The Most Eminent Victorian

Adored as "the People's William" and execrated by "the upper ten thousand," Gladstone was the great statesman of his age.

William Ewart Gladstone

ON March 3, 1894, William Ewart Gladstone resigned for the last time as Prime Minister of England. He was in his eighty-fifth year and had been a member of Parliament for more than sixty years, since his election, at twenty-two, to the first reformed Parliament, after the great Reform Bill of 1832 had adumbrated the gradual democratization of England. He had first joined the Cabinet at thirty-three, as the third youngest man ever to do so; he had become Prime Minister for the first time more than twenty-six years before his final departure; and he had held the office four times in all, in 1868-1874, in 1880- 1885, for six months in 1886, and in 1892-1894.

The sheer length and scope of his public life make him stand alone in the history of his or any other country: Winston Churchill is the only comparison. It has been said that all political careers end in failure, and Gladstone might seem to illustrate the saying. When he finally left Downing Street, it was to the relief of most of his colleagues, with almost no thanks from Queen Victoria, who had come to detest him, and without accomplishing the great task of his later years -- a just settlement for Ireland. For all that, Gladstone had done more with his life than another two or three politicians put together, and his legislative and financial record places him in the very first rank of English statesmen.

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.

Before the end of his days he was to become a byword for liberalism. Literally so: almost a hundred years after his death "Gladstonian Liberal" is still a phrase by which some of us are happy to describe ourselves. But this was after he had made the lengthiest possible political pilgrimage, having begun life as far on the other side as could be. His first Commons speech was in dutifully filial opposition to a slavery-abolition bill, and a few years later he was described by the essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay as "the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories." The phrase, which haunted Gladstone for years, was inspired by his first, truly bizarre book, The State in its Relations With the Church. It was a work of intellectual fanaticism, a last-ditch defense of the confessional state that Tory England had tried to construct and maintain since the Restoration, in 1660, with all office and power reserved to communicant members of the Established Church of England. At a time when Catholic emancipation had just been passed, and full Jewish emancipation was within sight, Gladstone proposed a Protestant Episcopalian theocracy not only in England (which could at least claim to be a Protestant country) but in Ireland also.

His slow political evolution was bound up with the turmoil of the middle decades of the century and the crisis over the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws, a cause to which the brave and principled Sir Robert Peel was converted as a moral necessity. Gladstone served in Peel's Cabinet, and for years after Peel's death, in 1850, called himself a Peelite -- a first stage in his escape from high Toryism. Peel had been harried to destruction by the brilliant and insolent young adventurer Benjamin Disraeli, who now became Gladstone's great rival in a contest that lasted three decades. From 1858 to 1868 one or the other was Chancellor of the Exchequer (which personal factor incidentally much increased the status of what had until then been a rather unimportant office), and from 1868 to 1885 one or the other was Prime Minister. The duel between them made a fascinating human and political contrast.

Given his background, and given England, Disraeli's career was heroic in its own way. Flippant, cynical, realistic or opportunistic according to taste, Disraeli was contemptuous of the intensely devout and earnest Gladstone, high-minded or self-righteous according to taste. The scorn was repaid in kind. In 1852 Disraeli's first, brief spell as Chancellor came to an abrupt end when -- in that golden age of parliamentary government when party allegiances were fluid and votes could be swayed by argument -- Gladstone rose in the Commons at 1:00 A.M. and demolished Disraeli's budget in a lethal speech. Without question Gladstone proved himself the better Chancellor when he held the post under Lord Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston, and Lord Russell -- in fact, one of the greatest of all custodians of the public purse, as the sonorous phrase used to go.

By the time Gladstone became Prime Minister, in 1868, the Liberal Party had been born out of a coalition of Whigs, Peelites, and radicals, and Gladstone was by then indeed a Liberal, a believer in "peace, economy and reform." He was never a Whig, being temperamentally averse to that patrician cousinage, who were as easygoing in their public finances as in their private lives. His colleague Sir Charles Dilke spoke sourly of his "Scotch toadyism to the aristocracy," and he certainly spent much time touring ducal country houses. But those tours ended in the last years of his life, by which time he had become "the People's William," venerated by humble cottagers and laborers and execrated by the "upper ten thousand."

