The ultimate Victorian: Roy Jenkins's biography of William Gladstone shows a large- scale character who came, even more than Victoria herself, to epitomise the century
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WHEN T H Huxley met Gladstone at a house party in 1877, he was so impressed that he remarked, "Why, 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." In fact Gladstone started life with a good deal more than a shirt. Over and above the mental abilities and force of character that made him, in Roy Jenkins's phrase, the biggest beast in the forest of Victorian England, he had the advantage of a rich father ambitious for his sons. Sir John Gladstone was a Scottish-born Liverpool merchant, self-made, who went into politics and sent William and his brothers to Eton, Oxford and on grand continental tours. He talked William out of going into the church and paid half the cost of his first parliamentary seat. The son's maiden speech, made at the age of 22, lasted nearly an hour and was an attack on the Slavery Abolition Bill, which the father had business reasons for opposing. It was "very kindly received", as Gladstone noted in the diary he kept then and almost to the end of his life.

This start as a Conservative was in 1833, four years before Victoria came to the throne, and a year before the old House of Commons burnt down. He had 62 years of active politics ahead of him, in which he became leader of the Liberal party, four times Prime Minister and always the dominant force in the House. His characteristic effect there was marvellously described by his antagonist Disraeli in 1875: "Mr Gladstone not only appeared but rushed into the debate ... The new Members trembled and fluttered like small birds when a hawk is in the air."

The hawk was not only a great orator both in and out of the house, he also possessed a "sweep, patience and attention to detail which it is impossible to imagine a Prime Minister exercising today". The authority behind a comment like this could come only from Roy Jenkins. He writes in his introduction that he hesitated before embarking on this biography - the first full one since Philip Magnus's 1954 Gladstone - and compares the enterprise with taking on the rougher face of the Matterhorn. Let it be said that, inspired by affection for his tremendous subject, he has scaled the height with panache.

Character as much as politics is his theme. He allows Gladstone's to emerge and develop slowly, establishing the intense religious fervour he got from both parents, the practice of keeping a daily record of his actions, the extraordinary amount of reading (20,000 books in his lifetime) kept up at all times, the interesting habit of taking regular days in bed for minor ailments, which may explain the intense energy he put into the remaining time, and especially his preparation for his great speeches, which he described as "fomenting" inside him. "I feel as a loaf might in the oven," he wrote to his wife, although surely he meant he felt like the oven, the speech being the loaf rising within. His twenties, writes Jenkins, were "not his best decade", while, with some difficulty, he got himself suitably married and settled into the main business of his life. Things got going when he became President of the Board of Trade under Peel in 1843. Jenkins covers the first 40 years in 100 pages, and gives the rest 500. This seems right, for Gladstone ripens as he ages and grows more interesting with each decade.

Gladstone was, Jenkins tells us, "an instinctive European", an avid traveller always, amazingly able to absent himself from England even while in office, and able to argue in German, lecture in Italian and correspond in French (as well, of course, as reading Latin and ancient Greek with pleasure). He also made a point of visiting almost every part of the British Isles systematically, although he went only once to Ireland and, unaccountably, never to the coal fields of South Wales.

There were many contradictions to him. He was a democrat who loved to be invited to ducal mansions, his intention of rousing "the masses against the classes" coexisting with a strongly hierarchical view of society. As Prime Minister he much enjoyed his powers of bestowing titles temporal and ecclesiastical, and readers have to put up with a a lot of "soon to be Ripon", "later Tweedmouth" and "formerly 1st Viscount Goderich". What he hated was plutocracy, the rude, irresponsible power of money; he even turned against his much-loved Eton when he thought it was becoming corruputed by "the constant influx of the wealthy" in the 1870s. At the same time his own dealings in Consols, for instance, were not always impeccable, according to Jenkins, and he was happy to accept holidays paid for by rich friends, and the loan of conveniently placed houses whenever he needed one.

Yet his vision was extraordinary. He saw as few Englishmen did then the necessity of Irish Home Rule and pursued it with every ounce of his energy; we still live with the cost of his party's failure to rally to the cause. He helped to settle good relations with the United States (in the Alabama dispute); they have endured ever since, and he prophesied the rise to world domination of that country. He put through the third Reform Bill and redrew the electoral map of Britain so that today's constituency pattern is still based on what he and Dilke created in 1884. He hated militarism and war, and protested against the beginning of the naval arms race that led up to the First World War. He despised Imperial junketings.

He also had the essential ability to change his mind, switching from the desire to establish a church-dominated state to the realisation that this was impossible, later conceding that the universities should be secular bodies. The mixture of innocence with great moral authority made him unlike other men, and not only in politics.

