Frederick the Great
After the rip-roaring success of her book The Sun King, it was natural that Miss Mitford should have sorted through the European monarchs of the eighteenth century for its successor. There were some ripe characters available, for monarchy forces human character rather as a glass house does tropical fruit. Once a king or a queen, human beings, even the most ordinary, respond in an exaggerated fashion to their personas. It is almost impossible for a monarch, any monarch, to be dull, and certainly impossible if written about by Miss Mitford. With an eagle’s eye (or should it be magpie’s) she seizes on bits of gossip, self-revealing sentences in poems and letters, the dramatic moment, the clash of temperament, and writes them up with an irresistible combination of breathless haste and wit. She knows that with a narrative, as with a Western movie, you must keep it going.
So long as she is dealing with Frederick’s conflict with his father, his attachment to his sister, his ambivalence to his brothers, his indifference to his wife, his complex relations with his literary coterie (especially Voltaire), Miss Mitford is immensely readable. Her novelist’s eye seizes on the absurdities, unconscious self-deceptions of human behavior. And, of course, no bourgeois, she is not mealymouthed. The contrast between her treatment of Frederick’s homosexuality and that of Gerhard Ritter, the German historian who died in 1967, and whose book on Frederick the Great, written during the Thirties, has recently been translated, is very revealing.
For Ritter, who surely must have snapped his eyes shut, Frederick’s sexual tastes were normal, but very limited—hence his rejection of his wife, the rarity of flirtations with females in his youth, and his delight in manly friendships. However, writes Ritter, nothing deviant, nothing at all. Yet Frederick’s relationships with Katte, Keyserling, Rothenburg were all intensely emotional, and certainly to a degree that is quite incompatible with normal sexuality; and he flirted—there is no other word for it—deliberately and ostentatiously with both Algarotti and Voltaire.
But sex, as Miss Mitford rightly sees, was never the driving force in Frederick’s life: ambition, power, an inner, deeply personal, dynamic were. Human relations might have gone deep with him, but they never influenced his course of life. Katte, whom Frederick called his Jonathan, was executed before his eyes. He certainly was tormented by this brutality, haunted by guilt, yet within a fortnight he was said to be “as happy as a chaffinch.” Indeed, a fascinating aspect of Frederick’s character is the honesty as well as the force of his emotional responses. They seem, however, to stop dead at a certain level of his personality as if there was a core that could not be penetrated. And that core was compounded of a deep sense of the tragic condition of man, and the utter transience of human life.
Frederick often wished himself dead. His total indifference to social life, except that of his own very private making; his disregard of pomp and circumstance—indeed he possessed almost…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.