Gladstone and Laura Thistlethwayte, 1865–75



Gladstone's recent biographers – most notably H. C. G. Matthew – have discussed his friendships with women, ranging from aristocrats to courtesans. Regarding his thirty-year friendship with Mrs. Laura Thistlethwayte biographers retain a largely protective view – that Gladstone was tempted into a situation in which he became bound, yet maintained control. In re-assessing this intriguing relationship for the most intense period, 1865–75, this article suggests the reverse – that Gladstone had free choice and, for much of this time, was acting under circumstances more serious, and therefore more challenging of that control, than acknowledged. The precise nature of the relationship remains a mystery. However, re-examination of documentary sources and study of information previously omitted, as well as additional diaries, correspondence and Gladstone's reading, facilitate further understanding of that relationship and of Gladstone himself.

The first official biography of Gladstone, John Morley's Life of Gladstone (1903), emphasized his ability as a strong political, moral and religious force; this was during a long career in which he served four terms as prime minister.1 Many other publications on Gladstone appeared in the years to follow but, as J. P. Gardiner states, Morley's work remained the standard biography for approximately fifty years.2 One aspect of Gladstone's life receiving comparatively little mention until recently was that relating to women, with whom he admitted close personal friendships.3 Among the most intriguing of these – outside family, the prostitutes and courtesans in his ‘rescue work’ and such figures as the duchess of Sutherland – was that with Mrs. Laura Thistlethwayte.4 H. C. G. Matthew, one of Gladstone's main biographers, believes that the friendship was conducted with the full knowledge of the political elite. It certainly provoked concern, gossip and warning among certain colleagues but how many fellow politicians were fully aware of it is unclear.5 Gladstone recorded in his diary that he spoke individually during 1868 and 1869 respecting Mrs. Thistlethwayte to the duchess of Sutherland, the duke of Argyll, Mr. Glyn (later Lord Wolverton) and Lord De Tabley, the latter a fellow executor and trustee of the Newcastle Trust.6 What was said is unrecorded. Although not directly connected, the statement of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton, one of Gladstone's private secretaries, that ‘the practice of questioning the private actions of public men is of entirely novel growth’, might be considered in this context.7

Carnarvon, Derby and Hamilton recorded their views on the subject in private diaries, while Queen Victoria is believed to have told Disraeli in 1876 that Gladstone was mad in dining with the ‘notorious’ Mrs. Thistlethwayte.8 Close Liberal colleagues were keen to hide this aspect of Gladstone from as many people as possible – certainly from the general public – and judging by the sparse allusions to him and Thistlethwayte in contemporary publications, it would seem that they were successful.9 According to Hamilton, the only politician considered daring enough to broach the subject with Gladstone was Lord Rosebery.10 Morley, perhaps not surprisingly in the first official biography, not only revealed nothing to his readers of Gladstone's late-night meetings with certain prostitutes but none of the numerous references to Thistlethwayte; this was in spite of having unprecedented access to Gladstone's papers and diaries. Clearly, these would have compromised the image of Gladstone as an upright, moral and altogether exemplary character – the ‘Grand Old Man’. He chose instead to state of his subject ‘Nobody ever had fewer secrets, nobody ever lived and wrought in fuller sunlight’.11

There was no public discussion of Gladstone's friendships with women until 1927 when allegations about his conduct were made in a libel case between a certain Peter Wright and Herbert Gladstone – what became known as the Wright Case.12 The allegations were later dismissed, Gladstone's reputation remained unharmed and mention of Mrs. Thistlethwayte was avoided. The relieved Gladstone family, though less concerned about possible reference to the latter than to allegations concerning prostitutes, decided to deposit Gladstone's diaries and extant correspondence between the two in Lambeth Palace Library. Only after publication of the Gladstone Diaries, between 1968 and 1994, was his friendship with Mrs. Thistlethwayte finally made public;13 and not until the subsequent biographies by Matthew, Richard Shannon and Roy Jenkins was the subject discussed in detail.14 Among these, Matthew, also co-editor of the Diaries, provides most information.

