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God’s Choice


Jimmy Carter was not the first statesman to fret about “lust in his heart.” In 1849 William Ewart Gladstone confessed to the same sin not in a popular magazine, but in his diary. His imagination was easily inflamed. Reading an anthology of medieval French poems was enough to make him commit “adultery in the heart.” A rich fantasy life is not all Gladstone had in common with Carter. Like the American ex-president, Gladstone felt the heavy hand of his Maker in pretty much everything he thought and did. And the least one can say about him is that he thought and did a very great deal.

To stick to lust for a moment: Gladstone spent an inordinate amount of time during the late 1840s and early 1850s chasing “fallen women” around London, inviting them back to his house, visiting them, exchanging letters, talking to them for hours on end, and having some of them immortalized in sentimental poses by fashionable painters. The idea was to save their souls, by leading them back to the straight and narrow path of life.

In fact, it was his own soul that needed to be saved, over and over. For the Misses Summerhayes, Collins, Clifton, Lightfoot, et alia, were not only “singular,” but on occasion “beautiful beyond measure.” They put Gladstone into a lather of passion. What exactly passed between the politician and his fallen idols in the privacy of his or their rooms is not exactly known. Roy Jenkins guesses much was thought and nothing much was done. But thanks to Gladstone’s diaries, the juicier bits of which Jenkins has kindly selected for us, we know more about what happened after these sessions. Gladstone purged his wicked thoughts by treating himself to the lash. Such occasions were marked in his diary by a little icon of a whip, as in: “Went with a note to E.C.’s—received (unexpectedly) and remained 2 hours: a strange and humbling scene—returned to .”

Whether Gladstone’s lifelong compulsion to cut down big trees had anything to do with the rampant lusts, I am not competent to say, but a very singular business it all must have been. Jenkins writes about these and other Gladstonian passions with verve, in the worldly manner of a high table raconteur, larding his witticisms with cricket metaphors. This style may not be to everyone’s taste, but Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is a master of it. As well as being Chancellor of Oxford and the author of seventeen previous books, he is a distinguished politician himself, a grand seigneur of the Labour Party, then the Liberal Democrats, then the European Commission, and now the House of Lords. He is a gentleman and a scholar, a connoisseur of fine wines and, as I think they used to say in Gladstone’s day, a finely turned ankle.

The book is more than just stylish, however. Gladstone was in many ways the grandfather of modern liberalism to whom Jenkins, as a British liberal, wishes to pay tribute. It is a worthy tribute based on prodigious research. Gladstone’s diaries alone comprise fourteen volumes and his papers in the British Library amount to seventy-five volumes. Out of this mountain of facts, Jenkins has brought to life a complex and often contradictory Victorian hero.

Gladstone sometimes displayed a joy in military victories that seemed at odds with his equally passionate anti-militarism. Jenkins makes the shrewd observation that this struggle “between Gladstone’s anti-militarist conscience and his belief in the imposition of international authority” was as deep as that “between his intense sexuality and his pervading sense of sin in his more virile decades.” Historians might want to take another look at the famous Playboy interview for clues to Jimmy Carter’s sometimes quirky performances on the international stage.

In Gladstone’s (and probably Carter’s) case the quirkiness was on the whole deemed by the man himself to be divinely inspired. When Gladstone received the royal telegram in 1868 asking him to form his first government, he was busy chopping down a tree on his Cheshire estate. His thoughts were duly noted in his diary: “The Almighty seems to sustain and spare me for some purpose of His own, deeply unworthy as I know myself to be. Glory be to His name.”1 Eleven years later, ruminating on his seventieth birthday, he believed he was forced to stick to his public duties “as a great and high election of God.”

There is something off-putting about political leaders who think they were elected by God. They tend to lack a sense of humor. Myself, I find Benjamin Disraeli’s attitude more attractive. He is said to have whispered into the venerable John Bright’s radical ear, as he helped him into his coat at Westminster, “After all, Mr. Bright, we both know very well what brings you and me here: ambition.” Here is Gladstone on the other hand: “Well, I do not think I can tax myself with ever having been much moved by ambition.”2

It is difficult to think of Gladstone without thinking of Disraeli. Dizzy and Gladstone; the names could have been invented by Dickens: the silky dazzler and the flinty preacher of right- eousness. Physically, too, they fall into opposite types: Dizzy—dark, thin, stooped, his hair dyed black, his hooded eyes watchful as a lizard’s; Gladstone—tall, pink, robust, his eyes blazing wildly. They will always be a couple, like Ali and Frazier, Nixon and Kennedy, Eliot Ness and Al Capone. Which in these combos one prefers is perhaps a matter of temperament. In the case of Dizzy and the Grand Old Man it depends on where one stands on that vexing question of sincerity. Is sincerity more to be prized in a politician than a shrewd judgment of interests? Is the man (or woman) of unshakable faith always more desirable than the operator? Which is it to be: Cromwell or Machiavelli, Franklin D. Roosevelt or George Washington, Dizzy or the GOM? Real life is of course never so simple. Not all operators lack conviction, nor are all men of faith without deviousness. Disraeli, for one, liked to present himself as being more cynical than he probably was. And Gladstone was not exactly guileless. Disraeli’s remark to Queen Victoria that “what is earnest is not always the truth”3 was surely a wise one.

