Wow, this is the kind of popular history that one likes to find, for it is an easily read, quite original and highly entertaining piece of work. Most treatments of important historical figures are, of necessity, heavily-laden with names, dates, geography, and the minutiae of day to day and month to month activities. This is, after all, what a history is meant to be: An accurate recording of the events described. Most pleasure-readers want a lively, entertaining read that is also factually accurate. Unfortunately, an accurate history almost requires all of the relevant details. On the other hand, by including all of the detail the lively and entertaining parts are left out of the equation. (A marvelous exception to this rule is Robert Caro's singular and unrivaled biography of LBJ which, by the way, is still uncompleted three volumes and twenty years later).
Giles MacDonogh has crafted a solution by focusing on Frederick's social and intellectual life. Essentially this is a kind of monograph in which the machinations of the war campaigns, for instance, are summed up in a few lines or a paragraph rather than parsed in painful, niggling detail in mind-numbing liturgical fashion. Likewise, many important characters in Frederick's life are glossed over or mentioned in passing (with the exception of a fine exposition of his father's life, and a rather hilarious on-going description of the decades-long sometimes charming sometimes brutal battle of wills between Voltaire and Frederick). The unspoken premise is a familiarity with Frederick the Great. MacDonogh's mission is to uncover aspects of Frederick's character -those things that went into making him great- that weren't fully developed in other treatments of the man, so be prepared to read another to get one's fill of mind-numbing tactical data and a full calender of events and daily briefings. We find the essence of the man through an examination of the ideas that motivated him, a reasonable explanation of how they were inculcated and developed and how they were applied. It is, if you will, a pointillist portrait done in broad brush strokes.
Although you will likely come away from this book marveling at the genius of Frederick, the book suffers from not having at least a couple of maps to enable one to picture the puzzle-piece character of Frederick's home geography (one also wishes for more pictures of the players in Frederick's life, 16 pps. of pictures is just not enough). Also it doesn't supply quite enough for war campaign material for one to fully apprehend the awesome strategist that Frederick undoubtedly was (perhaps the author expects that this follows logically from a look at the man himself). It would also help to have a working knowledge of written French because the book is liberally sprinkled with lines in the French. The author seems to go out of his way to use obscure words so that one will frequently consult a dictionary. Funny enough because of the author's odd word choice I found myself looking up words that while completely familiar were still surprisingly ill-defined in my mental dictionary. I genuinely learned some new words and came to appreciate others which I believed I already knew. The biggest complaint I have is that the author expresses far too much interest in Frederick's sex life. Admittedly Voltaire's numerous scurrilous allegations against Frederick make for entertaining reading, but it seems that the author worries the issue like a small dog on a large bone.
My complaints are small-beer when compared to the list of very interesting details included one finds fascinating but would never have thought to wonder about. Frederick's taste in music, food, architecture, literature and philosophers, for instance: An overview of Frederick's views on the economy, law, education, agriculture and manufactory: Immersion in the life of Frederick's mind and numerous examples of his sharp, incisive wit and rather deep observations about people and culture. Finally, the author does a brilliant job of bringing various lines of poetry to life with his translations of material issuing from Frederick, Voltaire, and a slew of people within Frederick's orbit. This couldn't have been accomplished by anybody but a person with a flair for language and literature. This engaging read is sure to bring a good few hours of pleasurable reading.