However, concerning Gladstone's links with Thistlethwayte, there is still a pronounced tendency by biographers to seek to protect his reputation. There is a view that he was tempted into a friendship in which he became irrevocably bound and that there is little if any possibility that he behaved improperly. Certain detail has been overlooked, and opportunity missed, in understanding Gladstone and the relationship more fully. The subject is complex. This article seeks to test interpretations of the friendship through further, more detailed examination of the surviving evidence. It looks specifically at the period 1865–75, especially the intense autumn of 1869 and the continuing close friendship of 1870–5.

Thistlethwayte is alleged to have been a former courtesan among London's aristocracy and certain writers suggest also that she may previously have been a teenage prostitute in Dublin.15 Published reference to these comments is sparse and based mainly on contemporary accounts, which themselves contain inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Supporting the possibility that Thistlethwayte's reputation may have been misunderstood and maligned was Gladstone's attempt to correct the situation in August 1870. With her permission he sought to inform certain people, including her close friend Earl Bathurst, that rumours about her were ‘utterly groundless’. Alternatively, supporting the likelihood that she had had liaisons with men in Dublin, whether as a prostitute or not, is diary comment by Bathurst made after his meeting with Gladstone. Considering it inappropriate to disclose to the prime minister what he believed to be true, he recorded that Gladstone ‘began the subject of Mrs Thistlethwayte's conduct at Dublin. I sustained my own opinion against his supposition of her innocence. I believe her to be a Magdalen, not immaculate from the first’.16

By the time she met Gladstone, Laura Thistlethwayte was a married lay preacher and about to commence work among London's ‘sick and dying’.17 The friendship probably commenced during 1864, possibly via the duke of Newcastle who was known to them both. By the end of that year Gladstone was fifty-five and Laura thirty-five. In varying degrees of intensity the relationship lasted for thirty years until her death in 1894, a few years before Gladstone's own. It was at its height between 1869 and late 1875, for most of which time Gladstone was prime minister in his first administration. Although Laura professed her love to Gladstone – and he was clearly fond of her – the precise nature of the friendship is uncertain. Gladstone's respective diaries and the majority of his letters survive but he later burnt her writings for 1869–75, leaving questions unanswered. Undoubtedly, Gladstone became closer to Laura than he had foreseen or intended. Shannon states that it is probable that he never fully appreciated the depth of her feelings for him; as will be seen, this is unlikely.18

Matthew demonstrates some of the intricacies of the subject in referring to the extraordinary and prolonged friendship with Laura, sufficiently young and exotic but also sufficiently religious and educated to be ‘an ideal object of fascination’.19 He shows a certain degree of protectiveness for Gladstone in saying that he was tempted to a point ‘not far short of infatuation’ by a woman of experience. Through a combination of naivety, romanticism and generosity Gladstone, he considers, found it difficult to extricate himself and, from a sense of moral duty, eventually found himself bound to her. Jenkins repeats much of this, supports Matthew's analysis and believes Gladstone to have been ‘a very good worldly catch at any time in the 1860s’– certainly as prime minister – but adds little original information.20 Shannon is informative, factual and less prone to protection but, in this context, is also less analytical.

This all suggests, therefore, that Gladstone was in an unfortunate position, not of his own making, in which, because of his benevolence, he became increasingly immersed. Yet, there is too much inference here of passivity and lack of freedom. To imply that so much is based on a concept of temptress and tempted is too simple. Thistlethwayte already knew other politicians, including Bathurst, Arthur Kinnaird, M.P. for Perth, and the late duke of Newcastle, so meeting Gladstone, although obviously welcome, was not exceptional. There is little consideration given by recent biographers to the fact that the pair were mutually attracted from the beginning or even to the likelihood that Gladstone instigated the friendship himself.21 Most important, Gladstone as prime minister – he experienced increasing political demands from the eighteen-seventies – would not have maintained this time-consuming friendship had he not wished to do so. On saying goodbye to Laura in February 1872, when she departed for Egypt on health grounds, he recorded in his diary ‘It is well for me that she goes’. This is viewed by biographers as a sign of more than temporary relief from the situation but it should be emphasized that there is no indication during this period that he ever sought seriously to withdraw. Moreover, although comment in the Diaries and correspondence of late 1869 and early 1870 indicates some self-questioning, and his judgement was criticized by certain colleagues, the situation appears to be something of which Gladstone needed to consider himself in control.

