I'm a sucker for a good period drama. The architecture, the interiors, the wardrobe, the coiffures, the customs! The other night, I settled in to watch A Royal Affair. I really didn't know what the movie was about... I picked it based on its promising cover featuring a young woman in gorgeous 18th Century attire with two handsome men on either side. Within the first two minutes, I was struck with memories of a book I read back in 2007: The Royal Physician's Visit by Per Olov Enquist. I hit pause, went to GoodReads and IMDB. Sure enough, the book and the film were centered around the same story but not based on each other. I couldn't have been more delighted.
The Royal Physician's Visit is one of my all-time favorite and most beloved reads. It's been five years since I read it, but I can easily recall how beautifully and eloquently written was the story of Caroline Mathilde. It stuck with me. And now I'm feeling the urge to re-read it. (A feat that I very rarely attempt unless I'm completely head-over-heels for the book.)
Caroline Mathilde (Caroline Matilda of Great Britain) was a British princess who at the age fifteen married King Christian VII of Denmark, thus becoming Queen of Denmark. She left behind all that she knew in England to rule an unfamiliar country alongside a stranger. Sounds familiar? Her marriage situation is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette, in my eyes.
However, while Marie Antoinette had to put up with an awkward, uninterested husband and snobbish French court... Caroline Mathilde had to deal with even more trials in her marriage. She was not told beforehand, but upon arriving in Denmark and marrying Christian VII... she soon discovered His Majesty to be mentally ill. While the king was intelligent and experienced moments of clarity, his life was largely wrought with bouts of paranoia, self-mutilation, and hallucinations. On top of that, he disliked and mistreated Caroline Mathilde... requiring persuasion to even consummate the marriage to produce an heir. All of this, as expected, left Caroline Mathilde unhappy and unfilled.
When Christian VII's sufferings became increasingly difficult, he was appointed a personal physician. Johann Struensee rose to the opportunity. He was a skilled doctor, but more importantly knew how to handle the king's mental illness smoothly and efficiently... even improving the king's behavior. The only problem with Stuensee was that he supported the Enlightenment, thinkers who had been rejected by the Danish court.
Struensee wins the confidence of King Christian VII and ultimately, the heart of Queen Caroline Mathilde. With the king, he secures a place on the council and eventually becomes the "de facto" regent of the country. With the queen, he indulges in a love affair and even fathers her second child: a daughter. I don't want to give too much more away, but neither the situation with the king and council nor the romance with the queen can go on forever as political troubles brew in Denmark.
The Royal Physician's Visit and A Royal Affair both capture the entire story perfectly. This period of Danish history is unfortunately little known, but it is so very fascinating and intriguing. There's so much rich history, consuming passion, and raw emotion portrayed on the pages and on the screen. Both the book and film also capture such depth in the characters---the king's ailments, the queen's depression, the physician's motives, the council members' interests. The friendship between the physician and the king changed Denmark. The relationship between the physician and the queen divided a country.
Marie Antoinette and The Duchess both rank highly in my top movies, but A Royal Affair has surpassed them both. It lacks the frivolties and theatrics of Marie Antoinette. It goes deeper into all the characters more than does The Duchess. Marie Antoinette and Georgina Cavendish both suffered in their lives, but I feel that Caroline Mathilde is overlooked in history as one of the great women who was cursed with more struggle, depression, and heartbreak in her life than bearable... and yet she endured it.
If you're looking for a historical fiction novel or period drama film filled with historical intrigue, romance, rich characterization, and stunning portrayal... I highly recommend The Royal Physician's Visit by Per Olov Enquist and A Royal Affair.
If you decide to read or watch either of these, please let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts. :)