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The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli Hardcover – September 17, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Two titans, Disraeli and Gladstone, dominated English politics in the Victorian age. Each did multiple stints as prime minister and as leader of the Conservative (Disraeli) or Liberal (Gladstone) party. Political opposition shifted over the years to mutual personal disapproval and finally to rage-driven attack. Aldous (of University College, Dublin) traces the development of this seemingly pathological antagonism amid the policy disputes of the era. Both combatants displayed rhetorical skills unimaginable in a politician today. Both were writers, Gladstone of dull works on religion and on Homer, Disraeli of novels lampooning notable figures of his day, especially Gladstone. Aldous portrays both as possessing repellent character traits, such as Disraeli's vindictive mockery and Gladstone's moral hypocrisy. All these tangy ingredients make this joint biography highly appetizing, even if some readers may find issues like the Corn Laws, that so energized Gladstone and Disraeli, a bit faded. However, vexing issues of international trade, religion in public life and voting rights divide our nation as they did Victorian England. Aldous's smooth pacing and adroit writing bring a forgotten world back to life and demonstrate how two forceful if warring personalities can create a history that neither could have achieved acting alone. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli dominated the British political scene in the latter half of the nineteeth century. Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal Party, served four terms as prime minister; Disraeli, the unconventional leader of the Tories, held the same office for two terms. This dual biography of these Victorian icons is engrossing, informative, and frequently surprising. Aldous does a fine job of explaining the very real policy differences that made the rivalry between these men and the interests they represented so intense. Gladstone, a pure nineteeth-century liberal reformer, was dedicated to expansion of the franchise, free trade, social reform, and Home Rule for Ireland. Disraeli's political views were more difficult to pin down; like Gladstone, he showed interest in social reform but only within the limits set by upper-class traditionalists. As an archimperialist, he opposed Home Rule and favored an expansive, even adventurous foreign policy. And, as Aldous makes clear, they despised each other. This is a superbly written chronicle that explains much about these men and the political development of nineteenth-century Britain. Freeman, Jay

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (September 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393065707
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393065701
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #793,195 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Richard Aldous holds the Eugene Meyer Chair at Bard College, New York. His numerous books include REAGAN AND THATCHER (New York Times Editors' Choice, Sunday Times Best Books of the Summer, Christian Science Monitor Best Books of the Year, Publishers Weekly Starred Review), THE LION AND THE UNICORN: GLADSTONE VS. DISRAELI (Independent, Daily Telegraph, Irish Times books of the year) and GREAT IRISH SPEECHES (an Irish Times No.1 bestseller). Richard writes and reviews for the New York Times, the Irish Times and the Sunday Telegraph, and is a regular contributor to television and radio on both sides of the Atlantic.


'This well-informed account casts new light on the heroic version of the two leaders' association.' New York Times 'Editor's Choice.'

"This gripping account of their difficult relationship reads like a thriller." Sunday Times "Must Reads" and Best Books of the Summer.

"This wonderful new history by Bard College professor Richard Aldous makes clear that the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was far more challenging and complex than is widely recognized." Christian Science Monitor Best Books of 2012.

"This brilliant book reminds readers of the simple lesson that in diplomacy, interests often trump ideology -- and spin trumps both." Foreign Affairs

"A well-researched, well-written and revisionist double portrait." Wall Street Journal

"It is a remarkable story, which deserves the fresh account that Richard Aldous, a professor of history at Bard College, gives it in Reagan and Thatcher. His book casts new light on the heroic version in which two great leaders continued the struggle for freedom waged for generations past by 'the English-speaking peoples.'" New York Times

"Aldous deserves nothing but credit for the masterly way in which he weaves accounts from published memoirs and recently declassified US material into a pacey, almost thriller-like account of the meetings and telephone calls between these two political giants. This is a work of history that can be read at one sitting." Sunday Times (London)

"Reagan and Thatcher, a wonderful new book by Bard College professor Richard Aldous, makes clear that their alliance was far more challenging and complex than is widely recognized." Christian Science Monitor

'Intelligent, authoritative and extremely readable.' The Spectator (London)

"What Aldous manages to achieve is strong research with a vivid narrative style, bringing the most dramatic moments to life." The Guardian (London)

"An accurate picture of the Reagan-Thatcher dance does us all a favor." Daily Beast "Hot Reads".

"This is excellent revisionist history, giving another slant to the interaction of two political icons on the world stage." Publishers Weekly (starred review).

