Crawling towards God

Jonathan Parry

  • The Gladstone Diaries, with Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence. Vol. XII: 1887-1891 edited by H.C.G. Matthew
    Oxford, 535 pp, £65.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 820463 9
  • The Gladstone Diaries, with Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence. Vol. XIII: 1892-1896 edited by H.C.G. Matthew
    Oxford, 486 pp, £65.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 820464 7
  • The Gladstone Diaries, with Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence. Vol. XIV: Index edited by H.C.G. Matthew
    Oxford, 862 pp, £65.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 19 820465 5

One small but telling difference between the political culture of modern Britain and that of previous centuries lies in our apparently insatiable appetite for self-serving political memoirs. Until this century, the genre was decidedly unfashionable – much less so, for example, than in France. It would have been considered disreputable for any 17th or 18th-century English politician to leave the kind of memoir written by Cardinal de Retz, which was not only a brazenly exaggerated account of his own actions but an open celebration of his ambition, cynicism and lust. Like a number of French memoirists, de Retz wished to leave a record of his personality; for him the function of autobiography was to present ‘faits vus à travers un tempérament’. Englishmen were not so keen on confessing their passions; they also had a more reliable way of defending their honour, consistency and patriotism, because of the centrality of Parliament to 18th-century politics. It was in public speaking to one’s peers that one explained one’s actions, declared one’s principles and asserted one’s consistency and integrity. This did not change in the 19th century – though there was an increasing demand for political biography, which was almost invariably pious and posthumous. The Foxite Whigs became the first leading politicians (as opposed to court observers) to write memoirs. They were enthusiasts for French culture and for history; they were believers in open government; they were inventors of a permanent party of principle; and their party tradition set particular store by honour and fame. Lord Holland’s were the first published reminiscences of a major politician, Brougham’s was the first full autobiography, and Lord John Russell’s the first broad-canvas memoir by a former prime minister. Even so, these were not generally regarded as good examples: Holland had an exotic reputation, Brougham’s Life and Times was an egotistic fantasy and Russell wrote his book too late in life for it to have any coherence.

The memoir became fashionable in Britain only when the rise of mass-market publishing coincided with the eclipse of the aristocratic Parliamentary culture: in the 1880s and 1890s. Enterprising firms of American publishers then twice approached Gladstone, suggesting that he should write an autobiography. He responded half-heartedly, drafting a set of autobiographical memoranda, which were eventually published in 1971. It is clear from his drafts that he thought the proper function of the memoir was limited. A full narrative was for others to attempt posthumously. The memoir should explain specific shifts of opinion and so protect the writer against the charge of lack of principle. This was the view of his mentor Peel, who had left an account of the Corn Law crisis, and of Gladstone himself in his Chapter of Autobiography of 1868, about his evolving opinions on the Irish Church. Unfortunately, by the 1890s, Gladstone had gone through such startling changes of mind that his credibility was unsalvageable in the eyes of many propertied people who had been brought up to see politics as the open, honourable and clear-cut adherence to principle. To the average unintellectual defender of institutions, property and traditional hierarchies, Gladstone, tempestuous, opaque and unpredictable, seemed increasingly defective in ‘character’. How could one trust a man whose attacks on his political opponents were, in the words of one commentator, ‘censures upon his past state of mind ... He dismisses his past self’?

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