Gladstone's love of literature covered contemporary novels as well as Homer and Horace, and extended to theatre-going. Jenkins writes of Gladstone visiting the theatre when he was in his sixties, but says nothing of any earlier period. I have come across evidence that he was an enthusiast as a young man. In the 1880s the American actress Mary Anderson lunched with him on a day when she was due to play Juliet, with Fanny Stirling as the Nurse. Gladstone sent her a message: "You will be seeing Fanny Stirling tonight. Please tell her from me - she was my first love. No harm to tell her so now." The story is told by Percy Allen in his The Stage Life of Mrs Stirling, published in 1922 when Mary Anderson was still alive. Since Fanny Stirling was born in 1813 and at the height of her fame and beauty in the 1830s, Gladstone must have loved her from afar before his marriage and during his early years in parliament.

His attempted rescue work with prostitutes is well known. Like Dickens, another great Victorian who aspired to the highest personal moral standards, he found their fate a peculiarly horrible blot on society and was driven to attempt to do something. Neither Gladstone nor Dickens seems to have considered prostitution as an economic rather than a moral question; Gladstone at least was aware of his own equivocal response to this rescue work, as is clear from his diaries, which use signs to mark his sense of temptation and guilt in his dealings with the ladies of the streets. Jenkins also describes the passionate though unconsummated liaisons with other women of doubtful reputation. One was Maria Summerhayes, an artists' model. He read aloud his friend Tennyson's "The Princess" to her, and commissioned a portrait from the Pre-Raphaelite William Dyce, which hung in his house in Carlton House Terrace for many years.

Later he was infatuated with Laura Thistlethwayte, a well-to-do ex-courtesan who rather tediously took up theosophy and lecturing. This was during his first premiership. His innocence and openness were always the strongest armour against scandal, and he made no attempt to conceal his feelings or activities, recording many meetings in his diary as well as her visit to him in his room at night during a country house party. Committed as he was to fidelity within a Christian marriage, he was confident that he could live through these episodes without damage: although Jenkins answers his own question as to whether his relations with Mrs Gladstone were damaged with a single word: "somewhat". She remained apparently serene and certainly loyal, continuing to sign her letters to him "Wifie" into old age.

These affairs were, in the true sense, romances. When he wrote of Laura Thistlethwayte's "extraordinary history" and "singular avowal", and when he related Maria Summerhayes to Tennyson's Arthurian heroines, it was almost as much literary appreciation as personal involvement. He loved their stories, and he did pity them. Fanny Stirling was another sinning woman, separated from her husband and mother of an illegitimate child. Gladstone's sympathy appears again in his response to the history of Mary Wollstonecraft ("It presents to me again Heloise, not to say Dido, with the freshness which nearness gives. She is one, I think, of the women of whom all should be known that can be known"). These lovely, clever, sinful women represented a romantic ideal outside the religious imperatives of his life, and all the more precious for that.

They were of course a side-issue in a life whose importance lay in the public realm of all-male government. Here Jenkins is, as you would expect, superb. His understanding of both the ferocities and the element of playfulness of the House of Commons - often hard for outsiders to fathom - is total. His accounts of the way in which cabinets are made and held together, and weakened and fissured, are detailed and fascinating. Add to this his ability to compare and contrast 19th- and 20th-century politics in all their manifestations, and the result is a narrative consistently absorbing and often surprising. As it proceeds it gains steadily in interest. The flashes of wit become sharper and more frequent, and his evident delight in the man and his story carries the reader along as though on the crest of a rising wave.

From Chapter 20 onwards, there is a bonus, for this is when Queen Victoria becomes a principal supporting character, bringing an extra dimension of humour in the frequent clashes recorded by both. She was not one of Gladstone's romances, nor he hers. Necessary meetings at Balmoral, Windsor and Osborne brought no joy to either. "I am convinced from a hundred tokens that she looks forward to the day of my retirement as a day if not of jubilee yet of relief," he wrote to Dilke, and in his diary, "Received with much civility, had a long audience, but am always outside an iron ring: and without any desire, had I the power, to break it through."

The Queen resented Gladstone's electioneering meetings, sometimes held too near Balmoral for her liking, because of his appeal to working men, who gathered in their tens of thousands to hear him. It was a time, remarks Jenkins, "when oratory was more popular than football". It was also a time when the sovereign sometimes felt threatened, although Gladstone never flirted with republicanism. He contented himself with being closer to the Prince of Wales than the Queen.

The Prince of Wales, indeed, chose to be a pall-bearer at Gladstone's funeral in 1898. The Queen ("unfailing to the last") telegraphed to her son to ask what precedent he had followed, and whose advice he had taken. "He rather splendidly replied that he knew of no precedent and had taken no advice," writes Jenkins. So although the Queen outlived the Grand Old Man by two and a half years, Jenkins gives the victory to him, after all, as "the quintessential statesman of her reign, its epitome and, almost as much as herself, its symbol". The case could hardly be better made.

! 'Gladstone' by Roy Jenkins is published by Macmillan at pounds 20