The life and career of W. E. Gladstone continues to exert a powerful fascination on scholars. In this illuminating monograph, Ruth Clayton Windscheffel highlights one aspect of the Grand Old Man that kept his interest throughout his long life, reading. But it is to be understood in a wide sense. We do not, therefore, simply learn from this book what it was that Gladstone read but also how it influenced his entire life and work. This well-produced and presented historical monograph shows that Gladstone was both a voracious reader and a writer who wished to use the printed word to ensure that his message reached an ever-wider audience; he was also an avid collector of books who set up the Temple of Peace in his Hawarden Castle and followed this with St. Deiniol's Library (which were both lending as well as reference libraries). But Windscheffel is anxious to stress the contradictions in his life. Hence, while the libraries may be seen as a "public" statement of Gladstone's identity, there remains also a "private" figure, who spent a good deal of time with his family and pursuing his own scholarly interests.
Probably the greatest question still unanswered about Gladstone's life, however, concerns the role of religion. Whether Gladstone accorded the Christian religion a central place in his life and work has long been the subject of debate among writers. This book argues convincingly that religion was indeed pivotal to Gladstone throughout his long life. From his earlier days, when he was unable to achieve his desire to be a clergyman of the Church of England, he continued to make religion central to his work. Windscheffel shows how Gladstone used his reading to inform his decision to enter the political arena and convince himself that it was God's calling for him to serve as a political figure, bringing the benefits of his learning to all. She also focuses on Gladstone's rebirth as a popular politician in the 1880s. To be successful, Windscheffel demonstrates, Gladstone had to show himself to be an upright, honest, and Christian statesman—which he did, but on his own terms. He remained throughout his life a good family man and scholar, and this helped him shape the image he presented to the Victorian public. The final element of Reading Gladstone's argument deals with the portrayal of the man during and after his lifetime, showing how he persuaded the British public that his work as a reader and scholar was perfectly compatible with his work as a politician. These private roles fitted in well with his more public ones: it was neither no more nor no less appropriate for him to sit among his books and read than it was for him to take an axe into the woods at Hawarden. When he died, therefore, it was entirely right that his body should be laid out in the library at Hawarden Castle before transportation to London and a state funeral.
Reading Gladstone is a very good example of a historical monograph. The subject is focused, but not as narrow as the title might suggest. By looking at Gladstone's reading and book collecting, Windscheffel convincingly explains some of the critical elements in his life. Historians are fortunate to be able to do this in more detail for Gladstone than is usual with political figures: his diaries, extensive libraries, and papers allow for a much greater insight into what he read, when he read it, and what he did with the knowledge he gained from it than is possible for most politicians.
The book is divided into seven chapters, each fully annotated. It is here that one small drawback to the work lies: while it is good to see that this kind of comprehensive [End Page 581] annotation remains possible, it is unfortunate that these notes are gathered at the end of the book and not placed at the foot of each page. Windscheffel also provides an extensive bibliography that includes considerable material by Gladstone himself as...