The book is divided into four separate parts, each addressing a different broad topic.
The first part looks at various different aspects of human endeavour, rather than the usual well-worn tales of dynastic intrigue, power-politics and military adventures. Such normally "mundane" matters as transport, agriculture and industry are brought to life, with colourful anecdotes and quotes from the travels of notables and unknowns alike.
Throughout, one gains the flavour of this transitional period - the continuing fall-out from the Reformation, early industrialization, new ideas, colonialism, and the emergence of new commercial classes. Britain, Russia and Prussia were largely in the ascendancy, whereas Spain and Ottomans were beginning their decline in power and influence. Things were changing, both at the rarefied heights of monarchy and power-politics, and also "on the ground", and Blanning ably conveys the extent to which these things were often inter-linked.
Another strand which emerges is the notion of a multi-track Europe. Whereas today Europe is very homogeneous, back then primitive communications, restrictive practices and privilege, superstition and cultural diversity meant that everybody did things very differently, with varying degrees of success. The world was still a very big place.
At numerous points, but particularly towards its conclusion, Frederick The Great features prominently, and the thought occurred to me that his importance lay as much in what his opinions were on some sacrosanct precepts of European life, as it did in his military and diplomatic exploits. His reputation does not just stem from the fact that he spoke French, and played the flute quite proficiently....
Of course, the period covered by this book saw the first stirrings of enlightenment and liberalism, and a plethora of new ideas in science and philosophy. Part of the fascination is the overlap which these developments had with the stubborn resilience of the "old ways". The author seems highly unimpressed with the role still played back then by biblical teachings in dictating, justifying and solidifying many social attitudes.
We are given an excellent examination of how the conception of the more modern state was interpreted and implemented in the various countries, and the ramifications for the future, including the impact on relationships between the various social groupings and sectors.
Blanning has some interesting things to say about both the British system as it was in those days. In this reading, any British claim to be more modern and liberal is to be qualified and treated with caution. It is quite tempting to believe that Britain "moved forward" quicker and earlier than most, but the reality which prevailed well into the 19th century did not always sit easily with the theory or the smug rhetoric. Was much of the "change", "reform", "progress" and "democratization" merely window-dressing, simply providing a mechanism for entrenched privileged sectors to proclaim their "legitimacy"?
The latter chapters, among other things, look at the rise of nationalism, its roots and its manifestations, and the development of popular participation in politics and the public sphere.
A handy and concise "guide" to the French Revolution is incorporated, with some trenchant and well-balanced observation and home truths.
The author also cleverly assesses trends in court life, palaces and architecture, and speculates what they tell us about the waxing and waning of dynasties, ideologies and nations. Similarly erudite attention is devoted to events in intellectual and cultural life, the "revolution v evolution" arguments concerning "reason" and the Enlightenment, and also the potency of the romanticism movement.
To close the book, we have a brilliant and highly readable analysis of the wars of the period, encompassing the decline of France and the audacious rise of Frederick The Great and Prussia. The material on the French Revolutionary Wars, and the background to its inception and progress, I found especially illuminating.
The narrative is critical of Napoleon and his selfishness and stubbornness, but seemingly mildly praises the revised machinery of Europe-wide relations which arose from the wars. Here, as elsewhere in The Pursuit Of Glory, demographic data and statistics are harnessed to good effect.
Whilst reading this absorbing and challenging work, I was left to ponder our current times, and whether we have worked ourselves into something of a dead-end, with no immediately visible escape from some of the less edifying aspects of our modern world. Perhaps we need to summon up some of the dynamism which characterized the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in order to navigate our way out of stagnation?