His Majesty's Grand Conceit
By Robert Barclay
The story is told through firsthand accounts by the dramatis personae of all the machinations, plots, subterfuges, craft and wiles undertaken in bringing about His Royal Highness King George II's firework spectacle of April 27, 1749 to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. This was the great firework extravaganza for which Handel wrote his 'Musick for the Royal Fireworks.' A wooden temple 410 feet in length was erected in the Green Park in London to act as the launching pad for several tons of rockets, mortars and fountains. French and Italian designers were employed, along with English artillerymen, and the resultant international friction almost led to disaster. The event was widely lampooned and criticized, and it was only through the relentless determination of John, 2nd Duke of Montagu that it was brought off at all. History records the event as a fiasco, but there are other sides to the story as told here. If it didn't happen exactly as reported here, it ought to have.
“These months since the king first sprung this thing upon me had been the busiest and most ill organised of my life.”
John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, may be a man of many talents, and one that prides himself on his diplomatic skills, but he had never envisaged the utter fiasco that was to come. As Master-General of Ordnance, the responsibility for the grand firework display to celebrate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle lay very firmly upon his shoulders.
However, the time frame for this spectacle that His Majesty King George II has insisted on staging is uncommonly short, and there is not the skill in England’s pleasant pastures to pull it off without help. To achieve the impossible, they would have to employ the skills of Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, the famed Italian architect, and the equally talented pyrotechnician, Signor Gaetano Ruggieri. It goes without saying that Handle would supply the music—as long as he does not include any of those damned fiddles in his composition. But this was to be a strictly English affair with no outsiders’ influence. John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, must never forget that fact…
A rich symphony of colours accompanied by a resounding crash of drums and not forgetting the fanfare of trumpets that hurtled everything towards a dramatic crescendo that would either signify glory or failure, His Majesty’s Grand Conceit by Robert Barclay is the beguiling behind-the-scenes story of King George’s firework celebrations of 1749.
With a vast cast of characters, His Majesty’s Grand Conceit is a book that demands your attention. Initially, I did struggle with keeping up with all the different points of view, but there is a promise of brilliance at the beginning of this book, much like King George’s imaginations for this sensational event, which kept me turning those pages, and I am so glad I did. This novel illuminates not only the preparations and the delivery of this grand event, but it also shines a sparkling light upon the era itself—its splendour as well as its squaller. This is not just the story of the aristocracy, but it is also the story of those who worked so hard, at significant risk in dangerous conditions, to bring to fruition a king’s fancy. The depiction of what everyday life was like for the lower class was wonderfully portrayed.
The hours of research that have gone into this book are immense. Barclay’s knowledge of not only this era and the characters that grace the pages but also the property of gunpowder and how fireworks were made in the 18th Century has to be admired. Barclay’s explanations of things that the reader needs to know are done with one eye on the accuracy of what he is explaining and the other on what makes for an entertaining read. I undoubtedly know a little more about what went into making fireworks during this era thanks to this book!
Likewise, Barclay also has a clear understanding of the political climate of the time. While a nation watched a king’s fortune go up in smoke, the deprivation and the poverty of his subjects were mostly ignored. The king does have his moments when he is incredibly generous with his wealth, most notably when he witnesses a man who, due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, is grievously injured, but he does not think to call a halt to the proceedings. He is a man determined and a man disconnected from the subjects that he ruled.
Another extremely interesting aspect that Barclay portrayed was how the nobility, especially in the case of the Duke of Montagu, used their position to make money for themselves. Barclay suggests that corruption was widespread, and there was a lot of money to be made by fiddling the books. I thought that Barclay balanced the history with the story most admirably. This novel is certainly backed up by confident research.
There are some very fascinating characters in this book, each with a wonderful story and insight into the events of the months leading up to the spectacular show of wealth. But I am going to focus on a few of my favourite characters.
John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, is a man who is responsible for making the impossible, possible. He is entrusted with a job that initially he really wanted, but by the end of it, he probably wished he had never heard of! John is a shrewd man in this novel, who thinks very highly of himself. He is determined to profit for his troubles, and as the king’s purse is wide open, he is resolved to take advantage of that—although things do not always go the way he wants them to. But those who dare to hoodwink him are in for a nasty surprise, for Montagu has a flare for the theatrical, which means that no one ever knows precisely how he will wreak his revenge. The Duke of Montagu was a character that I enjoyed getting to know. He is, as we British would say, full of it, but in an exceedingly charming way. I thought his depiction was brilliant from start to finish.
Another character who I enjoyed reading about was George Frideric Handel. Handel was commissioned to provide the music for this spectacular event. When a king's will and a composer’s ingenuity clash, then there is bound to be fireworks. As infuriated as Handel became with the king’s dogged determination to have things his way, the more amusing it became for the reader. I sympathised with Handel immensely. His sometimes bemused, but usually highly aggrieved reactions to the king’s demands and his inability to do anything but obey, made for some enthralling reading.
An impossible task leads to a clash of personalities especially when an Italian and an adopted Frenchman is brought into the fold to give guidance! I simply adored Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni. As soon as he stepped out of the carriage, I knew he was going to be something of a handful for his English counterparts. His flamboyant personality and his utter indignation when the English dared to try to tell him what to do were especially compelling. I thought Giovanni brought an awful lot to this story.
If you are looking for your next explosive read that will entertain you from the opening sentence to the final full stop, then look no further. His Majesty’s Grand Conceit by Robert Barclay is a tautly gripping, incredibly impressive story that I found next to impossible to put down. There is no doubt in my mind, His Majesty’s Grand Conceit is a monumental work of scholarship, and it is a real treat for lovers of quality Historical Fiction.
I Highly Recommend
Review by Mary Anne Yarde
The Coffee Pot Book Club
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I'm the author of several books on the history, development and conservation of historic musical instruments. I am a maker of historic-model trumpets after 17th and 18th century originals, and I teach workshops in trumpet-making. After a long career of writing factual technical material, I decided it was time to start telling lies. Nevertheless, my fictional works all embody elements of truth because, I argue, the news these days is so unbelievable that "you couldn't invent this stuff!" In addition to writing, I enjoy driving around in my 1920 Morgan three-wheeler, which I restored from a heap of bits. Also, I'm not averse to picking up a paintbrush: waiting forever for a publisher to produce a cover for 'Jacob the Trumpeter', I got impatient and decided to paint the cover picture myself. I knew the character much better than any artist could anyway, and the result is not bad. I won't give up my day job, though.
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Book Title: His Majesty's Grand Conceit
Author: Robert Barclay
Publication Date: September 25th 2020
Publisher: Loose Cannon Press
Genre: Historical Fiction