The Visit of the Royal Physician (1999): Per Olov Enquist


Per Olov Enquist’s novel was a great success in his native Sweden, where it won the 1999 August Prize, and its critical acclaim continued with this English translation by Tiina Nunnally, which won the 2003 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It was also one of the sources of inspiration for the very good 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair, which I enjoyed immensely. Enquist’s novel shares much of its atmosphere with the film. It is a stark, claustrophobic and disturbing account of the ménage à trois which existed at the Danish court from 1769 until 1772, between the mad King Christian VII, his English wife Caroline Mathilde (younger sister of George III) and the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee, whose appointment as Royal Physician offers him all manner of opportunities.

It was as if he saw the aperture of history open, and he knew that it was the aperture of life, and he was the only one who could step through this opening. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was his duty. And he was tremendously frightened.

The novel gives key roles to two other courtiers, whose experiences frame that of Struensee and through whom we learn a little more about the peculiar atmosphere of the Court. One of these men is Christian’s boyhood tutor, the Frenchman Reverdil. He arrives in Copenhagen to discover with horror that his pupil – a sensitive and keenly intelligent young man – is being systematically broken and humiliated by his leading courtiers. This is because power at the Danish court resides absolutely in the King, and the only way that the ministers can hope to perpetuate their own power is to ensure that the King is debauched enough, foolish enough or mad enough that he is unable to prevent their ruling on his behalf. On the other side of the equation is the reptilian and ambitious courtier Guldberg. Deeply conscious of his own insignificance, Guldberg thinks of himself as a stunted shrub which, being small, will be able to weather the storms that bring taller trees crashing down. Driven by a fanatical obsession with purity, cleanliness and the cutting-out of sin, he believes that he is the right man to help the young king cleanse the Danish court of debauchery and lust. However, he can never hope to wield enough influence over Christian to compete with Struensee.

This young doctor from Altona joins the court on an extended European tour to take care of the unpredictable king. Quite against his intentions, Struensee finds himself growing fond of the damaged young man, whom he diagnoses with ‘frostbite of the soul’. At the end of the tour, rather than leave the king’s service, he travels back to Copenhagen with the court and thereby seals his fate. The Danish nobility, fixated on rank and title, loathe this upstart interloper and his friendship with their king. Fortunately for them, Struensee soon gives them legitimate reason to hate him. First, he uses his power over Christian to begin introducing dangerously Enlightened reforms. Then, to make matters worse, it becomes clear that he has ensnared the affections of Christian’s bored, isolated queen.

The story could easily be told as a bodice-ripper, as Struensee’s apparent indifference to the young queen first captures her attention and then stimulates her increasing fascination with this handsome, taciturn foreigner. Enquist avoids the temptation, however. His tale has the austerity and tragic inevitability of a medieval morality play. Each of his three protagonists is trapped: Christian by his uncontrollable fits of madness; Caroline Mathilde by the suffocating, friendless scrutiny of the court; and Struensee by his own desire to transform Denmark into an Enlightened state. Each of them longs to break free from their prison, with varying results. While Christian seems to gain relief from discussions about the French philosophes or, later on, from playing like a child with his beloved dog and his black page, he doesn’t truly come any closer to being liberated from his unfortunate illness. Struensee, though he subscribes to Enlightenment notions of freedom, finds that he only traps himself more tightly by drawing up new laws to put into effect. Rather than opening the floodgates to liberty, they merely threaten to tighten the noose around his, Struensee’s, neck.

Perhaps the only one of the three who actually becomes freer is Caroline Mathilde. Dismissed and sneered at by the courtiers, most particularly Guldberg, she discovers to her own surprise that she has the resilience and the intellect to become a player in her own right in ‘the great game‘. Indeed, as the darkness closes in upon their brief time of happiness, it is she rather than Struensee who takes control.

Enquist’s style is rather disconcerting: he writes in short, jagged sentences which seem to circle around their point, repeating and alluding and finally settling again, so that the writing feels as strange and obsessive as one of Christian’s fits of madness. It is also a strangely objective style, which tends to describe things to the reader rather than trying to bring us into the characters’ minds. What we know of the characters, we learn through the judgements of others or extracts from their memoirs or rather stiff moments of self-examination. Everything feels staged: there is no sense of exuberance or freedom; and once again I take this as a deliberate stylistic decision, so that the book feels as ominous and stifling as the court feels to Struensee or, perhaps, even to Christian. Throughout there is a subtle sense of growing dread which begins to weave its black tendrils into the pages. Initially I rather disliked this style, but by the end of the book it had grown on me; retrospectively, I recognised a strangely poetic rhythm to it and even the odd touch of irony on the author’s part.

Christian’s chosen queen was named Caroline Mathilde… and she lacked any talents whatsoever… Yet she came to play a key role in what happened – something which no-one could have predicted and which filled everyone with dismay since it was commonly held that she lacked talents. Afterwards everyone agreed that it was unfortunate that she did indeed have talents. If the proper assessment had been made from the outset, namely that she possessed some talents, then the entire catastrophe might have been averted. But no-one could have predicted this.

