Richard Shannon has been writing about Gladstone on and off for almost 50 years. His first book, a study of Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation, was published in 1963. He is the author of a major biography of Gladstone in two exceptionally hefty volumes, which appeared to critical acclaim in 1982 and 1999. So why does he feel the need to hammer out another 200,000-odd words on the GOM? Well, the answer is really frustration. Shannon disarmingly admits that his two fat volumes of biography were ‘too dense for their own good’. Not enough people read them. Shannon had a view of Gladstone, but the message wasn’t getting across. The purpose of this (relatively) slim version is to drive home the Shannon thesis. Put briefly, this is that Gladstone, the founder of the Victorian Liberal party, was not really a Liberal at all, more a case of Gordon Brown meets Oliver Cromwell.
Ever since John Morley’s great biography of 1903 Gladstone’s life has been seen as a heroic political journey from the Tory darkness of his youth towards the Liberal light. Morley ignored Gladstone’s difficult and clotted religious thinking, and most biographers have followed him. Roy Jenkins and Professor Colin Matthew constructed Gladstone as the leader of an intellectual elite: the winner of Oxford’s glittering prizes, Gladstone matured into a razor-sharp Treasury mind, a man with enormous powers of work and an unfortunate but forgivable weakness for fallen women. Neither Jenkins nor Matthew had any time for Gladstone’s religious beliefs, but Shannon contends that you can’t really understand what made Gladstone tick without looking at his religion.
Shannon constructs Gladstone as the ‘great beast’ of the Victorian political jungle, a man of dark, unresolved tensions. His father, a dour Scottish patriarch and Liverpool merchant, made a fortune which derived largely from slave plantations in Demerara. As an Evangelical, however, the young Gladstone was brought up to abhor slavery, and this conflict was never resolved. Gladstone always pretended that his vocation was to enter the church, but allowed himself to be easily persuaded to choose politics and ambition. Aged 23 he was an MP, aged 32 he was a successful junior minister in Peel’s government of 1841-6. In spite of his stellar success, he still hankered after the religious life. Politics for Gladstone became a questing, not for Liberalism, but for divine providence, which was revealed to him in a series of quasi-religious missions.
Gladstone was personally unpopular, overbearing and eccentric. Much of his thinking on politics was incoherent and confused. His work on Homer, which purported to trace secretions of Christianity in the pagan text, was, says Shannon, a ‘scandal’ of wrong-headed classical scholarship. He tormented himself over his encounters with fallen women and not-so-fallen women, such as the fascinating Mrs Thistlethwayte, who was a courtesan turned born-again Christian. His breakthrough came when he learned to displace his pent-up excitement and sexual frustration into brilliant emotional attacks on Disraeli and his budgets. His speeches gave an impression of technical virtuosity, but in fact this was all theatre — Shannon calls it the ‘melodrama of finance’ — driven by his crazed conviction that Disraeli embodied all that was rotten in politics.
The example of Robert Peel, Gladstone’s political mentor, was crucial. Peel’s fall over the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 taught Gladstone the dangers of relying solely on the support of party in the House of Commons. Gladstone’s great insight was to see the need to appeal beyond parliament to an external public — the ‘people’. Gladstone’s Liberalism, according to Shannon, was all too often a matter of using the ‘people’ as a weapon against his own Gladstonian Liberals in parliament, forcing the party to do what he wanted against its will. Over the three great missions of his later career — parliamentary reform in 1865, the Bulgarian Horrors in the 1870s and Home Rule in 1885 — he claimed that he followed divine inspiration in mobilising the people to force his party into line. In the end, Gladstone destroyed the Gladstonian Liberal party.
This is not an easy book to read. The problem is that biography is not the best vehicle for arguing a thesis. If Shannon had chosen to write a series of essays instead, he might have made his argument more accessible. Hambledon Continuum has done the author no favours at all by pricing the book at £80 and making it look like vanity publishing. All the same, this book is a major piece of historical revisionism and it most certainly deserves to be added to the academic reading list.