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Reading Gladstone (review)

From: Libraries & the Cultural Record
Volume 45, Number 3, 2010
pp. 378-380 | 10.1353/lac.2010.0005

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William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) was undoubtedly one of the central figures of modern British history. His political career spanned six decades, during which he served as a member of Parliament, chancellor of the Exchequer, and prime minister four times. As the leading spokesman for liberalism, he carried on a spirited rivalry with conservative Benjamin Disraeli that shaped much of British politics during the second half of the nineteenth century. Gladstone as both politician and statesman helped establish the broadly democratic political system that characterizes Britain today.

One of the interesting constants throughout Gladstone's life was a voracious appetite for reading, book collecting, and the pursuit of knowledge. He maintained a massive personal library at Hawarden Castle and founded St. Deiniol's Library in Wales. It is surprising that until now there has been no effort to look at these interests in any detail. Ruth Clayton Windscheffel in Reading Gladstone attempts to fill the gaps in our understanding of this aspect of Gladstone's life.

Windscheffel conceptually organizes Reading Gladstone into four distinct parts. "Reading the Reader" examines Gladstone's life as a book collector and his habits as a systematic reader. "Making the Reader" highlights his introduction to reading as a youth and the physical layout of his personal library, or "Temple of Peace," at Hawarden Castle. The third section, "St. Deiniol's Library," chronicles the establishment of St. Deiniol's and its role as one of the focal points for the Oxford Lux Mundi group of Anglo-Catholic theologians. The final section, "Transforming the Reader," looks at the contemporary representation of Gladstone as intellectual.

Windscheffel uses Gladstone's published diaries, the St. Deiniol's Library collection, and Gladstone's handwritten notes from his books in reconstructing the intimate dimensions of his private intellectual world. Important habits of mind are ably identified that provide key insights into how reading was incorporated into the way Gladstone developed his ideas and responded to the important issues of the day. The lens of St. Deiniol's is skillfully utilized to contextualize Gladstone's later religious views, with a particular emphasis on his involvement with the Lux Mundi group. Windscheffel carefully uses the case of Gladstone to highlight the role of book culture in helping to formulate knowledge and even the personas of the Victorian upper classes.

Reading Gladstone succeeds in filling important voids in our knowledge of Gladstone but misses an opportunity to engage more broadly with the changing reading and library landscape of nineteenth-century Britain. The public library movement, mass literacy, railway timetables, and the telegraph were profoundly transforming the information universe of this period. More of Gladstone's contemporaries were able to enjoy the fruits of literacy and partake of reading either for entertainment or to conduct daily business. Windscheffel briefly mentions Gladstone's ideas about reading and the working classes but fails to explore these ideas in detail. An introduction to the types of reading across social classes in the nineteenth century would have placed the discussion of Gladstone's personal reading more firmly within the broader social and intellectual milieus of his times.

The Victorian information revolution also has implications for the intimate private library spaces that Windscheffel so eloquently describes. Gladstone's Temple of Peace and his theological refuge at St. Deiniol's are examples of private libraries that are deeply rooted in Britain's past. From the Middle Ages to the industrial revolution, gentlemen's private libraries dotted the countryside and were centers for scholarship, reading, and information dissemination. With industrialization and urbanization Britons of all classes turned to the public library, newspapers, and the telegraph office for information instead of the local gentleman's private library. Windscheffel misses an important opportunity to place Gladstone's personal libraries in the context of the great changes that transformed British libraries during his lifetime. The recent work of James Beniger, Alistair Black, and Daniel Headrick on nineteenth-century libraries, reading, and information technology would have done a great deal in helping to cast a wider net beyond the immediate subject of the book.

Despite these criticisms, Reading Gladstone is an important book that offers new insight into the complex and varied intellectual life of William Gladstone...



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