This much acclaimed biography was to be my introduction, not just to the great man, but to the Victorian era itself and the history and politics of Britain in the 19th Century. Sure enough, Gladstone has inspired me beyond expectation; his biography has informed me of the rich variety of the Victorian era and of the complexities of British politics.
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. Jenkins regarded his subject as 'priggish' in his attitude to certain ways of the world. He seems to categorise Gladstones struggles with personal sin as being flights of eccentricity and delusion rather than a common feature of Christian life through the ages. I can understand they might be alien to the author but his viewpoint intruded too much.
Then, as I later found, in trying to grasp an overview of 19th century events Magnus was just more interesting. To be told, for example, on page one that Lincoln, Tennyson and Darwin were born in the same year as Gladstone set the context rather better than Jenkins had done and the unfavourable comparison continued as I read the books side by side.
Finally, the (socially) liberal Jenkins draws a portrait of the Liberal Gladstone which is unsympatheic on some of the great moral and social issues common to both the 19th century and the present. Again it intruded.
So the book turns out to be an impressive work with fatal flaws which, by happy circumstance, drove me to a rather better work written 50 years earlier. But the critics don't think he wasted his time.