Frederick the Great
Publication Date: July 23, 2013
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The Prussian king Frederick II is today best remembered for successfully defending his tiny country against the three great European powers of France, Austria, and Russia during the Seven Years’ War. But in his youth, tormented by a spectacularly cruel and dyspeptic father, the future military genius was drawn to the flute and French poetry, and throughout his long life counted nothing more important than the company of good friends and great wits. This was especially evident in his longstanding, loving, and vexing relationship with Voltaire. An absolute ruler who was allergic to pomp, a non-hunter who wore no spurs, a reformer of great zeal who maintained complete freedom of the press and religion and cleaned up his country’s courts, a fiscal conservative and patron of the arts, the builder of the rococo palace Sans Souci and improver of the farmers’ lot, maddening to his rivals but beloved by nearly everyone he met, Frederick was—notwithstanding a penchant for merciless teasing—arguably the most humane of enlightened despots.
In Frederick the Great, a richly entertaining biography of one of the eighteenth century’s most fascinating figures, the trademark wit of the author of Love in a Cold Climate finds its ideal subject.
Nancy Mitford (1904–1973) was born into the British aristocracy and, by her own account, brought up without an education, except in riding and French. She managed a London bookshop during the Second World War, then moved to Paris, where she began to write her celebrated and successful novels, among them The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, about the foibles of the English upper class. Mitford was also the author of four biographies: Madame de Pompadour (1954), Voltaire in Love (1957), The Sun King (1966), and Frederick the Great (1970)—all available as NYRB classics. In 1967 Mitford moved from Paris to Versailles, where she lived until her death from Hodgkin’s disease.
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.
“It is written with all the author’s skill, is really hard to put down once its rhythm
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