The books, history, and most of all the people, made my time at Gladstone’s Library truly unforgettable. During my summer university break I asked to volunteer with the Library’s digitalisation project of Gladstone’s personal letters, and from my first tour of the building and the scent of the lovely old books I distinguished along the way, I knew I would not regret the decision.
Peace and tranquillity surrounds the Library (as well as many busts of William Gladstone – he is watching!), welcoming visitors as they step through the impressive wooden doors into a world of wonder and knowledge recorded on the pages of the many books and collections. The University I attend is commonly referred to as ‘The Bubble’ due to its size and remote location on the East coast of Scotland, and one can see how this description could similarly be used to discuss Gladstone’s Library which feels like a haven in the busy world of today. As I sat reading the words of the political figure in a small room at the foot of the Annex corridor, the world passed by and the letters transported me back 150 years in the life and correspondence of the former Prime Minister. As the hours tick-tocked away, the daily communications of the author captivated and hypnotised myself and other readers into a state of intrigue that only the call of lunch could awaken us from (probably because the food there is so delicious).
From my first day helping with the project and reading the first letter in collection 774, dated January 24, 1858, until examining the 102nd item of the bundle dated 18 August, 1860, on my final day at the Library, much had happened in the life of William Gladstone. During the twelve weeks I was involved in the project, Gladstone’s letters to his wife Catherine covered a period of two years in their lives together and allowed a glimpse into the life of the Library founder. The death of Nora Glynne, various social obligations, Cabinet meetings and the responsibilities of the later in his role as the newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer are a few of the significant events that appear in his letters during these years. Much also changed in the appearance and particulars of the letters over this period, such as a black frame surrounding a letter signalling a death in the family, and various post marks indicating where Gladstone was when he sent his letter – from 11 Downing Street and the House of Commons Library, to Hawarden itself.
At first I could barely understand the ink marks that supposedly formed words on the discolouring pages before me, and was filled with dread upon reading the common apology he made to Catherine that “I write . . . very hurriedly”. However, as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect and with time the once difficult to distinguish scrawl began to form reasonably readable sentences.
Referrals to political events such as the French Treaty in 1860, were very interesting for a History student like myself to read, especially where events overlapped with areas of my studies. However letters documenting family events at Hawarden in particular were my favourites. For a period in October 1859 Gladstone returned to Hawarden to stay with the children and wrote sometimes numerous times a day to Catherine to inform her of their activities while she was away. In one letter dated October 4th Gladstone includes a written account of a conversation he had with the children:
“Herbert are you unhappy?”
“Why are you unhappy?”
“I don’t know”
“Is it because Mama is away?”
This short passage provides an interesting insight into the home life of this historic political figure, and illustrates the love he felt for his family. Games of charades at the Priory, riding to Broughton, and catching a train at Chester station are all mentioned in these letters. Thus recording the activities he enjoyed to do outside of his important and very public political work - and activities that took him to places I too have visited. The very idea that Gladstone was sat at home writing his letters a short walk over the road from the spot I sat reading them over a century and a half later was remarkable. These documents create a connection with the author and allow readers to share Gladstone’s concern for his daughter Lena’s (Helen) health, observe his happiness at meeting the Duchess of Sutherland and other acquaintances once more, and keenly read his enquiries as to the activities of his busy wife Catherine.
Though some letters were written a short physical distance away from the beautifully manicured grounds and magical rooms of the Library, a long period of time has passed between us. However, the letters become a Tardis that transform the reader into a Time Lord that can be transported back into Gladstone’s world. This space-time defying skill is not confined to the letters alone, as it extends to the Library as a whole. Once through the doors visitors are taken on a journey into the past and are able to witness the vision of William Gladstone, and - I’m sure like myself - once inside they won’t want to leave.