent years, and it reaches impressive new heights in this brilliant 1999 fiction from Swedish author Enquist (Captain Nemo's Library, 1991, etc.). Enquist's subject is the royal court of Denmark during the 1760s, when the "madness" of inept young monarch Christian VII yielded unprecedented political power to his personal physician, the handsome and charismatic German intellectual Johann Friedrich Struensee. In an energetic expository style that features gradually intensifying rhetorical questions and repetitions, Enquist creates a patiently detailed portrayal of the teenaged king's irreversible timidity, credulity, and paranoia. The focus then shifts to Christian's reluctant bride, adolescent English Princess Caroline Mathilde (whose slow growth to adulthood nevertheless outpaces her husband's); thence to Struense's rise to ministerial status, institution of various liberal reforms (such as reducing the size of Denmark's army), and adulterous possession of the now-wanton Queen (whose child he fathers). The manner in which Struense's (ardent and genuine) "dream of the good society based on justice and reason" (based on the principles of the Enlightenment philosophers) is destroyed by his own weaknesses is delineated with masterly narrative skill, as are the marvelous extended climactic scenes where the Queen and her lover are exposed and detained, and the terrified Struensee is imprisoned, persuaded to reject his beliefs, and prepared for torture and execution. The absolute authority of the novel's dramatized history is matched by Enquist's potent characterizations of the gibbering, softhearted Christian; his impulsive consort and the conflictedStruensee; the aged Dowager Queen who plots to replace (her stepson) Christian with her retarded natural son; and, notably, the Machiavellian minister Guldberg, a dwarfish puritan who makes it his mission to protect a conservative society from the revolutionary attitudes of the European Enlightenment ("As in the Icelandic sagas, he had to defend the king's honor"). Scandinavia hasn't had a Nobel winner since 1974. This may be the book that earns Enquist the prize.
From the Publisher
"Realized with a vividness and subtlety that place the book in the front ranks of contemporary literary fiction." —The New York Times Book Review

"An extraordinarily elegant and gorgeous novel." —Los Angeles Times

"An enthralling fable of the temptations of power—and a surprisingly poignant love story." —Time

Product Details

Washington Square Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 5: The Silent One from Altona


His friends called him "the Silent One." He wasn't someone who talked much, not without cause. But he listened attentively.

Importance might be given to the fact that he was silent. Or to the fact that he could listen.

His name was Johann Friedrich Struensee.

In Holsten, about thirty miles outside of Hamburg and the nearby smaller town of Altona, there was an estate called Ascheberg. The estate had gardens that were famous in many parts of Europe; they were owned by the Rantzau family.

The gardens were laid out in the 1730s and consisted of canals, lanes, and rectangular plantings of shrubbery designed according to a rectilinear system typical of the early baroque.

"The Ascheberg Gardens" were a magnificent example of landscape architecture.

But it was the way in which the extraordinary natural formations of the terrain had been used that gave the park its reputation. The natural was incorporated with the artificial. The baroque grounds, with their deep central perspective of lanes and canals, were spread out along the lakeshore. But behind them stood a ridge that was called the "Mountain"; it was a ridge with deep folds interspersed with strange valleys, like lobes, in the mountainside. Beyond the quite unpretentious main building rose this steep terrain, with a natural wildness that was unusual in the gentle Danish landscape.

The Mountain was covered with woods; it was a natural slope, tamed and yet at the same time in its natural state.

Gentle, ravinelike valleys. Terraces. Woods. Perfect nature, at once controlled and shaped by human beings, and an expression of freedom and wildness. From the top of the Mountain there was a panoramic view. And it was also possible to see what human beings could accomplish: a natural reproduction of wild nature.

The Mountain had an offshoot in the garden. The wild within the tamed. It was a civilized dream of domination, and freedom.

In one of the Mountain's "folds," in a hollowed valley, two very old huts had been discovered. They might have been the homes of peasants or — as people preferred to imagine — shepherds.

One of these huts had been restored, and for a very specific purpose.

In 1762 Rousseau began his exile after the Assembly in Paris ordered the executioner to burn his Émile.

He sought refuge in various places throughout Europe, and the owner of Ascheberg, a Count Rantzau who was quite old but who had a lifelong passion for radical ideas, invited the persecuted man to settle at Ascheberg. He would be given the hut on the Mountain; that was where he could live. No doubt it was presumed that the great philosopher, in these primitive conditions and close to nature, which he extolled and to which he wished to return, might here continue his great writing endeavors, and in this way his vital needs and his ideas would enjoy a happy union.

To this end, a "cabbage patch" was also laid out next to the hut.

Here he would cultivate his cabbage, cultivate his garden. It is not known whether the digging of the cabbage patch was a reference to the well-known expression about the person "who in peace and quiet cultivates his cabbage and pays no mind to politics." Nevertheless, the cabbage patch was prepared. And the Count doubtless knew his Nouvelle Héloïse and the passage that reads: "Nature flees frequented places; it is on the mountain tops, in the deepest forests, on the remote islands that it shows its true enchantment. Those who love nature and cannot visit it far away are compelled to force themselves upon it, to make it come to them; and none of this can be done without a measure of illusion."

The Ascheberg Gardens represented an illusion of a natural state.

Rousseau never did come to Ascheberg, but his name became mythically associated with the Ascheberg Gardens, lending them a European reputation among those who were zealots about nature and freedom. The Ascheberg Gardens took their place among famous "sentimental sites" in Europe. The "peasant's hut" that was intended for Rousseau became a place of refuge; the hut in the hollowed valley and the cabbage patch, which over time grew more and more neglected, were sites worth visiting. There was no longer any question about it being a shepherd's hut; rather, it was a cult destination for intellectuals on their way from an infatuation with nature to enlightenment. The pathways, doors, and windowsills were painted with elegant French and German quotations from poetry, and verses from contemporary poets and from Juvenal.

Even Christian's father, Frederik V, made the climb up to Rousseau's hut. The Mountain was henceforth called "Königsberg."

At this time the hut became something of a holy shrine for Danish and German men of the Enlightenment. They gathered at the Ascheberg estate, and they hiked up to Rousseau's hut, where they discussed the great ideas of the day. Their names were Ahlefeld and Berckentin; their names were Schack Carl Rantzau, von Falkenskjold, Claude Louis de Saint-Germain, Ulrich Adolph Holstein, and Enevold Brandt. They regarded themselves as enlightened men.

One of them was also named Struensee.

Here, in this hut, much later on, he would read a passage from Holberg's Moral Thoughts to Caroline Mathilde, the Queen of Denmark.

He had met her in Altona. That much is known.

Struensee saw Caroline Mathilde when she arrived in Altona on her way to her wedding, and he noted that her face was tear stained.

She, however, did not notice Struensee. He was one of many. They stood in the same room, but she did not see him. Almost no one seems to have seen him at that time; few have described him. He was kindly and reticent. He was above average in height, blond, with a well-shaped mouth and good teeth. His contemporaries noted that he was one of the first to use toothpaste.

