15 MARCH 1975, Page 15

Fear and trembling

Robert Blake

The Gladstone Diaries edited by M. R. D. Foot and M. C. G. Matthew Vol III 1840-47 and Vol IV 1847-54 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, £28.50 for the two volumes) I should, as chairman of the committee si:i.onsoring the publication of the Gladstone Diaries, declare an interest. I am unlikely at this stage to say that the project is not worth while or that it is a waste of time and money. I was Committed long ago to the view that the journal Is one of the most remarkable documents to see the light of day, that it not only reveals a most extraordinary personal odyssey but that it also makes a major contribution to our knowledge a nineteenth-century history. To those who ask why it cannot be condensed one can only ask them in reply how they would do it. That solution was considered and rightly rejected. There are some documents which depend for their impact upon their cumulative effect. One Might just as well try to abridge Boswell's Johnson or Greville's Memoirs. This last comparison should not mislead the reader. Gladstone's journal is not the sort of book which impels one to hasten on from page to page. It is stiff going and one has to work at it, Dr Matthew in a fine passage, ending an introduction which shows that he is not only a scholarly editor but a historian of judgment and sensitivity, writes: The diary looms before the reader like some vast rock face seen from far off, some of it sunny and N)Pealing, much of it bleak and uninviting. But closer Inspection reveals a different aspect; it is after all a

Flunbable face. The ascent is arduous but reveals on


way a vast mosaic of events, views, descriptions,

analyses, reports, changing social and intellectual relationships. As the end is gained the pattern as a Whole becomes clear. These two volumes cover Gladstone's career from the beginning of 1840 to the end of 1854. When they begin the author has just passed his t!'llrtY-first birthday and has been married for five. months. By the time the second volume finishes all his children have been born and one of them has tragically died of meningitis at the age of five. He has been involved in a major upheaval about the finances of his wife's family 7 a matter on which he successfully spent an Immense amount of time and energy. He has also had to deal with a sister who was not only a neurotic drug addict but who also 'went over to Rome.'

Politically in 1840 he was a Conservative in oPposition, young and up-and-coming with brief experience of minor office in 1834-5. In 1854 he is still in name a Conservative but he belOngs to the Peelite rump from which the Main party now headed by Derby and Disraeli broke away in 1846. During Peel's administration Gladstone has been Vice-President of the Board of Trade, then President; he has resigned on an issue so esoteric that scarcely anyone understood his reasons; he has returned during the Corn Law crisis as Colonial Secretary and because he could not find a constituency to re-elect him holds the record for length of time In cabinet office without a seat in either House. ,hen the second of these two volumes ends he

Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Liberal Peelite coalition. These volumes, therefore, cover some of the crucial formative years of Gladstone's 'enorrnous career.' They are for that reason much i

Tb.ore interesting than the first two. Their nterest is enhanced by the light they throw tiPon what has always been a puzzling and controversial aspect of Gladstone's life his rescue work among 'the fallen women' of

London, as the phrase went in those days. That form of charitable activity began on a systematic basis in May 1849 when Gladstone first started to meet prostitutes on the. street late at night. There will be much more about it in subsequent volumes. Gladstone did not abandon it till July 1886 and then only as a result of strong remonstrances the culmination of a series from his political intimates who had long been horrified at the risk of scandal.

It is the entries in the diary on this subject, which explains why Gladstone's sons segregated the diary from the rest of his papers in 1928 and handed them over to the Archbishop of Canterbury as the absolute property of him and his successors. The entries explain also why in the famous case of Wright v Gladstone, the brothers did not dare to use the diary to rebut some of the scurrilous allegations against their father, although it would have conclusively refuted a particularly odious and ridiculous story about his activities on the night of the murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish in 1882. For, although there is nothing whatever to substantiate the charge that Gladstone's visits to the houses of prostitutes were made for the purpose which most men would have in mind, and indeed the diary disproves it insofar as a diary can, no one can doubt the nature of the impulse behind Gladstone's choice of this particular form of charity.

"Gladstone," writes Dr Matthew, "was a man of intense and, in these volumes, apparently increasing sexuality." He was, it is true, happily married but in fourteen years his wife was nine times pregnant and either recovering from birth or a miscarriage. The conventions of the religious Victorian middle class dictated long periods of abstinence in these circumstances. At first Gladstone sought relief invariably coupled with a deep sense of guilt by reading pornographic books. He adopted as a remedy in these lapses the scourge of 'discipline,' and a sign looking like a whip (duly recorded by the compositors of the Clarendon Press) appears in the diary on those occasions. Towards the end of the 1840s visits to redeem prostitutes became the outlet of Gladstone's tensions. There are sometimes eloquent passages in praise of their beauty usually written in Italian, and as with pornographic literature he would scourge himself afterwards.

Precisely what happened at these visits we shall never know. Intercourse did not. In December 1896 Gladstone, well aware of the cloud of rumour and innuendo which hung over him, made a declaration to his son and pastor, Stephen. The most deeply Christian of all our statesmen, well aware that he would be called to account before long, could not have told a lie at such a moment. He had, he said, never "been guilty of the act which is known as infidelity to the marriage bed." But he went on to add that he specifically limited himself "to this negation." So there the matter must rest, and perhaps it is of no great importance. What is certain is that the diary viewed in this aspect is, as Dr Matthew puts it, "a classic of mid-Victorian self analysis of guilt." Nothing illustrates better the immense gulf which lies between the Victorians and ourselves. One is left with an almost tragic sense even though it may be to laugh at the unnecessary torments that men can inflict upon themselves.

Lord Blake is the Provost of Queen's College, Oxford