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.