‘Elusive Mr. P.’

Charles Stewart Parnell

by F.S.L. Lyons
Oxford University Press, 704 pp., $20.00

Charles S. Parnell
Charles S. Parnell; drawing by David Levine

Most of the leading political figures of nineteenth-century Britain—Gladstone at their head—were intensely concerned with how posterity should see them. They kept papers—huge masses of papers in Gladstone’s case—with their future biographers in mind. Parnell was different. He was not a reader—his brother John said that the only book he saw him read was Youatt’s The Horse—nor was he a writer. Few letters by him exist. They are all short and wholly practical—if we except the endearments in the letters to his mistress and then wife Mrs. O’Shea which she later published in her book on him. The period of his political leadership—1880-1890—was also the period of his liaison with Mrs. O’Shea (whom he married in June 1891, shortly after her divorce, and before his own death in October of the same year).

Liaison and leadership were incompatible—if the liaison became known to a wide public. His life therefore had to be secretive. He lived in various places near London—Brackley, Eltham—under various aliases: Mr. Preston and—an unfortunate choice—Mr. Fox. His followers, including leading ones like John Dillon, lost contact with him for quite long periods. Among the Dillon papers in the Royal Irish Academy is an envelope containing records of various futile efforts by Dillon to reach his leader. The envelope is marked in Dillon’s hand: “Elusive Mr. P.”

The need to be elusive to contemporaries need not imply an equal need to elude posterity. There were circumstances in Gladstone’s life also, over much of the same period, that would have been likely to destroy his leadership had they become known to a wide public. Even in our own permissive times some eyebrows would be raised at the idea of a prime minister’s regularly seeking out the company of prostitutes and visiting brothels. Today indeed Gladstone’s goings-on would put him in greater political danger than Parnell’s would. But Gladstone was in real danger at the time, as his secretary Edward Hamilton strongly warned him, and this did not prevent him from keeping records—cryptic but compromising—of these meetings.1

But Gladstone was a compulsive writer: Parnell was not. Also there was a difference in the degree of personal importance of what the leaders had to conceal. Gladstone’s concealed conduct was a series of oddities—compulsive, like his writing—on the margin of a happy married life. Gladstone’s marriage was indeed so flagrantly happy that it seems to have discouraged Gladstone’s enemies from making serious political use of the rumors about his behavior. Perhaps after all the old man was trying to “reclaim” those prostitutes. Even a Tory could not altogether put it past him. For Parnell, on the other hand, his life with Mrs. O’Shea was his whole home life. It was as if Gladstone had had to hush up the existence of Mrs. Gladstone. The need for secretiveness reached a different order of magnitude. Parnell was capable in his own time…

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