I remember exactly when my lifelong preoccupation with the 18th century began.
When I was 10 years old, my parents, who had emigrated from Berlin to our small city in Ontario, took me to our local German-Canadian club on a Wednesday evening to watch the first instalment of what I later learned was a 1972 German television series called The Remarkable Life of Frederick, Baron von der Trenck.* In those pre-downloading, pre-DVD, even pre-VCR days, we sat on folding chairs in the club’s dance hall to watch the show on a large portable screen, as if it were a home movie.
The 6-part series follows Trenck’s soldierly and romantic adventures through the courts of Frederick the Great of Prussia, Elizabeth of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Austria, as he navigates the 2 great conflicts of the mid-eighteenth century, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. I was enthralled from start to finish, and would fidget impatiently through the dull preliminary featurettes that preceded each weekly instalment. Though I boyishly admired Trenck’s manly exploits, the character who really transfixed me was Frederick II of Prussia, whom my parents, good Berliners, invariably and affectionately referred to as der Alte Fritz (Old Fred).
Hungry to know more about Frederick, I scurried to the school library as soon as the first recess bell rang the morning after we had seen the first instalment. To my disappointment, there was no book about Frederick in the small history section, which mainly featured works about 19th century settlers in Ontario. The Encyclopedia Britannica, of course, had an article about him, which baffled me with military terminology. My father, however, had a great store of Frederician lore, for Frederick’s memory was still vivid, and beloved, to Berliners of the pre-war period when my father was a boy, and oral legends about Old Fred’s doings abounded. For a week or two, the tales my father recounted satisfied me, but then I insisted that he drive me to the large downtown branch of our municipal library so that I could find a book, any book, about the great Frederick. To my great excitement, the card catalogue — which we’d just learned how to use at school — indicated that there WAS a book about Frederick in the stacks. My hands actually trembled when I pulled it down off the shelf. I remember it vividly still. It was a hardback copy of Nancy Mitford’s classic biography, clad in a metallic silver jacket featuring a silhouette of Frederick on horseback. The book’s title was simply Frederick the Great.
And thus began a lifetime of reading about what I now call THE VERSAILLES CENTURY (1682-1789).
- My translation. The original German title is Die merkwuerdige Lebensgeschichte des Friedrich Freiherrn von der Trenck. To my knowledge, the series has never been issued with English subtitles.