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7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Gladstone: A Biography by Roy Jenkins


I started this book a year ago and finally finished it when a group I belong to chose it as a monthly selection. I was surprised how little I knew about 19th century politics considering how widely I’ve read in 19th century British fiction. Roy Jenkins was a British Labour and Social Democrat politician and minister (Minister of the Exchequer and President of the European Commission). Like some of his political forbearers (not the least Gladstone himself—and Churchill whose biography he also wrote), Jenkins was a serious author. The Publisher’s Weekly review says this biography “will often be impenetrable” for American readers—so I don’t feel so bad about the length of time it took me to read and my frequent confusion about the political issues of the time.

The American edition of the Churchill biography gave an excellent overview of the British parliamentary system. That was helpful for this one too except that the system was even more arcane in the 19th century and the biography often assumed a fairly sophisticated background on the issues of the time. In addition, the vast cast of characters in Gladstone’s life were mostly unfamiliar to me, and—I had this problem with the Churchill biography too—their names changed frequently as they became peers for service to the country or moved up in their own family (say from earl to duke) with the death of elders. Additionally, most of Jenkins' comparisons also came from British politics. There I wasn’t completely in the dark if the example was during the political career of Churchill as it often was.

My initial reaction was to be surprised, even dismayed, at the extent to which there was no separation of church and state in 19th century Britain and the extent to which Gladstone insisted on restrictions imposed on anyone non-Anglican. I ended up liking Gladstone quite a lot, however. He moderated his stance on church and state quite soon, while still remaining religious himself—far more than his contemporaries—in words and deeds. He seemed, for a politician, unusually honest and not particularly self-interested.

I must admit I was less interested in the political issues than in the man himself, though I looked up information on the various election reform laws that Gladstone sponsored, on the various church disestablishment issues, and on the Irish home rule bill which was his reason for remaining active in politics—prime minister—until he was almost 85.

But Gladstone was an odd bird, possibly one it’s hard from this distance in time to really understand. His religious fervor extended to self flagellation at one point in his life. His penchant for walking the streets at night and attempting to reform prostitutes is legend—and recalled in The Crimson Petal and the White a couple of years ago. He had great physical energy—walked constantly and climbed mountains, even into very old age. His “hobby”—I guess you’d call it that now—was felling trees on his property and that he did until he was 80; it was often a “family sport” with his sons. He made a regular habit during his public life of being a guest for weeks at a time at various fine houses, occasionally hosted by Conservatives even. He seemed to take for granted that the householders wanted to entertain him. Queen Victoria disliked him—even though Albert had liked him a lot—and preferred Disraeli who patronized her to Gladstone’s detailed explanations of every issue. (She comes off badly in this book—with decisions like not giving her speech in person at the beginning of parliament because she hated to ride backwards in the carriage.)

Gladstone was a lifelong diarist which provided the biographer with the minutia of his life. During his 61 years as a public servant, 12 as Prime Minister, he wrote all his own speeches, though he was also skillful extemporaneously—and was known for his sonorous voice and by today’s standard and possibly even his own time’s flowery rhetoric. (Jenkins says there are existing recordings of Gladstone in his old age.) He also published political articles, wrote religious books and papers, and translated classical poetry for publication. He was obviously a man of tremendous energy—energy that was psychic as well as physical and which lasted until shortly before his death. Jenkins says in terms of words written for publication, he was second only to Churchill among British prime ministers. He died in his 90th year—an age far more unusual in his time than it would be now. Unlike virtually all of his contemporaries who were successful politicians, he had always refused a peerage.

One more comment on Jenkins. He's an excellent writer and the book reads beautifully even with long and sophisticated sentences. His vocabulary is formidable—I was often too lazy to look up words. One of his favorites was "eleemosynary", meaning "supported by charity".

1 Comments:

Anonymous Bette said...

Good post.

11/10/2008 04:51:00 AM  

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