Having revelled in Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill it’s no surprise to find his account of Gladstone’s life and times equally stuffed full of fascinating detail and faintly surreal episodes recounted with Jenkins’ characteristic wry humour.
But this absolutely has to take the biscuit: I learned today that in July 1849 Gladstone – that titan of Victorian politics – engaged himself in, to use Jenkins’ phrase, ‘a fresh burst of eccentricity verging on the unbalanced’.
When the Countess of Lincoln eloped to Italy with her new paramour Lord Walpole, she left behind one of Gladstone’s closest friends, to whom she had been married for seventeen years. Gladstone was rarely one to resist the urge to hold others to his high and exacting moral standards, so commenced to pursue the fallen lady first to Naples and then, when the couple bolted, on to Milan and then to Lake Como, with the intention of talking the Countess round to seeing the error of her ways and returning with him.
This principal objective – always fanciful – evaporated in Milan when Gladstone discovered the good lady was ‘with child’, so Gladstone settled for his back-up plan of being able to stand witness to adultery (although one presumes not in the biblical sense). Wishing to obtain firsthand evidence of Lady Lincoln’s purported pregnancy, the prime minister to be at one point disguised himself as a mandolinist in order to get near the villa in Como in which the couple were hiding out.
Who needs fiction when you have history eh?