Laura Eliza Jane Seymour Bell was born in Newry, County Down, in 1829. Her mother was an illegitimate daughter of Lord Hertford and her father, Captain R. H. Bell, was the manager of Hertford's Antrim estates. In January 1852 she married Captain Augustus Frederick Thistlethwayte, a retired army captain and son of the late Thomas Thistlethwayte, M.P. for Hampshire, and Tryphena, daughter of Henry Bathurst, late bishop of Norwich.22 Thistlethwayte held leases on shooting and fishing estates in the Scottish highlands. They may have met through Augustus's younger brother Arthur Henry, who died at Scutari in 1854.23 Close friends after marriage included Earls Annesley, Normanton and Bathurst, together with Kinnaird, from whom her husband may have leased some of the Scottish estates. Annesley was influential in some unspecified way earlier in Laura's life, while she described Normanton as her ‘beloved friend’. She and her husband stayed with the elderly Normanton at his Hampshire home and, although unable to accept, Gladstone was invited at the same time. She described to Gladstone her attendance in London at Normanton's sick bed and her distress at his death, in August 1868, soon after she left for Scotland.24

Captain Thistlethwayte's uncle, Earl Bathurst, displayed a portrait of Laura in his Oxford rooms and lunched with her frequently, the group occasionally involving Gladstone and a game of whist.25 He later hosted a weekend attended by the pair at Oakley Park, Cirencester. Other friends by the eighteen-seventies were Melita and Julia Ponsonby, sisters of General Ponsonby, Lord and Lady Kintore, the Seabrights and Lady Elizabeth Pringle of Duns, Scotland, sister of the late marquess of Breadalbane. Melita Ponsonby later lived with Laura, during the latter's widowhood, and was bequeathed £3,000 in her will. Gladstone stayed at Breadalbane's Taymouth Castle, Perthshire, in December 1879 following a week-long visit to Rosebery's Scottish residence – Dalmeny House, Edinburgh – in connection with the Midlothian campaign.26

Kinnaird's role in Laura's life is unclear. He appears to have been a close friend known through her husband before meeting Gladstone, possibly via their common Scottish links. Kinnaird was also an old friend of Gladstone and accompanied him on the Italian holiday during which the latter proposed to Catherine Glynne in January 1839. Frederick Leveson Gower described the two men as ‘on the best of terms’ yet noted ‘there were never two individuals who appeared so different’.27 Jenkins assumes that Kinnaird performed either a procuring or chaperoning role for Gladstone in connection with Laura. Yet, more interesting is that the two men seem initially to have enjoyed her company equally. They dined together with the Thistlethwaytes and were travelling companions in December 1869 when invited to the Thistlethwayte's country house at Boveridge, near Cranborne, Dorset. The travel arrangements by train were made between Laura and Kinnaird but Gladstone's diary comment confirms that it was clearly he, Gladstone, who was Laura's main focus. It is possible that there may later have been some competition between the two men. Kinnaird wrote in August 1874, acknowledging a message from Gladstone passed via Laura, reciprocating ‘most warmly the wish you express that the differences between us should never interfere with our private friendship’.28 In November 1875, soon after the weekend with Gladstone at Bathurst's Oakley Park, Laura left with her husband to be escorted on a tour by Kinnaird. In Paris, Thistlethwayte became unwell and turned back, while Laura continued with Kinnaird to Cairo to ‘recover’ her health. Once there, the latter reported in a letter to Gladstone that he had left her in the safe hands of the consul general and his wife for the winter.29

During early discussion, Gladstone expressed concern to Laura about her having been a minor at marriage with no financial advice. This suggests some degree of personal wealth at that time but whether from her maternal family, possible activity as a London courtesan or as beneficiary in some other sphere is unrecorded. He also advised that, with regard to her wish to raise her reputation within society, the finding of her baptism certificate ‘would be a ready and effectual instrument’ in ‘putting down most of the world's misapprehension about you’.30

