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Frederick the Great Paperback – July 23, 2013
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and energy take hold, and yet imparts an astounding quantity of information.” —Guardian
“Mitford’s felicity lies in capturing the spirit of a society and an age.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“Nancy Mitford seems to have brought a new talent to the study of history: that of the sophisticated, worldly wise observer, who is able to penetrate old archives with a fresh eye for qualities in the dead.” —Louis Auchincloss, The New York Times Book Review
“Her style is skillfully succinct . . . and her wit proceeds from uncommon shrewdness.” —Sunday Times
“Apart from Miss Mitford’s special interests in the fun and fashion department, one may admire her most for her power to condense and explain the most complicated events.” —The New Statesman
About the Author
Liesl Schillinger is a journalist, critic, and translator. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review and has written on literature, culture, theater, politics, and travel for many publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, and The Independent on Sunday. Among her translations are The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas (fils) and Every Day, Every Hour by Nataša Dragnić. Her illustrated book of neologisms, Wordbirds, will be published in October 2013.
Top Customer Reviews
Mitford's voice is laconic and dry. One of the best things about her biographical writings is that despite that dryness, her affection for her subjects is clearly visible. Certainly she is one of the few historical biographers who regularly make me laugh out loud when I read the work.
Frederick the Great was a monarch that I knew very little about from a period of which I had only vague knowledge. I shut the book feeling that I had gained a good high level understanding as well as a real desire to read further. It is difficult for me to assess how satisfying it would be for someone who is a real scholar of the period.
A Mitford biography is always a great gift for armchair historians, or for general readers who do not think that they will enjoy biographies. Reading this kind of entertaining work might also be a good way to tempt younger readers into exploring history.
Many other books will tell you everything and more about the details of Rossbach and Leuthen, but few will give you the impression of having known the man. Lovers of history and biography should read this, and all of Nancy Mitford's other biographies.
Mitford is the author of a series of wonderfully composed comic novels which feature the comings and goings of the upper classes in Britain. She is probably the 20th century's answer to Jane Austen, since no one wrote better comedies of manners other than perhaps the recently departed Louis Auchincloss.
Critics have alleged that her histories owe a great deal to this sensibility. In her books on Louis XIV, Madame Pompadour, and Voltaire, the notion is that she uses her own highly placed social connections to form a template of mores that is somewhat anachronistic. Aristocratic culture in 18th century France was different from that of between the wars England.
I think that most of Mitford's critics are being too hard on her mainly because of her other literary endeavors. Few academic historians or even popular ones have ever achieved the sort of success that Nancy Mitford has. It is impossible for even the greatest of historians (Gibbon, Macaulay, and Carlyle) to divorce themselves from their own ages and world views. Why should Miss Mitford be required to do otherwise?
The choice of Frederick the Great is a natural one for someone with Mitford's love of eccentricity. The well-documented incidents of her own rather interesting family probably ensure that this is something less than a choice and more than an inclination. The portrait she paints of Frederick and indeed all of international diplomacy is that of a collection of eccentrics who compete with each other by blasting the brains out of each other's subjects.
While Frederick's mania for all things French is interesting, it is difficult to understand in a world after the Romantic revolution of the 19th century. He preferred to speak in French, wrote verse in French (which he was touchy about) and attempted to win the praise if not of the French court then of the real shapers of French culture, the philosophes. In the end Frederick the cultural figure will probably be best remembered for his compositions for the flute which he played until he lost too many of his own teeth to do so.
As a war leader Frederick was probably the leading figure of his age. Unlike Gustavus Adolphus and Napoleon, I would argue that Frederick did not really revolutionize military affairs at the strategic level as much as he did at the tactical level and generally in conflicts waged with his life long adversary, Marie Therese, empress of what was later referred to as Austria Hungary and over the territory of Silesia.
If anything Frederick accomplished more of a diplomatic revolution by his actions in Central Europe, putting an end to the centuries old rivalry between the Bourbons and Hapsburgs who saw him and the rising power of Prussia as a threat to both of their interests and therefore something to be halted before it grew too strong. Nothing promotes unity as well as a common enemy.
This book in the end provides a good overview of Frederick's life and times. If Mitford has a weakness it is that there is very little on Frederick's ability as a military leader. This has never been a strong point in her writings, but she does address it competently in the end.