Pitting my wits . . .

I am a reasonably avid reader, but not of fiction. My literary genres are history and biography.

I guess I’ve always been interested in history, although I did not enjoy it very much at school; and I put that down to poor teaching rather than any innate lack of historical ability. My two daughters had excellent history teachers at the International School Manila (ISM) and I saw just how an inspiring teacher could make this subject come alive. There are many history programs on TV, and a whole new (and not so new) cadre of presenters: Mary Beard, Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Bettany Hughes, Dan Snow, and Michael Wood of course (who’s returning to the BCC next week). Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson have also made significant TV contributions. And many of these presenters also write books.

I think we all like to know where we come from, and how events in the distant and not-so-distant past have influenced who we are as a nation. Although I’ve recently taken a shine to medieval history (the 15th century Wars of the Roses period is interesting), much of my reading has focussed in fact on the 18th century, spilling over into the early 19th and the rise and fall of Napoleon. I find the 18th century particularly fascinating for a number of reasons. First, the monarchy changed fundamentally with the accession of a German king, George I and the subsequent Hanoverians. Second, there was the beginnings of a party system that forms the basis of the parliamentary system today, and the appointment of the first Prime Minister, Walpole. And third, the 18th century was a time of great industrial and scientific innovation and change – the beginnings of a ‘modern’ Britain. There were also great changes among the European powers, and Britain ruled the waves.

I get most of my books I read from the local public library, and generally just pick up a book on a whim, so-to-speak. Sometimes I come up trumps, but occasionally what I have chosen is a really difficult read. And that’s just happened.

Having read an excellent biography of William Pitt the Younger by William Hague a couple of years ago (and another more recently about anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce), I was hoping for the same when I came across a biography of his father, William Pitt the Elder (later the Earl of Chatham), 1708-1778. Published by The Bodley Head in 2010, Pitt the Elder – Man of War was written by political journalist and author Edward Pearce. How wrong I was! I struggled with this biography as I have never struggled before, and finally gave up after about 180 pages (of 346). It wasn’t that the topic and subject were not interesting – Pitt was a fascinating and complex character, beset by illness (gout) and mental problems much of his life. But he rose to become one of the most powerful politicians of his age.

The problem was Pearce’s impenetrable and turgid writing style – which a good editor should have sorted out. As one reviewer commented it served him well as a political journalist, but gets in the way of a flowing narrative that other historians seem to achieve without also getting bogged down with too many footnotes (endnotes are fine).

I went looking for reviews of the book to find out what others thought (The Independent, The Spectator, The Bookbag). Some were reasonably positive, but not glowing. Just by chance I looked on the Amazon website, and came across nine reviews by readers who had apparently spent good cash on this book – and the majority were not especially favorable. In fact, one of the reviews, by a certain S Kay, reflected exactly the perspectives that I had after 180 pages (although this reviewer didn’t get past 30!) This is what reviewer Kay had to say: In complete contradiction to the other reviews, I disliked what I read of ‘William Pitt the Elder’ – and I could only fight my way through the first thirty pages before giving up. Unfortunately I consider it to be very badly written. Sentences drift on through a mass of commas, as unnecessary adverbs and adjectives are thrown into the narrative, with the result that many sentences have to be re-read. Once or twice on each page these rambling sentences become so convoluted as to be ungrammatical, the verbs lost in a maze of tangential comments. My other problem with the book is that the author throws in many glib comments, as if he is trying to be funny. This may add spice to the newspaper columns that the author apparently writes, but for me it doesn’t work in what I thought would be a serious work of history. Sadly I bought this book before reading the reviews of the author’s biography of Walpole, most of which seemed to be negative. As someone who reads nothing but history books, I am disappinted [sic] by the fact that this is the first time in a few decades that I have given up on a book before finishing it.

Pearce should perhaps stick to political journalism – but never having read any of his pieces, I have no idea how good they are. But based on my ‘Pitt experience’ I shall give Edward Pearce a wide berth in the future, and would recommend the same to anyone else. If you decide not to choose any book in the future, make it this one.

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