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Thursday, April 18, 2013

“Gladstone”, by Roy Jenkins

698 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0679451440

There are two opposite poles in the writing of biographies: “Let's explain the man by including everything he did” or “Let's explain the man by stringing together the highlights of his life.” Roy Jenkins has opted for the first choice in his biography Gladstone in a big way. This book is a massive catalog of what Gladstone did, said, and thought throughout his long and impressively productive life. But somewhere along the line Jenkins forgot the part about explaining the man's life. After battling my way through this monster, I was left saying “So what?”

If you're hoping for some sort of insight into the man and his achievements, prepare to be disappointed. What you get is a massive laundry list of speeches made and not made, books purchased, and walks taken; a tidal wave of minutiae that utterly obscures the larger picture. Good heavens, after 700+ pages I expect some insight into the man and his importance. Jenkins certainly receives an ‘A’ for effort, but he barely attempts any sort of analysis: what was so important about Gladstone? What were his finest achievements? In short, why does he matter?

This book lacks the heart and soul of a good biography. It gives a lot of minute details about aspects of his life without ever tying them together into a bigger picture. While the book talks about Gladstone's religion and refers at times to his own repressed sexuality, the book never provides a theory on why he starts spending so much time reforming prostitutes. Repeatedly, Jenkins refers to his walks and tells a little about the woman, but the psychology of Gladstone is not better understood due to his writing. More important, Jenkins never provides enough context to understand where a bill or action is coming from. I mean this on both a personal and macro level. So Gladstone wanted justice for Ireland. Why? Also, what was the big picture that made this such an important part of 19th Century British politics?

One final criticism, Jenkins may have delved into Gladstone, but he fails to draw clear images of the surrounding cast. A good biography should provide knowledge of the time, but I learned little about Peel, Palmerston, Disraeli, Victoria or Albert. I learned less about the great diplomatic and political issues of the time. For a better understanding of this man and his time, I strongly suggest books on Disraeli, which, like their main character, are written with more flair and panache. Also books on Victorians by Gertrude Himmelfarb and Asa Briggs provide more knowledge than Roy Jenkins’ book.

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