Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Two Victorian-Era Enemies, Just Made for Each Other

It may well have been the greatest political rivalry of all time. For half a century, in a series of battles that transformed Victorian Britain, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli faced off like two heavyweight fighters, giving and receiving no quarter. Sometimes they fought for great principles, sometimes for enormous political stakes, but in truth no quarrel was too petty for these two giants. Mutual loathing made their bruising encounters a riveting spectacle, richly enjoyed by the British public and recaptured, with great zest, by Richard Aldous in “The Lion and the Unicorn.”

Gladstone vs. Disraeli
By Richard Aldous
Illustrated. W. W. Norton & Company. 368 pages. $27.95. Hutchinson pds.20

Gladstone and Disraeli first laid eyes on each other as young men on the make in the political world of London. Gladstone was already a man to watch in political circles, while Disraeli, five years his senior, with a few flashy society novels to his name, was struggling to get a grip on what he later called “the greasy pole.” They eyed each other with a wariness and suspicion that in no time evolved into full-blown contempt.

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