BOOK REVIEW / Strawberries at bedtime: After 25 years, Professor Colin Matthew has finished editing Gladstone's diaries. He reflects on this very eminent Victorian

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PRIME MINISTERS don't usually write diaries. They don't have time and, perhaps more importantly, keeping a diary requires an element of self-analysis and perhaps self-doubt foreign to the nature of holders of that office. William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) was hardly lacking in self- confidence, and he was four times Prime Minister between 1868 and his final retirement in 1894, with four separate governments. But an element of religious introspection kept him at his diary throughout some of the most turbulent of Victorian political crises.

He began it as a boy at Eton, in July 1825, and it runs almost without a break until 1894, when a cataract operation interrupted regular daily entries (though the diary continues episodically until his 87th birthday on 29 December 1896).

The centenary of the end of his last government is a good moment for the publication of the final volumes of this extraordinary document, hitherto closed to all historians save John Morley, his biographer in 1903. The Gladstone Diaries primarily consists of the 25,200 or so entries in his daily diary, but also contains memoranda, about 3,000 of his Prime Ministerial letters and the minutes he kept of 550 Cabinets he chaired as Prime Minister. He was the first Prime Minister to document his cabinets systematically (there was no Cabinet Secretary until 1916, so he kept the minutes himself as the meeting proceeded).

The diary's political interest is obvious enough, but it is often most striking as a social and private document. Gladstone recorded his illnesses as systematically as his Cabinets: 35 different medicines were taken in the 70 years covered by the diaries, including laudanum, lead (given in error by the doctor), ipecacuanha, bismuth, 'blistering liquid', mustard emetic, peppermint water and a range of patent medicines. When in the 1880s

he suffered from 'actor's voice' (a disastrous condition for the nation's leading orator), he was treated by Galvanism (ie electric shocks). In his later years he suffered from insomnia, which he relieved by taking a 'blue pill'; when that did not work, he ate strawberries before going to bed and read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. When all else failed, he went for a change of air to Cannes, and the government was run from France.

There is fascinating detail in the diaries about childrearing (the Gladstones had eight children) and about the schoolroom in a Victorian political household. While Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1850s, Gladstone personally taught his children Latin, Greek, Italian, history, literature, geography and music (Mrs Gladstone usually taught the arithmetic, despite her husband's legendary knowledge of the nation's statistics). He also sometimes ducked out of the Board of Trade or the Treasury at lunch-time to teach in a 'ragged school', a free school for the very poor.

Gladstone's involvement with London low-life has become well-known through the diaries covering the 1840s and 1850s, and their revelations about the guilt and self-scourging which accompanied some of his attempts to 'rescue' prostitutes. Over 200 prostitutes are mentioned in the diaries - the last encounter being on 24 February 1894 as, aged 84, he seethed with indignation at Queen Victoria's unfeeling handling of his resignation. Sometimes Gladstone read the women Tennyson (especially 'Guinevere'), Longfellow or Shakespeare. He paid, on occasion, for their emigration to America or Australia or for their schooling in England. Some corresponded gratefully with him years later, and reported on their new and happier lives. But others resented the discipline of the reform institutions he sometimes succeeded in persuading them to attend. 'Rescue work' was for Gladstone a duty, but also almost an obsession.

The Gladstone Diaries show the restless energy and the boldness of their century. They also recall a style of public life when politicians acted and spoke for themselves. Civil servants did not write their masters' speeches and answers to questions. Speeches in the Commons were made from brief notes, a style well suited to Gladstone's capacious memory and ready tongue. The Prime Minister, if in the Commons, was by convention also Leader of the House and thus responsible not only for planning but superintending the progress of government business. He consequently spent many hours on the government front bench listening and responding to debates; he was often in his place for seven or eight hours a day during the Session. He managed slightly to reduce attendance by getting the Speaker to consolidate his questions into a batch - previously they had been interspersed with those of other ministers - thus starting Prime Minister's Question Time.

One of the most interesting aspects of Gladstone's diary is his record of his reading - political, theological, literary and classical. He records more than 17,500 works and a huge number of substantial articles. He was a compulsive book- collector, skilled in persuading publishers to send him books in the hope he would review them, and in getting booksellers to give him early sight of their second-hand catalogues.

The publication of the 13 text volumes by OUP began, under the editorship of M R D Foot, in 1968. I succeeded Michael Foot as editor in 1972. The completed edition now stands as the remarkable record of one Victorian's life, from before the 1832 Reform Act to dealings with the embryonic Labour Party, but it is also a chief monument to the liberal, free-trade age.

'The Gladstone Diaries with Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence', Vols 12 & 13 ( pounds 65 & pounds 60) and 14 (Index, pounds 60), edited and compiled by H C G Matthew, are published by OUP

(Photograph omitted)