29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2008
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. Growing agitation against the Corn Laws led to a splintering of the Conservative government, when Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel joined with the Whigs to repeal them. The conservative party than split between the "regular" Tories and the so-called Peelites.
Gladstone had been a principled supporter of free trade; Disraeli, an opportunistic opponent. The rivalry between them started from the vicious attacks and counter attacks over the government's budget. Both served as Chancellors of the Exchequer (the British Treasury Secretary) during the 1850s - Disraeli under Conservative PM the Earl of Derby, and Gladstone under Robert Peel's successor as Peelite leader, the Earl of Aberdeen.
Throughout the 1850s, Disraeli made numerous entreats to woe Gladstone back to the Conservative flock. This was not out of any love for the man, but for practical political reasons - a reunited Conservative Party would be sure to win control over Parliament. The entreats culminated in a remarkably revealing letter to Gladstone; As Disraeli put it, "I almost went on my knees to him" (p. 107). Aldous concludes that the personality differences were the cause of the split; the austere, puritanical, overbearing Gladstone could not suffer Disraeli's unprincipled, flamboyant narcissism.
Unwilling to rejoin the Conservatives, Gladstone remained a Peelite to the last. But with the passing of Aberdeen, there was no Peel faction to speak of. Gladstone became a Liberal (the Successor party of the Whigs) by default.
Throughout, Aldous's focus remains so narrowly focused on his protagonists and on their House of Commons antics that the larger picture evaporates. Foreign policy is particularly ignored - the Crimean War is barely acknowledged, the Sepoy Rebellion is mentioned but once, and the American Civil War not at all. The worst offence is when Aldous tells us that Gladstone's willingness to join the Liberals had much to do with their "soundness" on the question of Italian independence from Austria - but doesn't say whether they were for or against.
Even after their ascension to the top office, the heart of the narrative remains the personal antics and the political thrusts and parries. The only partial exception is the account of the crisis surrounding the Turkish Russian conflict of 1877-1878, and its settlement at the Congress of Berlin (1878). Even there the account is highly partial, with more attention paid to Germany's Chancellor Bismarck's tributes to Disraeli ("Der Alte Jude, Das ist Der Man") than to the political and strategic issues and consequences (A.J.P Taylor's Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (Sutton History Classics) offers a better account of both the Congress and the relationship between the Junker and the Jew).
Aldous's style is nothing if not eccentric. On the one hand, the book is compelling and readable; On the other, its rhetoric is jarring: Was it necessary to describe Sir Robert Peel as a "dull dog" and Disraeli not only as a unicorn but also as a "flamboyant peacock"? (p.34). Aldous is a particularly vexatious practitioner of what Barbara Tuchman (in The Guns of August) called the "spontaneous attribution", or "must have" style of historical writing "As he watched the coastline of France disappear, Napoleon must have thought back over the long..." . Aldous regularly offends in this regard, for example on pages 23 ("It surely never crossed his mind"), 37 ("What surely must also have been on his mind"), 47 ("his disastrous maiden speech must have seemed an eternity away") and 79 ("[Gladstone] must have wondered").
Disraeli dies shortly after passing the premiership to Gladstone for the last time in 1880. Gladstone outlived his rival by seventeen years. If you are looking for a book about their rivalry, but not about the changing world in which they lived, "The Lion and the Unicorn" is the book for you.
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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. In the process Disraeli remade the Tories into the modern Conservative Party while Gladstone took a loose coalition of diverse groups including Whigs and free-trade Conservatives (Peelites) and turned it into something approaching a modern Liberal Party. Each chapter provides a snapshot on their 44-year rivalry over a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues. High points of the book include the general election of 1868, won by Gladstone, Disraeli's subsequent rout of Gladstone in the 1874 elections, and Gladstone's "Midlothian Campaign in 1880 which marked the rivals' last battle before Disraeli's death in 1881. Aldous correctly describes the 1874 campaign as perhaps the first one waged solely as a public battle between two rivals rather than one on specific issues. As such, when one looks at political campaigns today that seem based on popularity contests one can see where this sort of process had its birth.
