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About the book:
John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham is one of the most enigmatic and overlooked figures of early nineteenth century British history. The elder brother of Pitt the Younger, he has long been consigned to history as ‘the late Lord Chatham’, the lazy commander-in-chief of the 1809 Walcheren expedition, whose inactivity and incompetence turned what should have been an easy victory into a disaster.
Chatham’s poor reputation obscures a fascinating and complex man. During a twenty-year career at the heart of government, he served in several important cabinet posts such as First Lord of the Admiralty and Master-General of the Ordnance. Yet despite his closeness to the Prime Minister and friendship with the Royal Family, political rivalries and private tragedy hampered his ascendance. Paradoxically for a man of widely admired diplomatic skills, his downfall owed as much to his personal insecurities and penchant for making enemies as it did to military failure.
Using a variety of manuscript sources to tease Chatham from the records, this biography peels away the myths and places him for the first time in proper familial, political, and military context. It breathes life into a much-maligned member of one of Britain’s greatest political dynasties, revealing a deeply flawed man trapped in the shadow of his illustrious relatives.
I have enjoyed Jacqueline Reiter's blog and Facebook page but I did wonder whether this factual book, so out of my time period of history, would really manage to grab and hold my interest, but from the first page to the last, I was totally gripped by the story of this man whose life is told with the fluidity and readability of a novel, without destroying or demeaning the historical facts and trivialising a serious study.
Who do you think of when you hear the name John or Pitt, or Chatham? Such is the author's passion for the subject that when coupled with the name Reiter, John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, is now almost a household name. A whole generation will grow up knowing of the Pitt underdog, the anti hero, who in Reiter's capable hands, becomes a hero. I have never found another author who so thoroughly makes a historical character their own. It shows a genuine skill and ability to write to make a little known man, long dead, come alive and engender in us readers genuine emotion.
The 2nd Earl of Chatham is a very complex man. Slothful, intelligent, vulnerable, pleasure loving, a keen social animal, always seemingly in the shadow of his younger brother. "John had Pitt the Elder’s name and political principles instilled into him from the cradle, and grew up with the conviction that being a Pitt was something special. John’s importance within the family as the eldest son was never in doubt, and he never forgot that" He seems to have been an attractive and likeable man, who knew how to 'work the crowds' but conversely, never seemed to push himself forward.
Fashionable and elegant, he and his wife were the trend setters of the era and despite her persistent ill health and Chatham's frequent leg problems causing, at times, poor mobility, they managed to be well known and liked in London society. In Reiter's words, "he had always been elegant (in his teens his father called him ‘the powdered beau’), and his Cabinet status gave him added reason to show off. In 1789 his ‘corbeau and blue striped’ coat was acclaimed as ‘one of the handsomest dresses at the Drawing room’; four years later his ‘carmelite [light brown] coloured velvet coat and breeches . . . very richly embroidered with silver’ provoked similar admiration."
No one can read this book and remain untouched by the 2nd Earl of Chatham's life and the tragedies and misfortunes that befell him. The aftermath (and the after myth) of the Walcheren campaign is explored in a realistic but sensitive way and Reiter even manages to make the driest of politics interesting and yet manages to maintain throughout a level that would be suitable for academic study as well as the lay reader. His career was blighted his father's spendthrift ways causing huge debts, by his easy-going temperament and by his bad luck. "He fought as hard as he could against the hand he had been dealt but he was ultimately the victim of his own family’s success."
The author has researched the book with meticulous care for every detail and whilst citations are given, they are never invasive or get in the way of the prose, adding greatly to the enjoyment for the lay-reader. Situations and places are described in such a way to give a real feel for the era and for the places and has encouraged a real interest for the subject and time in British history in this die-hard Mediaevalist.
Helpfully, the book includes three maps - Walcheren (Flushing), Helder and Gibraltar, plus illustrations, an index, an extensive bibliography, and copious source notes (which are discretely placed and do not get in the flow of the narrative.)
The book was thoroughly enjoyable, amazingly informative, interesting, easy to read and understand and I will happily recommend it to both historian and casual reader.
The book is available from Pen and Sword Books and also from Amazon in both Kindle and Hard Cover editions. Read it! It is worth it!
Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. Born into a diplomatic family, she has long looked upon history as a fixed point of reference in a peripatetic life. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children.
Learn more about the author in this really interesting Diana Talks to Jacqueline Reiter.
What other people say:
"To produce a biography of one of history’s peripheral figures requires detective work as much as writing talent. In the case of John Pitt, the biographer has to deal with an extra dimension of complexity. The challenge is to provide an objective portrait of someone, who, as the son of William Pitt the Elder and older brother of William Pitt the Younger, found his life constantly overshadowed by, and unfavourably compared to, his more renowned relatives....
...Although Chatham’s army service is discussed, the expeditions in which he participated are not examined at the level of detail of a purely military history. The political events are related in much more depth, and the book provides a very interesting portrayal of the politics and politicians, as well as the British nobility, during the latter part of the Georgian era."
To read this excellent but lengthy review in its entirety, please click here 1/72 scale plastic Napoleonic figures
© Diana Milne, March 2017