Kelly's Reviews > The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli

The Lion and the Unicorn by Richard Aldous
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bookshelves: history-british, history, owned, 19th-century, great-and-terrible-men

This is not a history of 19th century British politics. It does not pretend to be so. In fact, it states from the first that its mission is to recast the story of Gladstone and Disraeli for a 21st century audience, in a way that will appeal to us. Aldous' assessment of a 21st century audience's needs are a Reality Show-like combination of high drama, 'oh-no-he-didn't- personal pettiness, a fast paced showing of all the highlights on the grandest scale. I can't say that he's wrong in that assessment. This approach has shortcomings- such as if you don't already know about the bills and arguments going on, you never feel like you're getting all sides of the story. He does explain a few of the bigger bills- Reform Bills, the important Irish bills, but the legislation isn't his focus so much as where each of the two of them came down on supporting it or not.

Neither is this the dual biography that the back of the book proclaims it to be, you don't get everything both of them ever did in their lives. You get the highlights, their interaction with each other, and a really good casting of their personalities.

It is like a boxing match in that when one rises, the other one falls, sometimes incredibly quickly. Also, that the book tries to get you to take sides and root for one or other. I had difficulty in rooting for either, simply because Aldous was so intent on exposing the flaws of both of them, always sullying any triumph with something petty or awful about them. My opinion changed many times. In the end, I ended up thinking that Gladstone was a black and white moralist who only wanted to fight when he could ride in on a white horse, but nonetheless had principles and things he cared about, and for the great majority of his life, he appeared to really stick to those ideas. He was also difficult, cantankerous, had no idea how to deal with people, preachy, arrogant, mean, incredibly strict on religion, and yet very hypocritical- (he did extensive "rescue work" with prostitutes that mostly culminated in him sleeping with them rather than "saving" them), very small and petty on a lot of levels, and quite Anti-Semitic (a lot of which was directed right at Disraeli). And yet, many of his opinions are things that modern day liberals would agree with- self-determination, anti-imperialism, non-interference abroad, secret ballots and expanding the electorate. Basically, you end up really disliking him, though respecting him for several principled stands and some of his opinions. You don't want to ever talk to him in heaven though.

Disraeli? I was amused by him at first, then really disliked him, then came back around slowly to respect and admiration for him by the end. At first I thought he was kind of an amusing dillettante, the Byron wannabe with more styles than principles. His early years in parliament show him to be capable of lying and backstabbing and vicious, vicious personal attacks. Which never stopped. His absolute insistence on the survival and continuation of the British Empire may be the most consistent principle he stood for, along with a more general nationalism and slow, gradual domestic reform. But for awhile it really didn't look like he stood for anything but getting himself in power. He even said at one point that he lived for 'fame and reputation'. But then his many many talents, intersting policies, ways of dealing with people, and most of all, the great description of his performance at the Congress of Berlin and his interaction with Bismarck... there's also all that. Also, he was not a whoremongering hypocritical Christian doing 'rescue work'. By all accounts, he had great, long lasting Romantic relationships with women, among them the Queen. He did press for reform. Plus he was multitalented- he was also a novelist. His Romantic personality is realatable, his witty quips and speeches magnetic...Etc, etc, etc. This is definitely the guy you wanted to sit next to at dinner, anyway. Of the two, I definitely was more pleased to see Disraeli win whenever he did... but I don't think that was the best part of me who wanted him to win all the time.

It's just funny that in this story that was set up to be a boxing match, I really ended up not being able to root for either of them fully, because you see just how many flaws each of them had. It's just a never-ending mess. Yeah, I know. That's politics.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 1, 2009 – Finished Reading
February 6, 2009 – Shelved
February 8, 2009 –
page 35
9.51% "Okay, so, round one: Disraeli's a ridiculous Byron wannabe, but Gladstone's a priggish Evangelical bore. Round one: Disraeli, FTW!"
February 9, 2009 –
page 50
13.59% "Gladstone goes out to 'save' whores, Gladstone sleeps with whores, Gladstone feels guilty, Gladstone ACTUALLY WHIPS HIMSELF ABOUT IT."
February 9, 2009 –
page 70
19.02% "Round two, The First Smackdown: Disraeli, lying, opportunistic, nasty piece of work. Gladstone, last ditch noble defense. Score: 1-1."
February 9, 2009 –
page 85
23.1% "Round three, Second Smackdown: Over the furniture in the Chancellor's residence. For real. Gladstone refused to pay for it. He is a thief."
February 9, 2009 –
page 100
27.17% "Round four: Disraeli's a Nixonian schemer, Gladstone a hypocritical self-immolator. I award no points, and may God have mercy on their souls"
February 10, 2009 –
page 120
32.61% "Twenty years later, and Gladstone is STILL WHIPPING HIMSELF ABOUT SLEEPING WITH WHORES. Dude, accept it: You're a Christian and a sex addict"
February 10, 2009 –
page 140
38.04% "At this point, I dislike both of them so much, I'm in favor of bringing back absolute monarchy."
February 11, 2009 –
page 155
42.12% "84 year old PM Lord Palmerston just died while screwing the chambermaid. Allegedly. Oops."
February 12, 2009 –
page 170
46.2% "Over five pages, both of them have been the hero of the hour and a punchline, and they've switched. Twice. MPs, thy other name is Fickle."
February 12, 2009 –
page 190
51.63% "Liking Gladstone less and less. Uses women emotionally and sexually and then tosses them aside when he's doing well."
February 13, 2009 –
page 220
59.78% "Disraeli's wife Mary Anne just died. The only thing that Gladstone and Disraeli ever agreed on: her awesomeness."
February 15, 2009 – Shelved as: history-british
July 21, 2009 – Shelved as: history
September 11, 2009 – Shelved as: owned
March 1, 2010 – Shelved as: 19th-century
June 14, 2011 – Shelved as: great-and-terrible-men

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message 1: by Ibtihel (new) - added it

Ibtihel Khiter May I know how. Can I get a copy of it?

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