Monday, July 28, 2008

Gladstone’s library and diaries

An auction of William Gladstone’s books at the weekend raised far more for the sellers than expected, partly because a single lot of original Gladstone family diaries sold for over ten times the auctioneer’s estimate. Gladstone, himself, of course was a prolific diarist, keeping near daily entries for 70 years. Unfortunately, they are not as interesting or as colourful as the man himself.

Last Saturday (26 July), Taylors Auctions of Montrose in Scotland, auctioned a large collection of books from the library of Fasque House, the former Gladstone home in Aberdeenshire. The library comprised many books collected by William Gladstone, four times a Liberal prime minister in the 19th century. According to Scotland on Sunday, the auctioneer, Jonathan Taylor, estimated the sales takings as in excess of £65,000, ‘a bit more than we were hoping for’.

Lot 204 was described as ‘a large collection of handwritten diaries and other papers by the Gladstone family in tin deed box, wooden box and cabin trunk and various boxes’, and was estimated at £100-£200. According to the Press Association, also quoting Taylor, some of the handwritten diaries were by Gladstone’s brother, Thomas, and were in a distressed condition having been kept in an attic. The lot sold to an unnamed Edinburgh professor for £3,400. A second auction, including another 2,000 books from the library at Fasque, is likely to take place in October.

Apparently, according to Taylor interviewed by The Times before the auction, William Gladstone was once told by his father, ‘If you want a library at Fasque, go and get it started.’ And some of the earliest books at Fasque were those bought by William while still a student at Oxford.

Gladstone, himself, began writing a diary while still a teenager at Eton, and he kept on doing so for 70 years, until the last years of his life. An extraordinary man in many ways, he won his first term as Prime Minister in 1868, and held the position until 1974, and then served three more times as Prime Minister, the last time being 25 years after the first, in the 1890s. He had a particular interest in prostitutes. He used to wonder the streets at night trying to persuade them to start a new life; moreover, he and his wife, Catherine Glynne, started a home to rescue prostitutes.

All the more disappointing then to find the man’s extensive diaries rather bald and unemotional. Here is an online extract, thanks to Portsmouth University’s geography department, from 3 Dec 1879: ‘Wrote to Miss Rose - Sir J. Watson - Eytinge (Tel.) Worked hard on my Glasgow Address: perhaps 6 hours or more. Walk after luncheon: fine bright frost all this time. Mr Campbell sang incomparable comic songs in evg. Conversation with Pr. Tulloch - & others.’

Arthur Ponsonby, in his book, English Diaries, says this about Gladstone’s diaries: ‘It is all strenuous, lofty and profound to an extreme degree, ‘with few reflections on life’. And he gives an example of how, even at a young age, his diary pattern was already set fast. Gladstone delivered a speech at the Oxford University Union in 1831 which a contemporary thought was so powerful that he wrote ‘we all of us felt that an epoch in our lives had occurred’. But all Gladstone wrote in his diary was: ‘Cogitations on reform etc. Difficult to select for a speech, not to gather it. Spoke at the adjourned debate for three quarters of an hour immediately after Gaskell who was preceded by Lincoln. Row afterwards and adjournment. Tea with Wordsworth.’

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