Tuesday, December 29, 2009

An account book of time

One of Britain’s greatest prime ministers, William Gladstone, was born 200 years ago today - a bicentenary which doesn’t seem to have attracted that much attention. Gladstone was a committed diarist, but his journals are rarely interesting - as The Diary Junction Blog commented 18 months ago when the family library came up for auction. However, the bicentenary seems a good enough excuse to sample a little more of what the great man called his account book of time.

Gladstone was born in Liverpool, the son of a prosperous merchant, and educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford. Although planning to enter the church, he decided instead on politics. He was elected a Tory MP for Newark in 1832, when only 23. His talent for public speaking led Prime Minister Robert Peel to give him appointments in the Treasury and then in the Colonial Office. After six years in opposition, he returned to government still under Peel, and was eventually appointed President of the Board of Trade.

In the late 1840s and 1850s, Gladstone’s political views changed. As a young man, he had been a Tory, and yet by 1859 he had joined the Whigs (or Liberals) and then become Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell. He succeeded Russell as leader of the Liberal party in 1867. He was Prime Minister on four separate occasions (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94), enabling many reforms, including, in his second term, the Reform Act, which extended the vote to many rural voters. His last two terms were dominated by the Irish Home Rule issue.

In July 1839, Gladstone married Catherine Glynne (who bore eight children) and, together they set up a ‘rescue’ home for prostitutes. Gladstone used to wonder the streets of London at night trying to persuade prostitutes to start a new life. Given Gladstone’s life and great achievements, it is disappointing to find his diary, kept for 70 years, largely bald and uninteresting. Many extracts were used by John Morley in his two volume Life of William Ewart Gladstone published by Macmillan in 1903 (freely available at Internet Archive).

Much more recently, the diaries - The Gladstone Diaries - have been published in full by Oxford University Press in 14 volumes - the first few edited by M. R. D. Foot and the rest by H. C. G. Matthew - between 1968 and 1994. They cost well over £100 apiece new, though some can be picked up for around £25 secondhand on Abebooks.

The introduction to the first of the 14 volumes starts as follows: ‘Morley rightly remarked, in his official Life of Gladstone, that his subject was not equipped with ‘much or any of the rare talent of the born diarist’. These diaries reveal much about Gladstone’s character, and illustrate the religious, political, and social life of his day; yet nobody will find in them either word-pictures of events, or analyses of personality, fit to be compared with Pepys’s or with Greville’s. Gladstone’s diaries were not written with a literary aim. ‘You may take’, he once said to Balfour, ‘the three proverbial courses about a journal: you may keep none, you may keep a complete and ‘full- blooded’ one, or you may keep a mere skeleton like mine with nothing but bare entries of time and place.’ The skeleton was not entirely bare of flesh; but primarily it was what Gladstone, a meticulous keeper of accounts, once called ‘an account-book of the all-precious gift of Time’.

Here are a few entries from Gladstone’s account book of time (all taken from Morley’s Life of Gladstone).

29 December 1832
‘On this day I have completed my twenty-third year . . . The exertions of the year have been smaller than those of the last, but in some respects the diminution has been unavoidable. In future I hope circumstances will bind me down to work with a rigour which my natural sluggishness will find it impossible to elude. I wish that I could hope my frame of mind had been in any degree removed from earth and brought nearer heaven, that the habit of my mind had been imbued with something of that spirit which is not of this world. I have now familiarise myself with maxims sanctioning and encouraging a degree of intercourse with society, perhaps attended with much risk . . . Nor do I now think myself warranted in withdrawing from the practices of my fellow men except when they really involve an encouragement of sin, in which case I do certainly rank races and theatres . . .’

21 July 1833
‘Sunday, - ... Wrote some lines and prose also. Finished Strype. Read Abbott and Sumner aloud. Thought for some hours on my own future destiny, and took a solitary walk to and about Kensington Gardens.’

23 July 1833
‘Read L’Allemagne, Rape of the Lock, and finished factory report.’

26 July 1833
‘Went to breakfast with old Mr Wilberforce, introduced by his son. He is cheerful and serene, a beautiful picture of old age in sight of immortality. Heard him pray with his family. Blessing and honour are upon his head.’

30 July 1833
L’Allemagne. Bulwer’s England. Parnell. Looked at my Plato. Rode. House.’

31 July 1833
‘Hallam breakfasted with me. . . . Committee on West India bill finished. . . German lesson.’

2 August 1833
‘Worked German several hours. Read half of the Bride of Lammermoor, L’Allemagne. Rode. House.’

3 August 1833
‘German lesson and worked alone. . . Attended Mr Wilberforce’s funeral; it brought solemn thoughts, particularly about the slaves. This a burdensome question.’

9 August 1833
‘House . . voted in 48 to 87 against legal tender clause. . . Read Tasso.’

11 August 1833
‘St James’s morning and afternoon. Read Bible. Abbott (finished) and a sermon of Blomfield’s aloud. Wrote a paraphrase of part of chapter 8 of Romans.’

15 August 1833
‘Committee 1-3¼. Rode. Plato. Finished Tasso, canto 1. Anti- slavery observations on bill. German vocabulary and exercise.’

16 August 1833
‘2¾-3½ Committee finished. German lesson. Finished Plato, Republic, bk. v. Preparing to pack.’

17 August 1833
‘Started for Aberdeen on board Queen of Scotland at 12.’

18 August 1833
‘Rose to breakfast, but uneasily. Attempted reading, and read most of Baxter’s narrative. Not too unwell to reflect.’

19 August 1833
‘Remained in bed. Read Goethe and translated a few lines. Also Beauties of Shakespere. In the evening it blew: very ill though in bed. Could not help admiring the crests of the waves even as I stood at cabin window.’

20 August 1833
‘Arrived 8½ am - 56½ hours.’

29 December 1873
‘Sixty-four years completed to-day - what have they brought me? A weaker heart, stiffened muscles, thin hairs; other strength still remains in my frame.’

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