Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Diana Reviews: "Earl of Shadows: A moving historical novel about two brothers in 18th century England", by Jacqueline Reiter

Two brothers are locked in a life-long struggle to fulfil their destinies.

John and William are the elder and younger sons of 18th century political giant William Pitt. The father is a man of great principle and a great orator. Twice Prime Minister, he accepts the title Earl of Chatham in recognition of his services to the British nation. But his death on the floor of the House of Lords deals a devastating blow to the family.

Forced to forego his military career, John inherits the title and a debt-ridden estate. William inherits the gilded tongue that will make him the brilliant rising star. John sees the problem looming, but the little brother cannot succeed without the big brother’s support. At the most critical moment John runs away from his responsibilities and his brother. It proves to be a fatal mistake.

Can John ever make amends and find forgiveness? Or will he continue to hold onto a pain that has almost become part of himself? Can he escape the long shadow of destiny?

This incredible novel charts the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, from just before the death of his father, 'Pitt the Elder' in 1778, to 1806.

The author easily and confidently introduces the protagonist of the story; John Pitt, elder son and heir of William Pitt the Elder  and the other main players immediately seem to come alive in Dr Jacqueline Reiter'scapable hands, letting the reader know key details without ever feeling they are being taught or reading a lecture. Immediately the reader is made to understand that whilst he is the eldest, John Pitt is very much the underdog in his family.

He appears as a empathetic and warm man, not really geared for the life that birth has chosen for him. His empathy for his ailing father during Pitt the Elders last, disastrous political speech, is movingly  portrayed and then John's sudden shock, his realisation, that he is the one in charge sets the scene for his struggle to be Lord Chatham for the rest of his life. After his father's death, we feel John's despair, pain and bitterness as the life he has envisioned for himself turns to clay, causing a rift between him and his brother, Pitt the Younger. Throughout the book the love / hate relationship between the siblings in realistically and vividly described, the reader feeling in turn for John and William, often being able to see both sides and empathise with them both but realising just how deep their emotional bond is.

The narrative flows easily and conversation is realistic and it is not long before I became rather infatuated with John - (what was that Dr. Reiter? That I must join the queue??) This, to me, is a true test of a character, if I can actually develop real feelings for them. The easy flowing narrative, however, belies the depth of the story and the enormous amount of detail that it contains.

The first part of the book is set during the period of the American war, the machinations of which which were very well explained without tedium, allowing the reader to get a grasp of the necessary details without being bogged down with trivia. I never thought that I would find 18th century politics fascinating and easily understood, but being such a natural part of the plot, I 'soaked them up' and found them an enjoyable part of the book.

The wedding night of John and his bride Mary, is so beautifully described, without smuttiness or unnecessary detail, but with a tenderness and love that is movingly and touchingly described. To say that I felt I was there, makes me sound like some sort of voyeur! but I genuinely got the impression that I was witnessing their act of love.

Everything in the book is so meticulously researched that things as diverse as setting a broken leg,the political situation in Ireland, the inside of the Downing Street house, the ministrations for a serious fever ... all have their place in the narrative and the reader can be confident that the information that is being read is correct.

Such are the emotions the book raised in me, that when John is 'demoted, disgraced, destroyed', I cried so much that I was unable to read any more that day. (I also had a very strong desire to physically harm Dundas, but that is another matter!)

As I know from personal experience, the emotions brought about by John's alienation from his brother are truthfully, painfully and vividly told...

"William set his lips, but the anger in his face melted into fear as John took a step towards the door. ‘John, don’t go.’ 
‘You are no longer my Minister,’ John said. ‘You have no need for me.’ 
‘I am still your brother.’ The burst of fury John felt at those words took him by surprise. He spun round and William flinched. 
‘No, you are not my brother. You have never been my brother. I have always been yours, and you have no conception of how hard it has been to bear that knowledge all my life.’ William sat open-mouthed, his eyes strangely dilated. John braced himself for the attack that never came. Instead William’s face crumpled and he burst into convulsive tears. John was too stunned to move. He had expected anger, coldness, perhaps even indifference, but not this clear evidence that his words had wounded William more than he had ever been wounded before. What made it so much worse was that even now John had to fight the instinct to lower his weapons, to offer assistance, to surrender. Even now, after everything, he felt guilty. 
And then William made it a thousand times worse. He looked up at his brother and said, ‘I am sorry, John. I’m sorry.’ 
Nothing in the world would induce John to admit these were the very words he had awaited during the whole period of their estrangement. Once they might have been enough, but John had spent six years stewing in unfulfilled bitterness. He set his lips and told a lie. ‘I do not care.’ He tensed himself for William’s next attempt to keep him from leaving the room. Somewhat to his surprise nothing came. John felt a pulse of disappointment ..."

In his attempt to be his own man, John deals William a body blow, but which brother suffers the most from this?

Jacqueline Reiter's exquisite writing takes one not just to the heart of the matter, but to the emotion of the matter. She writes so much from the heart, they are not just characters in a book. They are not just distant historical people. They are warm and loving, living humans that we grow to know and love. I cannot praise the book highly enough.

Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century British history from Cambridge University. She has been researching the Pitt family for many years, focusing particularly on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, whose nonfiction biography she has also written. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and their two young children, both of whom probably believe Lord Chatham lives in their house.

You may read more about Jacqueline in 'Diana talks to Jacqueline Reiter'

The author's nonfiction book about Lord Chatham is available from Amazon. The late LordDiana's review  of this excellent book may be viewed here:

© Diana Milne, October 2017

No comments:

Post a Comment