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Gladstone: A Biography

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Churchill, a towering historical biography, available for the first time in paperback. William Gladstone was, with Tennyson, Newman, Dickens, Carlyle, and Darwin, one of the stars of nineteenth-century British life. He spent sixty-three of his eighty-nine years in the House of Commons and was prime minister four times, a unique From the New York Times bestselling author of Churchill, a towering historical biography, available for the first time in paperback. William Gladstone was, with Tennyson, Newman, Dickens, Carlyle, and Darwin, one of the stars of nineteenth-century British life. He spent sixty-three of his eighty-nine years in the House of Commons and was prime minister four times, a unique accomplishment. From his critical role in the formation of the Liberal Party to his preoccupation with the cause of Irish Home Rule, he was a commanding politician and statesman nonpareil. But Gladstone the man was much more: a classical scholar, a wide-ranging author, a vociferous participant in all the great theological debates of the day, a voracious reader, and an avid walker who chopped down trees for recreation. He was also a man obsessed with the idea of his own sinfulness, prone to self-flagellation and persistent in the practice of accosting prostitutes on the street and attempting to persuade them of the errors of their ways. This full and deep portrait of a complicated man offers a sweeping picture of a tumultuous century in British history, and is also a brilliant example of the biographer’s art.


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From the New York Times bestselling author of Churchill, a towering historical biography, available for the first time in paperback. William Gladstone was, with Tennyson, Newman, Dickens, Carlyle, and Darwin, one of the stars of nineteenth-century British life. He spent sixty-three of his eighty-nine years in the House of Commons and was prime minister four times, a unique From the New York Times bestselling author of Churchill, a towering historical biography, available for the first time in paperback. William Gladstone was, with Tennyson, Newman, Dickens, Carlyle, and Darwin, one of the stars of nineteenth-century British life. He spent sixty-three of his eighty-nine years in the House of Commons and was prime minister four times, a unique accomplishment. From his critical role in the formation of the Liberal Party to his preoccupation with the cause of Irish Home Rule, he was a commanding politician and statesman nonpareil. But Gladstone the man was much more: a classical scholar, a wide-ranging author, a vociferous participant in all the great theological debates of the day, a voracious reader, and an avid walker who chopped down trees for recreation. He was also a man obsessed with the idea of his own sinfulness, prone to self-flagellation and persistent in the practice of accosting prostitutes on the street and attempting to persuade them of the errors of their ways. This full and deep portrait of a complicated man offers a sweeping picture of a tumultuous century in British history, and is also a brilliant example of the biographer’s art.

30 review for Gladstone: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    John

    This may well be a good read but it’s not an easy one. It is packed solid with meat -Gladstone was in his 89th year when he died – so there’s a lot of it. At times this is quite off putting as the content is not always as accessible as it might be. I learnt a lot about the Grand Old Man (or G.O.M.) and the more I read the more I liked him. He was perhaps our most honourable Prime Minister, and the least honoured, thanks to his modesty and his ghastly royal mistress Victoria. They rubbed each This may well be a good read but it’s not an easy one. It is packed solid with meat -Gladstone was in his 89th year when he died – so there’s a lot of it. At times this is quite off putting as the content is not always as accessible as it might be. I learnt a lot about the Grand Old Man (or G.O.M.) and the more I read the more I liked him. He was perhaps our most honourable Prime Minister, and the least honoured, thanks to his modesty and his ghastly royal mistress Victoria. They rubbed each other up the wrong way and it was a far from happy political marriage. Gladstone’s political rival, the otiose and royally sycophantic Disraeli, didn’t of course help. Fortunately the G.O.M. had boundless energy much of the time; he needed it, if only for the writing of endless letters to H.M. in response to her niggling missives. They wrote to each other in the third person: eg “The Queen must point out to Mr Gladstone” and “Mr Gladstone is indebted to the Queen”….. I suppose politics is constantly evolving and this book is almost as much about that evolution in the 19th century as about Gladstone. The G.O.M. started his political life as a Tory but was part of Whiggish administrations. He evolved further to earn the sobriquet of Liberal (NB capital L). I was not surprised that he was deeply religious but had assumed that this was of the non conformist variety but he was high Anglican and lost a number of his close friends to Rome, including Newman and Manning. He wrote a great deal on religious matters and took a very keen interest in church appointments. He was a keen classicist too and was often occupied with translations from the Greek in his idle moments. Rescuing fallen women was another of his favourite pastimes, passions even, and chopping down trees of course. His speeches were inclined to be very long, and yet “The People’s Bill” could carry large crowds with him. I tittered to read that early on in their marriage (or was it during their engagement), Catherine Gladstone had told him that if he wasn’t such a great man he would be a terrible bore. Gladstone was without doubt a fine human being, and a great Prime Minister. His work was cut out trying to keep his dissonant fellow ministers on side. Much of his later political career was spent in trying to solve the Irish Question. If his MPs had backed him many Irish and non Irish lives might have been saved. He was a passionate European, before such a thing was fashionable and he predicted the outbreak of the First World War as Britain continued to re-arm and build war ships. (he died in 1898, almost 20 years before it started).

