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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 27 July 2014
Lord Jenkins was a highly educated man of great ability and this comes through in this scholarly volume. I was a bit daunted by is length, but I took it bit by bit. Sometimes the words were challenging: clericy, valetudinarian, cicerone and immanent I could take, but I struggled with eleemosynary and manichaean to name but two. I also wondered at an obscure reference to Winchester 'notions'. In addition, the book is very detailed and I was glad I was reading it for pleasure rather than as an undergraduate, preparing, for example, for tricky questions on the various budgets.

I am not sure that I would have liked Gladstone. He comes across as priggish, long-winded and humourless, but his long career is a fascinating one. He also had a remarkable capacity for hard work, which resulted in various achievements, varying from reform of the University of Oxford, to electoral reforms, to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, though the ultimate goal of Irish Home Rule of course eluded him. However, I had not realised that it was a far more complex issue than "give it them but what about the Ulster Protestants?". For example, continued representation at Westminster and what powers should be devolved were matters of considerable import. Another curiosity is that in 1886 Gladstone was elected MP for two constituencies, Leith and Midlothian.

There are one or two oddities. The author on one occasion confuses daughters in law with step daughters. Also it is surprising that there is no mention of the Chartists, because Gladstone was certainly on the political scene when they were active. And the spin-off from the 'Alabama' incident is described, but not the details of the event itself.

Apparently Roy Jenkins "condemned big books that were too heavy to hold up in bed". This is ironic, because it certainly applies to the hard back version I bought. But it has been described as "elegant" and likely to attract history students, and this is certainly the case.
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on 11 May 2017
Great product- As described. Completely satisfied!
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on 18 July 2017
Book as described, very pleased
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on 8 January 2004
This is the second book of Roy Jenkins that I have read, having greatly enjoyed his biography of Winston Churchill. Initially I felt that I had read the books in the wrong order - in the introduction to Churchill there are many references to this previous work - how he had thought that Gladstone was the greater Prime Minister until he had written about Churchill's life, but gradually settled down to enjoy this highly readable biography.
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. He succeeds again in drawing parallels with other historical figures and also in drawing on his own vast experience.
The Grand Old Man emerges well out of this. No Prime Minister of politician ever has an entirely blemish free career. Jenkins leaves the blemishes in for all to see, and the decision about the extent to which Gladstone is the greatest PM depends on how you judge his faults against his successes. Jenkins makes the case for the prosecution and the defence in an interesting and lively way in a book that is well worth investigation.
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on 9 May 2007
Roy Jenkin's biography of Gladstone is a very readable book which provides depth to this interesting character. Although for some it is perhaps overly long, it is worth the time and effort in order to gain a fuller understanding of this Victorian great.

Gladstone dominated British politics for over thirty years and is inexorably linked with his great rival Disraeli, but he was also a man of deep belief and surprising contradictions. This biography examines his public and private life in the round and although the author admits that he is partial to his subject, it does not prevent him from offering a balanced portrait.

