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William Ewart Gladstone
Chapter 6 - Social Qualities


Adding these charms of manner to a memory of extraordinary strength and quickness and to an amazing vivacity and variety of mental force, any one can understand how fascinating Mr. Gladstone was in society. He enjoyed it to the last, talking as earnestly and joyously at eighty-five as he had done at twenty on every topic that came up, and exerting himself with equal zest, whether his interlocutor was an arch-bishop or a young curate. Though his party used to think that he overvalued the political influence of the great Whig houses and gave them more than their fair share of honors and appointments, no one was personally more free from that taint of snobbishness which is so frequently charged upon Englishmen. He gave the best he had to everybody alike, paying to men of learning and letters a respect which they seldom receive from English politicians or social magnates. And although he was scrupulously observant of all the rules of precedence and conventions of social life, it was easy to see that neither rank nor wealth had that importance in his eyes which the latter, especially nowadays, commands in London. Dispensing titles and decorations with a liberal hand, his pride always refused such so-called honors for himself. When Mr. Disraeli became Earl of Beaconsfield, his smile had a touch of contempt in it as he observed, "I cannot forgive him for not having made himself a duke."

It was often said of him that he lacked humor; but this was only so far true that he was apt to throw into small matters a force and moral earnestness which ordinary people thought needless, and to treat seriously opponents whom a little light sarcasm would have better reduced to their insignificance. In private he was wont both to tell and enjoy good stories; while in Parliament, though his tone was generally earnest, he would occasionally display such effective powers of banter and ridicule as to make people wonder why they were so rarely put forth. A great deal of what passes in London for humor is mere cynicism, and he hated cynicism so heartily as to dislike even humor when it had a touch of cynical flavor. Wit he enjoyed, but did not produce. The turn of his mind was not to brevity and point and condensation. He sometimes struck off a telling phrase, but never polished an epigram. His conversation was luminous rather than sparkling; you were interested and instructed while you listened, but the words seldom dwelt in your memory.

After the death of Thomas Carlyle he was beyond dispute the best talker in London, and a talker far more agreeable than either Carlyle or Macaulay, inasmuch as he was no less ready to listen than to speak, and never wearied the dinner-table by a monologue. His simplicity, his spontaneity, his genial courtesy, as well as the vast fund of knowledge and of personal recollections at his command, made him extremely popular in society, so that his opponents used to say that it was dangerous to meet him, because one might be forced to leave off hating him. He was, perhaps, too prone to go on talking upon one subject which happened to fill his mind at the moment; nor was it easy to divert his attention to something else which others might deem more important. Those who stayed with him in the same country house sometimes complained that the perpetual display of force and eagerness fatigued them, as one tires of watching the rush of Niagara. His guests, however, did not feel this, for his own home life was quiet and smooth. He read and wrote a good many hours daily, but never sat up late, almost always slept soundly, never missed early morning service at the parish church, never seemed oppressed or driven to strain his strength. With all his impetuosity, he was remarkably regular, systematic, and deliberate in his habits and ways of doing business. A swift reader and a surprisingly swift writer, he was always occupied, and was skilful in using even the scraps and fragments of his time. No pressure of work made him fussy or fidgety, nor could any one remember to have seen him in a hurry.


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