Nineteenth-century British politics was as uninhibitedly vituperative in using print technology as anything we see facilitated by today's digital social media. And until the Brexit debacle overturned any lingering perception that the British political process was an essentially measured one, it was that parliamentary equivalent of a bare-knuckle dustup between the two colossi of nineteenth-century British politics—Gladstone and Disraeli—that, for many, exemplified political irreconcilability. The issue between these two and their adherents focused on the extent of a government's responsibility in matters fiscal and social, Gladstone's espousal of a more socially liberal agenda being bitterly opposed by Disraeli's resistant conservatism. The two were also antithetical in terms of character: Disraeli's louche image and rackety financial life was in stark contrast to the rectitude of Gladstone's evangelizing religious faith and a propensity to moralize—making for delicious irony in Disraeli's reformulation of “GOM,” or Grand Old Man (the epithet admiringly used by Gladstone's supporters), as “God's Only Mistake.” Close to Gladstone's heart was the free trade philosophy, which offered an alternative mindset to the privileges and vested interests of the traditional ruling classes of Disraeli's “one-nation” conservatism. Gladstonian liberalism sought to replace the current status quo with a new civic-mindedness that offered the means toward a fairer and ultimately more moral society.
Phyllis Weliver introduces her portrait of Mary Gladstone (hereafter MG) and her circle with an account of the 1879 Midlothian campaign, which initiated a process that would bring her father, William Ewart Gladstone, to his second premiership, 1880–85. As Weliver describes, in his lengthy campaign speeches Gladstone involved his audiences in addressing complex political questions, reflecting his uncompromising view of the way in which a representative democracy should operate. For two weeks, Gladstone, with his wife Catherine and daughter Mary (by then her father's unofficial secretary), addressed “fervid crowds” (as he described them in his diary, quoted p. 1) from his railway carriage as he progressed up to the Midlothian constituency in Scotland. In all, Gladstone gave thirty substantial speeches to some eighty-seven thousand people, but, as the Gladstone scholar H. C. G. Matthew points out, verbatim reporting of these speeches ensured that they were available to newspaper-reading households, too.1
After Gladstone's success in the 1880 general election, MG found herself directly caught up in this febrile political atmosphere as part of the Downing Street secretariat, having been given specific responsibility, at her father's behest, for ecclesiastical appointments. And it is in relation to this insider role—unprecedented for a woman—that Weliver structures her account. MG makes a fascinating subject, not just because she was the exception as a woman in an otherwise male government environment, but also on her own terms, as a voluminous diarist and correspondent, and as the hostess of the Gladstones' own salon, the so-called Thursday Breakfasts, in which music and performance had a significant place. (MG's propensity to organize earned her the nickname Moltke, after the Prussian general.) Through Weliver's extensive exploration of, and quotations from, MG's own writings we learn of her opinions (often decidedly expressed) about the works of literature and the arts (especially music) she valued, the people who mattered to her, and her social and religious attitudes. As Gladstone's daughter, his hostess, and gatekeeper in arranging the processing of those ecclesiastical appointments in the state-established church for which Downing Street was responsible, MG was obviously an influence to be reckoned with, and that was clearly how she was perceived by the generality of male contacts. But by closer friends, such as the historian Lord Acton, she was understood as someone to be addressed in a position of intellectual equality, and by people such as the politician and ardent concertina player Arthur Balfour she was regarded as a stimulating musical companion.
Weliver organizes her book in two parts. In the first, “Intellectual History,” she frames the social and religious context for the idealist and emotional nature of the Gladstonian liberal ethos, and the ways in which the Gladstones sought to live by these tenets. She expands upon the significance of the arts in liberal thought and the intellectual and cultural contribution of the Victorian salon, a chapter that forms the background to her more specific discussion of the Gladstones' Thursday Breakfasts. In the course of these chapters, Weliver explores the significance for the Gladstones of this “aesthetic” liberalism as expressed in poetry and novels and especially as experienced—and subsequently idealized—in musical and poetical performances. The subjective intensity with which MG experienced music in her own and others' performances is a recurrent theme: “Oh yes, that's how Beethoven wrote it, but I like playing it like this” (p. 152) was typical of the way she lived music, writing about it, as Weliver suggests, “with an imaginative flair that approximated the transcendent experience itself” (p. 250). Weliver also relates MG's religious philosophy to the Lux mundi essayists, a group of Oxford Tractarians centered on Keble College, who were heavily influenced in their wish to reconcile faith and reason by the philosopher T. H. Green. Their example, she argues, helped to drive MG's enthusiasm for faith-inspired social action, of which one means was attempting to bring music to working-class individuals. Access to music (“music as a means of illuminating God,” p. 30) was, MG felt, one of the keys to individual improvement, whether encountered through High Anglican church services or through listening to Handel's oratorios, Beethoven, or Wagner. Another influence here was the composer Hubert Parry, whom MG clearly idolized, gushing (after hearing him play the piano) that she realized the great truth that “Music was given man to express the unspoken. If only people knew it, music is self-revelation, even while it is descriptive of other things” (p. 29). MG also gushed after encountering the violinist Joseph Joachim: “I wished to go [and] kneel at his feet” (p. 155), and “we talked about everything in the world except politics—getting into other people's insides, how much you know about each other” (p. 109). Clearly music and musicians were to be taken extremely seriously, and Weliver supposes in the book's conclusion that “[e]motionally refreshed and spiritually energized, musical performers and listeners could then emerge from the semi-private salon to enact their faith in difficult social reform efforts, such as district visiting” (p. 271).
