At last! It’s taken decades, but my Mitford collection is now complete. I’m referring to Nancy Mitford’s 4 historical biographies, rather than her novels. In order of publication, the biographies are: Madame de Pompadour (1954), Voltaire in Love (1957), The Sun King (1966), and Frederick the Great (1970).
Attentive readers might remember this photo from an early post on this blog:
At the time, these were the only items in my Mitford collection. They’ve followed me from home to home through 4 countries over the last 30-odd years, which is why the dust jackets are slightly the worse for wear. I had once owned a hard cover copy of Frederick the Great, but I donated it to a library that one of my former professors was setting up at Western University (my alma mater, formerly known as the University of Western Ontario). It’s called the Pride Library. You can visit its website here: http://www.uwo.ca/pridelib/.
I still covet another hard cover copy of it, preferably the edition pictured above, but I did recently have the luck to find a Penguin paperback reprint at my local antiquarian and secondhand bookstore, Condor Fine Books. (Visit their website here: http://www.condorfinebooks.ca.)
It was ultimately through a private seller via Amazon that I was finally able to purchase the only book in the collection that I had never owned, that in fact I’d never even seen in any shop in any country that I’ve lived in or visited, namely Voltaire in Love. Below is a photo of my now complete Mitford collection with Voltaire in Love in the centre. The beautifully bound book at the back is a recent re-issue of The Sun King by the Folio Society.
I’ve placed Voltaire in Love in the centre because it’s the rarest of the group. As far as I know, it’s the only one that’s never been reprinted. This is odd because it’s the book that really established Mitford as a historical biographer. Madame de Pompadour was published first, it’s true, but it wasn’t so well received. One reviewer complained that it was like reading history as overheard gossip at a cocktail party. When Voltaire in Love came out, Mitford’s sparkling, conversational prose style began to appreciated, and by the time The Sun King appeared, her style was praised as ideal for narrative history.
Academic historians may sneer at these works of popular history by a former novelist — as they have done, and do — but Mitford’s knowledge of the period has proved to be unassailable. Although not a trained professional historian, she was francophile to the bone, perfectly fluent in French, the lingua franca of all her subjects, and read all the relevant contemporary memoirs and letters in the original, the gleanings of which she then used her novelist’s skill to weave together in an absorbing narrative. As I pointed out in a previous post, her other great advantage over academic historians was her background. A peer’s daughter who had been presented at court, she had an instinctive understanding of the milieu in which her subjects lived.
My own favourite of the Mitford collection is Frederick the Great, not only because the Philosopher of Sans Souci is my favourite historical character, but because the book is a fitting capstone to Mitford’s biographical career. Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Emilie du Châtelet (the other main character in Voltaire in Love), and Frederick the Great were contemporaries and all corresponded with one another. Voltaire, in fact, went to Berlin after Mme du Châtelet’s death and lived with Frederick for a time. Frederick the Great ties all the threads together, so to speak.
Have you read any of the Mitford collection? Which was your favourite? Let me know in the comments below, on the Versailles Century Facebook page, or in the Versailles Century gallery on Instagram.