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The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs.…

The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli (2006)

by Richard Aldous

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1556118,146 (4.03)10
William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were the fiercest political rivals of the nineteenth century. Their intense mutual hatred was both ideologically driven and deeply personal. Their vitriolic duels, carried out over decades, lend profound insight into the social and political currents that dominated Victorian England. --from publisher description.… (more)



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5320. The Lion and the Unicorn Gladstone vs Disraeli, by Richard Aldous (read 24 Oct 2015) This is a well-researched dual biography concentrating on the interaction of the named protagonists, though there is no bibliography as such, But the author has mined the other biographies and sets out an account which makes one feel the author was observing what he relates! The author is Irish-born and a history teacher. Both Disraeli and Gladstone were exceptionally able and eccentric men, with unusual eccentricities. Gladstone sought out prostitutes, supposedly to 'rescue' them but obviously much attracted to them. The bitterness of the antagonism between them is startling and grew worse as the years went on. I found the book of much interest and the closing chapters are exceptionally moving.. ( )
  Schmerguls | Oct 24, 2015 |
Excellent book. I had embarrassingly limited knowledge of the events this book covers, beyond any typical Englishman's knowledge of the mid-Victorian era. Setting the book up to view this period as a long-running boxing match (nice aside about the Queensbutry rules dropped into the book) between two indefatigable but very very different opponents was a wonderful idea. Great material to start with, really well researched and stylishly written. ( )
  anyotherbizniz | May 15, 2011 |
Far and away the best book I read in 2008. It brings the rivalry between the two Titans of Victorian politics to life most vividly. And, yes, it is quite entertaining. Terrible crime, apparently. ( )
  sloopjonb | Jul 6, 2009 |
A reasonably good treatment of the facts, but horrifying attempts at "novelistic" technique, including detailed descriptions of scenes made up from whole cloth, make me wonder how much license Aldous allowed himself in other places. When I read that "Lord Beaconsfield stood serenely on the platform" waiting for the Queen's train, and then about the "excited burble" that "grew to a crescendo of cheering" as "small children ran alongside the railway line waving flags" and how, when the queen had arrived, "Perhaps a faint look of unspoken amusement passed between them as the mayor launched into a longwinded address of welcome." All of these are unsupported - harmless, one might say, but less so when we come to the treatment of the death of Palmerston, which is worth quoting: (text is from the beginning of chapter 12)
"The door of the Billiard Room flew open. From inside came rushing a pretty young chambermaid in a state of wild panic. Running through the house calling for help, she tried hastily to rearrange her clothes. What happened next is anyone's guess. No doubt she found a senior member of the household staff who went back with her to the Billiard Room to assess the situation. What confronted them could hardly have been more obvious: sprawled across the green baize of the table was the lifeless body of an elderly gentleman in a state of considerable undress. Quick thinking was needed. The butler was immediately called, his duty to eradicate all evidence of the circumstances of this untimely demise. Together with the valet, he hurriedly reassembled his master's clothes and hauled the corpse up to the bedchamber. From there these loyal servants proceeded quickly to the lady of the house to report the sad news: Lord Palmerston had died 'peacefully in bed', just two days short of his eighty-first birthday."

All of this is presented in this paragraph as fact, even to the point of conceding ignorance on some details. So it is hard to know what to make of it when in the next sentence, it is revealed that none of it is fact: "Whether or not this local gossip surrounding the death of the prime minister was true..." but that there had been scandals in that house previously (irrelevant) and a funny story about prior allegations of Palmerston's scandalous behavior, which this story confirms.
The reader now suffers from whiplash, since the intricate, detailed story of the circumstances of the death which the author has admitted is an exercise in fiction is now being taken as confirmatory evidence of other salacious gossip!

None of this materially affects the history Aldous is actually here to tell; the only important fact in here is that Palmerston did, in fact, die, and that much is true. But again, if you catch someone making up a story, it's hard to know they won't do it again, and this sort of melodramatic, "novelistic" scene-setting occurs at the opening of just about every chapter, always with suspiciously precise details (which are always lacking citations).

Less important and more annoying is the clumsy style of the writing that attends these interludes. Aldous is an effective, even a good writer of history, but he is a terrible writer of novels, and it seems that novels are what he really wants to write.

This is all very harsh, and it's meant to be, but I can state the other side. Aldous is writing a popular history, and it might be that he felt the need to include such episodes to "bring the story to life" for the reader unfamiliar with the period, or else that his publisher felt the need and pressed him to meet it. The interludes are identifiable, for the most part: the reader need only ignore the first paragraph or two of each chapter and he'll be mostly be in fair territory. And again, he's only making up the unimportant stuff. And, the only reason I'm trying to make this case, his history of Gladstone and Disraeli is actually good and useful stuff, not made available to the popular audience before, and this is a book that is worth reading. It's a shame that it has to be read and recommended with such strong caveats.
2 vote kiparsky | Nov 4, 2008 |
A quick scan of the Wikipedia articles on Gladstone and Disraeli notes the rivalry between the two men, both of whom held extraordinary power over politics and policy in Victorian England. Richard Aldous offers an entirely readable dual biography of these men, both of whom enjoyed great power in their social environment even as they fought against specific attitudes. Gladstone worked at a standard of behavior based on high Anglican ideals but consistently fell short in his own estimation. His particular strength was managing the Exchequer. Disraeli had a gift for rhetoric and a certain enjoyment of celebrity and notoriety. More worrisome in a political enviroment dependent upon building coalitions, he had a wicked streak of sarcasm as well as a easy charm in social situations. The two men were, to use a well-worn cliche, like oil and water. The Lion and the Unicorn offers an accessible account of how these two men managed and maneuvered domestic affairs in a period of transition for the British economy, thereby moving the British empire to prominence and prosperity. ( )
  jillmwo | Apr 7, 2008 |
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