To my mind, there are few more satisfying reads than a well-written biography of a great life. Two of the best I know are Roy Jenkins’ biographies of British Prime Ministers William Gladstone and Winston Churchill. Each appeared to great critical acclaim: Gladstone won the Whitbread Prize for biography in 1995, and Churchill, which appeared in 2001, was quickly recognised as the outstanding one-volume biography of its subject.
In this blog I want to major on the first of the two since Gladstone is a more distant and less well-known figure than Churchill. By any reckoning, William Gladstone (1809 – 1898) was one of the outstanding figures of the Victorian Age. He was a Member of Parliament for sixty-three years and Prime Minister four times, an achievement never repeated. He was a person of prodigious energy, both physical and intellectual. He graduated from Oxford with a double first degree and was a voracious reader; he read over 20,000 books in the course of his life and could converse in most of the main European languages. He walked vast distances in Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands, and, while at Oxford, several times did the seventy kilometre walk to his family home.
During his political career he became the outstanding orator of the Victorian era. He could hold his parliamentary audience through speeches lasting 3 – 4 hours. His longest, the famous budget address as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1853, lasted four and three-quarter hours and occupied seventy-two columns of Hansard. Jenkins writes of it being an oratorical triumph which “reverberated throughout the political world.”
His political judgement was not flawless, but Gladstone was undoubtedly the most impressive politician and statesman of his era. He showed a remarkable generosity of spirit which enabled him to put the good of the country before self-interest or even the interests of his party. Also impressive was his readiness to change and his growth in true liberalism as he got older – for instance, his acceptance of Catholic emancipation and promotion of Home Rule for Ireland. Roy Jenkins says of him, “I have no doubt that he was the most remarkable specimen of humanity of all who have so far held the office of British Prime Minister.”
Besides being a political colossus of his age, he was also a man of deeply committed faith. He grew up in a Low Church evangelical family of totally Scottish descent and maintained the habit of reading the Bible every day, often in the Greek text. While he retained much of the spirit and language of evangelicalism throughout his life, he later became more at home in High Church Anglicanism. Looking back on his early life, Gladstone made the challenging comment that “The Evangelical movement … did not ally itself with literature, art and general cultivation; but it harmonized well with the money-getting pursuits.” It’s an assessment that evangelicals today would do well to ponder. Roy Jenkins makes this comment: “Evangelicals provided much of the energy and of the enthusiasm of the Church of England. They sustained the Biblical Societies and the Protestant Missions throughout the world. Most of the great practical reformers and philanthropists – William Wilberforce or Shaftesbury – were evangelicals. It was a form of religion which released energy rather than satisfied intellectual sophistication” (p. 31). The evangelicalism of the last century has been marked by a growth in scholarship and theological sophistication, but it hasn’t always embraced the worlds of art and literature as readily as it might.
Another dimension to Gladstone was his writing. Jenkins says, his “outpouring of written words … was on a scale which no other Prime Minister except Churchill has ever rivalled” (p.625). He made new translations of classical poets, wrote a three-volume study of Homer, published political pamphlets and theological treatises as well as maintaining his personal correspondence.
Gladstone: a Biography brings vividly to life an extraordinary human being. It also is a rich education in nineteenth century social and political history. It is a scintillating book from an author who was himself a significant political figure in the twentieth century. Roy Jenkins served as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Labour governments and later became president of the European Commission, and in 1987 Chancellor of Oxford University. He is a gifted literary stylist who produces some memorable bon mots. Recounting one of Gladstone’s speeches, he comments, “the subordinate clauses hung like candelabra throughout his oration”; and of a politician, “he was a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Gladstone is an absorbing and richly rewarding read.