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

4.2 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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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 (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,042,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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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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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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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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