God’s Choice

William Ewart Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone; drawing by David Levine


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…

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