The Madness of Queen Maria by Jenifer Roberts
Maria I of Portugal became, in 1777, the first Queen regnant of her country. She came into power at a difficult time in European history. Monarchies were being challenged all around her, from the rebellion of British colonies resulting in the United States to the Revolution in France. The monarchy in Portugal had already suffered greatly under her father, who allowed the unpopular the Marquis of Pombal to essentially run his country. The very religious Maria immediately dismissed Pombal, who had been trying to fashion a more secular society and who had even plotted to deny Maria the succession in favor of her more secular son.
Initially, Maria was a quite popular queen. Then, nine years after her accession, Maria lost her husband and confessor in the same year, and the madness that stalked much of her family made itself manifest in her. Maria’s madness presented largely as religious mania and intense fear of hell.
I felt incredibly sorry for Maria while reading this account of her life. Neither she nor the King her father were given anything approaching sufficient education as a ruler. Certainly her parents could not have helped the madness she inherited (although, come on, maybe a little less marrying within their own family and the royal family of Spain might have mitigated everything!), but she was set off to a poor road by her lack of proper education for one that would rule a country. She was also ruling at such a difficult time, and my heart nearly broke for her when she and her court had to escape the country to Brazil during the Napoleonic Wars. She clearly wasn’t sure what exactly was happening to her and became extremely alarmed when the people of Brazil tried to welcome her with a 21 gun salute.
This was a very well-written, accessible piece of history. It has been said it reads like a novel; you certainly are not going to mistake it for the latest Jodi Picoult, but it is smooth and avoids the excessive dryness that many historical works suffer from. You may get more out of it if you have some grounding in Portuguese history – I must say I was a bit lost towards the beginning having no idea who the Marquise of Pombal was – but even if you come to it knowing nothing about Portugal, like I did, it is a very informative and interesting book. Also quite a short one, at around 150 pages. If anything, I wish that the section on Maria’s madness had been a big longer.
Oh! And if you read it, check out the fantastic list of Portuguese words and personages in the appendix. I wish I’d discovered it before I got to the end of the book, I might not have been quite so in the dark about the Marquise of Pombal initially.
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This review was done with a book received from the author.