There are parallels here with Franklin D. Roosevelt, a later "class traitor" who inspired loathing among the rich. In 1882 Gladstone's private secretary, Edward Hamilton, described dinner with the Cavendish Bentincks:

I was the solitary Liberal. I am sure that if I had been a Tory all my life the bitterness and narrow-mindedness of my friends would have converted me to Radicalism. It is all indiscriminate abuse. Everything that Mr. G. does must be wrong and wicked, and everything wrong and wicked that happens must be attributable to Mr. G.

The hatred may have been a little misplaced, since Gladstone was no radical either. Although he had become a great popular orator, addressing vast audiences on the stump, he was ill at ease in the new industrial cities, and once insisted, "I am an out-and-out inequalitarian." Toward the end of his life he wrote to the Queen (in one of the numerous didactic letters that so got on her nerves) deploring the political class divisions that for the first time had driven almost all people of property into the ranks of the Tories and that, along with Ireland, so envenomed the atmosphere in the decades flanking the turn of the century.

IN his thirties Gladstone had presciently written to his wife, "Ireland, Ireland! That cloud in the west, that coming storm, the vehicle of God's retribution. . . ." But in practice he had ignored the coming storm until the 1860s. If Ireland had impinged upon him, it was as a reproach to England's reputation abroad. For a man with such a keen sense of righteousness, who lectured reactionary foreign statesmen like Felix Schwarzenberg, of Austria, about the misrule of subject peoples, it was galling to have Ireland thrown back as a tu quoque, rather as moralizing Americans who wanted to denounce European colonialism or communist dictatorship used to be reminded of Jim Crow and the lynch mob. It was not Gladstone but Disraeli who had sardonically but succinctly summed up the Irish question in a Commons speech of 1844.

"A dense population inhabit an island where there is an established church which is not their church, and a territorial aristocracy, the richest of whom live in a distant capital. Thus they have a starving population, an alien church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world. . . . the Irish could not have a revolution and why? Because Ireland is connected with another and more powerful country. Then what is the consequence? . . . If the connection with England prevented a revolution and a revolution was the only remedy, England logically is in the odious position of being the cause of all the misery of Ireland. What then is the duty of an English minister? To effect by his policy all those changes which a revolution would effect by force."

If he didn't acknowledge their inspiration, Gladstone belatedly took those words to heart and tried to act on them when he became Prime Minister. In 1869 he disestablished the Protestant Church of Ireland, and the following year he began to deal with the wretched system of land tenure that lay beneath so much Irish misery. Tentative and not very successful at first, his legislation commenced the slow process by which the old landlord class was eased out of Ireland.

After electoral defeat in 1874 Gladstone wanted to withdraw from politics, or claimed that he did. As always, he was inscrutable and unfathomable in his motives. Despite his keen intelligence, his self-knowledge was clouded by the belief that he was guided by a higher power. His religious conviction was total, not to say suffocating -- on losing an election he sententiously consoled himself, "But One ever sitteth above" -- and, as is often the case with men who think themselves so guided, he could give to others the impression of deviousness or even unscrupulousness.

Whatever he had really intended, he sprang back into political life in 1876 over the "Bulgarian Horrors." Liberal opinion was convulsed by atrocities in the Balkans (plus ça change . . .), in particular the massacre of more than 10,000 Bulgars by Turkish irregulars. Gladstone dashed off a ferociously eloquent pamphlet: "Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves . . . one and all, bag and baggage, shall I hope clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned." The pamphlet sold an astonishing 200,000 copies (another pamphlet he had written a couple of years earlier, attacking the "Vatican decrees," the newly proclaimed doctrine of papal infallibility, had sold a scarcely less astonishing 150,000). Not everyone was enraptured. Gladstone sent a complimentary copy to the Prime Minister, which provoked from Lord Beaconsfield, as Disraeli had just become, one of his cruelest wisecracks: Gladstone's pamphlet was "of all the Bulgarian horrors perhaps the greatest."