  2. 5 out of 5

    Erunion

    I am not much of a reader, but I have at least read all the way through some truly difficult books such as the Critique of Pure Reason and the Phenomenology of Spirit. This book, however, was a dog of a work to get through, and I considered putting it down at many different times. It seems to focus all too much on the details Gladstone; his daily actions are discussed at great length, to the detriment of what his beliefs were, and who he really was. A great deal of time is spent on the odd I am not much of a reader, but I have at least read all the way through some truly difficult books such as the Critique of Pure Reason and the Phenomenology of Spirit. This book, however, was a dog of a work to get through, and I considered putting it down at many different times. It seems to focus all too much on the details Gladstone; his daily actions are discussed at great length, to the detriment of what his beliefs were, and who he really was. A great deal of time is spent on the odd markings he made in his journal regarding the various ladies of the night he met (ostensibly to tell them about Jesus), but little to no time is spent on his general political philosophy, and his relations with other politicians. To be sure, his daily meetings are discussed, and at length. We often hear that he went to visit such and such an official, or stayed at such and such an inn. We hear about his daily routine. But we don’t have any real analysis on how Gladstone sought to organize his party, or how he tried to maintain a consensus on various issues. This is a shame, because it would have been very interesting to hear more about the real maneuverings regarding Home Rule and the like. Instead we get some vague references to Gladstone’s speeches, which are always described as quite forceful, but we never get to see them. As such, I wonder if a general knowledge of British history is expected of the reader. There is many a Lincoln article, for instance, that does not bother to reprint the Gettysburg Address. To do so would be rather tedious. Who hasn’t heard of that speech? In the same way, it is possible that Gladstone is so well known that it would be disrespectful of the reader’s time to tread down such old paths. There also seems to be an odd hatred for Disraeli, since he doesn’t seem to actually do anything aside from poisoning the Queen against Gladstone. Disraeli certainly did not do Gladstone any favors in this area, but the clash between these two men almost defines the political period. This work is about Gladstone, not Disraeli, but I would think more discussion would be devoted to what Churchill himself calls in his A History of the English Speaking Peoples as a “personal duel on a grand scale.” Such a relationship seems critical to the period, and in the least would make for riveting reading. Towards the end of the book, Jenkins remarks on Gladstone’s inability to keep a diary in his later years: For the outside observer this drew across his life a new screen of opaqueness as the perpetual fog in which he had complained to Morely of having to live. It became no longer possible to trace his day-to-day movements and activity from a single source. Obviously a great deal can be put together from letters, from the records of others and from his own sporadic writings. But there was no longer a wholly reliable budget of time against which the recollections of others and indeed himself could be measured. This had the objective effect of putting the short remainder of his life more in the shadows. The book ends some ten pages later, almost as if when Gladstone had ceased to list his day to day actions, there was no longer a need to list them in the book and thusly, no longer a reason to write it. It is quite probable that I am reading more of my bitterness into such a statement, however. On the whole the book seems bogged down in details. As a result, I suspect this work is a great resource to researchers. For the rest of us, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better treatment of this important man.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Czarny Pies

