Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford
1973 Penguin Books
Honestly, I would not have picked up this book if it wasn't written by Nancy Mitford. I had no previous knowledge on Frederick II of Prussia, aka Frederick the Great, so I stepped into the book with my trust completely in Ms Mitford's hands. And it was a pleasant surprise.
Frederick the Great was her last book, finished shortly before she died. Biographies of her relate how, when she was writing it, she was struggling with the unbearable pain brough on by Hodgkin's disease that left her practically immobile. Despite her passion for French history, she said Frederick II was where her passion pinnacled, and that writing this biography was the best thing she ever wrote. Although I believe her talents were best served in her fiction, this book is certainly a spectacular accomplishment. There is no evidence of her own physical deterioration. In fact, it only confirms her own words to her sister about how she longed to be a "pretty young general and gallope over Europe with Frederick the Great and never have another ache or pain." Nancy was in love with the past, and like other delights like The Sun King or Madame de Pompadour, she makes her readers succumb to the same.
Mitford is able to describe the King's personal life as well as his professional life with a very delicate balance. Myself I have found 18th century Prussian history somewhat complicated, and like her nephew Alexander Mosley, I never understood the Seven Year's War until Nancy set the record straight. She clearly adores Frederick especially in wartime, and discusses his relationship with Voltaire at length (herself already having written Voltaire in Love in 1957). For the relatively short length of the biography, the main plots and characters of Frederick's life are sufficiently covered, although I must admit I expected more about his sister Wilhelmine of Bavaria because of the frequent mention of their intimate lifelong relationship.
Nancy Mitford's biographies have quelque chose that sets them aside from others. Her writing is not at its best in non-fiction. It's certainly tickling to read because she employs the same witty sarcasm in non-fiction as fiction. This has some benefits, but also some drawbacks. The obvious benefit is that it brings a unique calibre to her writing. She has the ability to relate to and hence identify with the (if not somewhat ridiculous) human faults of her objects of study with perfect humour. This helps the reader to identify with the character or to understand the customs, manners or etiquette of the time. Despite making the text enjoyable, the main and sometimes serious drawback is that it often impedes the objectiveness of her examination.
Related to this is the selectiveness of material Mitford covers. Clearly, she has chosen her favourite aspects of the King to describe to her readers; his unhappy youth, his tumultuous friendship with Voltaire, his friends and his wars. From the selection of topics covered we can deduce that these are what Mitford considers to be the most important important (after all, one can only fit so much in 200 or so pages). Whether they are historically the most important is the next question. AJP Taylor, at the time was a severe critic of hers, declaring her a poor historian. Indeed she is an amateur, but the knowledge and research skills accumulated by this self-trained writer is beyond amateurish despite her flaws. Whatever she writes about, she is enthusiastic to tell the tale and never fails to unashamedly give the reader her honest opinion. That it is what gives Frederick the Great its uniqueness; the intensity of her passion jumps of the page.