Tam & Fritz: Thomas Carlyle and Frederick the Great

Nancy Mitford finds that Carlyle’s biography of the King was one of the oddest ever written, but it is ‘so carefully drawn that it finally presents a perfect likeness’.

When Carlyle had finished with Cromwell in 1845, he looked about for another hero to worship; his choice fell upon Frederick the Great and the result is one of the oddest biographies ever written. It was published, volume by volume, from 1858 to 1865. The eighteenth century is the time in all history with which Carlyle was the least in sympathy and which he understood the least. ‘Once we had a Barbarossa and a world all grandly true.’ Unfortunately he found much that was not grandly true in Frederick; much that he would have liked, but was too honest, to ignore, and much that he failed to understand. He loved the King, the soldier, the administrator, the leader of Germans; he disliked the cynical pupil of Voltaire, the composer, the collector and the builder of baroque palaces. For this civilized, un-Barbarossa-like, side of Frederick he blamed, and rightly, the age in which he lived: ‘the life-element, the epoch, though Friedrich took it kindly and never complained, was uncongenial to such a man.’ 

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