Otherwise there is almost nothing. Reverdil, who had met him early on, in the summer of 1767 in Holsten, merely remarks that Struensee, the young German doctor, had a discreet and reserved manner.

Once again: young, reticent, attentive.


Three weeks after Christian VII had decided on his European tour, Count Rantzau, at the request of the Danish government, paid a visit to the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee in Altona in order to make him an offer to become the Royal Physician to the Danish King.

They knew each other well. They had spent many weeks together at Ascheberg. They had made the climb up to Rousseau's hut. They belonged to the Circle.

Rantzau was much older, however. Struensee was still young.

At the time Struensee was living in a small apartment at the corner of Papagoyenstrasse and Reichstrasse, but on the day the offer was made, he was out attending to the sick, as usual. After some effort, Rantzau found him in a hovel in Altona's slums, where he was in the process of cupping the children of the neighborhood.

Without equivocating, Rantzau stated the purpose of his visit, and Struensee immediately and without hesitation declined.

He regarded the assignment as uninteresting.

He happened to be finishing up cupping a widow and her three children. He seemed in good humor but uninterested. No, he said, that doesn't interest me. He then gathered up his instruments and, with a smile, patted the little children on the head. He accepted the words of gratitude from their mother, as well as her invitation, along with his esteemed guest, to partake of a glass of white wine out in the kitchen.

The kitchen had an earthen floor, and the children were shooed outside.

Count Rantzau waited patiently.

"You're being sentimental, my friend," he said. "Saint Francis among Altona's poor. But remember that you're a man of the Enlightenment. You must take the long view. Right now you see only the people in front of you, but lift your eyes. Look beyond them. You're one of the most brilliant minds I've ever met; you have a great mission in life. You can't say no to this offer. Sickness can be found anywhere. All of Copenhagen is sick."

Struensee did not reply to this, merely smiled.

"You ought to give yourself greater challenges. A King's Royal Physician can have influence. You could put your theories into real life. In real life."

No answer.

"Why else have I taught you so much?" Rantzau continued, his voice now sounding annoyed. "Those discussions! Those studies! Why just theories? Why not do something in practice? Something ...substantial?"

That brought a reaction from Struensee, and after a moment's silence he began, in a very low but distinct voice, to talk about his life.

Evidently he felt piqued by the phrase "something substantial."

He spoke in a friendly manner, but with a slightly ironic undertone. "My friend and esteemed teacher," he said, "I was under the impression that I am 'doing' something. I have my practice. But in addition — in addition! — I 'do' various other things. Something substantial. I keep statistics on all the medical problems in Altona. I inspect the three dispensaries that exist in this city of eighteen thousand people. I help the wounded and those who fall victim to accidents. I supervise the treatment of the insane. I observe and assist with the autopsies at the Theatro Anatomico.

I crawl into slum dwellings, squalid hovels where people lie in stinking filth, and I seek out those who are powerless. I listen to the needs of the powerless and the ill. I attend to the sick in the women's prison, the general hospital, and the jail; I treat the sick prisoners who are under guard and in the executioner's house. Even the condemned can be sick; I help the condemned to survive in a tolerable fashion until the executioner's ax takes their lives, like a deliverance. Every day I treat eight to ten of the poor who can't pay but who are under the care of the poor relief fund. I treat poor travelers not covered by the poor relief fund. I treat farmhands passing through Altona. I treat patients with contagious diseases. I give lectures on anatomy. I think you can say," he concluded his response, "that I'm familiar with certain not entirely enlightened sectors of reality in this city. Not entirely enlightened! Apropos the Enlightenment."

"Are you quite finished?" Rantzau asked with a smile.

"Yes, I'm finished."

"I'm impressed," Rantzau then said.

This was the longest speech he had ever heard "the Silent One" give. Nevertheless, he continued trying to persuade him. "Look farther," he said. "You who are a doctor should also be able to heal Denmark. Denmark is a madhouse. The court is a madhouse. The King is intelligent but perhaps...mad. A clever, enlightened man at his side could clean up the shithouse of Denmark."

A little smile flickered over Struensee's lips, but he merely shook his head in silence.

"Right now," said Rantzau, "you can do good in a small way. And you do. I'm impressed. But you could also change the larger world. Not simply dream of doing so. You could have power. You can't say no."

They sat quietly for a long time.

"My silent friend," Rantzau said at last in a kind voice. "My silent friend. What will become of you? You who have so many noble dreams, yet harbor this fear of realizing them. But you're an intellectual, as I am, and I understand you. We don't want to sully our ideas with reality."

Struensee then glanced up at Rantzau with an expression of wariness, rather like someone who has felt the whip.

"The intellectuals," he murmured. "The intellectuals, yes. But I don't consider myself an intellectual. I'm simply a doctor."

Later that same evening Struensee accepted.

A brief passage from Struensee's prison confessions throws a peculiar light on this episode.

He says that it was "by chance" that he came to be the Royal Physician; it was not something he actually wanted. He had quite different plans. He had been thinking of leaving Altona and traveling abroad, "to Málaga or the East Indies."

No explanation. Just the desire for flight, to something.


No, he didn't consider himself an intellectual. There were others in the Altona Circle who deserved the label more.

One of them was his friend and teacher Count Rantzau. He was an intellectual.

He owned the Ascheberg estate, which he had inherited from his father. The estate was thirty-three miles from Altona, a city that was Danish at the time. The economic basis of the estate was serfdom, peasant slavery, or "adscription"; but as on many other estates in Holsten, the brutality was less, the principles more humane.

Count Rantzau considered himself an intellectual and an enlightened man.

The reason for this was as follows.

At the age of thirty-five, married and the father of one child, he was appointed regimental commander of the Danish army because of his previous military experience in the French army under Field Marshal Loevendahl. This experience was alleged but difficult to verify. Compared to these experiences, however, the Danish army was a much calmer refuge. As regimental commander there was no need to fear war. He enjoyed the decorum of such a position. Despite this, he fell in love with an Italian singer, and it ruined his reputation; not just because he made her his mistress, but because he also accompanied her traveling operetta company throughout the southern parts of Europe. The company went on tour from town to town, but he was unable to come to his senses and rein himself in. To remain incognito he constantly changed his disguise; one time dressing in an "imposing" fashion, another time dressing as a priest; all of this was necessary since everywhere he went he incurred great debts.

In two towns in Sicily he was accused of swindling, though in vain, since by that time he had already returned to the Continent, to Napoli. In Genoa he forged a letter of credit that read "my father, the governor of Norway," but he could not be tried before a court because by then he was in Pisa, where he was indicted, and on his way to Arles. Later the police found it impossible to track him down.

