Among the reasons I picked up this book was a desire to get a better feel for England in the 19th century, and Jenkins goes some ways towards supplying that in his context-setting Forenote.
He begins with some observations that are common enough. Though Gladstone's 1809 birth came in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, that conflict did not consume the attention of the British government and hardly disturbed the daily life of the upper classes. The rural gentry had prospered from the enclosures and technical advances in agriculture of the previous decades. The wars, by restricting the supply of grain from abroad, only increased that prosperity. When the end of the wars promised to renew grain supplies from abroad, they were cut back by the passage of Corn Law of 1815. Poorer Britons, however, suffered from all these changes, and did not begin to see an improvement in living standards until the second half of the century. In the meantime, government policy until the twenties was strictly repressive.
More novel are his observations on the state of transportation in early 19th century Britain. Improved roads and lighter carriages increased the speed of overland travel to as much as 15 miles per hour -- making possible regular coach line transit from London to Bath in 8 hours and to Liverpool in 20. While this made all of England easily accessible to the upper classes, however, travel to Ireland remained difficult. So Britons from ruling circles -- even those with Irish estates -- rarely went there, and this kept the concerns of Ireland remote.
Just as telling are his comments about how Gladstone was out of step with the brash, boisterous British nationalism of the late 19th century. It was a spirit borne of insecurity, unlike the more subdued but confident national assertion of middle of the century that was Gladstone's true temporal home.
The first two chapters provide more such revelations. The most surprising, for me, was the apparent commonness not just of corrupt election practices (which I had assumed), nor even of appeals of election results for corrupt practices (which I wasn't aware of), but of the success of such appeals (which implies not just judicial independence, but respect for the judiciary and its decisions). His father had two elections appealed, one successfully. His oldest brother Tom was also removed once by appeal, and was once successfully installed by appeal as well.
Early on I also got an impression of how and compact and interconnected the leading circles of British life must have been in the 19th century. Not only is Gladstone surrounded by future men of consequence at Eton and Oxford, but even chance connections like defeated political opponents and future husbands of unsuccessfully wooed brides can turn out to be important figures.
Other notable points: Narrow classicism of the Eton curriculum. Public schools' indifference until the late 19th century to inculcating a standard south England upper class accent. Prime importance of religion in mid-19th century British intellectual life (to say nothing of Gladstone's personal outlook) -- something I have missed by knowing British intellectual life of this period mainly as the Mills, Bentham, and Darwin. The pre-eminence (especially politically) of Christ Church college at Oxford.
Gladstone himself came from a very prosperous Liverpool merchant family. (Jenkins's rough and ready 50-to-1 translation of the family fortune puts it at 25 million pounds in contemporary terms). He had astounding drive and energy, physically and mentally. His upbringing was decidedly low church, although at Oxford he was affiliated with a high church cum Anglo-Catholic circle and this tendency continued to attract him (although he always remained theologically opposed to the Catholic Church itself). He believed firmly in the unity of European civilization, and learned modern languages with typical doggedness to make good on that belief in practice. He began his career on the political right but moved left over time. He first attracted attention for his anti-reform oratory while at Oxford, and he was first elected to parliament as a member from Newark in 1833.
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