by Roy Jenkins.
Macmillan, 698 pp., £20, October 1995, 0 333 60216 1
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The most eminent of Victorians has at last received a biography which makes his extraordinary life accessible and comprehensible. It is, inevitably, a post-Stracheyan view of the Victorian era, marvelling at how different its assumptions were from those of the 20th century. But there is no snide debunking in Roy Jenkins’s biography. The Gladstone who emerges – temperamentally commanding, conversationally charming, intellectually erudite, theologically obsessed, morally priggish, sexually tormented, socially hierarchical, politically populist, administratively meticulous, oratorically thrilling, physically energetic, medically valetudinarian – is a remarkable man, as Jenkins affirms more than once. When Lloyd George once tried to convey to Clemenceau that Gladstone was simply a very great man, Bonar Law chipped in with the even simpler Tory view: ‘He was a very great humbug.’ Though Jenkins is wry and penetrating in peeling the Gladstonian onion of its infoliated layers of self-righteousness and self-deception, this is not an exercise in diminishing the Grand Old Man to a silly old man (or even a dirty old man).

His fame inescapably stems from the eminence of his political career although he was the most distinguished Oxonian of his generation and his lifelong attachment to literary and scholarly pursuits remains no less remarkable. It is easy to draw such parallels between Jenkins and Gladstone. Both men entered Parliament in their twenties, following in the footsteps of their upwardly mobile fathers. After thirty years of increasingly restive filial conformity, each was to renounce the hidebound party allegiance which he had inherited and, with the credentials of a notably successful record as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was to emerge as the first leader of a newly-formed political party which attracted a striking degree of support from the chattering classes of the day. Late in life, each man returned to his alma mater in an honorific role which gratified the mutual esteem between the elder statesman and ‘the God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford’.

Yes, yes, there are differences. The SDP turned out to be a puny successor to the Gladstonian Liberal Party. Conversely, Gladstone’s eight-day sojourn at All Souls in 1890 and his inauguration of the Romanes Lectures in 1892 pales by comparison with the subsequent service of Lord Jenkins as Chancellor of Oxford University. Above all, there is a chasm between Gladstone’s all-encompassing Christian theodicy and Jenkins’s secular, sceptical, post-Freudian outlook. Yet many of their common experiences and career parallels amount to more than trivial coincidences. They testify to affinities which help inform Jenkins’s Gladstone with sustained insight, critical sympathy and a compelling fascination.

On 8 March 1854, only two days after Gladstone had presented his third Budget in a two-hour speech, the Chancellor stayed up until 4.30 a.m. working on his projected Bill to reform Oxford University. The point was to seize the initiative from potentially hostile external forces, who were pressing for radically disruptive changes, by means of a pre-emptive strike under the masterful control of this most loyal of Oxonians. It was a typical Gladstonian essay in the higher conservatism, such as he often executed in the teeth of uncomprehending resistance from the stupid party of vulgar Conservatives. It was thus based on the wisdom that if things were to go on as they were, they had to change. Jenkins rightly gives several pages to this measure of university reform, and not only because, a century and a half later, he is one of its residuary beneficiaries.

Jenkins’s tribute to Gladstone’s work on the Oxford Bill – ‘his performance was heroically self-reliant. He did it nearly all himself’ – can surely be applied to the author’s own biographical work. Though he generously acknowledges the assistance of others, notably the editor of the Gladstone diaries, H.C.G. Matthew, Jenkins has extended himself formidably over seven hundred pages, displaying a sure grasp of a mass of baffling detail. He is the first biographer to draw on all 13 fat volumes of the published edition of the diaries: an incomparable source which he exploits with assiduity and discrimination. Above all, he succeeds in distilling the story into a lucid and unhurried exposition, with time for reflection, speculation and appraisal. It is an inimitable and triumphant performance, as heroically self-reliant in its way as that of his subject; and he too deserves credit for doing it nearly all himself.

Jenkins pulls off one trick of perspective nicely – and repeatedly. This is to draw on subsequent political analogies for illumination of incidents, personalities and relationships in the politics of Gladstone’s time, and to do so without collapsing the past into a sort of period Westminster soap opera. Thus Gladstone’s ambivalent stance at the outbreak of the Crimean War meant that ‘rather like R.A. Butler at the time of Suez, he got the worst of both worlds and offended all parties, including himself.’ The view that the Peelite Sidney Herbert, had he lived, might have later emerged as leader of the Liberal Party instead of Gladstone ‘is hardly more plausible than the view that Oliver Stanley, a somewhat similar figure who died in somewhat similar circumstances in 1952, would have frustrated Harold Macmillan in 1957’.