Overall, an excellent book.
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on 25 March 2014
‘Gladstone’(1996) by Roy Jenkins is a well-written and highly effective single-volume biography. ‘He was the most remarkable specimen of humanity of all the fifty who, from Walpole to Major, have so far held the office of British Prime Minister’ (P. xvi) states the author sat the start and proceeds to show why.
William Ewart Gladstone was a rather enigmatic character and so is the author’s treatment of him. He frequently declares how great Gladstone was, how he dominated 19th century British politics, but Jenkins still carps at his rigid religious views, his verbose treatment of virtually everything he wrote – including diaries (kept 1825- 94 and published in 14 volumes) and a proposal of marriage -, his prurience, his (often ill-considered) rush at doing everything. Nevertheless, for most of the book I was asking, does Jenkins like his subject?
In old age Gladstone was described as an ‘old man in a hurry’. Jenkins demonstrates that he was also a young / middle-aged ‘man in a hurry’ – reading voraciously, travelling continually, reclaiming fallen women, speaking verbosely, writing at inordinate length and one aspect, giving Jenkins ample opportunity for his witty description, sticking his ‘sanctimonious and judgemental’(P. 95) nose into other people’s business. Throughout the GOM remains an enigma. What was it about his attempts to rescue ‘fallen women’ which often led him to scourge himself afterwards? How can Jenkins describe his interest in prostitutes like Marion Summerhayes and Elizabeth Collins as ‘infatuation’ when some evidence suggests ‘marital fidelity’ – or am I getting into Bill Clinton /Monica Lewinsky country here?
In the world of politics Gladstone was a mystery with his amazing switches in political loyalty and viewpoint– but Disraeli was an equal weather-cock. He was a Peelite clinging to the Conservative mantle long after his belief system had wandered elsewhere (e.g. remaining a member of the Carlton Club long after loyalty had dwindled). He was the greatest prime minister the Liberal party ever produced but chose to be absent from the June 1859 meeting at the Willis’s Rooms which basically formed the Liberal Party and promptly voted against that group in the Commons. Even so his talents were considered so valuable that he served in a variety of political kaleidoscopic cabinets, despite strong personal differences (e.g. vs. both Disraeli and Palmerston). He was against foreign involvement (e.g. Crimean War) but supported Italian reunification – and his views on Ireland turned somersaults during his career.
All this is excellently covered by Jenkins, providing astute observations linking 19th century with contemporary politics. For example, he states, regarding the Crimean War that: ‘he became an early advocate of peace without victory..... rather like R. A. Butler at the time of Suez, he got the worst of both worlds, and offended all parties, including himself, becoming guilt-ridden for his initial attitude’ (P. 159). In fact, such comparisons made me think that today Gladstone would be a political disaster.
Almost as a side issue Jenkins explores some of the differences between the 19th century and today – multiple constituencies, multiple franchises, MP’s resigning from their constituency when accepting a government post, elections on the death of a sovereign, limited parliamentary terms but prolonged sittings (including Saturdays), patronage and corruption. Some of these conditions were changed then, some later but they all played their part in his career. Gladstone himself represented a series of constituencies (some of which he scarcely ever visited), both major parties and served twice as both Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer simultaneously. How matters were arranged differently a century ago!
But the reader also gets a close look at Gladstone the man. ‘He was psychologically incapable of flattery with some people, most notably the Queen, with Chamberlain as a runner up...... Sometimes, with others, his courtesy failed because it was too elaborate and heavy-footed, but mostly......he had not tried, hardly knew or noticed the person concerned.’ (PP.296-7) – and Gladstone confessed as much regarding the Queen’ (see the comments PP.336-7). He often referred to her ‘perfect courtesy’ but also to her ‘great frankness’ (normally about who should be in his Cabinet and what they should do). Jenkins stresses how much Disraeli, especially 1874-80, poisoned the Queen’s mind against his rival, overlooking the young Victoria playing such games with Melbourne vs. Peel 30 years before. Gladstone confessed to Roseberry that ‘the Queen alone is enough to kill any man' and to Dilke that ‘she looks forward to the day of my retirement as a day if not of jubilee yet of relief’ (P.468).
Gradually the author’s affection for his subject becomes clear. Gladstone’s opponents are suitably castigated. ‘Disraeli paid his debts with theatre, mainly devised for his own amusement, Gladstone with a heavy-footed almost interfering devotion’ (P419). Chapter 27 (‘Gladstone Becomes the Grand Old Man’) is a masterpiece of character assessment. Queen Victoria is exposed by her actions (e.g. rushing to receive Gladstone’s resignation but showing reluctance to let him into power, especially in 1880) but even more by her own words. Here, for instance, are her views on the proposal for women to study medicine: ‘But to tear away all the barriers wh surround a woman, & to propose that they shld study with MEN – things wh cld not be named before them – certainly not in a mixed audience – wd be to introduce a total disregard of what must be considered as belonging to the rules and principles of morality’(P.342) [abbreviations are Her Majesty’s]. Jenkins insists Gladstone’s defeat in 1886 over Irish Home Rule was due to not winning over Joseph Chamberlain and his ‘killer instinct’......once ‘battling Joe’ was lost to the government, the bill was at his mercy’ (P.551).