The Thistlethwayte house was in Grosvenor Square where residents included Lord Chesham and Earls Shaftesbury and Grosvenor.31 Laura is said to have had a ‘respectable salon’ by the eighteen-eighties, attended by various politicians.32 Included among these were Gladstone, Bathurst, Kinnaird, C. P. Villiers and possibly the duke of Devonshire and Sir William Harcourt.33 When Gladstone visited there Laura was clearly the main attraction, but he also provided her husband with advice on his family's Paddington estates. He had dined with husband, wife and often other guests at least eight times by the autumn of 1869 but from that date he visited her increasingly alone. What Thistlethwayte thought of the prime minister's late night visits to his wife is unknown. He shot himself in unusual circumstances at the house in 1887 at the age of fifty-seven. Although the death was recorded as accidental, and Laura insisted that he loved her deeply, her self-admitted marital unhappiness, family financial problems and hints of his relationships with other women all create an element of uncertainty.34 An obituary described Thistlethwayte as a man of high character and deep religious convictions, sometimes ‘in Hyde Park addressing large crowds’. Others noted him as solitary, with eccentricities of mind and temper.35 Gladstone, at least, convinced himself it was an accident.36

As Matthew suggests, Gladstone found Laura of immediate interest, with her mix of reputation and acquired ‘respectability’. At their first meeting he knew enough about her to admit later that he had been drawn to her as a ‘sheep or lamb that had been astray . . . that had come back to the Shepherd's Fold, and to the Father's arms’.37 There are similarities here to his recorded thoughts about the prostitutes whom he sought to ‘rescue’. Some writers link friendships with Laura and other women to naivety or pre-Raphaelite romanticism. However, it is possible that it was more the intimate link between risk and secrecy, perhaps already familiar to Gladstone in connection with his meetings with ‘rescue’ cases, that formed a significant part of this early attraction.

From Laura's writings it is clear that Gladstone took an immediate risk on 22 January 1865 in calling at her Grosvenor Square house unannounced. She was out and later wrote: ‘I much regret being out when you kindly called yesterday. I only received your note on my return home at 6 o’clock.’ Gladstone recorded in his diary that he had written but not that he had called.38 Laura suggested an alternative meeting: ‘Should you be free next Lords day at 5? It will give me great pleasure to see you and talk of one whom I think we both deeply loved’. Gladstone recorded that they met for more than an hour to talk about the duke of Newcastle and religion.39 The risk of calling unannounced is known to have been taken again in March 1872 – unrecorded as before. It is also possible that such visits may have been repeated at other times. This is supported by a letter from Laura while staying with her husband at Oakley Park in May 1868.40 She hoped that Gladstone had not called at her house during her absence as she would not like to miss seeing him.

Gladstone was attracted not only by the risk of calling unannounced but by the risk of colluding with Laura at an early stage in her request for secrecy. On 30 October 1865 he assured her ‘you need have no fear as to neglect of your injunction to secrecy’.41 This was followed by intermittent correspondence, meetings and gifts. She sent self-penned hymns and verse, while he gave her printed copies of his speeches and promised a photograph of the duke of Newcastle's portrait by Watts.42 Written invitations were usually from Laura. One, undated, but probably from the Thistlethwaytes’ Dorset house in the summer of 1868 states: ‘Oh! How I wish you would come down quietly on the 7th and return early Monday morning.’43 Gladstone would either accept invitations, apologize or propose alternative dates. He also made spontaneous suggestions; for example on 9 June 1871 he hoped to call the next morning, although ‘the visit must be a flying one’; and, on 11 March 1872, ‘What do you say to luncheon on Monday; silence will mean yes’.44