In the book's second part, “Musical and Literary Case Studies,” Weliver discusses MG's involvement with George Grove and the foundation of the Royal College of Music; her reaction to Tennyson's recitations of his poetry (effectively “sound painting” or performances), experiences that “caused listeners to feel transported into the sensory world of the poem” (p. 213); and her response to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Weliver's literary case studies of Tennyson and Daniel Deronda are fascinating in all sorts of ways, and she makes effective and ingenious use of source documentation. In the Tennyson chapter, she manages to convey something of the effect the poet's recitations had on his audiences through quoting the textual annotations that Hubert Parry made as an aide-mémoire for recalling the poet's idiosyncratic manner of delivery. She also makes reference to the musical settings of Tennyson's poems composed by his wife, Emily, which Hallam Tennyson claimed “give the impression of my Father's reading” (p. 217). In the case of Eliot's novel, we learn that MG read it compulsively several times, and with such fervor, Weliver suggests, that it influenced her to make several significant life choices, including turning down offers of marriage from Hallam Tennyson and the Revd. Edward Bickersteth Ottley. MG clearly lived as intensely through her responses to the arts as through her liberal ideals.
Weliver's interdisciplinary approach helps to increase our awareness of the intellectual networks to which MG had access as well as the often close and complex society in which she moved; the congeries of interactions she identifies confirms the clannish nature of the Gladstone circle, which had the protection of the GOM at its heart. It would indeed have been entertaining to witness John Ruskin on his second (and presumably last) visit to the Gladstone base at Hawarden declaring to Gladstone, as recorded by MG, that “all indirect taxation should be done away with, this produc[ing] a rather painful discussion on the income tax, mercantile dishonesty etc.” (p. 163). Much music was needed to smooth over that gaffe. Weliver's background discussion of the Lux mundi group (some of whose members Gladstone appointed to the chapter of Saint Paul's Cathedral) helps us to appreciate that much of the reform of the musical and liturgical practices of Saint Paul's was the result of the synergies of purpose between its clergy and John Stainer, its organist. MG's own Tractarian affinities, which saw her urging Gladstone to give preferment to clergymen sympathetic to music's capacity to elevate worship, certainly benefitted the development of Anglican church music.
What Weliver does so well in this study is capture an atmosphere and suggest the mindset of this particular group. My reservations concern the way some of her interpretations relate to the historical situation. Too often, it seems to me, MG has been foregrounded out of her historical context, with the unfortunate consequence that claims are made about her significance on the basis of what seem to be tenuous causal links. Weliver states, for example, that “[b]y the time she was twenty-four, Mary was shaping London programming choices,” apparently on no other grounds than that “[i]n 1872, the Saturday Popular concerts at the Crystal Palace played [according to MG] ‘the Handel Sonata by [her] desire’” (p. 148). Similarly, Weliver suggests that MG was “molding the social world so as to make it newly attentive to music-making” (p. 126), and that “[b]y the late 1870s there was considerable advancement in music appreciation among the gentry” (p. 160). Not the least problem here is the question of which social grouping is intended by the term “gentry”? It matters, because nineteenth-century Britain had an astonishingly varied and energetic participative musical culture that traversed all classes. It is difficult not to read into some of Weliver's observations an implication that appreciation of art music was essentially confined to the upper middle classes, yet this was at a time when transcriptions of new symphonies and operas (including those of Wagner in the wonderful arrangements by the self-taught Alexander Owen) were regularly played by brass and wind bands across the country, just as modern European repertoire (as well as Bach and Handel) was being taken up enthusiastically by amateur choral societies.
MG was clearly an influential person as a result of her social and Downing Street significance, which is one reason why so many danced attendance on her. But being attentive to the prime minister's daughter is not necessarily the same thing as taking her advice, though Weliver often assumes this to have been the case. Which is why, knowing something of the way George Grove operated, I take a slightly different view of MG's significance in respect of the Royal College of Music (chapter 5, “Mary Gladstone's Diary and the Royal College of Music”), while acknowledging Grove's use of MG as a conduit through which to seek government funding for the college. I do, however, agree with Weliver that MG's raising of money for RCM scholarships (including £1,000 from Andrew Carnegie) was of enormous practical benefit that reflected both her commitment to the idea of music education and her ability to persuade others to give financial support for the purpose. In some respects, MG was certainly in a “powerful position” (p. 189), but that may not always have been as much in the executive sense as the text sometimes implies. What comes over very clearly from this study is MG's effectiveness through her exercise of soft power as hostess, as well as through her exertion of social influence, in supporting the Gladstone “brand.”
Weliver makes the point that “‘liberalism’ is a slippery term” (p. 45), and she argues that, as exemplified by the Gladstones and their circle, it was a practical force for moral regeneration. Gladstone's significance as a politician lay in his ability to persuade the British electorate that his liberalism, if carried into government, would change the country for the better, contrasting it with Disraeli's mission to preserve more of the traditionally established order of things. As Weliver vividly conveys, MG was both a passionate advocate for her social beliefs, and earnest in harnessing her artistic ideals to that liberal purpose. Her diaries and letters depict her in the refined upper-middle-class setting she was born to. Being a Gladstone, however, involved, perhaps inevitably, MG's wholehearted identification with the family's political project as much as engagement on these more rarefied artistic and intellectual levels. Her reaction to the emotions generated by the “fervid crowds,” such as those she encountered on the Midlothian campaign (people to whom liberal policies held out some hope of practical betterment), seems to have been a catalyst that broadened her viewpoint and helped her to hone a more political sense of what liberalism really offered and what it might stand for. Because it was not possible for MG to enter the national political arena, her life from around the 1880s could also be read as her means of sublimating practical politics into a more socially acceptable form of female action. Regardless of how MG comes to be seen in her various contexts as a result of this study, Weliver's work is valuable in giving access to these fascinating perspectives on a truly individual life and on the social sensibilities and artistic enthusiasms of the Gladstone coterie.
H. C. G. Matthew, Gladstone: 1809–1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 298.