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Winner of the Whitbread Biography of the Year.
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.
Gladstone, by historian and eminent politician Roy Jenkins, is a full and deep portrait of a complicated man, offering a sweeping picture of a tumultuous century in British history, and is also a brilliant example of the biographer's art.
Lord Jenkins (Asquith) has held cabinet office and is chancellor of Oxford. His Gladstone has already earned the Whitbread Award in England. Yet for American readers, his biography will often be impenetrable. W.E. Gladstone (1809-1898) was prime minister four times. The extravagances of his quintessentially Victorian genius, which included religiosity, morbidity, hypocrisy, earnestness, priggishness and oratorical excesses that make Fidel Castro seem a paragon of reticence, kept him in politics for 63 years. Jenkins's idiosyncratic account of his life lingers over parliamentary minutiae, hardly mentions the Crimean War and ignores the Indian Mutiny. Jenkins wanders off into flippancies and Anglicisms that will exasperate a transatlantic audience. We learn of "tramlines logic," of a government that was a "holed hull," of statesmen who "went of a fever." Given to pompous language when simple words would do, he refers to "eleemosynary" (charitable) motives and "fissiparous issues" (divisive would have done nicely) and compares an elongated Gladstone peroration to the close of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Still, there are redeeming descriptive and narrative gems, as in Gladstone's famed speechifying (in which subordinate clauses "hung like candelabra"), and in the energy of the old man, who at 81, knocked down by a cab, "pursued the errant driver and held him until the police came." No prime minister was more sophistical or sanctimonious, and none dominated Parliament more ruthlessly. Jenkins's biography, while sweepingly admiring, deals with his hero blemishes and all.