After a jealous fight, he left the Italian singer in Arles, whereupon he returned briefly to his estate to replenish his funds, which was possible thanks to an additional royal appanage. After visiting Ascheberg, where he renewed his acquaintance with his wife and daughter, he set off for Russia. There he visited the Russian Tsarina Elisabet, who was on her deathbed. According to his analysis her successor would need him as an expert on Danish and European matters. A further reason for this Russian journey was a rumor that war would soon break out between Russia and Denmark under the Tsarina's successor, and he could then offer this successor certain services since his knowledge of the Danish and French armies was so great.

In spite of this proposal, which would be quite beneficial for Russia, many regarded the Danish nobleman with animosity. His numerous female relationships and the fact that war had not broken out put him at a disadvantage, and many harbored suspicions about "the Danish spy." After a conflict with the Russian court, which arose out of a dispute over the favors of a highly respected lady, he was forced to flee and ended up in Danzig, where his travel funds gave out.

There he met a manufacturer.

This man wished to settle in Denmark for the purposes of investment and to place himself under the protection of a government that was favorably disposed toward foreign commercial investments. Count Rantzau assured the manufacturer that he, through his contacts at the court, could obtain the desired protection. After using up a certain portion of the manufacturer's capital without, however, obtaining the protection of the Danish government, Count Rantzau managed to return to Denmark, the kingdom that he no longer wished to betray to the Russian Tsarina. The court then granted him a yearly appanage, because of his name and prestige. He explained that he had gone to Russia only as a Danish spy, and that he now possessed secrets that would prove valuable to Denmark.

During all this time his wife and daughter had remained at his Ascheberg estate, which was where he now gathered around him a group of intellectual, enlightened men.

One of them was a young doctor by the name of Struensee.

It was by virtue of this path in life and his extensive international contacts, as well as the influence he still exerted at the Danish court, that Count Rantzau considered himself an intellectual.

He was soon to play a central role in the events surrounding the Danish revolution, a role that, in its versatility, can only be understood in light of the aforementioned biography.

The role he plays is that of an intellectual.

The first contribution he made to Denmark was to recommend that the German doctor J. F. Struensee should become the Royal Physician to King Christian VII.


What a strange city Altona was.

The city stood near the mouth of the Elbe River; it was a trading center with eighteen thousand inhabitants, and by the mid-1600s it had achieved city charter status. Altona developed into the first free port in the North, but it also became a free port because of various trends in belief.

A liberal outlook was essential for trade.

The intellectual climate seemed to attract both ideas and money, and Altona became Denmark's port to Europe, the second most important city after Copenhagen. It was located close to the great German free port of Hamburg, and among conservatives it had a reputation for being a vipers' nest of radical thinking.

That was the general opinion. A vipers' nest. But since radicalism had proved to be financially lucrative, Altona was allowed to keep its intellectual freedom.

Struensee was a doctor. He was born in 1737. At the age of fifteen he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Halle. His father was the theologian Adam Struensee, who early on was imprisoned for Pietism and later became professor of theology at the University of Halle. He was a man of integrity, devout, educated, and somber, with a tendency toward melancholy, while Struensee's mother is described as having a lighter temperament. Their Pietism was of the Francke school, with emphasis on the importance of public welfare, and was influenced by the cultivation of reason, which at that time characterized the University of Halle. Struensee's home was authoritarian; virtue and morality were its guiding stars.

Yet the young Struensee ended up rebelling. He became a liberal and an atheist. In his view, if human beings were allowed to choose freely, they would, with the help of reason, choose good. He later writes that early on he embraced the idea of the human being "as a machine," an expression that was typical of the dream of rationalism at the time. He actually uses this expression — and that it was solely the human organism that creates spirit, emotions, good and evil.

By this he seems to have meant that acuity and spirituality were not bestowed on human beings by some higher being but were shaped by our life experiences. It was our obligations to others that gave meaning to everything, that created inner satisfaction, that gave life its purpose, and that ought to determine a person's actions.

Hence the misleading expression "machine," which no doubt must be regarded as a poetic image.

His doctoral dissertation was entitled "On the Risks of Aberrant Motions of the Limbs."

His analysis was formalistic but exemplary. The handwritten dissertation did have one odd feature, however; in the margins Struensee has drawn people's faces in a different-colored ink. Here he presents an ambiguous and confused picture of his own inner self. He allows the great intellectual clarity of the dissertation to be obscured by the people's faces.

The main argument of the dissertation is, by the way, that preventive medical treatment is important, that physical exercise is necessary, but that when illness or injury occurs, great caution is essential.

He is a skilled artist, judging by the dissertation. The human faces are interesting.

The text is of lesser interest.

As a twenty-year-old, Struensee moves to Altona and there begins his medical practice. He will always, even later on, be regarded as a doctor.

Not an artist, not a politician, not an intellectual. A doctor.

Yet the other side of his personality is the publicist.

If the Enlightenment has a rational and hard face, which is the belief in reason and empiricism within medicine, mathematics, physics, and astronomy, it also has a soft face, which is the Enlightenment as freedom of thought, tolerance, and liberty.

It could be said that in Altona he moves from the hard side of the Enlightenment, the development of the sciences toward rationalism and empiricism, to the soft side, the necessity of freedom.

The first journal he starts (Monatsschrift zum Nutzen und Vergnügen) contains in the first issue a long analysis of the risks inherent in the population flight from country to city. It is a sociomedical analysis.

Here too he places the doctor in the role of politician.

Urbanization, he writes, is a medical threat with political ramifications. Taxation, the risks of military service, wretched medical treatment, alcoholism, all of these things create an urban proletariat — which could be prevented with better-developed medical treatment among the peasants. He presents a chilling but in actuality formidable sociological picture of a Denmark in decay: declining population figures, continuous smallpox epidemics. He notes that "the number of beggars among the peasantry is now more than sixty thousand."

Other articles bear titles such as "On Transmigration," "On Mosquitoes," and "On Sunstroke."

But a crudely satirical text with the title "Encomium to the Heavenly Effect of Dogs and Dog Shit" becomes his downfall. The text is regarded, and rightfully so, as a personal attack on a well-known doctor in Altona who had earned vast sums on a dubious remedy for constipation, extracted from dog shit.

The journal is confiscated.

The following year, however, he starts another journal. He makes an effort to refrain from libelous remarks and from statements that could be viewed as critical of the state or of religion, but he fails in an article about hoof-and-mouth disease, which is rightfully said to exude religious criticism.

This journal is also confiscated.

In his last writings, composed in prison and finished on the day before his execution, Struensee touches on what might be called the journalistic period of his life. "My moralistic ideas during that time were developed while studying the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Helvétius, and Boulanger. I became a freethinker, believing that a higher principle had certainly created the world and human beings, but that there was no life after this one, and that actions possessed moral power only if they influenced society in the proper way. I found unreasonable the belief in punishment in a life after this one. Human beings were punished enough in this life. The virtuous person was one who did something useful. Christianity's concepts were much too strict — and the truths it conveyed could be found expressed equally well in the writings of the philosophers. The offenses of sensuality I regarded as highly excusable weaknesses, as long as they had no damaging consequences for oneself or others."

