« PreviousContinue »
harness to rise again to the serene heights of his youthful contemplations. In England our youths did not meditate on the science of politics. Both Oxford and Cambridge displayed a maternal care lest the brains of the rising generation should overtax the bodies; and never was the unsullied spring of Helicon ruffled by draughts taken under compulsion' (i, 63).
Dr Rose's style to one reader at least seems stiff, sometimes involved, too often laboured and flat; it is unpleasantly marred by idiosyncrasies, infelicities and periphrases that savour of journalistic English. We miss in these twelve hundred pages the ease, colour, charm and power that such a theme imperatively demands; we miss the mental atmosphere, the distinction of phrase and thought which reveal a first-rate mind. In a word, we fear that the biography of the younger Pitt which will add a classic to our shelves, the happy combination of knowledge, literature and intellectual power of the first order, has yet to be written.
What permanent impression, we may well ask, of Pitt's statesmanship as a whole do we gain, after collating all Dr Rose has to tell us with other sources and authorities? Does he stand higher or lower in our estimation when we test his career by the scrutiny of modern knowledge? Any general verdict will certainly be debatable, but no one can study Dr Rose's careful and balanced judgments without feeling that the most recent biographer of Pitt is far more critical, far more disposed to admit readily mistakes, even blunders, shortcomings and limitations in Pitt than was the case with contemporary admirers or Lord Stanhope. The unqualified panegyrist indeed will often find cold comfort in Dr Rose's pages; and the material set out will cause obstinate searchings of heart and the revision of many settled judgments in more than one phase of the statesman's career.
It is indeed regrettable that for all Dr Rose's researches into the nooks, crannies and byways of documentary sources the new light on the man himself is disappointingly small. Pitt's character and personality have always been, and will, we fear, continue to be, a fascinating enigma. Why did he drink so much, why was he so recklessly extravagant, why had he so few friends, why did he not marry? This last question indeed seems to haunt the
refined, charming and high-bred face of Eleanor Eden; and all that we can despairingly infer from a stilted letter is that apparently there was an insuperable obstacle. What the obstacle was, whether it was really insuperable, and why Pitt did not discover it until the eleventh hour we do not know and probably never shall know. And so it is with all his inner life; we get a rare flash, a provoking glimpse, a sentence in a diary (such as Wilberforce's 'Pitt does not make friends '), a savage growl as with Creevey, or a baffled wail as in so many of his colleagues' letters; and the rest is silence. Rightly or wrongly we are driven to pronounce that an increasing and petrifying loneliness, commencing with childhood and burnt into his fibres when Chatham died, is the dominating and self-chosen feature of his life. Alone, always alone, when all round him were able men eager for the privilege of his intimacy, and women, as Hester Stanhope and Eleanor Eden prove, proud to serve. In the galaxy of our great statesmen is there one beside Pitt in whose career women, not even excepting his mother, have played so insignificant, so negligible and so regrettably small a part? We read, it is true, that after 1801 he took his niece to parties in London. Among all the chaperons who have counted the hours while youth and beauty are teaching love a measure, the grey-robed night and the rosy-fingered dawn can never have shed their kindly pity on a lonelier figure than on the gaunt ex-Prime Minister waiting so patiently for his madcap Hester. What were his thoughts? Had night and the rosy-fingered dawn ever bidden him watch with beating heart for Eleanor Eden; had they ever whispered their intoxicating dreams as they had whispered to Burke, Warren Hastings, Mirabeau, Charles Fox, Wolfe Tone and the young Napoleon; or did the harbinger of another day simply gild a proud but weary memory of the crowded benches at St Stephen's, hushed for the chief to soar into the peroration that was the prelude to another triumphant division? We do not know.
This at least is certain. His experience of life was and remained astonishingly limited. From a sickly and jealously guarded boyhood he passed to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and then in 1781, at the age of barely twentytwo, entered the House of Commons. At twenty-three he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minister
before he was twenty-five. For the next seventeen years he was immersed in state affairs. He was once in France for a few weeks, when he saw just what a brilliant young man, the heir to a great name and with the best of introductions, could see. But the France of Arthur Young, Turgot, Rochefoucauld and the young Danton he did not see. Two-thirds of England were unknown to him; he never set foot in Scotland or Ireland. Downing Street, Windsor, Bath, Putney, Wimbledon, Deal and half-a-dozen country houses sum up his life after 1783. In early manhood he belonged for a short time to Goosetree's Club; he met Gibbon and Adam Smith once; he drank and dined with a select few, but apparently did not go to theatres, operas, or the great salons of his party. Dr Rose notes that he did not come into touch with literary men, artists or original thinkers; that in his official patronage he neglected literature, science and the arts. Was he even a great worker? It has always been assumed that he was; but doubts suggest themselves. You know,' wrote Wilberforce, how difficult, I may say next to impossible it is to extract a line from Pitt.' Not once, as in the Fitzwilliam episode, but repeatedly his long silences, his failure to write the reply that urgency demanded, had the most serious results. What did he read during those years of office besides despatches, minutes and reports? How was his mind being fed? What nourishing or provocative ideas filtered in through the windows of Downing Street? Had he ever opened Cowper, Burns, Crabbe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Bentham, Paine, Godwin, Malthus, Cartwright and the Radical pamphleteers? The scanty evidence suggests a negative. Certainly his inaccessibility to new ideas after 1790 is very notable. Is it surprising that his mind, living on the capital acquired before 1784, slowly closed and imperceptibly congealed, and that his humanity dried up with it?