Still, Dizzy’s biographers tend to give Gladstone a hard time, and vice versa. Jenkins, though not uncritical of his subject, is no exception. He simply cannot bear Disraeli. It even affects his urbane sense of style. Dizzy is almost never mentioned without being called either “cynical” or “opportunistic.” As though making the point once, or even twice, weren’t enough. Again, it comes down to the matter of sincerity. “One difference,” writes Jenkins, “between Gladstone and Disraeli was that Gladstone always believed, sometimes to his own humiliation but also in a way that made him in the last resort a greater man, that he could drive in whatever direction he judged right, whereas Disraeli, although a tactician of genius and (in his own phrase about Salisbury) ‘a great master of gibes and flaunts and jeers’, was a manoeuvrer rather than a statesman of wide strategy.”

I wonder if this is quite right. Like other Gladstonians, Jenkins sticks more or less to the view of Gladstone as the passionate liberal and Disraeli as the flippant reactionary, Gladstone as the sincere man of vision and Disraeli as the cynical opportunist, Gladstone as the high-minded Christian and Disraeli as the trimmer who believed in nothing but himself. Now Gladstone was undoubtedly earnest, and Disraeli certainly an operator. And while Gladstone appears to bear all the marks of the plain, God-fearing Englishman, the most typical of eminent Victorians, Dizzy still seems a theatrical figure, flamboyant, extravagant, not entirely to be trusted, in a word, foreign. Yet there is another possible take on the Victorian duo, which only corresponds partly with Jenkins’s account: Gladstone as the unpredictable man of violent but shifting emotions and Disraeli as the cool strategist; Gladstone as the cosmopolitan and Disraeli as the English chauvinist; Gladstone as the capricious politician who shifted from arch-Toryism to uneasy Liberalism, and Disraeli as the man who stuck to the same vision all his life. How Dizzy became an English Tory and Gladstone a European liberal, that is the question.

Jenkins sketches Gladstone’s family background and education in much amusing detail. It is a typical story of Victorian bourgeois upward mobility. William grew up in Liverpool. His father, John Gladstone, made a great deal of money in the sugar, tobacco, and cotton trade. He didn’t actually trade in slaves, the source of so much wealth in Liverpool, but he owned them. They worked on his Caribbean plantations. After making his fortune, John Gladstone became a member of Parliament. His main task was to defend the rights of West Indian slave-owners, a brief taken over by William when he began his parliamentary career as a Tory in the 1830s.

John Gladstone and his wife, Anne, were Scots who had, as Jenkins puts it, slipped into Anglicanism, after moving south. But their brand of Low Church Evangelicalism was of the hellfire and brimstone variety, which was far removed from the “smells and bells” of the High Church. Although their son embraced the latter, as he moved ever upward, the Evangelical fervor, especially of his mother, left its mark on him. William went to Eton, as an essential part of his gentlemanly education, and thence to Christ Church, Oxford, where he established a reputation as a formidable debater and a pious reactionary. At the Student Union debate he argued that the extension of voting rights, proposed in the Reform Bill of 1832, would destroy the entire civilized world. When a bunch of college “bloods” (“jocks” would be the contemporary US term) decided to rough up this self-righteous prig, his diary entry read: “It is no disgrace to be beaten for Christ was buffeted and smitten….”

The next step in his education was a grand tour of Europe. With his brother he took in Belgium, France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and of course Italy. Like all clean-living Englishmen, they worried about the state of foreign hotels, and kept a sharp eye on their luggage. But Gladstone was and would remain what Jenkins calls “an instinctive European.” A convinced Europhile himself, Jenkins finds this a particularly attractive quality. Compared to most, if not all British politicians today, Gladstone was indeed a highly cosmopolitan European. Apart from being a master of Latin and Greek, with studies of Homer and translations of Horace to his credit, he held theological discussions in German, corresponded in French, and enjoyed listening to sermons in Italian. Although he was convinced, as a sober Protestant, that idolatry began at Calais, he was equally sure that there should be a Concert of Europe based on common civilization and Christendom. One might say, risking an anachronism, that he was a proto-Christian Democrat.

  1. 1

    Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria, in Five Victorians (London: Reprint Society, 1942), p. 169.

  2. 2

    André Maurois, Disraeli (Appleton, 1928), p. 222.

  3. 3

    Maurois, Disraeli, p. 345.

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