His adversaries, in a much-too-brief summary of his ideas, remarked: "Struensee considered human beings to be merely machines."

Yet of greatest importance to him was Ludvig Holberg's Moral Thoughts. After his death, a well-thumbed and underlined copy, in German, was found.

One of the chapters in this book would change his life.


On May 6, 1768, King Christian VII set off on his European travels.

His entourage included a total of fifty-five people, and the tour was meant to be a cultural expedition, a sentimental journey à la Laurence Sterne (it was later claimed that Christian had been greatly impressed by Tristram Shandy, book VII). But its purpose was also to give the outside world, by means of the splendor displayed by the royal entourage, a lasting impression of Denmark's wealth and power.

Initially the retinue was meant to include more participants, but it was gradually reduced; one of those sent home was a courier by the name of Andreas Hjort. He was sent back to the capital, and from there he was exiled to the island of Bornholm because one night, "loose-lipped and drunk," he revealed to listening ears that the King had given him the assignment during the journey to search for Bottine Caterine.

In Altona Struensee joined them.

Their first encounter was extremely odd.

The King was staying at the mayor's residence. One evening when he asked for the courier Andreas Hjort, he was informed that the man had been recalled home. No explanation was given. The courier's action was described as inexplicable but might have been prompted by illness in his family.

Christian suffered a recurrence of his peculiar spasms and then began furiously demolishing the room, throwing chairs and breaking windows. With a piece of coal taken from the embers in the fireplace he wrote Guldberg's name on the exceedingly beautiful silk tapestries, although deliberately misspelling it. During the tumult the King's hand was injured and started to bleed, so that Struensee's first task on the journey was to bandage the monarch's hand.

The new Royal Physician had been called in.

His first memory of Christian was this: the quite slender boy was sitting on a chair, his hand was bleeding, and he was simply staring blankly, straight ahead.

After a very long silence Struensee asked kindly:

"Your Majesty, can you explain this sudden...anger? You don't have to, but..."

"No, I don't have to."

After a moment he added:

"They tricked me. She's not anywhere. Even if she is somewhere, that's not where we're going. And if we do, they'll take her away. Perhaps she's dead. It's my fault. I must be punished."

Struensee writes that at the time he didn't understand (though he did later) and that he simply and quietly began bandaging the King's hand.

"Were you born in Altona?" Christian then asked.

Struensee replied:

"In Halle. But I came to Altona at an early age."

"They say," Christian continued, "that in Altona there are nothing but freethinkers and men of the Enlightenment who want to smash society into rubble and ashes."

Struensee merely nodded calmly.

"Smash!!! The existing society!!!"

"Yes, Your Majesty," replied Struensee. "That's what they say. Others say it's a European center of the Enlightenment."

"And what do you say, Doctor Struensee?"

The bandaging was now done. Struensee was on his knees in front of Christian.

"I'm a man of the Enlightenment," he said, "but first and foremost a doctor. If Your Majesty so desires, I will leave my post at once and return to my normal medical practice."

Christian then regarded Struensee with a newly sparked interest, not in the least annoyed or disturbed by the man's almost insolent bluntness.

"Haven't you ever, Doctor Struensee, wanted to cleanse the temple of the fornicators?" he asked in a very low voice.

No reply was given. But the King continued:

"To drive the hawkers out of the temple? To crush everything? So that it could all rise up from the ashes again...a Phoenix?"

"Your Majesty certainly knows his Bible," was Struensee's deprecating reply.

"Don't you think it's impossible to make progress? PROGRESS! If you don't make yourself hard and...smash...everything so that the temple..."

Suddenly he began walking around the room, which was littered with chairs and broken glass. The impression he made on Struensee was almost poignant because his boyish figure was so slender and insignificant that it was hard to believe he could have caused such destruction.

Then he came over, stood quite close to Struensee, and whispered:

"I received a letter. From Monsieur Voltaire. An esteemed philosopher. To whom I gave money for a court proceeding. And he hailed me in his letter."

Struensee waited. Then it came, spoken softly, the first secretive message that was to bind them together. Yes, later on Struensee would remember this moment, which he describes in his prison notes; a moment of absolute intimacy, when the mad young boy, this King by the Grace of God, confided in him a secret that was unprecedented and precious and that would unite them forever.

"...he hailed an enlightened man."

There was not a sound in the room. And the King continued, in the same whispered tone:

"In Paris I have decided to meet with Monsieur Voltaire. Whom I know. Through our correspondence. Can I take you with me?"

Struensee, with a little smile, replied:

"It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty."

"Can I trust you?"

And Struensee said, simply and quietly:

"Yes, Your Majesty. More than you know."

Copyright © 1999 by Per Olov Enquist

Translation copyright © 2001 by Tiina Nunnally

Chapter 9: Rousseau's Hut


It becomes more difficult to understand what is happening.

The spotlight seems to be shrinking around a few actors on stage. Yet they are still standing with their faces turned away from each other.

Ready to speak their lines very soon. Still with averted faces, and silent.

One evening as Christian, once again, was telling Struensee about his nightmares about Sergeant Mörl's agonizing death and began getting lost in the details, Struensee surprisingly started wandering around the room and angrily told the King to stop.

Christian was astonished. He had been allowed to talk about this while Reverdil was still there, before he was banished as a punishment. Now Struensee seemed to have lost his composure. Christian asked him why. Struensee merely said:

"Your Majesty doesn't understand. And has never made any effort to understand. Despite the fact that we have known each other for a long time. But I'm not a brave person. I'm terrified of pain. I don't want to think about pain. I'm easily frightened. That's how it is, and Your Majesty should have known, if Your Majesty was interested."

Christian stared at Struensee in surprise during the doctor's outburst, and then he said:

"I too am afraid of death."

"I'm not afraid of death!!!" Struensee replied impatiently. "Only of pain. Only of pain!!!"

From the late summer of 1770 there is a sketch done by Christian of a Negro boy.

He very rarely made any drawings, but those that exist were done with great skill. The sketch depicts Moranti, the Negro page who was given to the King in order to dispel his melancholy and "so he would have someone to play with."

No one should speak in that fashion. "Melancholy" was the correct word, not "playmate." But Brandt, who came up with the idea, expresses it in precisely that way: a playmate for His Majesty. A mood of stifled resignation had spread around the King. It was difficult to find playmates among the courtiers. The King seemed to focus all his energy on the hour he spent signing the documents and communiqués that Struensee placed before him; but after they parted for the day, apathy would come over him and he would sink into his muttering. Brandt had grown weary of the King's company and bought a Negro page as a plaything for him. When he sought permission to do so, Struensee merely shook his head in resignation, but gave his consent.

Struensee's position at court was now so entrenched that his consent was also required for the purchase of Negro slaves.