    This is a very good biography that obviously merits the Whitbread/Costa prize that it received in 1995. There are however two problems. The first is that Jenkins is writing for a reader that is very knowledgeable about 19th Century British political history. I found the book very dense and hard to follow in places despite the fact that I took one undergraduate history course on the period and according to my Goodreads database have read another 10 books in the area since. Jenkins work is simply This is a very good biography that obviously merits the Whitbread/Costa prize that it received in 1995. There are however two problems. The first is that Jenkins is writing for a reader that is very knowledgeable about 19th Century British political history. I found the book very dense and hard to follow in places despite the fact that I took one undergraduate history course on the period and according to my Goodreads database have read another 10 books in the area since. Jenkins work is simply not for dilettantes. The second problem is that the author has been seduced by his sources. He chooses to describe Gladstone from his correspondence and diaries rather than his actions. As a result Jenkins,devotes too much attention to Gladstone's extraordinary quirks and not enough to his great accomplishments. Fortunately this tendency to dwell on Gladstone's eccentricities is most pronounced in the first half of the book. The second half is much better. Overall this book was a tremendous joy to read. Jenkins obviously did an enormous amount of research for the project. As long-time member of parliament, Jenkins also has a great sense about parliamentary tactics and does a masterful job of explaining why some bills failed while others succeeded. Jenkins also has a skill for comic writing that brings to mind Anthony Trollope the great writer of political satire of the Victorian era. Finally, Jenkins does succeed in giving the read a sense of the greatness of Gladstone that has inspired so many liberals particularly in Canada up until the current era.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    As I was heading towards the end of the book, I was thinking that I would give it 4 stars. But when I got to the end of the book, and started tearing up at Gladstone’s death and his memorials, I had to give it a 5. Somehow, with all of the (occasionally excruciating) detail about his political life, Jenkins conveyed a man—a man who was somehow a force of nature—but a man nonetheless. This is very much a political biography. While discussing Gladstone’s interactions with prostitutes who he was As I was heading towards the end of the book, I was thinking that I would give it 4 stars. But when I got to the end of the book, and started tearing up at Gladstone’s death and his memorials, I had to give it a 5. Somehow, with all of the (occasionally excruciating) detail about his political life, Jenkins conveyed a man—a man who was somehow a force of nature—but a man nonetheless. This is very much a political biography. While discussing Gladstone’s interactions with prostitutes who he was trying to “save” and his inner conflicts over them, other things go unanalyzed. His notorious love of tree felling, for instance, gets mentioned throughout the book but Jenkins makes no effort to understand it. Gladstone’s wife and children mostly disappear from the book and their relationships are hardly discussed. One thing that Jenkins does discuss is Gladstone’s relationship with the Queen with all of its tension. I thought he did a good job there of showing and explaining the dynamic. Jenkins conveys his passions, his idiosyncrasies, his unbelievable physical fortitude and gladiatorial eloquence. When I finished the book, I rather missed him…

  5. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    This book is very dense focusing too much on the minutiae of Gladstone's daily life and his petty personal anxieties to the detriment of the big historical issues and struggles of this era that he was a central actor in, which are glossed over in passing in the apparent assumption that the reader knows all this already. It is only in the latter part of the book that at least one significant issue, the struggle for Irish Home Rule, is given some serious discussion. Thus for anyone who is This book is very dense focusing too much on the minutiae of Gladstone's daily life and his petty personal anxieties to the detriment of the big historical issues and struggles of this era that he was a central actor in, which are glossed over in passing in the apparent assumption that the reader knows all this already. It is only in the latter part of the book that at least one significant issue, the struggle for Irish Home Rule, is given some serious discussion. Thus for anyone who is uninitiated into the world of the British aristocracy, this work is a sterile and superficial presentation that fails to do justice to its subject and his times.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jonnie Enloe

    Sort of a slow read but an inside look at this bizarre little man with such great impact. Author gets drawn out on details outside the main subject. Should be read alongside a good book on Disraeli who was a contempory as well as maybe Queen Victoria(which bores me to tears). However for historical context you need the background noise for Gladstone for insight into his charactor.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tom Nixon

