February 18, 1997
They don’t make politicians the way they used to, at least in the English-speaking world. The leading British conservative of the 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli, was a legendary wit and a successful novelist whose books are still worth reading. The leading American conservative of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan, was an amiable duffer with a head full of old movies and a shoebox full of old newspaper clippings. The leading British liberal of the 19th century, William Gladstone, read 20,000 books in his lifetime, wrote extensively on Homer, Dante, modern literature, and theology, and was both the greatest financial expert and the greatest orator of the age. The leading American liberal of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt, was an amiable dilettante with shrewd political instincts and a dash of noblesse oblige but no political or economic ideas to speak of. How dare we patronize the Victorians?
Gladstone was, by the consensus of his and every succeeding generation, the most eminent Victorian of all. He sat in Parliament for sixty years and headed four governments. He decisively shaped the outcome of three great issues -- free trade, electoral reform, and Irish self-government -- and many lesser ones. He was revered as “the People’s William”: his picture hung in humble cottages throughout England and Scotland and he spoke (without amplification) to crowds of ten or twenty thousand. He displayed to an exceptional (sometimes, no doubt, absurd) degree the characteristically “Victorian” qualities: earnestness, industriousness, piety, self-discipline, high seriousness.
William Ewart Gladstone was born in 1809, the youngest son of a stern, devout, and very rich Liverpool merchant of Scottish descent. At Eton and Oxford he was a brilliant student and formed many deep and lasting friendships with his illustrious contemporaries. After his graduation and continental Grand Tour, a former classmate’s father, the Duke of Newcastle, sponsored him in the election of 1832. He entered Parliament the next year at the age of 23.
He began as a staunch Conservative, which then meant a defender of agricultural protectionism -- i.e., prohibitive tariffs on imported grain, sugar, tobacco, etc. -- a policy that favored the landed classes. Under the influence of his political mentor and Prime Ministerial predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, he gradually embraced free trade. The issue split the Conservative Party, and when in 1852 Disraeli proposed a budget based on fudged figures and ambiguous policies, Gladstone delivered a dramatic last-minute speech that sank the budget and toppled the government. In the next government he was finance minister; his 1853 budget, introduced with an even more sensational speech, revolutionized Britain’s official finances.
For the next forty years, whether in office or in opposition, Gladstone was at the epicenter of British politics. His lofty, eloquent, impassioned oratory packed them in at the House of Commons as well as -- for the first time in British history -- a great many extra-Parliamentary venues. His pamphlets on Bourbon tyranny in Naples and Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria topped the bestseller lists. Though many of his crusades failed - most notably Home Rule for Ireland-- he succeeded in forcing them onto the political stage. Like no one else, he held his countrymen’s feet to the fire.
Two excellent new biographies take complementary approaches to the “Grand Old Man,” as Gladstone was called. Roy Jenkins is one of England’s leading politicians but has found time to write eighteen books. (Remind you of someone?) Unlike its subject, Gladstone is wry, urbane, and laced with a gentle, affectionate irony-- exactly the right tone for a historical monument who really was monumental. Given just a modicum of readerly interest in English history and politics, Jenkins makes Gladstone’s life intelligible, affecting, even entertaining.
Travis Crosby is a psychohistorian, respectful but more determined than Jenkins to find out what really made W.E.G. tick. He offers no revelations or profundities, only a consistently shrewd, plausible psychological portrait. Gladstone’s friend and first biographer, John Morley, claimed that “nobody had fewer secrets, nobody ever lived and wrought in fuller sunlight.” Crosby is properly skeptical. Gladstone’s personality did indeed have a few dark corners. There was his political passion, which often boiled up into an almost frightening vehemence. There was a contrasting and puzzling indecisiveness that beset him especially in his twenties and thirties. And there was his “rescue” work: hundreds of late-night excursions, spread over many years, into London’s streets to seek out prostitutes and lead them back to the paths of virtue and righteousness. Apparently he preserved his own virtue unspotted throughout these encounters, though he was often so sorely tempted that after returning home he flogged himself. Crosby makes some modest, not wholly convincing attempts to explain Gladstone’s peculiarities but is mostly, and rightly, content to describe them.
It is sometimes said that his great antagonist Disraeli -- who had (to oversimplify a little) no principles but also no illusions -- is a more interesting and significant figure for us moderns than the grave and godly Gladstone. But maybe just because Gladstone is less like us we have more to learn from him. Gladstone seems to us in many respects an unpleasant, even ridiculous person; but he was nonetheless a very great man, far greater than any 20th-century American public figure. He was, in fact-- giving the term a neutral, descriptive sense rather than the usual honorific one -- a hero. There was a moral intensity, a spiritual grandeur, a force of character in him that we no longer commonly aspire to, or perhaps even understand.
If we ask what made possible this archaic magnificence, I think the answer must be two things that most enlightened people today abominate: social privilege and sexual repression. Believing fervently in a religious ideal of chastity, Gladstone disciplined --sublimated -- his volcanic sexual energies into orgies of rhetoric and paperwork (also -- his favorite hobby into his eighties -- tree-felling). Never questioning the rightness of traditional hierarchies, he took for granted the vast scaffolding of comforts and services -- above all, wifely services -- that supported his astoundingly busy and productive life. Just as slavery was indispensable (or so we now assume) to the glory that was Greece, so patriarchy was indispensable to the grandeur that was Gladstone.
So much the worse for Greece and Gladstone, most modern readers will reply. Perhaps; but surely a little regret is in order, no less than relief. Sexual freedom and social equality may be -- probably are -- worth the sacrifice of the heroic ideal. But no one who does not feel the loss as well as the gain in this fateful progression can understand either the Victorian age or our own.