It was quite natural that he should grow weary, Brandt had explained, since a playful relationship with His Majesty could not be considered one of his tasks as Theater Director. In actual fact, Brandt was exhausted and furious. His relationship with His Majesty had grown more and more monotonous, since the King would often sit in his chair for days on end, waving his hands and muttering to himself or staring blankly at the wall. The King was also in the habit of placing his chair close to the wall and turned toward it, to avoid looking at his surroundings.

What was Brandt to do? Conversation was difficult. He couldn't very well position himself between the chair and the wall, he explained to Struensee.

"Do as you like," Struensee told him. "This place is still a madhouse."

The Negro page was christened Moranti.

Moranti would end up playing a certain role in what followed, even in the diplomatic reports.

Later that same autumn, as the situation reached a critical stage and the troubling reports about Struensee's power reached foreign rulers as well, the French ambassador requested an audience with the King. But when the ambassador arrived, Struensee was the only one present in the room, and he explained that King Christian VII was indisposed that day, but he wished to express his respect and devotion to the ambassador of the French government.

"Doctor Struensee..." the French ambassador began but was immediately corrected by Struensee.

"Councillor of State."

The atmosphere was charged and hostile, but courteous.

"...a rumor has reached us regarding the Danish monarch's almost...revolutionary plans. Interesting. Interesting. We are, of course, well acquainted with such ideas in Paris. And critical of them. As no doubt you know. We would like, with all due respect, to be assured that no dark...revolutionary...forces might — by mistake! by mistake! — slip out. In your country. Or in Europe. So that the contagion of enlightenment will not...yes, that is how I would express it, the contagion! will not catch hold around us. And since we know that the young monarch has your ear, we would like..."

Struensee, against protocol, had not invited the French ambassador to sit down; they now stood facing each other at a distance of about five paces.

"Are people afraid in Paris?" Struensee asked in a slightly ironic tone of voice. "Afraid of the little, insignificant country of Denmark? Is that what you want to say?"

"Perhaps we wish to know what is going on."

"What is going on is of Danish concern."

"Which does not concern...?"


The ambassador gave Struensee an icy stare and then exclaimed in a fierce voice, as if for a moment he had lost his self-control:

"A man of the Enlightenment such as yourself, Doctor Struensee, ought not be so insolent!"

"We are merely matter-of-fact."

"But if the royal power is in jeopardy..."

"It is not in jeopardy."

"We have heard otherwise."

"Then stop listening."

Suddenly wild shouts could be heard from the palace courtyard. Struensee flinched and went over to the window. What he saw was King Christian VII playing with his page. Christian was pretending to be a horse, and the little Negro boy was on his back, shouting wildly as he swung his riding crop and His Majesty crawled around on all fours.

Struensee turned around, but it was too late. The French ambassador had followed him to the window and taken a look. Struensee then drew the drapes, his expression resolute.

But the situation was quite clear.

"Herr Struensee," the French ambassador said with a tone of derision and fury, "I am not an idiot. Neither is my King, nor are the other regents of Europe. I say this with the frankness you claim to value so highly. You are playing with fire. We will not permit the great consuming revolutionary fire to start in this filthy little country."

And then: the precise bow, as required.

The situation down in the palace courtyard was absolutely clear, and genuine. There was no escaping it.

Was this the absolute ruler with the torch of reason in his hand? Or a madman? What was Struensee going to do with him?

No, he had no idea what he was going to do with Christian.

The problem was growing all the time. In the end it was a problem that seemed to put Struensee himself in question. Was he the right person? Or was the black torch also inside him?

The week before the little Negro page arrived at court, Struensee was gripped by desperation. Perhaps the voice of reason should speak. Perhaps it would be wisest to leave Christian to his illness, allow him to be swallowed up by the dark.

Could light come from the darkness of the black torch? Reason was supposed to be the lever that would be placed under the house of the world. But without any fixed point? What if reason could find no fulcrum?

But he was fond of the child. He refused to give up on Christian, who was perhaps one of those who was unneeded, someone who had no place in the grand plan. But weren't the unneeded also part of the grand plan?

Wasn't it for the sake of the unneeded that the plan was to be created?

He brooded a great deal over his own uncertainty. Christian was damaged, he had frostbite of the soul, but at the same time his power was necessary. What was it he himself coveted, or at least was now making use of? Christian's illness created a vacuum at the center of power. This was where he had come to visit. There ought to be some possibility of saving both the boy and the dream of a changed society.

This is what he told himself. Although he wasn't sure whether he was primarily defending Christian or himself.

The image of the black torch that emanated darkness refused to leave him. A black torch burned inside the young monarch, he knew that now, and its glow seemed to extinguish reason. Why wouldn't this image leave him in peace? Perhaps there was a black torch inside him as well. No, probably not.

But what was it that existed inside him?

Light, a prairie fire. Such beautiful words.

But Christian was both light and opportunity, and a black torch shining its darkness over the world.

Was that what a human being was? Both opportunity and a black torch?

Christian had once, in a lucid moment, spoken of people cast in one piece; he himself was not cast in one piece, he said. He had many faces. Then Christian had asked: Is there a place for someone like me in the kingdom of reason?

Such a simple, childish question. And suddenly it made Struensee feel so anguished.

There ought to be a place for Christian as well. Wasn't that what this was all about? Wasn't that why the aperture in history would open before Struensee? Wasn't that also part of his task?

What was his task, after all? He could picture himself in the eyes of posterity as the German doctor who came to visit the madhouse.

And the one who was given a mission?

"Visit" was a better word, better than "calling" or "task." Yes, that's what he had begun to think. It had grown inside him. A visit, a task to be completed, a task that was assigned, an aperture that would open in history; and then he would step inside and disappear.

Holding Christian by the hand. Perhaps this was the important thing. Not to leave Christian behind. He who had many faces and was not cast in one piece, and inside of whom a black torch burned ever stronger, hurling its darkness over everything.

The two of us, Struensee sometimes thought. A splendid pair. The boy with his black torch emanating darkness, and I with my clear gaze and terrible fear, which I conceal so cleverly.

And these two would put a lever under the house of the world.


He knew that he should not have permitted the gift.

The little Negro boy was a plaything. It was not playthings the King needed; they led him in the wrong direction, like a poorly aimed jab at a billiard ball.

The reason that he "gave in" — as he later thought — was an incident that occurred during the first week of June 1770.

Christian had started following him around like a dog: babbling devotedly, or simply imploring him in silence. Something had to be done to jolt the King out of his lethargy. Struensee therefore decided that an excursion would be taken, a brief one, not to the European courts but to reality. Reality would jolt the King out of his melancholy. The journey would take them to the Danish countryside and give the King a picture of the situation of the Danish serfs; but a real, true picture, without court trappings, without the serfs being aware of the King's presence among them, observing their lives.

For that reason the journey had to be made incognito.