Having already seen the film, I think I was able to follow the story much more easily than I would have done by coming to it cold, and I would very much recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the film and vice versa. Contrary to what is suggested by the cover, this isn’t really a love story at all, but a hard, cold tale of power and influence and the struggle to introduce new theories into a country where the ancien regime is still entrenched. And, furthermore, it’s a real slice of history that almost rivals Hamlet, with its mad Danish king, its unfaithful queen, the usurper taking power for himself, the plotting amongst the courtiers and the insularity of the isolated, paranoid, inward-looking court.

Apart from the film and Stella Tillyard’s history book (also called A Royal Affair, but not directly linked), there’s also a novel by Norah Lofts about Caroline Mathilde, called The Lost Queen. By accident rather than design, I happen to have this book on my Kindle, so I’ll be reading it in due course; though I doubt it will be able to match Enquist’s strange, absorbing, unsettling novel.

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13 thoughts on “The Visit of the Royal Physician (1999): Per Olov Enquist

  1. Heloise says:

    This sounds interesting, but I admit I'm hesitating somewhat because of what you say about his style (and the example of it that you give) – it seems very awkward and clunky, and I'm not sure I'd manage to get used to it.

    Many years back I read another historical novel set at the Danish court that seems to share quie a few themes with Enquist's novel, even though it takes place a bit earlier than this one – Music and Silence by Rose Tremain which I vaguely remember (it really was a long time ago) rather liking.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    It is a bit stiff in places, but because of the kind of story he's telling, I think it does work… And the repetition in the above example, for me, is a kind of ironic riff on the notion of 'talents'. Having said that, it did take a while to get into it. Yes, I too read 'Music and Silence' some years ago and actually that's on my to-be-read pile at the moment!

  3. Heloise says:

    I'm still not quite convinced, it seems to be lacking in rhythm for that, and ending two sentences on a “talents” with a similar cadence just sounds flat to me. But that might be my lack of intuitive grasp of English – I've seen that there is a German translation of this available for Kindle, maybe I'll give that a try. Or possibly his book on Strindberg which also seemed quite appealing…

  4. Isi says:

    Reading your review I have noticed I have never read any books set in Denmark! I have to say that the story about the king and queen hasn't make me feel intereted, but well, that's a little relief for my list of books 🙂
    But I have to look out for books set in countries I've never read about, now that you have mentioned Denmark 😉

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    It's definitely an unusual style. It's always difficult to tell with translated books how much is due to the author and how much to the translator, of course. I note that Tiina Nunnally also translated the Penguin Classics version of Kristin Lavransdatter, which I keep meaning to read as well, so it'll be interesting to see how I get on with that.

    No, it's not your 'lack of intuitive grasp of English', because your grasp of English is as good as mine (if not better when it comes to questions of form and structure!) 😀

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Hi Charlie! It's the kind of story that, if it were entirely made up, you would think to yourself that it could never happen. The remarkable thing is that it really did happen and in fact the weakness at the heart of the system was encouraged because it allowed the ministers and bureaucrats to keep their power. Remarkable, really. Yes, I highly recommend the film (though even that has a slightly unusual austerity to it) and I now can't read about Struensee without seeing him as Mads Mikkelsen in my mind's eye. Let me know if you do see it, and what you think!

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    I can't think of any other stories set in Denmark off the top of my head, apart from Music and Silence which Heloise mentioned and, obviously, Hamlet, which may not count as a book, technically speaking… 🙂 It's an odd story and I can understand why it wouldn't appeal: for me, it's the power play which is interesting and the fact that Enlightened ideas (which we take for granted nowadays – e.g. abolishing serfdom, freedom of the press, welfare initiatives) were considered very subversive and dangerous at this time.

    When I get round to reading the Norah Lofts version, I'll let you know if that is more accessible (although it's the same story so it still might not whet your appetite!!!!)


  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Charlie, I just thought… There's also the option of reading Stella Tillyard's history book first. She doesn't just focus on Caroline Mathilde – her field of interest is all of George III's siblings – but of course the Danish story does play quite a large role in her book for the precise reason that it's such an interesting insight into the politics and psyche of the time.

    Ah well, I'm glad I'm doing my bit to help bring mad Danish kings to prominence on the internet 🙂

  9. Charlie says:

    I agree with Heloise about the writing, the repetition is confusing! Though at the same time the humour is there and the story sounds good, I'll be Wikipedia-ing the king in a minute. Thinking it might be an idea to do the same as you and watch the film first (shock horror there as I'm usually anti-film-first).

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    Interestingly, I was in the library at the weekend and they had a copy of The Story of Blanche and Marie, another novel by Enquist. I didn't take it out, but on flicking through it I discovered that the writing style is actually very, very similar to The Royal Physician: the same kind of staccato phrasing, the same odd sense of dislocation. So it's either Enquist's own style or that of the translator. My copy of Kristen Lavransdatter, also translated by Nunnally, has just been delivered and seems on first glance to be rather different in style – so presumably what we see in The Royal Physician is down to Enquist's own particular writing style.

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