The Third George was a return to form for Jean Plaidy (following the disappointing The Prince and the Quakeress in her Georgian Saga). The novel focuses on the reign of the king best known for losing the American colonies and for his eventual madness. Plaidy's George III was a somewhat pathetic figure -- a king with the best of intentions but not politically astute enough to rule particularly well.
The novel begins with George placing his royal duty above the dictates of his heart, as he decides to make a state marriage with a plain German princess. After the wedding festivities and a somewhat comical coronation (marred by bad planning), George gets down to the business of ruling, with his longtime advisor, Lord Bute, at his elbow.
The ambitious Lord Bute, craving more power, convinces George's ministers to stand against the brilliant, popular William Pitt, which prompts Pitt to resign from the government. George's subjects grumble against Bute, especially when he proves inept at governing. The common people recognize George has allowed himself to become the puppet of Bute and of his domineering mother, the Princess Dowager (who has long been Bute's lover). They derisively call the pair Jackboot and Petticoat and make it dangerous for either of them to venture into London.
Bute eventually admits his ambitions have outstripped his political abilities, and when he steps down, George brings Pitt back into the government. But the once-great statesman has grown old and ill, and he, George and the other ministers make a long series of disastrous decisions. Continually mocked in broadsheets of the day, George only finds happiness by retiring to the country to play at being a gentleman farmer and to spend time with his growing brood of children. A strict moralist, the king is continually beset by scandals involving his siblings and, later, his eldest sons. His mental health deteriorates as his anxieties increase.
Throughout the story, I most sympathized with George's queen, Charlotte, one of the book's best drawn characters. (The portrait to the right was said to be an excellent likeness.) She is hand-picked by Jackboot and Petticoat to be a meek wife who will not challenge their power. The day she arrives in London, she is told she will marry George, whom she has only just met, that very night! A short, thin woman, she has to be pinned into her wedding dress.
The Princess Dowager continually meddles in the queen's household, deciding for her on matters as petty as whether Charlotte will wear jewels to church or what attendants will serve her. (Talk about a mother-in-law from hell!) As the queen learns English, she becomes more interested in state affairs and encourages George to confide in her. George shuts her out, as he is determined no woman will rule him as George II was ruled by his queen. (He seems to forget this when it comes to his mother, however.) Charlotte grows increasingly frustrated as she is left with nothing to do but to bear child after child. (The couple eventually had 15!)
The novel dragged somewhat in the middle, and the last several chapters were a hurried, workmanlike account of several important events, as though Plaidy were impatient to get to the end. The American Revolution, unfortunately, was one of the subjects given cursory treatment; I would have liked to read more about British reactions to it. Plaidy also touched very briefly on a couple of the scandals involving the Prince of Wales; the next few books in the series focus more on him and his love affairs.
Plaidy ended the book with one of George's episodes of madness, which was both terrifyingly and touchingly portrayed. I am looking forward to the series finally arriving at the Regency years. My grade for The Third George: C+