The day before the journey, which had been approved by the King without objection since he was neither informed of its true purpose nor would have shown the slightest interest in it, rumors of the plan leaked out. This led to a fierce confrontation with Rantzau, who at that time seemed to have regained his position at court, was once more in the King's favor, and was considered to be one of Struensee's closest friends.

On that morning Struensee went to the stables to go for an early ride; it was shortly before dawn. He saddled his horse and rode out through the stable gate, but that was where Rantzau caught up with him, taking hold of the horse's bridle. Struensee, with a trace of irritation, asked him what he wanted.

"From what I understand," Rantzau said with ill-concealed anger, "you're the one who wants so much. But what's all this about? What is all this about? The King is going to be dragged around among the peasants? Not seeking out the decision makers or others whom we need for our reforms. But peasants. To see...what?"


"You have his trust. But you're about to make a mistake."

For a moment Struensee was close to losing his temper, but he controlled himself. He explained that the King's lethargy and melancholy had to be cured. The King had spent so much time in this madhouse that he was losing his wits. The King knew nothing about Denmark.

"What does the Queen say?" asked Rantzau.

"I haven't asked her," replied Struensee. "Let go of my horse."

"You're making a mistake," Rantzau then shrieked in such a loud voice that he could be heard by everyone around. "You're being naive; soon you'll have everything in your hands, but you don't understand the game. Let the fool be, you can't..."

"Let go," said Struensee. "And I won't allow you to call him a fool."

But Rantzau refused to let go and continued to talk in a loud voice.

Then Struensee spurred his horse, Rantzau stumbled backward and fell, and Struensee rode off without looking back.

The next morning the King and Struensee set off on their journey of observation among the Danish peasants.

The first two days were extremely successful. On the third day disaster struck.

It was late in the afternoon, near Hillerød. From the coach they could see in the distance a group of peasants gathered around...something. As if at some innocent meeting. Then the coach drew closer, and the situation became clear.

A group of people was clustered around some object. As the coach came near, a tumult erupted, the group dispersed, and some set off running toward the main building of the nearby manor.

The coach stopped. From inside, the King and Struensee could see someone sitting on a wooden framework. The King commanded the coach to drive closer, and then it was possible to see the figure more clearly.

Seated on a wooden horse, made of two trestles with a rough-hewn beam in between, was a young peasant boy, naked, with his hands tied behind his back, and his feet bound together beneath the beam. He was perhaps sixteen. His back was bloody; he had apparently been whipped, and the blood had clotted.

He was shaking violently and seemed close to losing consciousness.

"I presume," said Struensee, "that he tried to run away. That's when they put them on wooden horses. The ones who survive never run away again. The ones who die escape from serfdom. That's the way things are in your kingdom, Your Majesty."

Christian, with his mouth agape and overcome with horror, stared at the tortured boy. The small group of people had gradually retreated.

"An entire peasant class is sitting there on that wooden horse," Struensee said. "That is reality. Liberate them. Liberate them."

When adscription was instituted in 1733, it was a means for the nobility to control, or rather to prevent, movement among the workforce. A person who was a peasant on an estate was not allowed to leave the estate until the age of forty. The conditions, wages, terms of work, and housing were all determined by the owner of the estate. After forty years the person was allowed to move. The reality was that by that time most peasants had become so passive, seriously alcoholic, weighed down by debt, or physically debilitated that no moving usually occurred.

It was a Danish form of slavery. It functioned superbly as an economic basis for the nobles; conditions were worse in the north than in the south of Jutland, but it was slavery.

Occasionally slaves would escape. Struensee was right about that. And that was why they had to be punished.

But Christian didn't seem to understand; it was as if the scene only reminded him of something else that he had experienced earlier. He didn't seem to follow Struensee's explanations but began chewing wildly, grinding his jaw as if the words refused to come out; and after only a few seconds he began screaming an incoherent string of words, which finally gave way to a muttering.

"But this peasant boy — is perhaps a changeling — like me!!! Why are they punishing me? Like this!!! Struensee!!! What have I done, is it a just punishment, Struensee, am I being punished now...?"

Christian's muttering grew louder.

"He ran away, the punishment is the wooden horse," Struensee tried to explain, but the King merely continued with his meaningless paroxysms, which grew more and more confused.

"You must calm yourself," Struensee urged him. "Be calm. Calm."

But no.

Dusk had fallen, the back of the bound boy was black with clotted blood; he must have been sitting on the wooden horse for a long time. Struensee, who finally had to give up trying to calm the King, watched as the tortured boy slowly slumped forward, slid under the wooden beam, and hung there with his head down.

Christian gave a sudden shriek, wild and incoherent. The boy on the wooden horse was silent. Everything was now out of control.

It was impossible to calm the King. People came running from the main building. The King screamed and screamed, shrill and piercing, and refused to be hushed.

The boy on the wooden horse hung there mutely, with his face only a foot above the ground.

Struensee shouted to the coachman to turn the coach around. The King is indisposed, we must return to Copenhagen. But just as the coach was turning in great haste, Struensee happened to think about the boy hanging from the wooden horse. They couldn't leave him like that. He would surely die. Struensee jumped out of the coach to try to negotiate a possible pardon; but the coach started off at once, and Christian's desperate screams grew louder.

The boy was hanging motionless. The approaching crowd seemed hostile. Struensee was frightened. It was beyond his control. He was out in the Danish wilderness. Reason, rules, titles, or power had no authority in this wilderness. Here the people were animals. They would tear him limb from limb.

He felt an enormous sense of terror come over him.

That was why Struensee gave up the idea of rescuing the boy on the wooden horse.

The horses and the coach, with the King still screaming as he hung out the window, were about to vanish in the dusk. It had rained. The road was muddy. Struensee ran, shouting to the coachman to stop; stumbling in the mud, he ran after the coach.

That was the end of the journey to the Danish slaves.


The King spent more and more time playing with Moranti, the Negro page.

No one was surprised. The King was calm whenever he was playing.

In early August Moranti was struck by a sudden fever and for three weeks lay in bed, making a slow recovery; the King was extremely upset and reverted to his melancholy. During the two days when Moranti's illness seemed life threatening, the King's mood was anything but stable. Chief Secretary B. W. Luxdorph, who witnessed the incident from the window of the chancellery building, writes briefly in his diary that "between 11 and 12 o'clock porcelain dolls, books, bookcases, sheet music, etc. were thrown from the palace balcony. Over 400 people gathered under the balcony. Everyone ran off with whatever they could grab."

After Moranti's recovery, the King became calmer, but the scene was repeated once again, although with a difference that was not insignificant: he was no longer alone on the balcony. The incident was reported by a diplomat, discreetly phrased. "The King, who is young and has a playful temperament, took it into his head on Friday morning to go out on the balcony, accompanied by his little Negro page, and amuse himself by tossing everything he could find over the side. A bottle struck the secretary of the Russian legation in the leg and badly injured him."

No mention of whether Moranti also took part in actually throwing things.

The outburst was characterized as utterly inexplicable.

