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He was ""the shyest man alive,"" a bachelor who stuck to his gentlemen's clubs--and his private papers were destroyed in an ""orgy of devastation"" by his official biographer. So any biography of William Pitt the Younger -- ""the Pilot that weathered the Storm,"" Britain's leading political figure (except perhaps for George III himself) between 1785 and 1805 -- must be an almost exclusively public book, more an angled history of the period than a study in character. And, within these limitations, Reilly (The British at the Gates, 1974) does a thorough, forceful job of dramatizing each national crisis, of sketching in the complex back-and-forthings of tenuous Parliamentary coalitions; if there's no development in this Pitt, no connections drawn from decade to decade, there remains a series of vivid political scenarios. There's Pitt's stunning rise (hard upon the death of his father, brilliant and erratic Lord Chatham) from impromptu maiden speech at 22 to minority Prime Minister at 24 -- an appointment that drew raucous laughter but one that was overwhelmingly confirmed in the upset of the next general election. There's Pitt's supportive but turbulent relationship with diseased George III, whom Pitt's enemies would have replaced with a power-hungry Regency as early as 1788. (A decade later, the King would be crying out that Pitt was causing his illnesses by stirring up the question of Catholic Emancipation.) And there are Pitt's lively rivalries -- with Burke, Fox, and Sheridan. Reilly is no blind idolater, but he does find devotion to principle behind almost all of Pitt's domestic controversies -- his ""abandonment"" of Warren Hastings, his untimely resignation in 1801. And he also speculates on personal problems as sources of Pitt's occasional tactless or wayward moves: alcoholism and the liver ailments that followed; and the probability (much-speculated upon at the time) of suppressed homosexual inclinations. Not all of Reilly's condensed history lessons are tightly tied to Pitt himself, so the focus sometimes wanders. But, with John Ehrman's not-yet-complete full-scale biography not published in the U.S. -- and probably too detailed for most readers anyway -- this is a smooth and rounded charting of a short, heroic career and a lively introduction to a densely boisterous period in British history.

Pub Date: April 16th, 1979
Publisher: Putnam