Gladstone: God and Politics

Hambledon Continuum    550 pp  £80   ISBN 1 847 25202 8

Richard Shannon has made a distinguished contribution to the study of Victorian politics and of Gladstone in particular. His two-volume biography of Gladstone, completed in 1999, is the most detailed modern narrative of the statesman’s career, but the density of the detail obscured the argument and the analysis. Consequently Shannon decided to offer a new and more accessible one-volume biography to a wider readership.

The new book, like its predecessors, is elegantly written and enriched by succinct quotations from a very wide range of primary sources, which reflect the extensive research undertaken by its author. Shannon cleverly mixes the personal with the political aspects of Gladstone’s career and provides a brisk and well-informed narrative of events. In those respects, the book has much to commend it. Nevertheless the length and cost of the book, combined with the detailed character of much of its content, will restrict its appeal to the general reader.

As with Shannon’s previous two volumes, the narrative drives the book at the expense of sustained analysis and explanation – something that he criticizes Gladstone’s other biographers for failing to do. Much of the material has been recycled from those earlier volumes and Shannon often assumes a background knowledge of Victorian politics that few readers will possess.

The method that Shannon has adopted is to ‘attend to what Gladstone said about himself and accept that he meant what he said’. That, however, is no easy task since Gladstone was often a master of obfuscation and ambiguity. Shannon places great weight on Gladstone’s belief – as expressed in his diaries – that he had divine inspiration and guidance. He was not unusual in that respect, however, for at that time there were many other public figures, both in Britain and abroad, who also saw themselves as instruments of God’s will and purpose. Shannon, moreover, doesn’t examine how Gladstone’s religious outlook actually influenced his policies. While he notes, for example, that Gladstone’s Evangelical upbringing conflicted with his father’s ownership of many slaves in the West Indies, he does not assess the effect of that tension on Gladstone’s early colonial policy. Shannon’s claim that Gladstone’s intense religious faith has long ‘been exiled to the margins of the story, denied crucial explanatory power’ is unjustified. Gladstone’s authorized biographer, John Morley – a secularist – did not examine his theology or churchmanship, but he recognized that Gladstone’s Christian faith was the driving force behind his career. In recent years, moreover, Gladstone’s religiosity has received attention from many historians including Colin Matthew, Boyd Hilton, Jonathan Parry and particularly David Bebbington, in his important 2004 study The Mind of Gladstone, which Shannon strangely makes no reference to.

At the start of the book, Shannon provides neither an easy introduction to Gladstone nor a general review of recent studies on him but a critical assessment of the biographies by Morley, Matthew and Roy Jenkins. Morley is an easy target for he was closely involved with Gladstone’s late politics and his biography was published only five years after the death of its subject. But Shannon’s claim that Morley’s view of Gladstone was ‘skewed and distorted’ is harsh, particularly since Morley drew so extensively on Gladstone’s own words. Shannon’s comments on Jenkins and Matthew are more balanced, but he fails to give full recognition to Matthew’s contribution as the editor of Gladstone’s diaries and the leading Gladstone scholar of his time. He rightly points out, however, that Jenkins derived much of his content from Matthew and that Matthew displayed some muddled or wishful thinking in regard to home rule. Both of them, he notes, provided Liberal-left interpretations in keeping with their own politics, but he offers the reader no alternative interpretation. The end of the book is even more disappointing than the Introduction, for it finishes with Gladstone’s death in 1898 and there is no conclusion.

Gladstone: God and Politics provides neither a concise précis of Shannon’s earlier biography nor a substantial reassessment of Gladstone’s career. A text about half as long, combined with a historiographical review and a summative conclusion would have been more useful for the general or student reader. Those unfamiliar with Shannon’s earlier volumes may enjoy a well-written and soundly researched narrative of Gladstone’s life, but those looking for a sustained new interpretation of one of the most complex and intriguing British political leaders will be disappointed.

  • Roland Quinault is the author of numerous studies on leading Victorian politicians.
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