Exclusive interview with author Jacqueline Reiter discussing her new book about the life of John Pitt, the second Earl of Chatham
By Gabrielle Pantera
“The research often felt like I was proceeding along an unmade road without a map, because this was the first biography ever written of the second Earl of Chatham,” says The Late Lord author Jacqueline Reiter. Nobody had written a biography before about the elder brother to Britain’s youngest prime minister, Pitt the Younger.
John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham had a twenty-year career in government. He held a number of cabinet posts including First Lord of the Admiralty and Master-General of the Ordnance. He was commander-in-chief of the 1809 Walcheren expedition. Expected to be an easy victory, it was a disaster. Pitt had strong diplomatic skills, was close to the Royal family and the Prime Minister. But, he had rivals in politics and made many enemies. After Walcheren he was viewed an incompetent commander. He became known as the late Lord Chatham, not because he was dead, but for being slow and too late.
Inspiration for The Late Lord sprang from a novel Reiter wrote about the tense relationship between John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham and his much more famous younger brother.
“I was originally attracted to Chatham’s story by the fact he’s a refreshingly human member of his over-achieving family,” says Reiter. “I imagine people would sympathise with his efforts to live up to his family’s reputation, and his ultimate failure to do so. It was this story of the highly-intelligent, flawed man doomed to be forever compared unfavourably with others that first drew my attention. While not a success story, I think it speaks to the streak of humanity in all of us.”
Reiter uses different manuscript sources to show who John Pitt really is, to reveal the struggles within his political family. In writing his biography, Reiter found more emotion, nuance and tragedy than she had expected.
“If I collected every reference made to him in the secondary literature up till I published my book, I’d probably have rather less than a chapter of a material, a lot of it anecdotal,” says Reiter. “A military history friend persuaded me there was enough for a full-length book, and he was right. The material I was turning up was fascinating and, in my opinion, shone a very new light on late 18th century British political and military history.”
Reiter faced challenges finding Chatham’s letters.
“Chatham’s personal papers are scattered,” says Reiter. “They were divided between his two heirs, and became even more split up over time. A lot of what survives is down to chance, partly because of the usual process of archival attrition and partly because of this process of dispersal.”
“I don’t think I could have written this book half so well even ten years ago,” says Reiter. “The Internet was a massive boon. The British Library newspaper resources were invaluable…the 18th century Burney Collection and the 19th Century Newspaper Database. I found much material by searching various archive catalogue collections…particularly the National Archives’ Discovery in the UK, and ArchivesHub in the U.S. I managed to track down one archive collection through a chance discovery on Google Books.”
The Late Lord is Reiter’s second book. Her novel version of Chatham’s story, Earl of Shadows, was published by Endeavour Press in October 2017. She has several forthcoming articles with the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research.
Reiter is currently writing two non-fiction books on British political and military history in the Napoleonic period. She is co-writing a chapter for the forthcoming Cambridge History of the Napoleonic Wars. She will be at the East Midlands Napoleonic Weekend 3-4 March 2018 and the Helion Books Reason to Revolution Conference in York on 29 April 2018. She is speaking on a non-fiction panel at the Historical Novel Society conference near Glasgow in August.
Reiter lives in Cambridge, UK. She was born Dubai, UAE. Her father was a British diplomat.
The Late Lord: The Life of John Pitt – 2nd Earl of Chatham by Jacqueline Reiter. Hardcover: 256 pages. Publisher: Pen and Sword (April 3, 2017). Language: English. ISBN-13: 978-1473856950 $39.95