Miranda Seymour: ‘Noble Endeavors: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany in Many Stories’ 4 November 2014

On 4 November OCLW welcomed Miranda Seymour, to discuss her latest book Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories as well as her award winning biography of her father, In My Father’s House.

Noble Endeavors takes a longer view of the relationship between England and Germany, focusing on the theme of reconciliation rather than conflict.  Seymour explained that the idea for the book started with Herman Sulzbach, a German Jew whose spirit runs through the book.  During the First World War he fought for his beloved Germany; in 1933 he was forced out of the country and came to Britain.  When the Second World War came he was interned as an enemy alien and, on his release he began the rest of his life’s work: first the de-nazification of captured German soldiers and SS Officers and later Anglo-German reconciliation.

Seymour described some of the stories and characters that illustrate the long and harmonious relationship between England and Germany.  It begins before Germany became a unified state in 1613 with the marriage of James I’s daughter to Prince Frederik the Elector Palatinate.  This was the foundation of the Hanoverian presence in England.  All the way through the book switches countries, looking at individuals ranging from royalty, to British Prisoners of War performing The Merchant of Venice to a very warm reception.  Writers such as Coleridge and Eliot spent time in Germany in order to better understand the philosophies of Kant and Goethe and bring them back to England.

Cordial relations remained up until the days before the First World War.  Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm were an interesting pairing.  The Kaiser spoke immaculate English thanks to his mother Princess Victoria and he was even able to speak in local dialects.  By contrast Edward VII spoke English with a heavy German accent, as Queen Victoria made sure all her children spoke immaculate German, oftentimes better than their English.  At the outbreak of hostilities the German ambassador left London with a guard of honour, while the British ambassador had to flee for his life due to bitter feelings in Berlin.

In order to transition between the two parts of her talk Seymour told the story of her uncle learning to drive in Munich with his Nazi sympathising hosts.  He knocked down a man in the road with his car, this man was Adolf Hitler.  Her uncle remained in Germany, which was her family’s link to the country.  Her father had in fact never been to Germany and had no involvement in the war, but here Seymour’s talk moved into the complicated world of writing the biography of a Father who had been such an unorthodox character, while still living in the house he was so obsessed with.

Seymour described how when she was growing she had to wear a wig, to fit with her father’s idea of how they should look in the house.  In 1950 his life changed direction drastically as he came out as gay or bi-sexual.  Her mother accepted this and so they all lived together in the house until her father’s lover killed himself and her father died of a broken heart.  Seymour’s mother added an extra complication to writing the book as she too still lives in the house, aged 92.  She became the counter voice to Miranda in the story, providing the positive to her negative views.

This fascinating talk ended with the most relatable and vivid story in which Seymour described the moment when she showed her mother the book for the first time on Christmas Eve.  Her mother did not come downstairs for the whole of Christmas Day.  When she eventually emerged she asked for a glass of whiskey, something Seymour stated was not unusual.  She then, however, asked for a top up and proceeded to knock it back.  Her mother then said ‘The book’s all lies and all wrong.’  Miranda asked what particularly the problem was.  Her Mother replied ‘My nail varnish wasn’t always chipped and I never had freckles.’ ‘Is that it?’ Seymour questioned. ‘Isn’t it enough?’ answered her Mother.

In the discussion Seymour explained that it was her mission in writing Noble Endeavors that people would take away a more generous image of England and Germany, moving away from an attraction to just the Nazis.  Britain’s close ties with Germany pre-date the Third Reich by 200 years.  Thirteen years of Nazi power can never be forgotten but should thirteen years blot out four centuries of friendship?

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