William Gladstone was prime minister of Great Britain four times and a member of Parliament for sixty-three years. Although Roy Jenkins does not claim Gladstone to have been Britain’s greatest prime minister, he maintains that Gladstone was the “most remarkable” person to have held that position. Gladstone was a classical scholar, his diary indicates he read more than twenty thousand books, he chopped down trees for recreation, he was the greatest political orator of the nineteenth century, and in spite of his political career, he found time to make contributions to the great theological controversies of his age.
A High Church Anglican, Gladstone was intensely religious, and this affected all aspects of his life. Jenkins points out that even in his letter proposing marriage to his future wife Catherine Glynne, Gladstone included a 140-word sentence about God. Within minutes of her acceptance of his proposal of marriage, Gladstone had launched into an explanation of his views on the Church. Apparently she did not always welcome Gladstone’s preoccupation with religion, since in a frank moment she told him: “Oh, William dear, if you weren’t such a great man you would be a terrible bore.”
Unusually, even for a nineteenth century politician, Gladstone wrote books and pamphlets on the great religious issues of the day. It is a testimony to his enthusiasm for religion that, in 1838, Gladstone could produce a five-hundred-page book titled The State in its Relations with the Church while fulfilling his duties as a member of Parliament. The book also provided evidence of the intolerance arising from Gladstone’s religious zeal: He proposed restricting government employment to those who were communicating members of the Church of England.
In the 1840’s, Gladstone’s religious zeal led him to participate in a Tractarian lay brotherhood which required its members to engage in acts of charity. At first, the group focused on assisting destitute men and women. During the decade, however, Gladstone became involved in individual efforts to rescue prostitutes, many of whom were not destitute. This activity evolved into an obsession that continued for nearly forty years and carried with it the danger of a scandal that could have ruined Gladstone’s political career. Why Gladstone should have walked the streets of London at night picking up prostitutes, when he certainly knew his behavior was open to misinterpretation, is one of the areas in which Jenkins revises earlier studies of Gladstone. Although previous biographers considered Gladstone’s motives to be humanitarian and accepted his explanation that it was a form of charity work, Jenkins believes there was more to it than this. By drawing on Gladstone’s diary entries, he demonstrates that Gladstone’s motives were partially sexual, and that he experienced severe guilt feelings about his actions. To exorcise his sense of guilt, Gladstone repeatedly resorted to self-flagellation. Near the end of his life, Gladstone stated that he had never been guilty of the form of sexual intercourse that legally constituted infidelity, but Jenkins notes that this does not exclude the possibility of other forms of sexual activity.
Since Gladstone was prime minister during much of the late Victorian period, many biographers would have devoted most of their book to the period in which he was in power. Instead, Jenkins surprisingly allocates nearly half of his biography to the years before Gladstone became prime minister. He justifies this decision on the ground that even if Gladstone had died before assuming the highest office he would still have been a political figure of major importance.
The evolution of Gladstone’s political identity provides one of the more striking themes for his political career prior to becoming prime minister. The ultra-Tory Duke of Newcastle picked Gladstone to be his candidate from a safe seat he controlled because Gladstone had been a prominent opponent of the 1832...
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