The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal by Jenifer Roberts

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The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal by Jenifer Roberts

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the fragile woman caught up in an epic battle between church and state in eighteenth-century Portugal, and who ended her days in insanity in Brazilian exile.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 200 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Templeton Press
ISBN: 978-0954558918

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Born in 1734 in Lisbon, at that time the richest and most opulent city in Europe, Maria was destined to become the first female monarch in Portuguese history. Married to her uncle Infante Pedro, seventeen years her senior, she had six children (outliving all but one of them), and became Queen in 1777. A conscientious woman, she had the misfortune to be born in during the 'age of reason', when church and state were vying for supremacy. Instinctively a supporter of the old religion, with a humanitarian approach to state affairs, she was no Queen Elizabeth, no Catherine the Great, and wore her crown rather reluctantly.

A combination of the demands of her position and a legacy of mental illness among her immediate ancestors proved her undoing. When she was in her early fifties her health began to give way, she suffered from 'extreme melancholia', or what we would now call severe depression. After complaining of various physical symptoms for some weeks, and 'ranting and raging' when thwarted, one evening in 1792 while attending the opera she had a complete breakdown. Suffering a serious fit, she had to be taken away and put to bed, where she howled and screamed throughout the night.

Dr Francis Willis, an English 'mad-doctor' who had recently treated his own sovereign King George III for a similar condition with apparent if only short-term success, was summoned to Lisbon to come and try and effect a cure, but there was little he could do. In 1799 she was deemed incurably insane, and her one surviving son Joao took over the government.

French ambitions as personified by Napoleon Bonaparte posed a major threat to the Braganza dynasty, and in 1807 the royal family fled to Brazil where they established a court in exile, but Maria never recovered. Physically if not mentally she remained in good health, and died at the age of 81 in 1816.

As Jenifer Roberts makes clear, Maria had little interest in politics although she did her best to rule the country wisely with her ministers' advice. What we have is not a political history, but instead a very readable and skilfully-written biography, concentrating mainly on the issues she faced in her private life. At the same she sketches in well the background of political and religious strife in the country, to say nothing of such calamities as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which claimed the lives of thousands, and the aftermath of the French revolution, as well as the major events and personalities of her era.

Biographers dealing with characters from this period in history are always faced with a major problem in bringing their subjects fully to life. Even when letters and diaries are available, they often tend to be anodyne and give little insight into the writer's personality, and Queen Maria is no exception. It says much for the author that she has done an excellent job in illuminating the personality of this sovereign, and shed light on one of the lesser-known European monarchs of her age who deserves a book to herself. The illustrations (eight pages of colour plates, portraits and places) are particularly well chosen.

Our thanks to Templeton Press for sending a copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, may we also recommend two other biographies of contemporary women, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis and King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman.

Buy The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal by Jenifer Roberts at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal by Jenifer Roberts at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal by Jenifer Roberts at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal by Jenifer Roberts at Amazon.com.


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