WEG had his foibles: his Diary records in November 1869: ‘Worked 6 hours on my books arranging and re-arranging: the best brain-rest I have had (I think) since Dec last’; his favourite physical exercise was chopping down trees at Hawarden’ even when his son, Harry, was still in the branches (P.275); he could very clumsy (he shot off his left forefinger while reloading a gun); he was often ill, especially with erysipelas; he loved staying at country houses – and once delayed his departure, resulting in his having to dry-out his socks on the train back to London. ‘His slightly officious sense of family duty, his morbidity and his religious commitment united to make him an exceptional mourner’ (P.232); his public comments on the dead Disraeli may have gratified the Queen but in private he remarked, ‘As he lived, so he died – all display, without reality or genuineness’ (P459), also his sister, Helen (a Catholic convert) still received an Anglican burial under his direction. He spent most of his life as a guest of others or renting accommodation but never seemed to considered others might expect favours in return. He loved mixing with ‘the upper-crust’ but still became the ‘people’s William’. I could go on but if you read this book you’ll also be amazed by a FASCINATING man.
Jenkins sums up Gladstone, the Prime Minister, as ‘the one who most dominated the busy junction where executive power, parliamentary command and democratic validity jostle together.’ (P.291) Again Jenkins declares: ‘His ideal polity was a mass of contradictions.... Gladstone put these incompatibilities through the mincing machine of his mind and came out at first with a rather bland pate’. (P.355) – but then he got down to work. In old age Gladstone was certainly not imprisoned in what Jenkins terms ‘a departure lounge of at Hawarden to a local library), despite deteriorating eyesight and hearing. life’(P.565), remaining physically active (e.g. shifting books by wheel-barrow from his home
However, he became obsessed by his ‘mission to pacify Ireland’. This necessitated ditching Parnell, the leader of the Irish Nationalist MPs so essential for that cause, after the O’Shea divorce case. Jenkins, in a full account, insists that ‘Gladstone took his stand on the likely political consequences and not on morals’(P.570).That is undoubtedly true but the GOM, certainly no fool, had been quite willing to accept Mrs. O’Shea as an intermediary with her lover. Was the ditching a strategic error? He’d already sacrificed Charles Dilke in 1886 due to his being named in a divorce case. Jenkins points out the wide variations sometimes in political support in different parts of Britain -e.g. 37% of Liberal MPs elected in Scotland failed to support Gladstone over Home Rule (P.55) - the English figure was 19% - and the Liberal vote was halved in the counties (P.557) in the subsequent election.
Gladstone’s 4th term in 1892 should never have happened as his Diary records: ‘I am no longer fit for public life: yet bidden to walk in it’ (P.585) But a sense of duty (and stubbornness!) prevailed. He pushed an Irish Home Rule Bill through the Commons only to have the Lords reject it by 419-41. That was the end, although Gladstone struggled on till 28 February 1894 before handing over to Lord Rosebery. He died on the 19 May 1898. Jenkins brushes aside the Queen’s evaluation of him as ‘one of the most distinguished statesmen of my reign.’ And forcibly states that ‘he was the quintessential statesman of her reign, its epitome, and, almost as much as herself, its symbol’ (P. 631).
It’s amazing how much detail Jenkins fits into a single volume. Not only is there so much about WEG but so many characters have snapshots about their work, character or social position. He reveals a deep knowledge of the background (political AND religious) of the period as well as useful comparisons with what has happened since 1898.The illustrations (especially of key figures) are excellent, as are the footnotes and bibliography. It’s a runaway 5 stars.
PS Another warning / bonus is the remarkable vocabulary possessed by the author and the reader may have to resort to a BIG dictionary; for me this included ‘eleemosynary’ (P.44) and ‘dithyramb’ (P.345).
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on 22 November 2015
Gladstone would certainly expect you to know who the Patricians were in ancient Rome, and Roy Jenkins does, too. To those of us who simply know its modern meaning (and who often associate it, wrongly, with 'patriarchy'), this book is a rare glimpse into the mind of a great statesman. The strength of the book is that was not written by a historian but by a man who had been at the centre of political power in both Britain and Europe.
Jenkins makes many comparisons between Gladstone and Churchill, and went on to write a life of the latter as well. You couldn't imagine two such different ways of arriving at greatness than those two men.
I knew a fair bit about Victorian Britain before reading this book, but you get a glimpse into the heart of Victorian politics that I haven't seen from any other book. The strengths are the readability, the insider knowledge and the sure sense of political judgement. The weaknesses are: lack of context on many occasions (understandable, but a better historian would at least point you in the right direction); lack of sympathy with Gladstone's personal faith and too much identification with Gladstone as he would like to be seen.
To take a couple of examples of both good and bad points: Jenkins' analysis of Gladstone's failure to achieve Irish Home Rule is a masterpiece of political analysis. On the other hand, there is only one mention in the whole book that Gladstone's achievements would not have been possible without huge inherited wealth and an army of servants. Jenkins, a son of the Welsh coalfields, is perhaps trying to hard to pretend that he was born with a silver spoon. Gladstone certainly was.
Finally, this was the first detailed account of the attempts to achieve Home Rule I've read for many decades. Jenkins' summary of the difficulties made me weep for lost opportunities - and also made me realise something. Tony Blair had very little sense of history. If he had read this book, he would never have given Scotland an assembly without addressing the West Lothian question. It has come back to haunt us all in these islands.
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on 22 September 2015
This is heavy going. Jeñkins does not wear his erudition lightly and long convoluted sentences and a tendency to use a long word rather than a short one cause the attention to wander. Worse, he assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of his reader: names crop up without any explanation of who the people are, and there is very little attempt to place Gladstone in historical context. The book tells the story of Gladstone's life in great detail, but does not see the wood for the trees.
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on 1 November 2003
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.
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on 1 October 2005
Gladstone - Roy Jenkins
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".
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