Scarred Monuments

William Pitt
William Pitt; drawing by David Levine

The eighteenth century was the great age of funeral monuments. When Westminster Abbey was packed two-deep with them, they invaded St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other cathedrals are fully stocked, and nearly every parish church has a monument or two to members of the local family. Most of them follow a common pattern. There is usually a statue with the departed great man in a Roman toga or posed dramatically to confront the approach of death. There is a long recital of the deceased’s virtues, perhaps accompanied by a list of his progeny. He is surrounded by cherubs proclaiming his achievements, as historians have sometimes done later. The purpose was no doubt to commemorate him. The result usually is to turn him literally into stone. His humanity has departed. He will never come back to life. Very occasionally a monument achieves the opposite. A man or a historical event stands before us still vital. We share the experience and come away knowing more instead of being glad that we have finished with the subject for ever.

Here are two books on eighteenth-century themes, both monumental in their way—over 700 pages in the one, over 400 in the other, and both too heavy to read in bed. But the effect of the two books is very different. The younger Pitt never comes to life. The Irish nation is triumphantly resurrected. The new burial of the younger Pitt is a sad affair. His life ought to make a fascinating story. He became prime minister at the age of twenty-four, which is astonishing in itself. He remained prime minister for seventeen years, a feat beyond any of his successors. He dominated the House of Commons by his personality and was, according to all accounts, an orator of the first rank, outshining even such luminaries as Burke, Sheridan, and Charles Fox. He raised England up after the loss of the American colonies, restored her finances, and established a new British Empire in India. He understood the doctrines of Adam Smith and gave a lead in Parliamentary reform. He founded the second Tory party, perhaps without meaning to do so. His life should be a record of great wonders.

In addition Pitt’s latest biographer is a historian of distinction. Mr. Ehrman wrote the two final volumes on Grand Strategy in the official British military history of the Second World War. These volumes were a remarkable achievement, handling every problem with mastery and providing a narrative which even the least expert could read with pleasure. Mr. Ehrman has other, more strictly historical works to his credit. His reputation as a scholar is beyond dispute. All the sources are firmly under his control. The present volume contains everything that is known about the younger Pitt during the years of peace. Perhaps this is the trouble. Everything is a deal too much. Time and again the younger Pitt disappears. The policy of…

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