What of Gladstone as Palmerston’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1860s? ‘It is reminiscent of the position in the Federal Republic of Germany a hundred years later when Ludwig Erhard’s economic management provided the essential foundations for Adenaeur’s foreign policy successes, but earned no affection from his chief as a result.’ Or the three diehard anti-reformers who resigned from Derby’s cabinet in 1867? ‘Two of them might have weakened under Derby’s persuasion, but Cranborne, rather like Enoch Powell in the Thorneycroft-Powell-Birch resignations of 1958, implacably drove them on.’ On Gladstone’s prime ministerial management of his cabinet: ‘While it is difficult to believe that he emulated Attlee’s laconicism there was no suggestion of Churchill’s orotundity either.’ It is later suggested that an Attlee might have done better at curtailing unproductive debate over the doomed Second Home Rule Bill of 1893, while there were ‘strong elements of Hugh Dalton in [Harcourt], as well as a touch of Willie Whitelaw’s ability to attract affectionate mockery’. Such references appeal to readers who have some familiarity with post-war British politics, by nudging them from the familiar to the unfamiliar. A more timeless quality, however, is invoked in the description of Gladstone’s misplaced optimism -‘cheerfulness in the bunker’ – before polling day in the 1874 General Election. ‘Michael Foot might have said it during the 1983 campaign’ is a cheeky aside, given that Jenkins evidently expects his readers to remember who was in which bunker at the relevant moment.

There is more to Gladstone, however, than politics. His restless energy often made him engaging, sometimes infuriating, predictable only in his unpredictability. He could squeeze the most out of every day, readily sacrificing mere dignity to the joys of a strenuous end-of-holiday country walk to a train that would sweep him back to the busy world of London. (He took to the railway as soon as it was up and running, just as he later embraced the telephone, installing one in his Flintshire home as early as 1880.) On one occasion, at 63, he planned rather too ambitious a cross-country detour back to the station at Achanalt, where his host, Arthur Balfour, forty years his junior, proposed popping the Prime Minister onto his connecting train. It ended in farce: the ancient ferryman straining on his oars across the loch to Achanalt; the freshening wind threatening to defeat him; the approaching train steaming into sight, all too punctually; the mounting apprehension of the two distinguished passengers in their muddy boots; and Gladstone’s last-minute effort to wade ashore. Aboard in the nick of time, for a 650-mile journey to London, Gladstone later told his wife: ‘I took off my feet (the Scotch say change your feet) when I got into the train and effected a partial and considerable drying by dancing my socks in the air and putting my shoes in the sun.’

Jenkins makes the most of such vignettes, with a light touch which helps subvert the old stereotype of Mr Gladstone as professional killjoy. Even as party leader he was no party pooper. Indeed his susceptibility to wine, women and song, which might once have shocked his earnest Nonconformist followers, is at last treated with a frank and uncensorious common sense.

Of the three, song is least uncontentious – though Gladstone’s delight in theatregoing brought him reproof more than once, notably when he waltzed off to a new play at the Criterion Theatre only days after the news reached Britain of the death of General Gordon. Nor is wine the main issue. If Gladstone had a drink problem, it was mainly to do with the ‘torrent of gin and beer’ which he blamed for sluicing him out of power, once the Liberals had become too closely identified with prohibitionist agitation. It was not a stance he had ever been tempted to adopt himself. Indeed his 1860 Budget speech contained a remarkable passage, justifying the reduction in duty on good clarets and burgundies, not as some regrettable side-effect of the Free Trade treaty with France, but in a roaring populist style which anticipates his emergence as ‘the People’s William’:

Now, I make an appeal to the friends of the poor man. There is a time which comes to all of us – the time, I mean, of sickness – when wine becomes a common necessity. What kind of wine is administered to the poor man in this country? We have got a law which makes it impossible for the poor man when he is sick to obtain the comfort and support derived from good wine ... etc.

For himself, Gladstone took a relaxed view about alcohol – a bottle of champagne would see him through a solitary dinner at his club. His notable facility for extemporary speeches, in an era when the Commons regularly debated deep into the night after dinner, may have owed something to such refreshment, partaken by himself as much as his cheering listeners. Jenkins, observing a pattern of sick headaches, keeping the great man in bed on the morning after such exertions, goes to the length of doubting the doctor’s diagnosis of the ‘deranged liver & bowels’ as entirely to be blamed on the ‘heat & on preserved peas’, as recorded in Gladstone’s diary, and speaks instead of ‘a good old-fashioned hangover’.

