Per Olov Enquist

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Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In 1768 the young, feeble-minded King Christian VII of Denmark sets off on a prolonged tour of European capitals. His "handlers" determine that he needs to have a doctor along to help fend off, and to treat, the King’s frequent bouts of "agitation." Therefore, they appoint Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German physician from Altona, as the Royal Physician. Christian and Struensee develop a close bond; when the trip is over, the Royal Physician stays with the King and becomes a permanent fixture at the Danish court.

Christian is unstable and childlike. He enjoys playing games, but is totally uninterested in his beautiful young English wife, Caroline Mathilde. She becomes pregnant the first time he visits her, but he never sleeps with her again. Meanwhile, the King’s ministers actually run the government, even though he is theoretically an absolute monarch.

When Struensee, who is an Enlightenment intellectual, enters this ménage, he decides to reform the State by getting King Christian to agree to a series of enlightened new laws. Having won the King’s ear, the Royal Physician proceeds to rule Denmark for several years and to institute many of the reforms proposed by Voltaire and the other Enlightenment philosophers. Struensee also begins a tender, prolonged, and obvious love affair with the queen, who subsequently bears him a daughter.

The end of this story is not difficult to predict. Aggrieved members of the aristocracy manipulate the king to strip Dr. Struensee of his power and have him executed for adultery with Queen Caroline. She and the baby girl are shipped back to her home in England. The new Prime Minister retracts all of the reforms enacted by Struensee. And the demented king lives on in the fiction of his absolute power.

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