Friday, 25 September 2009

New books: Maria I, “mad” Queen of Portugal

At the end of July Templeton Press, a small publishing house in Chippenham, released the book The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal by Jenifer Roberts.
Despite the book’s title the author argues that Queen Maria I was more than just the mad Queen of Portugal and that history has treated her unkindly. In the book’s introduction she points to “the 18th-century battle between church and state, between the old superstitions and the age of reason” as contradictions which Queen Maria embodied. “Pulled by her instincts towards the old religion, she understood at least some aspects of the Enlightenment and took a humanitarian approach to state affairs. A weak and fragile woman, she was unsuited for monarchy and the struggle for power between church and state helped to destroy her”.
This seems like an interesting approach to Queen Maria’s story, but the author fails to follow that thread. Instead she shies away from all politics, except the ups and downs in the Portuguese royal family’s relationship with the Marquis of Pombal. What she offers is rather a personal history of the life of this unfortunate sovereign.
Maria I came to the throne in 1777, as the first female sovereign of Portugal. As she was forbidden by law to marry a foreigner, she was married off to her uncle (later their eldest son was married off to his own aunt, twice his age, before he had reached puberty). Maria’s uncle/husband became King Consort under the name Pedro III, but it was clearly she who was the monarch and King Pedro had to play second fiddle.
In 1786 King Pedro died and two years later Queen Maria suffered the loss of another uncle, two of her three surviving children, a newborn grandchild, her son-in-law and her confessor, who was important to her, within a few months of each other. This apparently pushed her towards the brink and, in 1792, over it. She thought herself to be in hell and believed the devil had gotten inside her. What was then considered simply “madness” is by Jenifer Roberts described as “a rare and particularly severe form of bi-polar disease”.
Queen Maria’s mental agony would last the rest of her life, which ended only in 1816, when she died, aged 81, in Brazil, to where the Portuguese royal family had fled the events of the Napoleonic Wars in 1807. After 24 years with a mother believing herself to be in hell, her heir, João VI, postponed his enthronement ceremony for nearly two years, until he was certain his mother had left purgatory, something the priests could at first not quite agree about.
The book is well written and draws on both British and Portuguese sources, but gives a rather isolated view of Queen Maria, detached from the events of her time. The author apparently got “attracted” to the topic of this book through her earlier book about the Englishman William Stevens’ glass factory at Marinha Grande. For her previous book, Roberts failed to find an account of the Queen’s visit to the factory in 1788, but now she has found it and spends an entire chapter of nine pages as well as an appendix of fourteen pages on it. In a book of only 180 pages this is too much – a visit from a queen may be a chapter of its own in the history of a factory, but in the life of a monarch the visit to a factory is not a chapter of its own.

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