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By John Powell


The Inner Gladstone

Prime minister at the zenith of the British Empire, devout Christian--with a penchant for ministering to pretty prostitutes--and Homeric scholar, William Gladstone left one of the most complete diaries produced in the Victorian Age, an almost daily record spanning seven decades. Generally speaking, what cannot be known of Gladstone cannot be known of anyone. A lesson on the limits of biography.

I do not enter on interior matters. It is so easy to write, but to write honestly nearly impossible.

--William Gladstone, December 7, 1896

No political figure of the nineteenth century has been more carefully scrutinized than William Gladstone, four times prime minister of Great Britain. His legislative and political achievements were epic, affecting millions of his countrymen and drawing copious evaluation from the political press. He left hundreds of thousands of documents of every kind, written during every period of life. He was routinely remembered by memorialists. And he composed one of the most remarkable of all diaries, daily recording, for 70 years, the names of almost every person he met or wrote to, the titles of most everything he read, and the course of his daily business.

Yet the more coherent the external circumstances of Gladstone's life, the more problematic becomes our knowledge of his interior life. Publication of the admirable "Gladstone Diaries with Cabinet Minutes and Prime-Ministerial Correspondence" (M. R. D. Foot and H. C. G. Matthew, eds., 14 vols., Oxford University Press, 1968-94) has put within easy reach the full range of surrounding influences that constantly and in conjunction with one another shaped his motivations, pleasures, and desires. Still, Gladstone's psychology remains almost as resistant to explanation today as when he was trying, with limited success, to make sense of it for himself.

Born in 1809, much was expected of young William by a mother concerned with the state of his soul and a father eager for ...

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