"This is a well-researched, highly readable book that effectively analyzes the relationship of the two leaders." Washington Times

"Aldous makes a compelling case ... The book offers a well-researched, well-written account of two friends in the heat of battle." Dallas Morning Post

"The portrait of these powerful figures is well drawn and particularly gives the reader a new view of Reagan as a more effective leader than some have portrayed him in the past. In scholarship it supersedes other works on the Reagan-Thatcher relationship." Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Thorough and engaging new history." Slate.

"Aldous makes a thorough and compelling case that the Reagan-Thatcher relationship was as difficult as it was 'special'." The Hill.

"This eminently readable and fascinating book." Irish Times.

"Richard Aldous has written a vivid, jaunty and highly readable account of the working relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher." The Tablet.

"Vivid, fast-paced and immensely readable, Richard Aldous' new book challenges conventional wisdom and prods us to rethink the 1980s."
David Reynolds, author of 'America, Empire of Liberty'.

"Throughout, Aldous carefully and persuasively demonstrates the elaborate care each took to "handle" the other, precautions unnecessary had the relationship been as close as publicly portrayed ... A revealing look at the political marriage of two titans, who, like Roosevelt and Churchill, will be forever linked in history.'
Kirkus Reviews

"An important study, based on a wealth of recently-released documents, which puts the Thatcher-Reagan friendship in a wholy new (and more somber) light. It should be essential reading for anyone who cares about the history, the health and the future of the Anglo-American 'special relationship'."
David Cannadine, Author of 'The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy' and 'Mellon: An American Life'.

"I can't speak for President Reagan, but I've been both praised and pulverized by Margaret Thatcher, and Richard Aldous seems to me to have captured the force of her personality. She did have an emotional understanding of Reagan and he of her that in its essence, in my judgement, was warmer than between Churchill and Roosevelt. But her fury was incandescent over the invasion of Grenada, a member of the Commonwealth, as was the wimpiness of the initial American reaction to the seizure of the Falkland Islands. This is a valuable look behind the looking glass of public-relations politics of the special relationship."
Harold Evans, author of 'The American Century'.


`Mutual loathing made their bruising encounters a riveting spectacle, richly enjoyed by the British public and recaptured, with great zest, by Richard Aldous in The Lion and the Unicorn.' New York Times.

'A cracking good read which captures the battle between these two extraordinary personalities.' Nick Robinson, BBC Political Editor.

`It does full justice to the drama inherent in a battle for political supremacy that was central to British history for decades.' Sunday Times.

`With The Lion and the Unicorn, this epic showdown has found a worthy champion.' Literary Review

'Aldous's enthralling narative is notably judicious.' Independent on Sunday.

'Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone are the subjects of this engaging and gracefully written book. Why should Americans care about the rivalry between two British politicians who died more than a century ago? Because the events described in this book remind us of an important and timely truth.' National Review.

'Why such a book as this? Well, for enjoyment, among other things. Aldous is a gifted writer ... Still their story more than entertains. It instructs.' Weekly Standard.

`Connoisseurs of political rivalry have had much to enjoy this year, not least a history of the struggle for power between Gladstone and Disraeli.' Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year.

`The result is a hugely enjoyable joint biography.' The Independent.

`Aldous's smooth pacing and adroit writing bring a forgotten world back to life and demonstrate how two forceful if warring personalities can create a history that neither could have achieved acting alone.' Publishers Weekly.

`A rousing portrait of 19th-century England's most venomous political rivalry, featuring a highly readable exploration into the dueling natures of two powerful men.' Kirkus Reviews.

`Aldous deftly analyses this peculiar relationship, but also dramatises it - and does so with great panache.' Daily Telegraph.

`This lively joint biography makes clear they utterly loathed each other.' The Guardian.

`Richard Aldous has written an entertaining and thought-provoking book.' The Spectator.

`Aldous describes the different episodes of the rivalry with vividness, capturing the particular flavour of 19th-century political and social life.' New Statesman.

`Richard Aldous has set this drama with just the kind of care and skill these two extraordinary adversaries, authors and politicians undoubtedly deserve.' Irish Times.