By 1880 Gladstone had once more swept to electoral victory, to the rage of the Queen. Her mind had by now been disgracefully poisoned against him by Disraeli, and she wrote to her private secretary in her inimitable epistolary style, "She will sooner abdicate than send for or have any communication with thatwho wd soon ruin everything & be a Dictator. Others but herself may submit to his democratic rule but not the Queen." As it happened, she didn't abdicate, but she had revenge of a sort. Gladstone's second government was much less happy than his first, and began to unravel almost before it began. The artificial coalition of patrician Whigs and plebeian radicals could in any case not have been held together forever, but Gladstone's ineptitude in personal relations didn't help. It was quite a feat, as Jenkins says, to drive the Whig Lord Hartington and the radical Joseph Chamberlain out of the party and into each other's arms.

IN contrast to his first, Gladstone's second government was beset by difficulties, few of which showed him at his best. Gladstonian Liberalism was -- or should have been -- inimical to imperialism, but the British Empire was expanding under its own momentum, and Gladstone was landed with problems from South Africa to Afghanistan. He gravely damaged his reputation among pacifists and anti-imperialists by his attack on Egypt in 1882, and was then execrated from the other side by jingoes (which sense of the word had just been coined) when the adventurer General Charles George Gordon was sent to the Sudan and was killed at Khartoum before he could be rescued from a predicament of his own making.

One startling aspect of that story was Gladstone's heavy personal investment in Egyptian stock. It looks on the face of it "a clear case of improper financial interest,"Jenkins writes. By modern standards and with modern press attention, without even intrusive investigation . . . his position would have been wholly untenable." But Jenkins goes on to say that he does "not believe for a moment that his primary or even his significantly supporting motivation sprang from financial self-interest." This may seem naive; I am sure it is correct, and that Jenkins is right to say that "Gladstone's blend of innocence and grandeur transcended the possibility of corruption."

With all those woes it isn't surprising that Gladstone's second government was so barren of creative achievement -- with all those and with Ireland, the question that infected politics and then shattered the Liberal Party less than thirty years after its birth. Into the 1870s Gladstone still suffered from the prevailing English delusion that Irish grievances could be cured by kindness, and that there was nothing to them but religious or economic discontent. This belief was dented by continuing agrarian violence, and by the swelling number of Irish Home Rulers returned to Parliament, now under the formidable leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell.

Each central decade of Gladstone's career had a dominating personal relationship: partnership, rivalry, or something between. It was Peel in the 1840s, Aberdeen in the 1850s, Palmerston in the 1860s, and Disraeli in the 1870s. In the 1880s it was Parnell. He first mastered the arts of filibustering and parliamentary obstruction and then, with "the eighty-six of 'eighty-six" -- the solid, disciplined phalanx of Irish Nationalist MPs who entered the Commons that year -- was able to exert real power. They were returned to Parliament thanks partly to Gladstone's Third Reform Bill of 1884, which greatly extended the franchise and for the first time treated Ireland and Great Britain on equal terms, thus increasing the Irish electorate by 230 percent. Irish votes brought down Gladstone's second government in June of 1885, to be replaced by the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury.

By now Gladstone had at last made up his mind that Home Rule was necessary. He was intellectually and morally convinced, as Peel had been over the Corn Laws. He saw that Irish resistance and the English reaction to it were "corrupting the whole polity," in Jenkins's words: "the maintenance of the liberal state was incompatible with holding within its centralized grip a large disaffected community of settled mind." (Irish nationalists may note that this would apply equally to a "united Ireland" that tried to hold a million disaffected Ulster Protestants within its grip.) He hoped that Home Rule might even be carried by the Tories, the "wrong" party taking a historically essential step, for which there had been precedents in England in his lifetime -- Catholic emancipation in 1829, repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

But once Gladstone's conversion became known, Tory suspicion and hatred of him only increased, and the Tories settled down for a generation of sterile opposition to Irish self-rule. The rest is history, and tragedy. Salisbury's government lasted only a few months. In February of 1886 Gladstone formed a third government, now with Parnell's support. In March the Home Rule Bill was presented to the Cabinet, and Joseph Chamberlain resigned. In April, Gladstone introduced the bill in the Commons with a magnificent three-and-a-half-hour speech. In June the bill was defeated in the Commons, nearly a hundred Liberals voting against; they were shortly to defect from the party as "Liberal Unionists."

