Aldous (School of History & Archives/University College Dublin) chronicles the engrossing political chess match between two vastly different British prime ministers in lively prose that delivers the pacing and plot twists of a novel.
Aristocratic William Gladstone (1809–98) was a stern moralist, Jewish outsider Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81) an affable orator whose ascendancy to power was hailed as a breath of fresh air by many among his colleagues and the public. Disraeli’s foppish charm won him the steadfast loyalty of Queen Victoria, whose admiration was such that she even elevated him to the peerage, an act that only intensified Gladstone’s intense dislike for his enemy, who heartily reciprocated his sentiments. Whispers about Gladstone’s penchant for prostitutes hurt his reputation less than it might have in today’s political arena: Even after he insisted that he sought to “save” these women from their lot in life, opponents and supporters alike merely laughed about his “benevolent nocturnal rambles.” The author offers an entertaining look at Disraeli’s quirky habits, explaining that the confirmed dandy “was also a parvenu who unnerved his aristocratic colleagues with his unusual ideas (not least in dress) about how a country gentleman lived and behaved.” After all the vitriol that passed between the two great leaders, it’s oddly touching to know that upon hearing the news of Disraeli’s death Gladstone noted in his diary, “There is no more extraordinary man surviving him in England, perhaps none in Europe.” Underneath the motherlode of distaste for each other, Aldous suggests, ran a hidden vein of respect.
No stunning new information here, but a rousing portrait of 19th-century England’s most venomous political rivalry, featuring a highly readable exploration into the dueling natures of two powerful men.