And yet what best defines this extraordinary man is the way in which he spent his last day as the leader of what was then the greatest power on earth. He recorded that he had been to church, written half a dozen letters, seen half a dozen people, "Read I. Hen. VI. And finished my version of the Odes of Horace." Reading a Shakespeare play might seem unlikely enough in the circumstances, let alone completing a classical translation. But then, as Gladstone recorded in the breathtaking human document that is his Diaries, he read during the course of his life at least 20,000 books in at least six languages, and he was an indefatigable writer, translator, and controversialist.
He had a wondrous ability to switch off from politics and write an enormously long article on church music, say, or a 15,000-word critical essay on Tennyson. Earlier in his career, when out of office for the moment, he had thought nothing of producing a four-volume translation of Farini's Lo stato romano. On one occasion when he had recently ceased to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on another when he had ceased to be Prime Minister, he published vast if idiosyncratic studies of Homer.
Some of what he wrote -- an essay on Giacomo Leopardi, for example -- is still worth reading, though his writing was uneven, partly because of his inexhaustible prolificity. This was itself an expression of the demonic energy that otherwise manifested itself in enormously long walks, in hill-climbing into old age, and in his most famous physical pastime of tree-felling (in the mordant phrase of Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, "The forest laments, in order that Mr. Gladstone may perspire").
GLADSTONE'S latest biographer hesitates to claim that he was the greatest of all premiers; for one thing, unlike the two William Pitts, Lloyd George, and Churchill, he never led his country in the supreme test of war. But Roy Jenkins has "no doubt that he was the most remarkable specimen of humanity of all the fifty who, from [Robert] Walpole to [John] Major, have so far held the office of British Prime Minister." Few who read this utterly absorbing life will disagree with him.
Prime Minister of England, I have called him, and he would have called himself, but by descent he was pure Scotch, as he would also have said. Although it is sometimes observed that our damp little island has a class system (as if other countries were innocent of class), the system has always been permeable by money. John Gladstone was not a gentleman but a corn merchant from Leith, near Edinburgh. He moved to Liverpool and made a larger fortune, partly from West Indian sugar, which is to say from slavery. His son William was born in 1809, and those unlovely profits were used to give him a traditional upper-class education at Eton and Christ Church. Despite that, and despite marrying into a landed family, the Glynnes, whose estate at Hawarden, in northeast Wales, eventually passed to his descendants, Gladstone was all his life conscious of not belonging to the aristocracy.