They were circling around each other, with the circles becoming smaller and smaller. They were moving toward each other.

The relationship between Queen Caroline Mathilde and the Royal Physician Struensee was becoming more intense.

They often went walking in the woods.

In the woods they could converse, in the woods the attendants following them might suddenly lag behind; the Queen found it amusing to walk in the woods with Struensee.

It was a beech forest.

Struensee talked about the importance of strengthening the limbs of the little Crown Prince through physical exercises; the boy was now two years old. The Queen talked about horses. Struensee stressed the importance of the little boy learning to play like ordinary children. She spoke of the sea and the swans on the water's surface that was like quicksilver. He thought the little boy should learn all the details of statesmanship; the Queen asked him again whether trees could think.

He answered: Only in situations of utmost danger. She replied: Only when the tree was supremely happy could it think.

When they walked through the woods where there was thick shrubbery, the attendants often could not keep up. She liked walking in the woods. She believed that beech trees could love. She found quite natural the idea that trees could dream. All one had to do was observe a forest at dusk to be convinced.

He asked her whether a tree could also feel fear.

Suddenly she was able to tell him almost everything. No, not quite everything. She could ask him why everyone was upset about her going riding in men's clothing, and he would answer. But she could not ask him why she had been chosen to become this royal cow that had to be serviced. Why am I the first and most exalted of women, when I am only breeding stock, the lowest of the low?

She walked quickly. Sometimes she would get ahead of him; she would purposely get ahead of him. It was easier to ask certain questions if he couldn't see her face. She would not turn around but ask with her back to him:

"How can you have such patience with that mad fool? I can't understand it."

"The King?"

"He's ill."

"No, no," he told her. "I refuse to allow you to speak of your husband in that way. You love him, after all."

She stopped abruptly.

It was a dense forest. He could see that her back had begun to shake. She was weeping, soundlessly. Far behind he heard the sound of the ladies-in-waiting, their voices as they cautiously worked their way through the thickets.

He went up to her. She sobbed in despair, leaning on his shoulder. They stood motionless for a few moments. The sounds came closer.

"Your Majesty," he said in a low voice. "You must be careful so that..."

She looked up at him, seemed suddenly calm.


"People might...misinterpret..."

The sounds were now quite near, she was still standing close to him, pressing against his shoulder; and she looked up and said almost without expression:

"Then let them. I'm not afraid. Not of anything. Not of anything."

And then he saw the first prying faces among the branches of the trees and bushes; coming nearer, much too near. But for another few moments the Queen was afraid of nothing at all; she too saw the faces through the branches of the forest, but she was not afraid.

He knew that she was not afraid, and this filled him with a sudden terror.

"You're not afraid of anything," he said in a low voice.

Then they continued on their way through the woods.


The evening card games, which had previously taken place so regularly for the three Queens, had now stopped; the Dowager Queen was given no explanation for this. Caroline Mathilde was no longer interested. No explanation why. The tarot evenings had simply ceased.

But the Dowager Queen knew what the reason was. She no longer found herself at the center of things.

Nevertheless, to extract an explanation, or to settle the matter once and for all, the Dowager Queen went to see Caroline Mathilde in her chamber.

The Dowager Queen did not wish to sit down. She stood in the middle of the room.

"You've changed since you came to Denmark," said the Dowager Queen in an icy voice. "You're no longer charming. In no respect are you as enchanting as you were before. That is not just my opinion, it is everyone's opinion. You keep your distance. You have no idea how to behave properly."

Caroline Mathilde's expression did not change; she merely said:

"That's true."

"I beg you — most urgently — not to go riding in men's clothing. Never before has a woman of royal blood worn men's clothing. It's shocking."

"It doesn't shock me."

"And this Doctor Struensee..."

"It doesn't shock him either."

"I beg you."

"I'll do as I please," Caroline Mathilde replied. "I'll dress as I like. I'll ride as I like. I'll talk to whomever I like. I am the Queen. Therefore I make all the rules. The way I behave is also good manners. Aren't you jealous?"

The Dowager Queen did not reply but merely gave her a mute look, rigid with anger.

"Yes, isn't that what it is?" Caroline Mathilde added. "You're jealous of me."

"Mind your tongue," said the Dowager Queen.

"That," said the Queen with a smile, "I shall most certainly do. But when it pleases me."

"You're shameless."

"Soon," said Caroline Mathilde, "I'll be riding bareback. They say it's so interesting. Aren't you jealous? Because I know what the world looks like? I think you're jealous of me."

"Mind your tongue. You're a child. You know nothing."

"But some people can reach a hundred and still have seen nothing. Know nothing. And there is a world outside the court."

And with that the Dowager Queen left, infuriated.

The Queen remained sitting where she was. She thought: He was right, after all. Some people can reach a hundred without seeing a thing. There is a world outside the court; and when I say this, the membrane splits, terror and fury flare up, and I am free.


On September 26 the royal couple, accompanied by Struensee and a small entourage, set off on a short holiday trip to Holsten. They were to visit Ascheberg, and Struensee was going to show Rousseau's famous hut to the Queen.

It was such a lovely autumn. A few days of cool weather had colored the leaves golden and a faint crimson. As they drove toward Ascheberg in the afternoon, the Mountain glittered with all the fall colors, and the air was mild and marvelous.

It was Indian summer in 1770. By the following day they began taking their walks.

During the summer he had started reading aloud to her. For this journey she had requested that he select a book that particularly engaged him. He was to choose a book that would amuse her, that would capture her interest by offering new information, that would teach her something about Struensee himself, and that was appropriate to the place they were going to visit.

An easy choice, he told her, but refused to say more. He would surprise her, he said, when they had taken their seats in Rousseau's hut.

Then she would understand.

On the second day they walked up to the hut alone. It had been meticulously and reverently preserved and furnished; it had two small rooms, one room where the philosopher was supposed to work, one where he would sleep. They had forgotten to set up a kitchen; it was assumed that the primitive conditions would be mitigated by having servants bring meals up from the Ascheberg estate.

With great interest she read the poetical quotations that covered the walls and ceiling, and Struensee told her about Rousseau.

She felt utterly happy.

Then he took out the book. They sat down on the very beautiful baroque sofa that stood in the study; the elder Rantzau had purchased it in Paris in 1755 and later had it placed in the hut in anticipation of Rousseau's visit. The book he was going to read to her was Ludvig Holberg's Moral Thoughts.

Why had he chosen that particular book?

At first she thought that this book, this choice, was much too gloomy; he then asked her to forget for a moment the name of the book, which was perhaps not overly exciting, and allow him to read the titles of the epigrams, which, he intimated, would present an entirely different impression.

"Something forbidden?" she asked.

"To the highest degree," he replied.