Gladstone’s real weakness was for women. He knew it, he recorded it in his diary, he administered some form of scourge to assuage temptation, and recorded that too, with cryptic signs. Not only did he like books, with a lifetime’s reading of twenty thousand volumes recorded in his diary: he liked dirty books. Again he felt bad about it and, especially as he approached forty, he used another symbol, ‘the black mark against the day’, to indicate that he had been unable to resist dipping into pornography. What he perused so guiltily, it seems safe to say, was not what the late 20th century would call hard-core; rather the sort of thing, like ‘two vile poems’ by Rochester, which today might well be considered as set-books in A-level Eng Lit. That it all troubled Gladstone deeply is undeniable, one aspect of a mid-life crisis during which his turbulent political gyrations were matched by corresponding private agitation. ‘And this day I am forty years old,’ he wrote in the diary. ‘Forty years hath God been grieved with me – hath with much long suffering endured me!’

Equally troubling, and over a much longer period, were Gladstone’s encounters with a series of prostitutes, courtesans and other women whose sexual charms were as evident as their lack of social respectability. To ask how he got away with it presupposes an ‘it’ to get away with. When he was 86 he made a solemn statement that he had never ‘been guilty of the act which is known as that of infidelity to the marriage bed’. This is so thoroughly Gladstonian a formulation that it inspires credence, at least in the strict construction of these measured words. So Jenkins persuasively argues; but he shows himself less ready to accept the driven-snow interpretation of Gladstone’s night-rescue operations than most previous biographers. Indeed Gladstone himself, as a prig but not a hypocrite, is cited as acknowledging that, in a five-year spell during which he had been involved with eighty or ninety prostitutes, only one had been saved as a result of his influence.

Gladstone knew that a success rate of 1.2 per cent was not sufficient reason to take even the most devoted social worker out onto the streets, night after night, accosting known prostitutes with a recklessness that sometimes made his cabinet colleagues quail. There was a carnal obsession which he admitted, at least to his diary, while protesting all the while the unimpeachable innocence of his intentions. Similarly with Laura Thistlethwayte, with whom he enjoyed an intense relationship during his first premiership (aged 60). ‘There is no evidence that he admired Mrs Thistlethwayte’s intellect and judgment,’ Jenkins comments. ‘It would indeed have been a grave matter had he done so.’ The evidence from the diaries, such as it is, is again framed and interrogated with appropriate delicacy: ‘Then the lushness of Tennysonian romanticism took over, which was always a bad sign for Gladstone: “Miss Fawcett [a maid or a guest, and whose hair?] let down her hair: it is a robe. So Godiva ‘the rippled ringlets to the knee” ’.’ This extract comes from a chapter called ‘A Commanding Prime Minister’.

Which Gladstone undoubtedly was. Jenkins never lets us forget this, even when he lets his hair (whose hair?) down. Indeed the verisimilitude of the fully human sense of Gladstone’s personality, which is this biography’s achievement, enables Jenkins to offer an equally convincing interpretation of the sources of Gladstone’s political authority – and of his limitations. He set the agenda of politics throughout the second half of the 19th century in a way that few of his successors have emulated. Joseph Chamberlain, having chafed in relatively junior office under Gladstone’s insensitive mishandling, went his own way over Irish Home Rule in 1886; but the model for his later campaigns, notably the Tariff Reform agitation which he launched when he too had become ‘an old man in a hurry’, was plainly Gladstonian. As war leaders Lloyd George and Churchill may temporarily have acquired an ascendancy rivalling that of Gladstone, but unlike him they didn’t have the kind of charisma that could sustain a strategy in peacetime. Like it or not – it is not one of Jenkins’s own analogies – Margaret Thatcher, in seizing her moment in the Eighties, temporarily came nearest to matching Gladstone’s more persistent impact on the politics of his day, in effectively mobilising popular support behind a recasting of the common sense of government.

One crucial means by which Gladstone did it was his oratory. Jenkins is very good in giving it due appreciation, providing a nice example of the way that his biography, rather than becoming consumed in a breathless chronology of 89 action-packed years, creates enough space to range more discursively on characteristics and attributes which Gladstone displayed throughout his life. For an outstanding orator, Jenkins points out, Gladstone ‘was singularly lacking in neatness of phrase’, with an addiction to periphrasis and elaborate qualification. Thus in one speech, ‘the subordinate clauses hung like candelabra.’ He rose above mere lucidity with his ‘still rarer gift of keeping his meaning convoluted and often obscure, yet making his presentation of it compelling and persuasive’. It follows that, although Gladstone increasingly realised that reports in the cheap newspaper press could extend the popular range of his platform oratory, cold print can hardly do justice to a speaker whose eye and bearing, as well as his fine voice, formed the medium for stamping his utterances on an audience. Jenkins has done more than write a fine biography, deftly revealing the contours of 19th-century politics: he has made the Gladstone phenomenon understandable today.

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