'The Lion and the Unicorn - surprisingly, the first attempt at a double-biography of the great Victorian rivals Gladstone and Disraeli.' The Independent, Books of the Year

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Omer Belsky on December 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Back in College, more than seven years ago, I took a course on 19th century Britain. One of the papers I submitted for that class was on Britain's converted Jewish Premier, Benjamin Disraeli, and specifically on his rivalry with that other icon of the Victorian age, William Gladstone. I have to confess I remember almost nothing of that class. I found "The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli" in the gigantic Piccadilly Waterstone's in London, and I knew I had to get it, if for no other reason than old time's sake.

Few characters would be more appropriate choices for a double biography than Disraeli and Gladstone; They alternated as Premiers (Gladstone was British Prime Minister four times), and their clashes in the house of Commons defined an age. Both their similarities and contrasts potentially shed a great light on Victorian Britain.

I wish Aldous would have spent more time contextualizing the Disraeli-Gladstone rivalry. The Victorian world was very different than our own, and Aldous might have done well to introduce it to the modern reader. He says almost nothing on Britain's foreign situation, and only touches briefly the 1832 Reform Act, so it is hard to understand why it is "perhaps the defining constitutional landmark on the long road to democracy" (p. 25). Significantly, we never learn why Both Gladstone and Disraeli decided to start their careers as Tories rather than Whigs.

The first public controversy Aldous genuinely pays attention to was the crisis over the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Corn Laws were tariffs on the importation of grain, particularly wheat, in a system meant to keep its price stable.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Lonya VINE VOICE on October 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The Lion beat the Unicorn all round the town.
Some gave them white bread, some gave them brown:
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town."

The original illustrations of the Lion and the Unicorn in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, created by noted illustrator Sir John Tenniel, bear a startling resemblance to Tenniel's illustrations of Benjamin Disraeli (the Unicorn) and William Gladstone (the Lion) published in Punch. The resemblance is no coincidence according to historian Richard Aldous and the image of the Lion and Unicorn fighting all around the town provides Aldous with a perfect title for his biography of the decades-long political rivalry between two giants of 19th-century British politics. "The Lion and the Unicorn" is an entertaining and very informative look at a political rivalry that changed the face of British politics and presaged the type of personalized electioneering that is found in both the United States and Britain today.

Aldous doesn't set out to give a straight-line biography of both Gladstone and Disraeli. He notes that there is plenty of material on their individual lives and that, rather, he has set out to take a comprehensive look at their bitter relationship, a relationship that produced titanic clashes for over 40 years. The result is an almost breathless recitation of a roller coast ride in which a political rivalry turned decidedly personal is played out in Parliament and across Britain. Gladstone, who first entered Parliament in 1832, and Disraeli (arriving in 1837) were both Tories at the start of their career and (ostensibly) political allies. However, Gladstone soon left for the Liberals while Disraeli remained with the Tories.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Michael B. on January 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a masterful book about two flawed but fascinating giants of British history. The story sets a fast pace through decades of political rivalry and extravagant backbiting between Gladstone and Disraeli, while also giving us well-rounded and reasonably sympathetic views of their personal lives. The author has chosen an episodic approach to telling his story, using set-piece events to move the narrative along and bring the protagonists into focus against the political world they dominated in the second half of the 19th century. In the end, it's obvious the author admires and enjoys Disraeli somewhat more than Gladstone, but then again, it's easy to see why: Disraeli is the seductive and magical unicorn to Gladstone's priggish (and yet perverse...) old lion. The writing is beautiful and tight and the storyline is perfectly paced. I sometimes finish a book, put it down and breathe a sigh of relief: I finished this book and wished for more. Well done!
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Richard P. on December 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The Lion and the Unicorn is an interesting discussion of the decades-old rivalry between Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone in nineteenth century Britain. What struck me most, though, was the way it seemed to limit the discussion to domestic matters. Maybe Disraeli and Gladstone never bashed each other over their respective heads about India, Africa, the rest of Europe, the American Civil War, or the Suez Canal, but I doubt that they totally omitted these arenas from their rivalry, either. According to the book, all of their activities seemed to be limited to tariffs, income taxes, and voters' rights issues, mixed in with occasional dealings with Ireland. And there is much more discussion of Gladstone's penchant for prostitutes than there is of any matters that extended beyond the borders of England.

The author mentions the fact that Queen Victoria strongly preferred Disraeli over Gladstone, but never really explains why. I suspect that it had much to do with how they handled issues that involved foreign policy, but it's hard to tell from reading this book. Or maybe I just missed the explanation.

It is an interesting book, but probably a lot less interesting than it could have been.
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