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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Wilhelmine von Bayreuth (1709–1758)

THE MEMOIRS of Wilhelmine of Bayreuth are possessed of a twofold interest: not only do they throw light upon a strange period of Prussian history; they reveal the character of one of the most remarkable women of the eighteenth century,—a woman of modern intellect, whose warm humanity could not be disguised or suppressed by the artificiality and pettiness of court life. Her autobiography is less like truth than fiction, in its detailed account of this environment, so outlandish and inhuman is its central overshadowing figure,—her father, Frederick William I. of Prussia. The acts of this half-insane sovereign and of his weak wife, and the effect which they produced upon the sensitive natures of Wilhelmine and her brother Frederick, are here told with a vividness which only the actual sufferer could infuse into the narrative.

Frederica Sophie Wilhelmine, the eldest daughter of Frederick William I. of Prussia, and of Sophie Dorothea, daughter of George I. of England, was born in Berlin on the 3d of July, 1709. Three years later a brother was born, Frederick the crown prince, known in history as Frederick the Great. Between Wilhelmine and this brother there existed the strongest affection; founded upon mutual sympathy of character, upon community of tastes, and cemented by the suffering inflicted upon them both by a most unnatural father, who was incapable of appreciating the fine quality of their temperaments. Wilhelmine’s autobiography is woven about this brother and herself, as the only two in a numerous family possessing the primal elements of a family bond,—affection and understanding. Her love for him was the light of her life. His for her seems to have been no less real, if more variable. They grew up as they could, sharing a frightful paternal tyranny from which they were never free. Their inexplicable father did everything but murder them outright; their weak mother, in whom ambition was the ruling passion, made their lives a burden to them by her plans for their marriages. The autobiography is one long record of the sufferings of the royal family through the conduct of its heads.

It was through her mother’s plans for a double marriage, however, that Wilhelmine’s severest trials were brought about. From the childhood of herself and her brother, schemes had been set afoot for their marriages with their royal English cousins, the Prince of Wales and the Princess Amelia. Both marriages were destined never to take place; but for years the queen mother carried on plots and intrigues in the interest of this her pet ambition. These were frustrated, however, by the house of Hapsburg, which feared the strength such a close alliance with England would impart to Prussia. Wilhelmine has left a most striking record of this long-drawn-out time of trouble and of persecution.

She herself was to make a happy marriage, though by it she forever alienated her mother. She became the wife of the Margrave of Bayreuth: a union which had been urged upon her as a political necessity, but which proved to be fortunate; for her husband was a man of pleasing character, who at once won her love and esteem. After her marriage she was comparatively happy; as happy as a person of her high endowments and strong character could be in a petty German court,—a hot-bed of jealousies and intrigues. At Bayreuth, however, she formed a circle of men and women of culture and intellectual aspirations. Like her brother she was abreast of the most advanced thought of the time, a disciple of Rousseau and Voltaire, hospitable to the new forces in religious and social life. She was not destined, however, to wield her beneficial influence long. Her many hardships, her many illnesses induced by these hardships, had weakened a naturally strong constitution. She died on the 15th of October, 1758, aged only forty-nine years. The shadow of her death stretched across the remaining years of her brother Frederick’s life.

Her autobiography is one of the most remarkable records of its kind. It is a succession of pictures from which the colors have not faded. A wonderful common-sense inspires it from the beginning to the end, tempered moreover with strong human passions and prejudices. By reason of the life which is in it, it is of more value than many histories, and is valuable most of all as a revelation of character.