A Victorian Colossus

Ian Bradley | Published in History Today

Gladstone by Richard Shannon. Volume I: 1809–1865

580 pp. (Hamish Hamilton, 1982)

If ever a historical figure deserved the Victorian two-volume blockbuster biographical treatment, it is surely Mr Gladstone. A single volume can hardly do justice to a man who crammed more into a year than most mere mortals manage in a lifetime.

Professor Shannon certainly has no difficulty in filling the 580 pages of his first volume, which cover the years up to 1865 before Gladstone had emerged as leader of the Liberal Party and embarked on his lengthy prime ministerial career. Using the recently published diaries and other sources not available to John Morley and Philip Magnus to particularly good effect, he has produced a splendidly vivid and detailed biography.

Shannon's first volume is a meticulously researched and densely packed study of an extraordinarily full nineteenth-century life and of a remarkably tortured human psyche. At times, perhaps, it is a little too dense. The Grand Old Man's tree-felling skills might usefully have been employed so that we could see the wood as a whole rather more often. Shannon is so concerned with telling the story, and very well indeed he does it, and he has so much to tell that he is understandably reluctant to stand back from the narrative and devote a few pages now and then to overview and reflection. Perhaps there will be more of that in the second volume. Meanwhile, Dr Colin Matthew's admirable introductions to successive volumes of the diaries offer by far the best summings-up of Gladstone's achievements and state of mind at particular stages in his career.

If there is a consistent and dominant theme to which Professor Shannon does find himself again and again returning in this first volume, it is Gladstone's restless quest for a religious element in politics, and specifically for a way of expressing his views on Christian statesmanship in his public life. His early uncertainty about whether he should pursue a career in politics or the Church never really left him and was never fully satisfied by his self-determined mission to be 'a witness for the principles of the Church in the Councils of the State'.

Overwhelmingly it is foreign rather than domestic concerns which dominate Gladstone's public utterances and shape his political development in the years covered by this book. Shannon follows Morley in placing considerable importance on Gladstone's visit to Naples in the winter of 1850–1 and in seeing his reaction to the political repression there as a major stepping stone on his path towards Liberalism. As Shannon also points out, the subsequent publication of the celebrated letters to Lord Aberdeen contributed considerably to changing Gladstone's public image from that of reserved and priggish Puseyite to that of enlightened and even fiery demagogue.

But it is essentially the private rather than the public figure who is the subject of this volume and who emerges most clearly from its pages. Shannon has a particularly good eye for illuminating details of family, domestic and personal life which are often more helpful to gaining an understanding of this extraordinary Victorian colossus than the more usually recited facts of his public career. Even the frequently quoted comments on his striking physical appearance tell us a good deal about both his style and his success as a politician. As the doorman at the Treasury door at the House of Commons remarked to George Holyoake: 'There have been no eyes enter this House like Mr Gladstone's since the days of Canning.

  • Ian Bradley now teaches history at Sevenoaks School, after writing about politics for The Times for 5 years
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