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In the shadow of the G.O.M.

21 December 2012

Michael Wheeler on the put-upon parson-son of Gladstone

The Prime Minister's Son: Stephen Gladstone, Rector of Hawarden
Ros Aitken
University of Chester £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
(Use code CT524)  

The architect of St Deiniol's (now Gladstone's) Library, John Douglas, built a chapel on the north side of the chancel of Hawarden Church in 1906. This was to accommodate the extraordinary monument to W. E. Gladstone, the Grand Old Man of British politics, and his wife, Catherine. Three years in the making, Sir William Richmond's sculpture of the couple lying in the Boat of Life is too large for its allotted space, forcing the visitor to squeeze awkwardly around it - a fit symbol for the parental cramping of a tender son, which is the central theme of this book.

Even though Stephen Gladstone had resigned the living of Hawarden three years earlier, it seems extraordinary that his siblings and brother-in-law did not consult him about the scheme, after more than three decades of devoted service. But then Stephen's diffidence provides the base of Ros Aitken's narrative.

Handicapped by poor eyesight and a sense of inadequacy as the second son, and later the heir to the great statesman and intellectual who presided at Hawarden Castle, Stephen nevertheless managed, by sheer hard work, to survive a ghastly prep school, followed by Eton and Christ Church, finally gaining his father's respect when he was ordained and served as curate in a mixed parish in Lambeth.

When the valuable living of Hawarden suddenly fell vacant (his clerical uncle, Henry, was struck by lightning), it was inevitable that the mantle would fall on Stephen, inexperienced and nervous though he was when confronted with the prospect of a large and expanding parish at the age of only 28. His father showed laudable paternal interest in all that he did.

Unfortunately, he also interfered, particularly during parliamentary recesses and when in opposition. Rattling around in the large rectory at Hawarden, close to the church and only a brisk walk from the castellated parental home, Stephen struggled to gain the approval of both parishioners and family. In the end, he largely succeeded, very much against the odds, and marriage brought happiness and a fulfilling family life, in which he himself was now paterfamilias.

The Prime Minister's Son is written in an informal style, and tells an engaging story with a special appeal to the hard-pressed parish priest, or long-suffering clergy spouse. More valuable for its biographical insights and discoveries about life in a Victorian parish than for its forays into wider ecclesiastical history, the book is the work of a former teacher whose father attended the training college that is now the University of Chester, in the 1930s. Today, Aitken revels in the glories of Gladstone's Library, and often contributes to the annual seminar known as the Gladstone Umbrella.

Professor Wheeler's most recent book is St John and the Victorians (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

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