    God bless Roy Jenkins. The man was an incredible historian, a verbose writer and a biographer extraordinaire of I don't know how many British leaders- but he also deserves some recognition for producing books that can double both as paperweights and doorstops if necessary, because dear Lord in heaven, does the man write exhaustively about his subjects. Gladstone is one such staggering achievement. His biography of Churchill awaits my attention at some future date- (I'll need some time to recover God bless Roy Jenkins. The man was an incredible historian, a verbose writer and a biographer extraordinaire of I don't know how many British leaders- but he also deserves some recognition for producing books that can double both as paperweights and doorstops if necessary, because dear Lord in heaven, does the man write exhaustively about his subjects. Gladstone is one such staggering achievement. His biography of Churchill awaits my attention at some future date- (I'll need some time to recover from Gladstone.) Jenkins immediately teases the reader from the opening pages: he considers Gladstone to be the greatest person to hold the office of Prime Minister- and then spends the next seven hundred pages or so making his case. But that initial hook was enough to get me interested. I didn't know a lot about Prime Ministers outside of the 20th Century. I have William Hague's biography of Pitt the Younger still kicking about somewhere that I need to tackle. I read an excellent history of the full breadth of the Napoleonic Wars that opened my eyes to the complexities of that particular conflict and of course, I knew who both Gladstone and Disraeli were and honesty, found the latter far more intriguing than the former. By the end of this book, however, I'd changed my mind and was convinced. It's hard to think of another Prime Minister that dominated British politics the way Gladstone did over the course of the 19th Century. He was Prime Minister for twelve years, spread out over four terms. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer four times. He formed his last government, in 1892 at the ripe old age of 82. So, he's got the longevity in office to back up the claim that he's the G.O.A.T of British Prime Ministers- but there are other things to consider too. Probably the biggest is Ireland: Gladstone sensed (correctly, as it turned out) that something needed to be done about Ireland and some form of devolution or as it was called back then 'Home Rule' was the most likely solution. Convinced by the rightness of his cause, he tried to force a bill through the Commons once and his government collapsed because of it. Coming back into office for one last time, he tried again and got the bill through the Commons only to see it go down hard in the House of Lords. The Liberal Party actually split over the issue and it kept them out of power as the majority party for at least two decades. I think that was probably the biggest thing I took away from reading this book: Gladstone knew that it was going to split his party. He knew there were going to be long term electoral consequences to this- but he also knew that giving Ireland some form of Home Rule was in the national interest and so he did it anyway. By that point in his career, his domination of both Parliament and his party was such that he was probably the only leader of any stature that could get that done by sheer force of will. He ultimately failed, but one has to wonder how the history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it came to Ireland would be different if he had succeeded. The second thing worth noting, I think is probably electoral reform. I think I need to go back and read that biography of Pitt The Younger to really get a good handle on this, because British advancement toward universal suffrage didn't go in a simple straight line the way America's has*- in America, we went from white men who owned property to white men to (in theory at least) men and then to men and women and finally (in theory at least) everybody. The 19th Century seems to have been a slow, protracted fight about letting more and more people into the franchise while the Establishment/aristocracy/gentry clutched their pearls in horror at the notion of letting gasp the common people actually vote. Finally, there's the speeches and the effect on modern political campaigns. There's little snippets of Gladstone's voice out there you can listen to to get- if not an idea, then at least a little hint at his oratorical style and his famous Midlothian Campaign is considered by many to be the foundation of modern political campaigning. Gladstone had some quirks that are sort of hard to get used to- but probably made a lot of sense in the context of the Victorian Age. The early chapters are drowning in various theological debates about disestablishmentarianism (my favorite word) and it's... complicated. And a little deep, but I think if you can make it through those chapters you'll be okay. Gladstone also had this thing where he would try and reform prostitutes by talking to them. (Also, a little strange.) Overall: a doorstop of a political biography, Roy Jenkins states his case for Gladstone being the G.O.A.T right at the start and then proceeds to tell you everything you ever possibly wanted to know about Gladstone and 19th Century Politics and then some. Comprehensive and thorough, by the end of the book, Jenkins has made his case. Gladstone might well be the greatest to ever hold the office, but given the current mess of British politics, you can't help but wonder what he'd think of it all. My Grade: Jenkins remains the go-to biographer of British politics and Gladstone is no exception. **** out of ****

  8. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    I don't like rating books this low and I'm fond of history; I just found this one difficult to pick up at times.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    Incredibly detailed, but dry at times. Less talk about his rivalry with Disraeli than I would have thought.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    I try to always finish a book that I start. I did it but it wasn't easy. There is some background knowledge of the 19th Century here, but it BORING.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tim Robinson

    This book is simply too long. Section headings would be a good idea.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Alasdair Peterson

    Fascinating but dense.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Adam Yoshida

    A Comprehensive Single Volume Work Jenkins’ book is certainly a comprehensive biography of the late WE Gladstone. I give the author credit for the research and comprehensive nature of the work and I certainly stepped away from it feeling that I have a much stronger understanding of the man and his era. My one reservation is that the book is notably dense, especially in recounting the minutia of his time in office. Given the distant remove, I would have been interested in more about his character A Comprehensive Single Volume Work Jenkins’ book is certainly a comprehensive biography of the late WE Gladstone. I give the author credit for the research and comprehensive nature of the work and I certainly stepped away from it feeling that I have a much stronger understanding of the man and his era. My one reservation is that the book is notably dense, especially in recounting the minutia of his time in office. Given the distant remove, I would have been interested in more about his character and less accounts of divisions in the House.

  14. 5 out of 5

    JerryNotts

    Excellent book by a politician (Jenkins) with similar hopes and fears. Jenkins illuminates much of the British Victorian attitudes and provides sketches of the main players and their positions on the issues of the day. Although a big book my own copy is showing signs of my interest as it quietly loses its hardcover binding.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Peter Williams

    Excellent!

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jesse

    What a splendid individual. Good companion to Blake's biography of Disraeli.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Vashik A

    Uninformative about important, informative about unimportant.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    Far far too much detail. I cannot remember the last time it took 2 months to read a book...

