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Review: The Madness of Queen Maria, Jenifer Roberts

Portugal’s first reigning female monarch, Queen Maria I, was plagued with a poor family history that led to extreme mental instability and unhappiness in her later life. In this new biography, Jenifer Roberts explores the queen’s youth, dominated by a powerful member of the aristocracy, her reign, and her unhappy death in exile in Brazil. The author gives voice to Maria’s struggles and provides an illuminating picture of an absolute monarchy on the brink of destruction as discontent reached a fever pitch throughout Europe.

Queen Maria is a surprisingly interesting figure.  It’s always refreshing to find a woman in history who is not controlled by men.  While Maria’s childhood was dominated by her grandfather, father, and prime minister Pombal, when she came to the throne she genuinely took control.  Though she was advised by men, she embarked on her own journey to restore religion, undo the wrongs she believed her forebears had done, and appointed her own advisors with the help of her mother.  Before she lost her senses due to hereditary mental illness, seemingly brought on by six deaths in her family in a very short period of time, Maria actually seemed a good queen and one that her people liked.

Many of the quotes in this book are from the perspective of British ambassadors at the time, which made the book that much more interesting for me.  I have a generally good grasp of British history at this period and it was very illuminating to see the comparisons made.  The same physician who successfully (for the time) treated George III was called in to treat Maria’s madness but failed.  Maria is a part of the world stage, so we also hear about the monarchies of France and Spain as well as the revolution in France and how it affects the political situation in Portugal.  As a result the book, while short, is a complete picture of this period in history, so volatile and prone to change as we with hindsight can see and consider.

The back cover copy says that the book reads like a novel and I would certainly agree with that.  It’s very readable and unfolds as a story should, particularly before Maria’s madness strikes.  From the prologue, we know how that happens, and the rest of the book reveals the history of her life.  The shortest period covers Maria’s madness, but given that she was in a convent for much of this time, there probably was not much to say.  Endnotes are used throughout the text for references, which appears to be the trend in popular history.  The author has also included an extremely useful introduction and several appendices, including the original account of the royal family’s visit to Marinha Grande, the home of an Englishman in charge of the glass factory, which inspired this work.  There is also a list of all the personalities mentioned, an explanation of the Portuguese words and other unfamiliar terms, and more.  There is no point at which any reader could be confused and it was easy to find that I was learning quite a bit more about Portugal than just on the queen herself.

Overall, this is a very well done, comprehensive account of a fascinating queen.  I very much enjoyed reading it and felt that I learned a lot, particularly given how ignorant I am about Portugal.  I highly recommend The Madness of Queen Maria.

This book was sent to me by the author for review. I am an Amazon Associate.

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