Virginia Barton

Letting the cat out of the bag

Catholic Herald, 13 October 1989 


Review: Portrait of A Family: The Gladstones 1839-1889 by Penelope Gladstone (Lyster, £10.50) .  


This is a handsome book in a canarybird jacket, prettily illustrated by Pat Smith. We are not told upon which particular  twig of the Gladstone family tree the author perches, but some of her enthusiasm for the subject must derive from the family connection.

Nor is her enthusiasm misplaced: the Gladstones stand revealed as a thoroughly nice lot; cheerful, hardworking, clever and godly. It is pleasant to see another aspect of Mr. Gladstone PM who still has the reputation of a stuffy old bore, especially when compared with the glamorous Disraeli.

Queen Victoria is partly to blame; she fell out with Gladstone over the Eastern question and grew to dislike him heartily.

And his earnest good intentions were so easy to mock. The chopping of wood, the befriending of prostitutes, and the injunction to chew every mouthful 32 times (attributed to Gladstone but possibly apocryphal) made easy targets for the lampoon.

Catherine, his wife, was a sort of well-bred, intellectual “Marmee” – the very antithesis of a simpering Victorian Miss. Mother of eight, philanthropist  and tireless worker for the disadvantaged, her energy was quite remarkable. Apart from supporting her husband at the hustings, managing a large household and entertaining VIPs, she organised and raised funds for a host of good causes.

The children were affectionate, clever and well-balanced – considering the hectic background. Fortunately for us everyone wrote copious letters. The author must have had some difficulty choosing what to leave out of such a rich hoard of sources.

As well as letters she draws on diaries, memoirs and newspapers, and this wealth of detail includes tit bits of homely minutiae. For example, Gladstone placing two of his small children on the chimney-piece among the ornaments, or entertaining at breakfast because they couldn’t afford dinners!

There are some intimate glimpses of the Royals; for the first 35 years of their marriage the Gladstones were frequent guests of the Queen and their children close friends with the Princes and Princesses.

Such a large cast of characters requires skilful handling: sometimes these puppets get their strings muddled and it isn’t always easy to disentangle what is happening to whom. Also, attractive as the drawings are, I personally would prefer photographs to illustrate this sympathetic portrait of a surprisingly charming family.


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