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Gladstone's helpmeet

08 March 2013

This book does not do justice to her, says Michael Wheeler

Energy: Catherine Gladstone, 1840

Energy: Catherine Gladstone, 1840

Mrs Catherine Gladstone: "A woman not quite of her time"
Janet Hilderley
The Alpha Press £14.95
Church Times Bookshop £13.45 (Use code CT852 )

AS HER husband's secretary, Sir Edward Hamilton, recorded, Catherine Gladstone, née Glynne, was "unquestionably a remarkable woman": "Her first consideration was her husband - how to spare him and how to advise him to spare himself. Her second consideration was the poor and the sick, and her third consideration her friends. She had considerable capacities."

And then there were the eight children, to whom she was devoted, when not fund-raising for the charitable homes that she established, or sitting through William's titanic speeches in Parliament and out in the country during general elections.

The daughter of a baronet, she was a talented pianist who brought to a famous marriage the graces of her class and eyes that enchanted Disraeli. It was her energy and drive, however, that set her apart: she had the knack of refreshing herself with power naps. Unlike her highly sexed husband, she did not like women very much: they rather annoyed her, and she much preferred the company of (clever) men. She was no administrator, and hated committees, an aversion that she had to conquer when she became President of the Women's Liberal Association in 1887, almost by mistake.

The problem with studies of "great men's wives" is that the great men keep upstaging them. Mrs Catherine Gladstone is a loosely constructed account of the main events of Victoria's reign, from which are hung the main events of William's career, with Catherine's life tacked on. Only secondary works have been consulted, with the result, for example, that a description of William's "rescue work" and friendships with "the great courtesans" of the day sheds no new light on the subject: "How did Catherine view these women? We do not know." One would also like to know about her religious life.

No opportunity for an irrelevant aside is missed, however: we learn that 203,655 panes of glass were used in building the Crystal Palace, for example. Basic grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and non-sequiturs abound. Chapters are chopped up into very short sub-sections, ensuring that there is no narrative flow. Favourite phrases, such as "whispers behind fans", recur like nervous tics. Neither the author nor the publisher - Alpha is an imprint of Sussex Academic Press - has read the final copy, prepared by an IT specialist, with care.

Those who are interested in Catherine Gladstone are recommended to turn to the several earlier lives of her, the numerous biographies of her husband, or to Ros Aitken's recent life of her son, Stephen.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton.

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