Frederick the Great – Nancy Mitford

I’ve done it! I’ve done it! My book for 1970 is finished, and with it is finished my Century of Books. I was so fearful that I might stall at 99 on December 31st, so finishing on December 28th was rather a relief. I’ll write more about the project, including the sort of stats and things that interest me, but for today I’ll get on with reviewing the title I chose for 1970 – Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford.

Vintage Books kindly sent me a couple of Nancy Mitford’s biographies a while ago, and I was in a bit of a quandary about them. Those of you who were reading Stuck-in-a-Book in 2008 may recall my Mitfordmania, which has lessened a little (mostly because I came to the reluctant conclusion that Debo Mitford probably wouldn’t become my best friend) but is certainly not dead. So I was all eagerment to read another book by Nancy Mitford – but my interest in notable figures of French history is so minute as to be negligible. On which side of the balance would Frederick the Great fall down? More Mitford or more History? Frivolous and funny, or scholarly and dry? I thought I had my answer on the first page:

He was the third son of his parents: two little Fredericks had died, one from having a crown forced upon his head at the time of the christening and the other when the guns greeting his birth were fixed too near his cradle; the third Frederick, allergic to neither crowns nor guns, survived, and so, luckily for him, did his elder sister, Wilheimine.
Can this possibly be true? Had two heirs did in such surreal circumstances? I decided not to take recourse to Wikipedia, but just to take Nancy’s word for it. Even if Nancy is honestly reporting events, the tang of Mitford is evident in the bizarre way she phrases them, and the absence of any sort of explanation. I’m sorry for the children and their mother, but I was delighted that Mitford didn’t lose her tone when writing non-fiction.

Indeed, for much of the time it felt novelesque. Mitford uses almost no footnotes and, whilst there is a bibliography at the end, her biography is evidently incredibly subjective. Since she doesn’t reference properly, even when giving excerpts, it is impossible to ascertain where she gets her information – and where she is making stuff up. I doubt she ever invents battles which didn’t happen, or friendships which never existed, but she certainly imposes a great deal that she cannot have known for certain. The first 80 or so pages of Frederick the Great concern his life as a prince, principally (ahaha) his relationship with his father. It was the section of the book I found most interesting, but Mitford blithely imagines Frederick’s thoughts and feelings, giving no evidence for these forays into his consciousness – for, indeed, what evidence could there be?

Frederick William (Frederick the Great’s father) loved hunting and religion (if not noticeably God), and hated intellectuals and the French. Frederick the Great was – from birth, it sometimes seems – the exact opposite. He suggested that hunters were below butchers (because butchers killed out of necessity, and did not enjoy doing it), he enjoyed winding his father up by being blasphemous or heretical, and worshipped the French tongue so greatly that he always signed himself Fédéric, could barely speak German, and prized French culture above any other. At least this is what Nancy Mitford claims – but I began to suspect she might be superimposing her own devotedly Francophile feelings upon this German king, just a little.

It is something of a truism of biography to present the subject as a ‘mass of contradictions’. Certainly, Frederick the Great seems that. Mitford emphasises his love of culture (he was passionately fond of Voltaire, at least until they met; he practiced the flute four times a day) and his progressive nature (legal reforms which saw only a handful of death penalties given a year, in contrast to the rest of Western Europe; decreasing cruelty to civilians during warfare) but alongside this is, of course, his reputation as an invader and ruthless militarist. That reputation was, indeed, all I knew about him before starting this biography. But Mitford is much keener to present him as a human, even lovable, character – anecdotal foibles and all:

The King’s time-table when he was at home did not vary from now on; many people have described it and their accounts tally. He was woken at 4 a.m.; he hated getting up early but forced himself to do it until the day he died. He scolded the servants if they let him go to sleep again, but he was sometimes so pathetic that they could not help it; so he made a rule that, under pain of being put in the army, they must throw a cloth soaked in cold water on his face.
He often comes across as rather a silly, but ultimately adorable, little boy. When it comes to his militaristic tendencies, Mitford is clearly quite bored by them – and, in turn, makes the chapters describing them by far the most boring of the book. It’s true that I would never thrill to the accounts of battles and tactical manoeuvres, but Mitford’s style loses all charm or polish when she comes to write about them. These secluded chapters are written with all the panache of a primary school essay about a child’s holiday activities – “Then he did this, then he did this, then he did this” – and Mitford evidently can’t wait to get onto the next chapter.

