More For Me
26 September 2012
“Contemn” is a word that I often wish to use, but never dare. I was surprised to find it (although I oughtn’t to have been, given the richness of his vocabulary) in Reed Browning’s War of the Austrian Succession. Writing of Maria Theresa (at this time merely Queen of Hungary and Archduchess of Austria) that “she contemned British informality as fully as she distrusted British sensitivity to Austrian interests,” Browning puts some oomph in the old girl’s contempt. To contemn something is much stronger than having contempt for it.
But “contemn” sounds too much like “condemn,” even to the reading ear, not to sprout confusion. Back in the days when my vocabulary was growing so fast that I’d have had to take up residence in a dictionary if I were actually to look up all the new words that I encountered, I fancied for a while that “contemn” was an archaic spelling of the more familiar word. And the times that we live in do not favor the use of an active verb for an unpopular attitude. Reed Browning’s sentence tells us not only that Maria Theresa was disgusted by British manners but that she thought that she was right to do so: she regarded her contempt as salubrious and praiseworthy. We are inclined to see such unpleasant feelings as, at best, unhelpful.
Who is Reed Browning? I gather that he’s on the faculty at Kenyon College in Ohio. His style is ripe and somewhat Gibbonian, and no one at Oxbridge writes like that anymore. Of the final years of Cardinal Fleury’s long career, Browning writes,
But in his prime the cardinal had been a master game-player himself. What is significant here is that by 1742 Fleury was well past his prime, weary and failing. And so he ended up accepting, even endorsing, a military effort against Austria that addressed no definable French need. The judgment of historians has properly been severe: Cardinal Fleury lived too long for his good name.
That sort of capsule summation has gone quite out of fashion. So has Browning’s habit of shifting between individual figures (diplomats, generals, sovereigns) and the entities that they represent (Spain, Prussia, and so on). Truly up-to-date historians take pains not to attribute actions to abstractions.
But the War of the Austrian Succession — what could be more old-fashioned than that, even when it was being fought? For such a long war, there were very few battles. (Browning writes about battles as well as anyone I know.) Everyone seems to have lost the heart for the violence and destruction of warfare. The engagements that did occur were bloody enough, but you can sense the rising discomfort with loss of life (unimagined a thousand years earlier) that would steadily lead to our own humanitarian befuddlement about armed conflict. The armies and navies of the 1740s haunted each other but generally avoided engagement; men and materiel were too expensive to waste in grandstanding. You might almost say that they replaced kicking and shooting with dancing.
The war was launched when Frederick II (not “the Great” quite yet) invaded, occupied, and claimed Silesia, the territory of the upper Oder River valley, rich in coal and other ores, that would become the industrial heartland of Prussia. It is very much part of Poland today, but it forms a distinctive feature of maps of the Second and Third Reichs — it’s a finger, inserted between Poland and Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), that sticks out in to the southeast, a peninsula of German dominion. It’s amazing that anyone lives there today, because the Nazis threw the Poles out and then the Poles threw the Germans out. Not to mention the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. (As I said, the industrial heartland.) Frederick’s claim to Silesia was acknowledged by Austria in 1742, and that ought to have been that for him, but he re-entered what had by now become a wider war, with theatres in northern Italy and the Austian Netherlands (Belgium), in order to assure himself a place at the table when peace was eventually hammered out. That way, his claim to Silesia would be recognized by everyone.
Fashionable or not, Reed Browning writes my cup of history.
A cute wedding story: Will was one of two ringbearers at his uncle Brendon’s wedding on Saturday. The other ringbearer was even younger than Will, not quite two-and-a-half. It was decided, at the rehearsal, that each ringerbearer would be walked down the aisle by a flower girl (or junior bridesmaid), of whom there were two, aged seven or eight. At the wedding itself, however, the younger ringbearer’s mother decided, probably with reason, that she would walk her little boy down the aisle. As a result, Will followed, holding hands with both flower girls. I haven’t seen pictures yet, but I’m told that he quite liked this arrangement, news which comes as no surprise. He made his parents very proud, and we’re as proud of them.