In the last decade of W.E. Gladstone's life, the media frequently featured the Grand Old Man of British politics with his grandchildren. The cartoon above, for example, depicts the Prime Minister mid-swing in his signature leisure activity of tree-felling, juxtaposed with a framed picture of a little boy and girl (albeit in a slightly worrying manner). There are fewer glimpses of Gladstone's family life when his own children were young. Some of the most charming can be seen in the letters that he exchanged with his daughter, Mary.
In 1856, nine-year-old Mary Gladstone ruled her paper and composed a birthday letter for her father:
This is the transcription:
Papa's response the next day reveals that he considered birthday letters from his four sons and three daughters as treasured presents:
With expressions of love and prayer, children’s birthday letters are undoubtedly cherished as the 'greatest delight' to parents (then and now). In this instance, the cited letters are also windows into the family’s values. In a period critical of the 'Mammon-Gospel', as Carlyle put it in 1847, the Gladstone household eschews materialism in favor of the youthful chorus, 'Many happy returns'.
The birthday letters function as conduct guides, too, but good behavior was itself an expression of great love. Mary verbalizes the lesson (‘[try] to be a good girl'), which Papa repeats in his parental wish that his children follow a Christian life (i.e., being good). The recurrent terms of endearment ('darling', 'affectionate', 'beloved') leaven the formal tone, indicated perhaps nowhere as strongly as in the signature 'W.E. Gladstone’, but they also communicate great love. Clearly, the desire to assist another to reach his or her Christian potential is the best expression of affection. Thus Gladstone’s thank you letter shows how he will use his present (their prayers), by becoming a better example and thus helping his children to 'increase in wisdom and nature'. Papa turns his presents into a teachable moment; he understands the birthday letters as gifts for the receiver as well as the giver. Thus he reciprocally showers his children with love.
A note on the dating of Mary’s letter: The 1855 watermark and the fact that the penmanship is a little further along than a letter that she wrote on 12 July 1856, strongly suggest that the year was 1856.
Weliver, Phyllis. “Papa's 47th Birthday, 1856.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. September 18, 2014. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2014/9/16/birthday-letter-mary-to-papa ).
Weliver, P. (2014, Sep 18). Papa's 47th Birthday, 1856. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2014/9/16/birthday-letter-mary-to-papa