Winner of the Whitbread Biography Award this is the definitive study of this great man.
There were two things that immediately struck me. The first was the extreme religiosity of Gladstone, especially in regard to sin he felt from his rescue work. He was a man who continually struggled to reconcile his faith to his actions, and through his meticulous diary keeping we are allowed to peer through a large window into his soul, as opposed to the speculation that often litters biographies.
The second was his troubled relationship with Queen Victoria. Whilst I had previously been aware of her preference for Disraeli, I had not been aware of the adverse reaction she had to almost anything that Gladstone did as Premier, especially in later years. The snub she delivered to him regarding a peerage upon the close of his final premiership was particularly vitriolic (and amusing reading!), and the feel of the book is that his struggles were as much with Victoria as with Benjamin Disraeli.
Jenkins succeeds in stripping away completely the layers of Gladstone. He goes into the right amount of detail on the key events of his life, and also critically evaluates them. Jenkins is not in slavish approval of his every action or personality trait. His prose is occasionally witty but always well constructed, though the Latin and French phrases often reveal the pompous character of the author.Read more ›
Roy Jenkins has produced a work which is transparently honest and scrupulous in the richness of detail it unfolds. I can well believe the plaudits which acclaim its scholarship. Yet only a few chapters into it I found myself on an unexpected journey which has proved fascinating and instructive in further feeding my appetite for Gladstone and the Victorian era, but wary of the critics who have acclaimed this book.
Four themes In Roy Jenkins book increasingly unsettled me. They drove me to a second hand bookshop where I found a copy of an earlier biography of Gladstone by Philip Magnus. It was the earlier biography (published 1954) which captivated me and led me to plough my way through both biographies side by side. It was Magnus who proved to be more interesting and rewarding. Perhaps because he is slightly shorter he has also greater clarity. So what was it in Jenkins biography which sent me down this route?
First the prose. Whilst generally very readable his syntax reminded me of that master of written argument, Bernard Levin. But sometimes for Jenkins the complex and lengthy sentences just didn’t work. Several times I read a multi-clause sentence again and again and still failed to find either the intended sense or the gramatical logic. The prose was at times over ambitious and cumbersome.
Second and most strikingly, I came early to the conclusion that Jenkins did not understand Gladstone’s personal religion.Read more ›
Gladstone we are told would have chosen a career in the Church of England but his father wanted him to go into politics. Jenkins reckons him to be not only the oldest of prime ministers but also the greatest and the most committed Christian to hold that office.
I found this a fascinating study from which I learned much I never knew. Gladstone was a Scot by descent. His father made the family fortune in part from slave plantations in the West Indies. The great orator, Eton and Oxford educated spoke with a Liverpool accent and there are sound recordings of his voice. A great scholar and reader, he read over 20.000 books in his long life. They included the latest novels of the day.
Gladstone went from Tory to Liberal. This biography tells us much about the development of politics in Britain but I believe it would be improved by the inclusion of a time line relating events to the wider flow of contemporary history. Jenkins tells us little of contemporary events unless Gladstone was directly involved. I think Jenkins assumes the reader knows history and has a very extensive vocabulary. You need a dictionary as companion volume.
The one point where Jenkins is weak is in a sympathetic understanding of Gladstone's faith. But he can be memorable as in, "For Gladtsone, idolatry began at Calais".