God’s Endurance

Peter Clarke

  • Gladstone by Roy Jenkins
    Macmillan, 698 pp, £20.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 333 60216 1

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.

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