cover image Gladstone


Roy Jenkins. Random House (NY), $35 (768pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45144-0

Lord Jenkins (Asquith) has held cabinet office and is chancellor of Oxford. His Gladstone has already earned the Whitbread Award in England. Yet for American readers, his biography will often be impenetrable. W.E. Gladstone (1809-1898) was prime minister four times. The extravagances of his quintessentially Victorian genius, which included religiosity, morbidity, hypocrisy, earnestness, priggishness and oratorical excesses that make Fidel Castro seem a paragon of reticence, kept him in politics for 63 years. Jenkins's idiosyncratic account of his life lingers over parliamentary minutiae, hardly mentions the Crimean War and ignores the Indian Mutiny. Jenkins wanders off into flippancies and Anglicisms that will exasperate a transatlantic audience. We learn of ""tramlines logic,"" of a government that was a ""holed hull,"" of statesmen who ""went of a fever."" Given to pompous language when simple words would do, he refers to ""eleemosynary"" (charitable) motives and ""fissiparous issues"" (divisive would have done nicely) and compares an elongated Gladstone peroration to the close of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Still, there are redeeming descriptive and narrative gems, as in Gladstone's famed speechifying (in which subordinate clauses ""hung like candelabra""), and in the energy of the old man, who at 81, knocked down by a cab, ""pursued the errant driver and held him until the police came."" No prime minister was more sophistical or sanctimonious, and none dominated Parliament more ruthlessly. Jenkins's biography, while sweepingly admiring, deals with his hero blemishes and all. (Feb.)