Aldous does a great job comparing the very different personalities of the two rivals. For example, Disraeli, despite being thought of as a fop and dandy had, once he got married, a loving and very loving relationship with his wife Mary Anne, an older woman to whom he was singularly devoted. Gladstone on the other hand, and despite his deep Anglican church beliefs had what can only be described as an addiction to `women of the night', a practice that was known but rarely discussed at the time. Aldous paints a remarkably full, even-handed portrait of the public and private lives of both men.
One caveat: Aldous does not flesh out many of the national issues of the day around which this great rivalry played itself out. Rather, the reader is presumed to know or have a general knowledge of those issues; the great debates on the repeal of the Corn Laws, free-trade, "the Irish question", and the great reform battles of the 19th-century that eventually extended the right of suffrage from a few landowners to almost the entire adult (male) population of the United Kingdom. This is far from a fatal flaw, and I'm not even sure it should be considered a flaw since Aldous' focus is primarily on the ups and downs of their battles rather than an examination of the intricacies of the political issues of the day. In fact, sidebars into these issues probably would have bogged down the story Aldous set out to tell. However, the reader probably should know in advance that there may be times where he/she may feel an urge to look elsewhere for background information on some of these issues. I did that more than once even though it really isn't necessary in order to gain a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in enjoying Aldous' account of the rivalry of these two men.
Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified 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!
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2007
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
For those who are familiar with the rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli there is little new in substance in this account; but this is a quite superb retelling of it - beautifully written and a huge pleasure to read. It is rich in its evocation of the personalities of these two men, and of many other characters in the story. The focus is on the principals, but at the same time it gives a very full account of the complicated parliamentary history of the time, and the only topic which I thought was a little too cursorily treated was the international situation culminating in the Congress of Berlin which was considered such a triumph for Disraeli. The only other criticism I have to make is that on one occasion Richard Aldous cannot resist telling with a straight face the story of how Palmerston was said to have died, two days short of his 81st birthday, sprawled across a billiard table in flagrante delicto with a chambermaid, only to start the next paragraph: "whether or not this local gossip ... was true..." Unless all the other accounts of Palmerston's death, cited in notes at the end of the book, are inventions, it manifestly was not true.
Not the least of the achievements of these two men were their performances when they were physically ill or exhausted. Gladstone, the physically more robust of the two, suffered psychosomatically from diarrhoea before big occasions; Disraeli was always rather frail and suffered severely when the weather was cold. Over and over again contemporaries noted how ill they looked when they entered the House of Commons, but how they pulled themselves together to deliver very long and often electrifying speeches.
Aldous brings out very well how each man worsted the other, only to be worsted by the other in turn. Neither was ever totally triumphant for long, even as Prime Ministers. What is also notable is how often both men were considered by their followers as past it, how often there were discussions whether to replace them. These never came to anything, but must have been worrying all the same.
The two men intensely disliked each other, but Disraeli emerges from this account much the more likeable and equable of them. Whatever he felt under Gladstone's attacks, he always looked relaxed and impassive, whereas Gladstone is shown as boiling with anger under Disraeli's attacks, as intemperate, imperious, and insensitive. I wondered from time to time whether Aldous' choice of negative adjectives and adverbs when describing Gladstone reveal his own dislike of the man. But then I have to admit that, for all his failings and for all his total lack of humour, Gladstone is one my heroes (though I am also fond of Disraeli). He was certainly neurotic, tortured by his falls from grace which he recorded in his daily diary entries, literally flagellating himself frequently after having been tempted by the prostitutes - the same ones on many occasions - he sought out on innumerable evenings for "rescue". Aldous does not tell us - and I believe noone knows - whether the guilt was merely for improper thoughts or for more than that.