The titles did indeed catch her interest. "Do not waste time on empty activities. Only the mad are happy. I refuse to marry. Abandon an opinion if it is refuted. All crimes and sins are not equally serious. Only the ignorant believe they know everything. You are happy if you imagine yourself happy. Some people sin and beg by turns. Time and place determine what is moral. Virtue and vice change with the times. Abolish rhyme in the art of poetry. The poet lives in honor and poverty. Reforms easily slip out of control. Weigh carefully the consequences of a reform. Doctors should answer questions rather than lecture. Agreement deadens, conflict stimulates. Bad taste has great benefits. We have a great desire for what is forbidden."

There, at the last title, she stopped him.

"That's true," she said. "That's very true. And I want to know what Ludvig Holberg says about it."

"As you wish," he said.

But he started off with a different epigram.

She suggested that he should make his own choice among the epigrams, so that the reading would end with the text about the forbidden. She wanted to have the context first, and Holberg's reflections. He started with Number 84, titled "Time and place determine what is moral." He began reading the text on the second afternoon they spent at Rousseau's hut, during that late-September week at Ascheberg, the estate he knew so well, which was part of his former life, the life he had almost forgotten but was now trying to reclaim.

He was trying to find a sense of continuity in his life. He knew that it had continuity, but he was not yet in control of it.

On the third afternoon he read the epigram that began with the sentence, "Morality is whatever conforms to the accepted fashion of the day, and immorality is what conflicts with it." Then he read epigram Number 20 in Book IV, the one that begins with the sentence, "The most peculiar of human attributes is that people have the greatest desire for what is the most forbidden."

She thought his voice was so lovely.

She liked Ludvig Holberg too. It was as if the voices of Struensee and Holberg merged into one. It was a dark, warm voice that spoke to her of a world she had never known before; the voice embraced her, she felt as if she were floating in warm water, which shut out the court and Denmark and the King and everything else; like water, as if she were floating in the warm sea of life and was not afraid.

She thought his voice was so lovely. She told him so.

"You have such a lovely voice, Doctor Struensee."

He kept on reading.

She was wearing an evening gown made of a light fabric since it was late summer and warm, a very light fabric that she had chosen because of the mild summer night. She felt freer in it. The gown was low cut. Her skin was very young, and occasionally, when he looked up from the book, his eyes would rest on her skin; then they would pause on her hands, and he suddenly remembered his thought about that hand wrapped around his member, a thought he had once had, and then he went back to reading.

"Doctor Struensee," she said suddenly, "you must touch my arm while you read."

"Why?" he asked after only a brief hesitation.

"Because otherwise the words are so dry. You must touch my skin and then I can better understand what the words mean."

And so he touched her arm. It was uncovered and very soft. He could tell at once that it was very soft.

"Touch my hand," she said. "Slowly."

"Your Majesty," he said, "I'm afraid that..."

"Touch it," she said.

He went on reading, his hand sliding softly over her bare arm. Then she said:

"I think that Holberg is saying that the most forbidden is a boundary."

"A boundary?"

"A boundary. And wherever the boundary exists, there is life, and death, and thus the greatest desire."

His hand moved, and then she took his hand in her own, pressed it to her throat.

"The greatest desire," she whispered, "exists at the boundary. It's true. It's true what Holberg writes."

"Where is the boundary?" he whispered.

"Find it," she said.

And then the book fell out of his hand.

It was she, not he, who locked the door.

She was not afraid, she didn't fumble as they took off their clothes; she continued to feel as if she were in the warm water of life and nothing was dangerous and death was quite close and thus everything was exciting. Everything seemed very soft and slow and warm.

They lay down next to each other, naked, in the bed that stood in the inner alcove of the hut, where once the French philosopher Rousseau was supposed to have slept, though he never did. That was where they now lay. It filled her with excitement, it was a sacred place and they were about to cross the boundary, it was the utmost forbidden, the very utmost. The place was forbidden, she was forbidden, it was nearly perfect.

They touched each other. She caressed his member with her hand. She liked it, it was hard but she waited because their nearness to the boundary was so exciting and she wanted to hold on to the moment.

"Wait," she said. "Not yet."

He lay beside her and caressed her, they breathed each other in, quite calmly and filled with desire, and she understood all at once that he was like her. That he could breathe as she did. In the same breath. That he was in her lungs and that they were breathing the same air.

He wanted to come inside her, a little way, he was now very close, she caressed his neck and whispered:

"Not all the way. Not yet."

She felt his member touch her, slip inside a little way, go away, come back.

"Not all the way," she said. "Wait."

He waited, almost inside her, but waiting.

"There," she whispered. "Not yet. My beloved. You must move in and out at the boundary."

"The boundary?" he asked.

"Yes, there. Can you feel the boundary?"

"Don't move," he said. "Don't move."

He understood. They would wait, sniff at each other like horses touching each other's muzzle, everything would happen very quietly, he understood.

And she was seized by a wave of happiness, he understood, he would wait, soon she would give the signal, soon; he understood.

"The boundary," she whispered again and again as desire slowly, slowly rose through her body. "Can you feel it, the greatest desire, more, there's the boundary."

Outside dusk was falling. He lay on top of her, practically motionless, sliding almost imperceptibly in and out.

"There," she whispered. "Very soon. Cross the boundary now. Come in. Oh, go across now."

And at last, very quietly, he slid the tip inside her and passed over the most forbidden of boundaries, and it was as it should be.

Now, she thought, this is like paradise.

When it was over she lay with her eyes closed, and smiled. Silently he dressed and stood by the window for a moment, looking out.

It was dusk and he looked out across the vast park, down at the long valley, the lake, the canal, the trees, the tamed and the wild.

They were on the Mountain. And it had happened.

"We must go down to them," he said in a low voice.

Here nature was perfect. Here was the wild, and the tamed. He thought suddenly of what they had left behind, the court, Copenhagen. How it looked when a light mist hovered over Øresund. That was the other world. There the water was no doubt quite black tonight, the swans were curled up and asleep; he thought about what she had told him, about the water like quicksilver and the birds sleeping wrapped in their dreams. And how all at once a bird would rise up, the tips of its wings beating the surface of the water, how it became free and disappeared into the mist.

Mist, water, and birds that slept wrapped in their dreams.

And then the palace, like a menacing, horror-filled ancient castle, biding its time.

Copyright © 1999 by Per Olov Enquist

Translation copyright © 2001 by Tiina Nunnally

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Realized with a vividness and subtlety that place the book in the front ranks of contemporary literary fiction." —The New York Times Book Review

"An extraordinarily elegant and gorgeous novel." —Los Angeles Times

"An enthralling fable of the temptations of power—and a surprisingly poignant love story." —Time

Meet the Author

Per Olov Enquist is the Swedish journalist, playwright, and novelist. The Royal Physician's Visit received the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the August Prize, and the Nelly Sachs Prize, and was shortlisted for the IMPAC literary award.

Tiina Nunnally has translated work by Astrid Lindgren, Henning Mankell, and Peter Hoeg, among others.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Royal Physician's Visit 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A haunting tale. Beautiful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago