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In her author’s note Susan Appleyard tells us of her love of English history and how telling true stories through fiction comes naturally to her - I agree. In this small historical novel she tells the story of a king I’d heard a little about here and there, and most everybody knows his iconic Neuschwanstein Castle - a major tourist destination in Bavaria. But Ludwig II reportedly told a servant as he left for the last time to preserve it as a shrine, not to fling open the doors to tourists.
That proud privacy is part of what led to his downfall, to his diagnosis of madness and his being deposed from the throne. I wonder whether modernity rushing in just could not countenance an old-fashioned, quirky king and had to be rid of him in a sanitary way? An expert psychiatrist called in on the case concluded that he need not examine the king - the testimony of servants and the government officials who will benefit from Ludwig losing the throne was enough.
Susan Appleyard tells the story of the last year of Ludwig’s life, skillfully throwing just enough doubt on his case that we wonder whether he really was mad . . . or not. He is a recluse with very expensive tastes, perfectly willing to incur debt to govern thrones to finance yet another castle, or patronage of the likes of Wagner. As one character says, “A great part of what is taken for madness is the free expression of absolute power.” What is a king to do?
A couple of key characters - particularly the servant Hornig - reveal their regard and even affection for the king. “When he had first met Ludwig [Hornig] had thought him . . . beautiful and spiritual.” Appleyard helps us see the man’s complexity in a deep way, so that we, too, develop affection for him and want to take his part against those so eager to have him put away.
The action does slow down a little in the middle where functionaries skitter around gathering evidence against the king, and as Ludwig goes his tiresome way living in conspicuous consumption. But then Appleyard brings us back to the characters behind the names. She opens the novel with a telling scene of the deposed king taking a walk in a drizzle of rain with the now-famous psychiatrist who has diagnosed and committed him, then backtracks to months earlier when events began to unfold, finishing with what happens directly afterward.
The ending is inconclusive, as all good history is - and that is the beauty in this fascinating little novel.
Cindy Rinaman Marsch
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