The problem with the British education system (at least in my day, some aeons ago now) is its relentless British-centricness. Thus, in the eighteenth century, nothing much happened between 1714 and 1776 (or even 1789). The wars of the Spanish Succession (‘It was a famous victory…’) and the Austrian Succession (including Jenkins’ Ear) barely impinged, but the war of the Bavarian Succession – who even knew?? (I am told that, these days, pupils leap from Henry VIII to the Second World War, but I’m sure this is an exaggeration.)
Anyway, a useful corrective to this blinkered outlook can be provided by Nathaniel Wraxall, whose two-volume Memoirs of the Courts of Berlin, Dresden, Warsaw, and Vienna, in the Years 1777, 1778, and 1779 gives a chatty but enlightening overview of eighteenth-century European history. An oddity of the work, justified in the preface, is that it was not published until twenty years after the events it describes, and it maintains its epistolary format to the end, without using the benefit of hindsight to comment on any of the momentous events which had already changed the balance of European power beyond recognition. Wraxall explains the delay by ‘a reluctance to disclose anecdotes and facts relative to so many distinguished living characters’. This lofty motive might have been accompanied by one of self-preservation: his 1787 Short Review of the Political State of Great-Britain upset large numbers of the great and ‘good’, and it was alleged that the Prince of Wales had to be restrained from suing him for libel.
In fact, by 1815 Wraxall had thrown caution to the winds: his Historical Memoirs of my Own Time, from 1772 to 1784 resulted in immediate best-sellerdom, and a successful libel suit from the former Russian ambassador to Britain (who, incidentally, was the godfather of Mrs Somerville‘s son). Wraxall was sentenced to six months in the King’s Bench prison and a fine of £500. In fact he served only three months, in a light and airy suite of rooms previously inhabited by other famous libellers: the reduction in the sentence seems to have come about partly at the urging of the said ambassador, who, having cleared his own character of imputations of wrongdoing, did not bear a grudge. The Historical Memoirs were trashed in most of the literary reviews of the time (though all of them quoted the more scandalous bits at considerable length – clearly, some things never change). However, by the time of the publication of his Posthumous Memoirs in 1836 (he died in 1831, having prepared the work for publication, but ‘having taken effectual precautions to prevent the possibility of their being published during the life of his present Majesty George the Fourth’, who he in fact outlived by fourteen months), the reviews had come to agree that his works were mostly true and always interesting.
The son of a Bristol merchant, Wraxall seemed destined for a career in the East India Company. He was sent out at the age of eighteen in 1769, but in 1772 he returned to Europe, and seems to have decided to make a career out of travelling and writing up his experiences. Money appeared to be no object: at one point he lent the unfortunate Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark £500, and later had to struggle to get it back from her brother, George III. His first book, Cursory Remarks Made in a Tour Through Some of the Northern Parts of Europe, Particularly Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Petersburgh (1775), was well received, containing as it did material about regions virtually unknown to its readership. (Dr Johnson told Mrs Thrale (later Piozzi) that ‘Wraxal [sic] is too fond of words, but you may read him’. She apparently continued to do so, and made annotations in the margins of her copy of the Historical Memoirs.)
The Memoirs of the Courts are hugely more wide-ranging than the title would suggest. (The court of Berlin was in any case problematical, as previously published comments by Wraxall on the partition of Poland had offended Frederick the Great, so that ‘it was signified … that my being presented at Court would not be agreeable’). But everywhere else in Europe he seems to have been welcomed and accepted at the highest levels of society, and even in Berlin, being refused the honour of a formal presentation did not cramp his style: indeed, he was inclined ‘to consider such an exclusion as a subject of pride’. He provides detailed historical context for the present-day events he witnesses: the affairs of Austria (then jointly ruled by Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II) are taken back to the 1680s and the reign of the empress’s grandfather Leopold I, who nearly lost Vienna to the Turks in 1683. The rise of Brandenburg-Prussia under the Great Elector and its present dominance in Europe under the enigmatic Frederick, and the apparently irreversible decline of the elective kingdom of Poland, are also explained, as is the background to the war of the Bavarian Succession.
This ten-month war (July 1778 to May 1779) was actually happening as Wraxall was in Vienna, but it did not impinge much on daily life. The empress apparently spent a lot of time praying for peace (even though it was Habsburg expansionism that had caused the war in the first place), but the regular round of society – the salons, the balls, and especially the gambling – continued uninterrupted. (It is interesting that he thought Vienna in the late 1770s deficient in theatre and opera, when one thinks of the following decade.) His final ‘letter’ (on the point of setting out for Venice, lucky man!), is dated 17 March 1779, and his summing up of the gains and losses for either side is remarkable acute, and indeed may owe something to the hindsight which the books ostensibly eschew.
But what make the work a good read are the pen-portraits of the grand individuals who Wraxall meets, sees or hears about (he is often at pains to authenticate his sources for events previous to his lifetime). Did you know, for example, that the Electress Sophia of Hannover, granddaughter of Charles I, died in 1724 only eight weeks before Queen Anne, and had up to that point been looking forward to becoming (at the age of eighty-three) queen of England? Wraxall was shown the very spot in the gardens of Herrenhausen where she ‘dropped down and expired’, by ‘a grey-haired domestic of fourscore’ who remembered the event as though it was yesterday. If you like this sort of thing, you will enjoy reading Wraxall – though as Johnson said, he is somewhat ‘too fond of words’!