Today, 23 November, is Mary Gladstone's birthday. How better to honor the day than to share a delightful birthday that she had in 1875. Daughter of Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, Mary was an exemplary Victorian and Edwardian lady, as was to be expected. But she also knew how to revel in pleasure -- and that's a little less expected.
We often associate men and women who lived in Victorian Britain with seriousness. We see it in the sober attire and grave expressions of nineteenth-century photography. In school we study Oscar Wilde's waspish characterization of the age in his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. And our cultural legacy passes down to us stories of upright behavior and self-discipline. However, such rationality and gravitas is only half the story. Many of those same plain-spoken Victorians also thrilled to the sumptuous beauty expressed in visual, literary and musical art.
William Ewart Gladstone's family is a case in point. The statesman and his family were undoubtedly exemplars of philanthropic zeal, and they were also deeply touched by beauty. When she celebrated her twenty-eighth birthday, for instance, Mary began with early chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford. She heard, 'by my request Handel O.[rgan] Concerto in F. (1st movement Perfectly Gorgeous, overwhelming row) + Bach G minor. never has my birthday been so distinguished - excited to desperation.' (Diary, British Library). Gorgeous means: 'Adorned with rich or brilliant colours; sumptuously gay or splendid; showy, magnificent' (OED). Mary Gladstone uses this term of color and show to describe organist Walter Parratt's reverberating rendition of her favorite pieces by Handel and Bach. Just imagine hearing this dazzling sound within a stunning gothic space: the fifteenth-century Magdalen College chapel.
When I visited Keble College, Oxford earlier this month, simply stepping into the chapel and seeing Holman Hunt's The Light of the World was awe inspiring. The comparison is apt, for Mary was staying at Keble with her cousins, Edward and Lavinia Talbot (the first Warden and his wife). I can only imagine how soul-energizing it would be to add a lush sonority to the visual splendor there or at Magadalen. But 'excited to desperation' -- that's a surprising formulation, especially given how we usually imagine a decorous Victorian lady.
No wonder Mary felt glum upon leaving Oxford later the same day. '[B]ut cheer up,' she wrote in her diary. '[I] am to come for the opening of the beautiful [Keble College] Chapel [...] wh. by the way has now got all its windows but 2 in, most of the mosaics finished, and a great deal of the marbles in, the immense height has a wonderful effect on one.' The promised return to the 'gorgeous new chapel' (there's that word again), designed in high Victorian gothic by William Butterfield, sees her through (14 to 17 May 1876, Diary, BL). When she did return, Mary was 'enormously impressed. richness + height are what strike you most. A good deal of echo, but it makes rather a grand confusion in the music.' (13 to 17 May 1876, BL). The musical offerings, Lavinia tells us in her diary, were Gregorgian chants and harmonized hymns sung to candlelight (705:104 BA15492/229/5 and 230/5, Lyttelton Collection, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service). How atmospheric!
Mary felt it to be a return to a more prosaic existence, but her next stop would undoubtly fill most of us today with a continued sense of the exotic. Gladstone's daughter finished her birthday at the 3rd Earl Brownlow and Lady Adelaide's home, Ashridge in Hertfordshire, where Mary found 'all the world + his wife.' (Diary, BL). The Gothic Revival house built by James Wyatt was famous at the time for its house parties. Mary's diary recalls dinners followed by her progressive performances of Brahms and the overture to Wagner's Lohengrin at the keyboard; entertainments of reciting Dante, Matthew Arnold (poems), and Tennyson; and tableaux. The latter, and Adelaide's dress style, were anything were anything but staid: 'Adelaide + Pembroke did tableaux + looked ideal but laughed hopelessly. Roman peasants', wrote Mary in her diary. 'She was glorious last night in deep red velvet - at tea time today in white embroidered with gold[,] regular toga sort of thing.' (23-25 Nov).
How did Mary finish her birthday celebrations? She '[w]rote to the whole family' the next day (Diary). Apropos of the opulent beauty that she loved, Mary's thank you letter to her father again reveals an unexpected sensuality:
The Aeneids of Virgil was published in 1874-5 by Pre-Raphaelites William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Charles F. Murray. To my way of thinking, the gorgeous book, with its rich illustrations and illuminations, is a sort of visual equivalent to hearing Bach and Handel in Gothic or Gothic revival chapels. We know that Mr. Gladstone responded with pleasure to the new Keble College chapel, and he probably also enjoyed Mary's book recommendation, for father and daughter frequently read the same literature. It's a rather different representation of the Grand Old Man of British politics than we usually assume. We also see that Gladstone had written a letter, probably along the lines of the birthday letters found in this blog's other posts (filled with earnest good wishes and prayers). Mary's response, mentioning the magnificent Aeneids alongside the more formulaic birthday letter, gestures to the yeasty mix of serious belief, great classics of the past, and the adornments of modern interpretation.
I think that John Everett Millais captured something of Gladstone's complexity in the famous portrait of 1879, especially if it is viewed with the context in mind that I have just traced. It seems to me that Gladstone's eyes and expression reveal particular humanity and sensitivity:
As one of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais helped to revolutionize how past and present could be perceived, as seen in jewel-toned paintings like Ophelia (1851-2). He was a pioneer in the world that I have been describing, even though he used a darker palette for his portrait of Gladstone. Still, '[i]t is as good as ever it can be, + a startling likeness', Mary responded to first seeing the painting in Millais's house (7 April 1879, Diary, BL). Her enthusiasm increased at the Royal Academy's private viewing: 'The Millais is more + more splendid, + was the one topic + subject of universal admiration.' (2 May 1879, Diary). When Mary eavesdropped at the public showing, she discovered more diverse opinions: '"He looks a hard man - yes, but what an intelligent face - fine head." Another "He don't care a blow what anybody says" "Splendid"' (30 and 31 May 1879, Diary). The range of subjective response implies the complexity of Gladstone's personality, the period, and the role of the arts: intense, intelligent and ... splendid.
Happy Birthday, Mary Gladstone!
[Letter transcription follows citation information.]
Weliver, Phyllis. “A Victorian Birthday Celebration: Turning 28 in Musical Oxford.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. 23 November 2015. Web blog post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/11/16/bfjujzjekq7vsh8byk5cpyfo93g48v).
Weliver, P. (2015, Nov 23) A Victorian Birthday Celebration: Turning 28 in Musical Oxford. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/11/16/bfjujzjekq7vsh8byk5cpyfo93g48v