Noble Endeavours, by Miranda Seymour - review

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories Miranda Seymour

Simon and Schuster, pp.502, £20, ISBN: 9781847378255

Like Miranda Seymour, the author of this considerable work on Anglo-German relations, I was raised in a Germanophile home. I spent summer holidays on the Bodensee and, after graduating from university, lived for a year in Munich and then another in Berlin. It seems to me a pity that my children and most of my friends, familiar with the Dordogne, Tuscany, California, New York and Rajasthan, have never been to the Black Forest or the Bavarian Alps; have never visited Potsdam, Dresden, Würzburg, Freiberg, Heidelberg, Regensburg or Passau; in fact know next to nothing of either the culture or civilisation of the largest nation in western Europe.

Yet there have been throughout our history many Britons who loved Germany and Germans who loved Britain. Seymour gives the history of this cultural cross-pollination. Her heroes and heroines are men like Herbert Suzbach, a German-Jewish refugee who, when released from internment during the second world war, set up a programme to detoxify German POWs and persuade them of the value of liberty, democracy and the rule of law.

Noble Endeavours starts with the wedding of Elisabeth, the daughter of King James I, to Frederick, the Elector Palatine, in 1612. The Protestant Frederick, later crowned King of Bohemia, was defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain by the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II and lost his throne. Elisabeth lived out her life as a refugee in the Hague. She was not to know that the Act of Settlement of 1701, to exclude the Catholic Stuarts from the English throne, settled it on her Protestant descendants. Better a German than a papist.

We learn much from Seymour about Elisabeth’s descendants. Queen Victoria married a German princeling, Albert of Saxe-Coburg (pictured overleaf), and the two spoke German together when alone. Their daughter Vicky married the German Kaiser, whose son Willy was obsessed with England, but this did not prevent the two countries from going to war. Many of the author’s sources are members of the English and German upper classes, no doubt because they had the leisure to write memoirs. The stories of some, such as Count Harry Kessler or Daisy Cornwallis-West, Princess von Pless — ‘hostess, reformer and a tireless urger of cousinly friendship between the two nations’ — resurface throughout the narrative.

But there are also philanthropists like Charles de Bunsen, friend and kinsman of the social reformer Elizabeth Fry, who founded a German hospital in the East End of London;  and Florence Nightingale whose training at the nursing institute at Kaiserswerth on the Rhine ‘provided the foundation of her later work’. There was literary cross-pollination. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, admirer of Kant and Schiller, studied happily at Göttingen; the German novelist Theodor Fontane wrote charming accounts of his visits to England. George Eliot spent ‘a blissful period of exile at Weimar, accompanied by her married lover, George Lewis’. Ford Madox Ford, Robert Graves, E.M. Forster, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood all loved Germany.

Until the mid-19th century, the British saw no threat from a Germany divided into 39 sovereign states. It was popular for its spas. This changed with German unification and the two world wars. As we approach the terrible mid-20th century, the story becomes tragic. The English Houston Stewart Chamberlain, friend of the Wagners and admired by Hitler, gave a scholarly veneer to racialist theories in his Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. When we reach the Nazizeit we come across British appeasers and Nazi sympathisers like Tom and Unity Mitford, but also Anglophile opponents of Nazism such as the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Adam von Trott.

Miranda Seymour tells us that Noble Endeavours was five years in the making. Her research has been extensive: she thanks over 150 people for their help. At times the book seems encyclopaedic. There is some connecting narrative as members of the same families reappear in different generations, but they tend to be lost in the throng. We know that as a novelist and the author of a classic family memoir, In My Father’s House, Seymour is capable of great psychological discernment; but so much has to be packed into these pages that characterisation is sometimes cursory — ‘small, brisk and ruddy cheeked’ (Alexander Cadogan), and even unnecessary: ‘a short, plainly suited man with a slick of brown hair and a penetrating, almost glaucous blue stare’ (Adolf Hitler).

But all in all, Noble Endeavours is an impressive work and a welcome balance to the plethora of histories of the two world wars.  Miranda Seymour says of her subjects, ‘They’ve been my friends and educators.’ They should be ours too.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Piers Paul Read, who reviews a history of Anglo-German friendship, he has a part-German ancestry. His stay in Berlin in the early 1960s inspired his second novel, The Junkers.

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