Books and Mr. Gladstone

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Editor's Note: William Gladstone, who was Prime Minister four times during Queen Victoria's reign, is the most distinguished contributor to write for the Contemporary Review. This month marks the centenary of his death.

St. Deiniol's Library was founded at Hawarden in North Wales, with W. E. Gladstone's gift of about 30,000 volumes, largely conveyed by himself by wheel-barrow across the village street from his residence at Hawarden Castle. This was in 1896 - two years before his death. St. Deiniol's library, of course, still persists and flourishes: the Parish Church conveniently separating its spacious and graceful buildings from the 'Old Rectory', now housing both a Public Library and a Record Office. Perhaps, today, the abiding legacy of Gladstone's own books - so veritably rich in literature and history, as well as in theology and Bible studies - tends to be hidden and somewhat overwhelmed by the layers of the additions, necessarily made over the intervening full century, and the influx of contemporary trends and ideas, derived largely from the use of the institution increasingly as a recognized 'Training College', for Anglo-Catholic theological students. The latter function, although very appropriate, was not exactly envisaged, or even authorized, when W. E. Gladstone engineered the project: apt harvest of his industrious retirement, between 1894 and 1898.

This is not the place to investigate the role of W. E. Gladstone as a theologian of the Church of England. Obviously, attitudes, both local and national, towards Christianity have vastly changed, between then and now. My brief intention here is to draw attention to Mr. Gladstone as an exceptional representative of the omnivorous reading habits and tastes of the Victorians: although, of course, by virtue of both ability and role (after all, he was four times the British Prime Minister), he was bound to be regarded as unique. On the other hand, as both reader and book-collector, he embodied an element of literacy and cultural awareness, that was distinctive of the Victorian era, and distinguished it from any other in our history.

When we may now remember W. E. Gladstone, in his venerated old age, so strenuously attempting to defeat his failing eye-sight by reading books, we must also realise how great a reader he was, and how fond of books in general. Remarkably, too, he was never a great reader of newspapers (a reluctance that, perhaps, even today, some of us can very readily understand). Instead, he read good, solid books. He was tireless in his readings of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. Without the obligations of statecraft, he might have made a first-class classical scholar, as his book on Homer (1858) suggests.

Even amidst the utmost pressures and problems of State affairs, Mr. Gladstone always did his best to keep time for reading substantial, even daunting books. Thus, his plan in general was always to have at least three volumes at hand: turning from one with renewed interest to the other. His tastes were varied and versatile even running to novels, if they had a definite moral message. He might well turn, from profound and learned philosophical works, to the Arabian Nights, or even Robinson Crusoe. Up to a year or two before his death Mr. Gladstone tried to read every new book as it came out, within the diversity of his literary and intellectual interests. Constantly, too, he wrote his famous 'post-cards', expressing appreciation and thanks to their respective authors. Publishers were delighted to advertise his responses to any recently-published book. Many a famous author was encouraged and stimulated by receiving such messages of thanks from 'the busiest man in Europe'.

More formally, too, he diligently reviewed in the journals - such as The Nineteenth Century - hundreds of books, spread across many years.

It is recorded, for example, that W. E. Gladstone read avidly R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883) on his way to Osborne, to obtain Queen Victoria's formal consent to his formation of his (brief) Third Cabinet, in February, 1886. …