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bethany

    Well researched, very entertaining and insightful.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Edgar

    A fascinating read, though it does get bogged down with too much political minutiae, which is why I give it just 3 stars. I would have liked more background detail on major issues covered, both domestic and foreign. In the book Gladstone emerges as the preeminent Victorian of his time – more-so even than Victoria herself. The author obviously admires Gladstone, in most cases portraying his policies and actions in the best possible light, and for good reason. He did what he thought was right, A fascinating read, though it does get bogged down with too much political minutiae, which is why I give it just 3 stars. I would have liked more background detail on major issues covered, both domestic and foreign. In the book Gladstone emerges as the preeminent Victorian of his time – more-so even than Victoria herself. The author obviously admires Gladstone, in most cases portraying his policies and actions in the best possible light, and for good reason. He did what he thought was right, whether or not it benefitted his party or coincided with the popular mood. He always opposed military adventurism and felt, rightly, that Britain could hardly afford her existing imperial commitments, even then. He was an outstanding Chancellor of the Exchequer, always opposed to extravagance, like, for example, needless foreign forays. In this he was nearly always opposed by his Queen – ‘the biggest jingo’. Victoria emerges as a reactionary bitch (sorry – can’t think of a more suitable word ) with few redeeming features. She was plainly very politically partisan, quite improper for a monarch as Jenkins often points out. Being Irish, I was aware of (if little else) Gladstone’s efforts to improve their lot and his attempts to achieve Home Rule. In the end his efforts to solve the Irish question preoccupied him – it gave him ‘ a continuing but not time-fixed purpose to his life in his late seventies and early eighties’. He failed in the end, but was any other result plausible, given parliamentary indifference and hostility (not least from the monarch!) and Unionist opposition, so that events in early 20th century seemed unavoidable.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Vincent Lombardo

    Ralph Waldo Emerson very famously said that "All history is biography". I believe that a good biography is also a good work of history. A good biography explains the times in which the subject lived, how the times influenced the subject, and how the subject shaped the times. You finish the book knowing the subject and the events surrounding the subject. I love history and I love learning history through biography. Sadly, this is not a good biography. Jenkins focuses relentlessly and obsessively Ralph Waldo Emerson very famously said that "All history is biography". I believe that a good biography is also a good work of history. A good biography explains the times in which the subject lived, how the times influenced the subject, and how the subject shaped the times. You finish the book knowing the subject and the events surrounding the subject. I love history and I love learning history through biography. Sadly, this is not a good biography. Jenkins focuses relentlessly and obsessively on Gladstone the person, but gives short shrift to the times and events surrounding him. He frequently writes about events, but never really provides any detail or context; he assumes that the reader knows the history of that period. Many times I went to other sources to find out what he was talking about. He also does something I absolutely HATE: he often uses foreign words or expressions, but never translates. This book is not well written. Jenkins' writing is often dense and opaque. Jenkins basically just quotes and quotes and quotes Gladstone's diaries, which, frankly, I found boring. He also says many times what a great leader Gladstone was. Why? I did not get that sense at all! Show me! (Gladstone is best known for failing to pass a bill regarding Irish Home Rule and for a testy relationship with Queen Victoria. So how is Gladstone a success?) I slogged through this book and got little out of it. If, like me, you want to learn more about Gladstone and his times, then do not read this book. Look elsewhere.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Troubles Valli

    Brilliant. All 638 pages of this. While Jenkins tries to be neutral his affection for Gladstone seeps through. And why shouldnt it? Gladtone comes across as an execptional man, even more so than Churchill who was probably the greatest leader but not comparable from a moral standpoint. Fascinating read and a must. On to his nemesis Disraeili next!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Philip B.

    A classic example of a great man succeeding despite himself. No relation to the Duke of Omnium of course. Best character traits: wander the streets at night to "save" wayward women then scourging himself for impure thoughts afterward and chopping down trees for recreation when a houseguest.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ainsley

    There is a Statue of William Ewert Gladstone on the Aldwych. Read this book to find out who he was, inspired in part by the same author's brilliant coverage of Churchill. Wasn't disappointed. The author is an authority on british politics (as an ex chancellor of the exchequer) and writes very well.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Malcolm Burtt

    Fascinating! This opened my eyes to elements of UK politics that I simply hadn't been aware of. I'm tempted to read a bio of Disraeli now to get the other side of some of their story.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Anna Pervukhin

    A bit of a slog. Too hagiographic. Only read half... May return to it later.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Roger

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kierkegaard's Pancakes

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mark Bahnisch

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