Oh my heart, my heart, how he broke my heart: Pitt’s last days

Just taking five minutes from my writing day (it’s Thuuuuuuuuuuuuuursdaaaaaaaaaaay!) to blog something that’s been tugging at my mind since yesterday.

Last night, quite by accident, I discovered that Earl Stanhope’s “Miscellanies” (London, 1863) are on Google Books. (You can find the whole thing here). Reading through, I found a few letters that passed between Pitt the Younger and his physician, Sir Walter Farquhar, at the start of January 1806.

First, to put them into context and explain why they affected me so much, a little background. Pitt returned to office in May 1804, beset by parliamentary divisions. He managed to cobble together the Third Coalition against France with Austria and Russia in 1805, only to see it shattered by Napoleon on the battlefields of Ulm (October 1805) and Austerlitz (December 1805). Pitt’s health was by this time seriously failing and he had gone to Bath in mid December 1805 to take the waters. Pitt, a natural optimist, was initially confident Bath would benefit him: a letter he wrote on 21 December to Lord Harrowby, also printed in the “Miscellanies” (pp 28-9), ends with the line “I have been here for ten days, and have already felt the effect of the waters in a pretty smart fit of the gout, from which I am just recovering, and of which I expect soon to perceive the benefit.”

Eleven days later and Pitt’s tone had completely changed. Parliament was due to meet on 21 January 1806 after the recess and Pitt knew very well the opposition— at this point led in the House of Commons by Fox, and in the House of Lords by Pitt’s own cousin Lord Grenville— would strongly censure the failure of his foreign policy. He knew he had to get well enough to defend himself, and he knew he was running out of time. On 1 January 1806 he wrote the following letter to Sir Walter Farquhar, his physician. He was obviously still trying to strike his usual upbeat note, but clearly failing miserably. I’ll quote it in its entirety here:

“My dear Sir,

I have been rather gaining ground since I wrote to you last; but it has been so slowly that I cannot feel comfortable at finding myself within less than three weeks of the meeting of Parliament without being more advanced. My strength is as yet very little improved, and my appetite not at all. It is indeed only for these last five days that I have begun again on the waters, and at first so sparingly that they would scarce produce any effect. For these last two days I have taken two middle-sized glasses, which certainly seem to agree very well, though I have not felt any positive benefit, except in my sleep being better than it has been. I do not know whether I am to place to their account some gouty sensations in the bottom of the left foot, which, without being yet anything very decided, are sufficient to make me rather lame. Mr Crook [his apothecary in Bath] seems apprehensive of more gout; but if it is in the habit, I cannot but think the sooner it is brought out the better. On the whole, if I had six weeks to spare, I should have no doubt of returning to town stout enough; but, as it is, I am afraid that, unless exactly the best use is made of the short interval to the 21st, I shall hardly be equal to the labours which are then to begin; and I have therefore thought it best to trouble you with these particulars, for your further directions.

Yours very sincerely,

W. Pitt.”

(pp. 33-4)

In other words, “HELP!”

Stanhope then goes on to quote a letter from Farquhar urging Pitt to take “paregoric elixir”, which apparently he could take as often as necessary without ill effects (oh, Farquhar, Farquhar, Farquhar: it was an opiate!), and offering to come down to Bath. Pitt’s reply ends thus:

“I cannot deny that it will be a great satisfaction to me to see you, if you can come without too much inconvenience to yourself, and without creating an alarm among my friends.” (p. 35)

So doom and gloom for Pitt in the last three weeks of his life. For some reason this has knocked me for six. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that, from the time these letters were exchanged, Pitt began a steep and swift decline to his death.

I’m still upset about it today. That’s it: next time I am writing about fictional characters and not real people.

*weeps gently over keyboard*