Pitt became Prime Minister when his acquaintance with men, affairs and life was necessarily slender. It is at all times as difficult for a Prime Minister, absorbed in business and moving in a circle of congenial or submissive followers, to learn the truth and the disagreeable, as it is for a sovereign. And Pitt had none of the modern machinery to correct the information of paper reports, the optimism of office, or the drilled orthodoxy of officials.
He had no popular constituency to face, no party organisation in close touch with the electors and representatives of every class, and was under no necessity to explain and justify a great programme before mass meetings in every quarter of Great Britain. After 1783 he never fought an uphill battle with unpopularity and defeat as the mistresses of wisdom. His speeches outside Parliament can be counted on the fingers of one hand; within the House of Commons he spoke as the acknowledged chief from the Treasury Bench to legislators who practically represented one class alone. Of the elemental forces that mould appetite and master reason in the average man he was austerely ignorant. He knew as little of the world of Almack's or of Mrs Jordan, Perdita Robinson and Lady Hamilton, as of the democratic clubs where Francis Place or Thomas Hardy held sway, of the 'doghole' of St Helen's, the reeking slums and the slavery of mine, factory and furnace which poisoned the gifts of Arkwright, Watt and Crawshay to the new England of Pitt's maturity. There is a poignant and significant pathos in his confession, when he withdrew, at the first whisper of criticism, his Poor Relief Bill, that he knew little or nothing of the poor; for he only met the new industrial proletariat face to face when a starving crowd roared for bread, and rebel hands hurled stones at the Minister's carriage. Even Wilberforce, the Saint,' was struck with his ignorance of human nature, his sanguine estimate of men, his surprise and petulance at opposition, his despondency when opposition was successful.
What Dr Rose justly calls his besetting sin'-excess of confidence, an optimism that was a strange blend of belief in himself, a patriot's faith, and a doctrinaire's trust in the invincibility of abstract reason-dogged his career from the beginning to the end. For example, he was confident that he could carry Parliamentary Reform in 1785, that the Irish Concordat of the same year would go through, that Europe in 1790 was entering on a long period of peace, that he could compel Russia to give way in 1791, that the war with France would be a short one, that the Revolutionary Republic could not last, that the Roman Catholics could be emancipated, that 'there was every prospect after Amiens (1802) of enjoying a long peace,' that the Third Coalition would secure the alliance
of Prussia and crush Napoleon. In each case-and the list might be extended-forces and facts which he left out of his calculations combined to wreck his hopes. We may, if we please, say with Dr Rose, the Zeitgeist breathed against the plans of Pitt, and they were not.' Poor Zeitgeist! the most convenient of all scapegoats to bear the burdens of statesmanship and the unsolved difficulties of historians. But the uncomfortable reflection remains. Some statesmen succeed because they ally with the Zeitgeist; others fail because they ignore it or defy it. Into which class are we to put Pitt?
Yet Pitt's unique position in his generation is the outstanding fact which no evidence, new or old, has yet shaken. He repeats in a most remarkable way the mystery of Chatham's achievement. In both we can see, as acute contemporaries saw, irritating pettinesses, grave defects of temper, judgment and knowledge; we can wish, as they did, that the dross was less and the gold purer; we can even be baffled, as they were, by the inadequacy of the cause if contrasted with the undeniable effect. The historians' scrutiny of statesmanship invariably emphasises limitations in the masters of affairs, but in the arithmetic of political genius two and two seldom make four. Clearly there were in Pitt qualities of brain and personality which have evaporated from the docuThere was a 'Pitt touch' as there was a 'Chatham touch' and a 'Nelson touch.' The England that had lived through 1783, the Regency Bill and 1797, that had seen Addington on the Treasury Bench and Hawkesbury at the Foreign Office, was ready in 1804 to accept Grenville, Fox and Grey; but it was to the wasted son of Chatham, with death in his face, that its heart, allegiance and hopes went out. Nations are always teaching the historian the salutary lesson that there be grounds of confidence as of diffidence which lie not in proof.'
Dr Rose's first volume covers Pitt's career prior to the outbreak of the great war with revolutionary France. The narrative is told with a greater mastery of the sources than can be found in the work of any other British historian; but, on the whole, with a few notable exceptions, the verdicts expressed coincide with those of Dr Hunt and Prof. Salomon, and are eminently