The book has been out a few years now, but I read it fairly leisurely over the summer and thought it would lend itself to a novice-like review. I’m keen to get a knack for book reviewing but this is my first ever proper attempt.
‘It is surprising that there has been no earlier attempt to write a book on their relationship’, opens Richard Aldous in his biographical account of Gladstone and Disraeli, the Liberal and Conservatives giants who carved up a fat chunk of the nineteenth century between them. He’s totally correct. Westminster politics is nothing if it isn’t bitterly antagonistic. Aldous tells a story about the two men that makes the Blair-Brown rivalry seem like a childish fall-out in the sandpit.
The Lion and the Unicorn is more historical drama than political biography. It stresses, above all, their mutual loathing. Later in life Disraeli would call Gladstone the ‘A.V. [Arch Villain]’, Gladstone affectionately termed Disraeli the ‘Grand Corrupter’. They shared all of the characteristics that made them adversaries, and none that made them allies: a celebrity status, an eloquence rivalled only by the other and an attitude to principles coined best by Groucho Marx – ‘if you don’t like them, I have others!’
Aldous maintains a vivid and energetic narrative style. Each passage, 3 to 4 pages each, is episodic and the passages together are loosely chronological. It’s a style that works with the tone, pace and attention-grabbing situ-dramas that unfold from page to page (this can get irritating, but only if the book is read in one or two sittings without interlude). Even a nineteenth-century novice will have their imagination caught by Aldous’ powerful and witty account. The message of the book is imprinted firmly on the reader’s consciousness: politics is personal, and ugly, and thrilling.
This is not at the expense of scholarship however. It is difficult, though not impossible, to find assertions not adequately substantiated. Aldous has immersed himself in diaries, speeches and contemporary journals. Famously Disraeli was an accomplished novelist; the apocryphal line ‘When I want to read a good book, I write one’ is often attributed to him. It turns out that Gladstone, dismissive of Disraeli’s literary ‘dalliances’ had read every one of his works. “The first quarter clever, the rest trash” is how Gladstone judged Vivian Grey, Disraeli’s first novel. Yet it didn’t stop him reading the others.
Occasionally one feels that Aldous has not scratched far below the service. Concluding a chapter on Disraeli’s first yearin Parliament, he writes scathingly: ‘Disraeli had lived his whole life under the influence of [Lord] Byron. Now…he was dismissed by society as a sensationalist without either temperament or prospects. He was, at best, an amusement, or, at worst, an ostentatious Jewish upstart’. This rough and ready torpedoing of Disraeli’s nascent political character is probably unfair; Aldous’ characterisation seems just a little too close to that of the eponymous hero in Vivian Grey. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor probably better suited to Disraeli’s generation than his own, had always been derided as similarly louche – until he became the country’s favourite Tory.
To the extent that the two have a popular reputation today, it is Disraeli as the eccentric and Gladstone as the statesman. By delving into the personal Aldous turns that on its head completely. He spends a lot of time – too much, you think at first, until you to realise the full extent and persistence of the problem – talking about Gladstone’s sex life. His diaries recount “vigorous” masturbation, “which returns upon me again & again like a flood”. Later he became infatuated with prostitutes, visiting ’80 to 90’ of them between 1849 and 1852 under the guise of ‘rescue work’. Without any bite of his own, Aldous presented Gladstone as a rank hypocrite, preaching stern Christian virtue by day and prowling Soho by night.
Disraeli by contrast, though famed in his youth for affairs with older women, had found true love. The reader takes great pleasure in their relationship. After the first reading of the 1867 Reform Bill, Disraeli had routed Gladstone in the Commons debate. Already late in the evening, he declined the deluge of invitations from Tory grandees in favour of returning home to Mary Ann, the widow he’d married three decades previously. By now over 70, she waited up into the early hours for ‘Dizzy’ with a bottle of champagne and a Fortnum and Mason’s pie. “Well my dear” Disraeli remarked, “you are more like a mistress than a wife”. Aldous is good for those anecdotal nuggets. They embellish his tale, rooting political history’s great happenings in genuine humanity.
Aldous is not obviously sympathetic toward to the one or the other, but in this work I noticed that Gladstone was flattered by one big omission: his 1862 Newcastle speech for instance, in which the then-Liberal Chancellor endorsed the Confederate States of America.
The book has much to recommend it, if you’re the right reader. To those interested in the art of politics, be aware: it is more entertaining than instructive. To those looking for another angle on Victorian Britain, it’s probably best to head elsewhere – Aldous either dispenses with the relevant details or tries to interpret too much through Gladstone and Disraeli’s battles. With those qualifications any student and advocate of Conservatism will have a thoroughly pleasant weekend leafing through The Lion and the Unicorn; no comparable study currently on the market is so crackling with political drama.