Ultimately, it is a very involving character portrait, with so much subjectivity laced silently through it, that Mitford is in every sentence. Since it is non-fiction, people appear and disappear, arrive far too late in the narrative or inconveniently die – Mitford can’t help it, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less confusing for an ignorant reader like me. So, poor historian that I am, I can’t pretend that Frederick the Great will ever rival Nancy Mitford’s novels for my affections, and this wasn’t the all-consuming, utterly-joyous reading experience I’d hoped might round off A Century of Books, but it was definitely interesting to see how Mitford might approach the topic – and, who knows, I might even have learnt a thing or two that I’ll remember.

24 thoughts on “Frederick the Great – Nancy Mitford

  • December 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm
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    Congratulations on finishing! I haven't been insprired to read any of Nancy Mitford's biographies, despite my own Mifordmania.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 8:18 pm
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      Thanks! I would say that an interest in 18th century France is probably more helpful than Mitfordmania – otherwise I'd have loved this!

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  • December 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm
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    This sounds like a good read, Simon. My best memories/knowledge of Frederick the Great come from my visit to Potsdam with fellow reader here, Rhona. R kindly took me to the Palace of Sans Souci where we saw the grave of FTG. Did NM mention anything about the potato? Barbara

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    • December 31, 2012 at 8:18 pm
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      Nothing about the potato, as far as I can recall! How intriguing!

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  • December 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm
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    Congratulations! I'm tempted to do the same challenge in 2013–I need to decide quickly! I adore NM's novels, but I've never been tempted by her non-fiction for some reason. My next Mitford fix will be "The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters" which has been piled next to my bed for far too long.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 8:19 pm
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      Oh do, do!
      And the Mitfords letters was my favourite book for 2008 (or 2009… around then) – I'm certain you'll love it.

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  • December 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm
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    Well done – I'm very impressed with your century of books.

    I rather like Mitford's biographical tone from the extracts above, so I shall be more likely now to pick up the two Mitford biogs I inherited (The Sun King and Madame de Pompadour).

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    • December 31, 2012 at 8:19 pm
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      I have The Sun King as well, but all her biographical subjects turned up in this one, so I think she must cover the same sort of area quite a bit. I'll be leaving it a while before I try another of her biographies, but I hope you enjoy them!

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  • December 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm
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    Congratulations, Simon! I feel incredibly accomplished to have finished on time but also a little bereft to be done. What a year it was!

    Reading Robert K. Massie's biography of Catherine the Great earlier this month has reignited my interested in enlightenment monarchs so I had been thinking of picking up a few books on Frederick the Great, including this one. Sounds like it is interesting though not necessarily reliable! I love your criticism of Mitford's handling of the military side of Frederick's life: "written with all the panache of a primary school essay about a child’s holiday activities". What a perfect phrase!

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    • December 31, 2012 at 8:34 pm
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      Thanks Claire, and thanks for picking out a particular sentence you liked – that always makes me blush with pride! Catherine the Great makes a few appearances here, and seems a really fascinating character.

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  • December 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm
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    I can't imagine a Mitford ever being boring myself. This one sounds like fun. More fun than historical, but fun none-the-less.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 8:35 pm
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      The idea of a boring Mitford really is absurd, isn't it! (Although perhaps Pamela was one?)

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  • December 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm
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    Well done, Simon. A Century of Books! Quite a fait accompli.

    I started my blog on January 1, 2012 and was tempted to follow you into The Century but was too overwhelmed. I would be interested to check the publication dates of the books I did read this year and see how close I came to a full Century Bookshelf. One never knows.

    Thanks for all the wonderful authors and books you have introduced to me. Happy New Year.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 8:37 pm
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      You might have done it unawares! Or at least be on a good start for 2013 – but it would rather spoil the fun if you didn't notice you were doing it…

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  • December 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm
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    Congratulations, Simon! And with days to spare, good for you!

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  • December 30, 2012 at 8:13 pm
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    Congratulations on finishing the challenge, it's a lovely spur on for the rest of us who joined in the fun belatedly. ;)

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  • December 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm
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    You're good, Simon. Well done! I waded through (most of) Frederick years ago but never really pinpointed what bogged me down, but you have explained it all perfectly. I went there looking for more Mitford, of course, and found some, but the very Mitfordiness makes her an at times unreliable biographer – and though I can't blame her for getting Bored with the Battles, it didn't help me get through them.

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  • December 30, 2012 at 10:50 pm
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    Congratulations on your century. I am so impressed that you did it all in a year.

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  • January 1, 2013 at 7:40 pm
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    Your Century of Books is very impressive – I'd get so hopelessly distracted along the way I wouldn't even consider trying!

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  • January 4, 2013 at 7:10 pm
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    Well this has made me a little more optimistic about reading the non-fiction of Nancy Mitford now. I hadn't really fancied them, though I have all of them of course, but the fact she is still there makes me want to read them as I was worried they would be dry, factual reference books and not have her in the text. Seems I was wrong.

    Reply

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