I approached reading Earl of Shadows with slight trepidation, since it is set in a period of history I know little about. But within a few pages, I was intrigued by the two brothers, William and John Pitt, and the very human flaws rendered fascinating by the author's deft characterizations. A chapter or so later and a devastating blow to their family surrendered them to the fates. With me firmly at their side, each started on a path that would ultimately lead to their own destruction…and redemption.
Ms Reiter’s exceptional research is an effortless foundation for a tale of two brothers – William is charismatic, brilliant and set on a meteoric career in politics. His older brother, John, Earl of Chatham, is destined to be subordinate to the mercurial and clever William. If that was not enough to serve up conflict aplenty, a sea change in English society upsets their world order, and an embittered political confrontation plays out in their daily lives. But it is the small and compelling details that turn this from a fascinating biography into enthralling historical fiction.
At about Chapter Five, I put the Earl of Shadows aside for an hour or two and rolled up my sleeves to familiarize myself with the political and social climate of England in the late 1780s (which to be honest, I had not considered since high school history). But such was the detail written into the novel that I wanted to understand the background, while absorbing the characters and emotional drivers of the two brothers and their fatalistic love-hate relationship. I would recommend anyone not familiar with this period of history to do the same; it significantly heightened my enjoyment of the book.
The beauty of the writing is the events told through the eyes of a flawed character. John is well aware of his weaknesses, and yet is driven to continue to repeat his errors throughout his life. And, reflected in the glory of his successful younger brother, the Earl of Chatham continues to struggle to feel good about himself, his marriage, his role in the world.
Throughout the novel, the 18th Century is brought vividly to life by an author who obviously loves the period and has saturated her knowledge of history with colorful details and glorious interludes that bring us right into the action (I particularly enjoyed the carriage flight and fight along Pall Mall between White’s and Brooks’s clubs). The Court scenes are lavish and detailed, glowing with fabrics and jewels and pools of golden candlelight. And yet in the corners lurk the shadows, and even in a happy marriage with the lovely Mary, John still carries his angst with him.
Without spoiling the end, I thought Ms Reiter brought this beautifully wrought novel to a fitting close at exactly the right point in the Earl of Chatham’s life. And as he mournfully returned to the shadows, part of this flawed but compelling man stayed with me in my heart; the true sign of a great novel. I hope there is more to come. Let me know when, so I can read up on the Walcheren Campaign. Actually, I think I need to go and read about it now.