Naturally the book effectively ends wit the death of Disraeli and only a short epilogue of six pages covers the seventeen years between that event and the death of Gladstone. Those seventeen years are full of drama, but Gladstone's opponents during that time were less colourful men, and his struggles with them lack the fascination of a duel between two titans.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2009
I thought the author did a suitable job outlining the major battles in the relationship of W.E.G. and Disraeli. However, if you are not too familiar with 19th century British history, it can be a bit confusing at times. Also, it's a clearly biased against Gladstone in favor of Disraeli. I would recommend getting separate biographies of the two and drawing your own conclusion (if you even care to). Also, be on the lookout for some words to add to your vocabulary.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Lion and the Unicorn is really a biography of the political relationship between the Victorian era's two great prime ministers, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. It explores the dialectic between the two and how deeply it affected each man. It's almost easier to explain what it's not - it's not a comprehensive political history of the period (containing little detail on foreign affairs) nor is it a dual biography as neither's life is really considered except insofar as it affected the other.
The book's strength is the depth in which it discusses the parliamentary maneuverings that served as the backdrop. The book goes into detail on minutiae of many parliamentary debates, and provides the reader with a sense of being present in the House of Commons and the book's other locales, particularly the great country homes of both men and their contemporaries where a lot of the public's business was conducted out of view. Elections are also covered and explained well. In short, it's a good political history of Victorian England.
A few downsides.
First, seems to assume a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader to understand (a) how that system works and (b) what happened during that era, casually making references to persons and events. It would best be described as an advanced work for someone studying British political history, especially at an American university. It is highly normative (i.e. describing what happened) and less analytical (e.g., what the impact of the relationship was on British history and politics was as a result of the relationship).
Next, it goes into personal lives a little bit more than necessary given that it is a work of politics rather than biography. I personally did not need to be told each time Gladstone visited a prostitute, which appears to be often.
One final note: I was left a little bit cold towards each of the book's protagonists. Perhaps they are so great that one should not need to be told why, but after reading several hundred pages about Gladstone's personal peccadilloes, Disraeli's insecurities and the pettiness each displayed in regard to the other, a reminder of what the two contributed to public life at the end of the book would not be out of place.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Professor Aldous concentrates here on the unrelenting political gamesmanship between Disraeli and Gladstone as they jousted for power in the House of Commons. To a modern reader (maybe especially an American one) the causes of some of these disputes will be obscure. I think the story could have been recounted by the able professor with some additional background to help readers of the present day better understand the intense emotions on certain key issues (Ireland, franchise reform, etc.) between the two men and their shifting political coalitions.
On a personal note, it would have been interesting to me to have been told the positions of the two great English leaders on the American Civil War, which raged during their careers and had direct ties to England's statecraft. (How did they each handle the tension between the much desired trade in Southern cotton and the more noble anti-slavery impulses of the English public?)
All in all, a nicely done look back at the dawn of modern party politics, the height of the Victorian Age, and the long public careers of two very different public and private personalities. (In terms of the latter, Mr. Gladstone might be the patron saint of some pompous modern day television evangelicals who have strayed from the righteous path.)
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2008
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! It read as easily as a novel. I wasn't familiar with parliamentary politics before reading this book, but that didn't get in the way of the drama of forming governments, jockeying for position, and all the other ins and outs of the Gladstone-Disraeli rivalry. Aldous takes the approach that the reader knows almost nothing about the issues and explains them from teh bottom up.
If you have any interest in reading about the inner workings of the British Empire during the 1800's, this is a great read for you.
on March 4, 2010
The United States has had a few intense political rivalries in its history, but perhaps the most intense political rivalry ever in the English-speaking world was the nineteenth-century British clash between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.
In "The Lion and the Unicorn", Richard Aldous traces the two titans from their early lives, and chronicles the personal and political struggles both men had in their respective rises--each had some point at which he believed that his political career might be over.
Both went on to tremendous success, however, and the author discusses the protagonists as they battled bitterly in Parliament over some of the most contentious issues Britain faced in the nineteenth century, such as protectionism and free trade, taxes, voting rights, and foreign policy. Aldous documents how both rose to become prime minister, and how each of the two related to Queen Victoria.
This volume is just the right length for American audiences--it does not go on and on about arcane topics, but is long enough to provide the general reader enough information about these two giants of the Victorian Age.