Although Gladstone lost the subsequent general election heavily, he returned to form a last government in 1892. Despite the fall and death of Parnell (that Greek tragedy all of its own), he introduced the Second Home Rule Bill in 1893. This time it passed in the Commons but was defeated by the House of Lords, giving notice that no Irish settlement was possible until the power of the Lords was curbed -- as it was eventually, in 1911. Six months after the defeat of the bill Gladstone resigned forever, having returned to office only with deep apprehension: "The heaviest weight I can well be called to bear. But all is with God. His blessed will be done."

For all the ferocity of party strife and for all the personal animosity he aroused, few could withhold admiration from this heroic octogenarian as he steered the bill through largely single-handedly, with one grand speech after another. "In different parts of the House," Jenkins writes, "even among his bitterest opponents, there was a sense of witnessing a magnificent last performance by a unique creature, the like of whom would never be seen again." One evening in the Commons during that magnificent performance a Liberal Unionist was stopped by one of the most bitter opponents, the choleric Lord Randolph Churchill. "And that is the man you deserted," Lord Randolph said. "How could you do it?"

THE many biographies of this great man began with the official life, one of the very best of its kind, published soon after Gladstone's death by John Morley, the younger colleague to whom he was closest. The best scholarly treatment of Gladstone's life is the series of introductions by H.C.G. Matthew to the superb fourteen-volume Oxford University Press edition of The Gladstone (the introductions can be bought separately in two volumes). The Diaries make endlessly fascinating reading, not for literary quality but for the portrait of the man who kept them. They are his life's justification, kept for the final judgment in which he so passionately believed, an account book of how he had used the days granted him on earth.

This latest biography of Gladstone is very readable and well judged. Roy Jenkins's advantages as a biographer are less scholarly or stylistic than personal. If his career hasn't been quite as extraordinary as Gladstone's (whose has?), it has been remarkable enough. Now seventy-six, he was at Oxford at the end of the 1930s in a generation that produced two Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. After wartime army service he entered the House of Commons as a Labour MP in 1948 and stayed there through 1976. In the 1964-1970 Wilson government he became Home Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the former post he helped to liberalize the laws on homosexuality, abortion, and divorce, for which he is still praised or blamed; in the latter he had a record of truly Gladstonian financial rectitude and is still blamed or praised for losing the 1970 election by refusing to buy votes with tax cuts or inflationary spending.

Many people (including, no doubt, Jenkins himself) saw him following further in Gladstone's footsteps to 10 Downing Street. But in the 1970s, a period in British politics as turbulent as the 1840s or the 1880s, he was a victim of the bitter dissension over membership in the European Community and of Labour's self-destructive faction fighting. After another two years as Home Secretary, the strongly pro-European Jenkins departed Westminster for Brussels and served as president of the European Commission from 1977 to 1981. He then returned home to British politics and helped to found the Social Democratic Party, which in the early 1980s gave the illusory impression that it might replace Labour as the main party opposed to the Tories.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead (as he has been since 1987, the year he also became chancellor of Oxford, elected by the alumni) thus has that knowledge of real life and the great world that book-learned academic historians so often lack. In a parallel literary career he has written a number of books, among them biographies of Sir Charles Dilke and H. H. Asquith. He is naturally good on the texture of political life: the fact that Parliament used to meet for less of the year, from February to August, though when it did meet, it sat strenuously, from the afternoon into the small hours; or the mid-Victorian practice, which seems surprising since the arrival of "the weekend," of holding Cabinet meetings on Saturday.

Queen Victoria once regretted that Gladstone was "not a man of the world." In Roy Jenkins's view, this was "an unattractive catchphrase which she had picked up from Disraeli"; it is not one that will ever be applied to Jenkins. He is a man of the world to a degree that has attracted not always good-natured mockery, the son of a Welsh miner who has fashioned himself into the Last Whig, sophisticated and sybaritic.

IF a recent BBC television documentary is to be believed, Jenkins is no stranger, either, to the pleasures of female companionship. Perhaps for this reason he is better than any previous biographer on Gladstone's sexual personality and the most notorious aspect of his life -- his "rescue work" among London prostitutes. Even now it almost beggars belief that, before and while he was Prime Minister, the greatest statesman of his age should have spent his evenings picking up whores, going back to their rooms, and trying to persuade them to give up their way of life. There are different ways of looking at this. A cynical view, long advanced in scurrilous whispers, is that the "rescue work" was no more than a pretext and that Gladstone had reasons both base and obvious for his encounters with these ladies of the night. An alternative and elevated view holds that it was genuinely charitable work, nobler indeed than looking after other victims or outcasts because of the courage it required. In the words of an earlier biographer, Philip Magnus, Gladstone "found a priestly office which he could fulfil as a layman, and in which his duty to God and man could be discharged together."

As Jenkins says, this lofty interpretation is impossible to sustain after the publication of Gladstone's Diaries. These make it clear that he was highly sexed, or even sex-obsessed. There is no reason to doubt his claim at the end of his life that he had never been in the strict sense unfaithful to his admirable wife, Catherine, and there is no doubting, either, that his motives for rescue work were, in part, sincere by his lights. If he thought that prostitution was the epitome of woman's degradation and exploitation by man, was he wrong? But there is also no denying the strong erotic overtones to his meetings with these fallen women, especially since the Diaries also detail his guilt-ridden dabbling in pornography (which is to say mildly spicy French novels of the kind booksellers used to class as facetiae) and his occasional habit of self-flagellation, scourgings marked in the Diaries by the sign of a little whip.

As a young man, he was intolerably priggish about women: "It seems to me that female society, whatever the disadvantages may be, has just & manifold uses attendant upon it in turning the mind away from some of its most dangerous & degrading temptations." Later on, streetwalkers apart, he developed a penchant for friendships with women of a higher class but still of dubious repute, like the attractive Laura Thistlethwayte. She was the daughter of one minor country gentleman and married to another, but she was not "received in society," as Lord Derby put it, because it was known that in her youth she had been an expensive kept woman. Gladstone was plainly infatuated: he visited her -- the occasion of Derby's astonishment -- and wrote to her often.

All of which was relevant to the great drama of 1890-1891: the fall of Parnell after his long liaison with Katherine O'Shea was revealed. The episode brought out the worst and the best in Gladstone. Whatever Irish romantics from Yeats onward may have said, the truth was that once Parnell had been dragged through the divorce courts as the apparently duplicitous lover of another man's wife, he could not possibly have continued to lead the national party of the most puritanically Catholic country on earth, especially since that party depended on the support of equally puritanical English and Scottish Protestants. But Gladstone made matters worse by clumsily seeming to instruct the Irish party to depose their leader.

In private it was another story. As Jenkins well puts it,

Gladstone could often be self-righteous and sometimes priggish, but he was not a hypocrite, and he had seen too much of life and enjoyed the company of too many women whose virtue was not perfect for a straightforward even if long-standing case of adultery to cause him moral revulsion.

Nor did it. "What," he said to a colleague, "because a man is called leader of a party, does that constitute him a censor and a judge of faith and morals? I will not accept it. It would make life intolerable" -- a wise saying that some of our own neo-Puritans could bear in mind. And despite the violent words they had sometimes exchanged, Gladstone was most generous to Parnell's memory after his death: "A marvellous man, a terrible fall."

That verdict was given in 1897, the year before his own death, at the age of eighty-eight. The best verdicts on Gladstone came from contemporaries in his lifetime. He himself could be an unsparing self-critic. Rereading some of his letters to a friend when they were to be used by a biographer, he wrote, "They are curiously illustrative of a peculiar and second-rate nature." The excellent Catherine was almost as sharp. "Oh, William dear, if you weren't such a great man you would be a terrible bore," she once said with affectionate exasperation. He was not in truth a bore, though in his own perceptive words he was someone whose "manner tends to turn every conversation into a debate." And even if his writings aren't as readable as Disraeli's novels, or his speeches as compelling as Abraham Lincoln's, he was anything but second-rate.

The best of all verdicts came in 1877. Gladstone was staying at the country house of the Liberal MP Sir John Lubbock, where the other guests included John Morley and the biologist T. H. Huxley. While Gladstone was at church, the two skeptics stayed behind and talked about him. Why, Huxley said to Morley, "put him in the middle of a moor, with nothing in the world but his shirt, and you could not prevent him from being anything he liked." After reading this enthralling biography, can anyone doubt that Huxley was right?

Illustration by Mark Summers

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1997; The Most Eminent Victorian; Volume 279, No. 1; pages 88 - 96.