By June 1866 gossip had begun among politicians. Lord Carnarvon noted in his diary: ‘Gladstone seems to be going out of his mind. Northcote has just told me that Gladstone's last (latest) passion is Mrs Thistlethwaite. He goes to dinner with her, meets her frequently, seems engrossed with her . . . His manner in the H of C even is very extraordinary.’45 Contemporaries were familiar with Gladstone's outbursts in the Commons but noted at the same time by Carnarvon, yet omitted by biographers, was that ‘Mrs Gladstone the other day in her very simple manner said to someone that it was a great pity that dear William returned home so angry as he often does’. This suggests not only that Gladstone was visibly enamoured with Laura but also that he was acting ‘extraordinarily’ both in the Commons and at home. Although it is impossible directly to link the two, he was taking a considerable risk in juggling politics, Laura and prostitutes, sometimes in the same week and later even the same day. For example, on 2 July 1869 he not only dined with the Thistlethwaytes – Laura promised the personal history which was to become her autobiography – but met Ramsay, a rescue case; this necessitated his recording of the ‘X’ symbol in his diary.46 On 10 November 1869 he hurried to Laura's house within half an hour of leaving a cabinet meeting, and on another occasion promised ‘a single hour sharp’ before engagements in the house of commons. On 11 November he saw her on her own during the day, dined at Grosvenor Square in the evening and later met Henderson, another ‘rescue’ case, again recording the ‘X’.47 Later meetings with Laura herself – especially in 1871 – often necessitated the use of this symbolic ‘X’. As will be seen Gladstone's increasing irritability was noted again in April 1872.

Whether or not Catherine Gladstone's message to her husband in July 1869 had any connection with his other distractions is unknown, but on a sheet of house of commons notepaper she wrote: ‘Darling, I am so sorry I spoke in haste, do forget it – my only excuse is that I was tired and hot and vexed. Your own CG.’ Whatever the cause, the situation was obviously corrected subsequently. In early September Catherine wrote from a short holiday at Whitby with their children Helen and Willy: ‘My own, Your dear letter was precious and delightful.’48

Gladstone was well aware of the risk involved yet, apart from his later diary comment on Laura's departure to Egypt, he seemed strangely unworried by it. Although voicing concern to her about publicity he did little himself to avoid it, stating that he was less worried about people knowing than that they would not understand. He reminded her of that on which they had agreed: ‘it is not wise to expose to the observation of others that which we know beforehand it would not be possible for them upon such observation to understand aright.’49 On Laura's reports to him of gossip about the pair – this included that by a servant in 1871, and by the duke of Sutherland in 1872 – he advised restraint in response.50 He agreed to Laura's requests of October 1865 and January 1870 for secrecy. As stated, he told her that she need have no fear as to neglect of her request, adding ‘I shall say no more to my wife except it be with your free and full concurrence and approval’.51 He himself sought secrecy in October 1969: at the end of a letter referring in detail to her autobiography, and informing her of his Carlton House Terrace address, he wrote ‘And now much prizing your confidence I remain ever yours, W. E. Gladstone’.52

Catherine Gladstone was aware of the Thistlethwaytes – they sent gifts of venison from the Highlands – but whether the two women met before the eighteen-eighties is uncertain. The Daily Telegraph mistakenly reported that both of the Gladstones attended the marriage celebrations of Agar on 10 August 1871 hosted by the Thistlethwaytes at Grosvenor Square, but his letter to Catherine about the event shows that Gladstone was there alone.53 How much the wider Gladstone family knew of his private meetings with Laura and whether Catherine suspected more serious implications concerning her husband's angry outbursts is equally unclear. As will be seen, although unlikely to have been aware of the frequency and intensity of the visits, by July 1875 Catherine was aware of their occurrence.

The first revelation of details of the relationship to the Gladstone family may not have been until the return of Gladstone's letters after Laura's death in May 1894 by her executor, Lord Edward Pelham Clinton.54 Although such letters refer in varying degrees to politics, religion, family and travel they concern predominantly personal discussion between the two. The fact that he had not sought to retrieve or destroy these letters – Gladstone would have known that they might eventually be read by his family and even the nation – might appear surprising. In part, this may be explained by a request to Laura from his home at Hawarden on 18 October 1869: ‘Make this bargain I pray you: keep my letters, and someday let me see them: I doing the same?’ Five days later, apparently in answer to a question from Laura, he was adamant that their correspondence should not be destroyed and that he would, in turn, retain her letters and ‘story’; ‘I think burning dangerous. It removes a bridle: it encourages levity in thought. Why should not human beings retain the means of calling themselves to account?’55 It is worth noting here that he changed his mind in 1893 and burnt what seem to have been her more emotional letters of this period. This does not, however, appear to have prompted him to retrieve his own.

In the meantime, meetings and correspondence were intermittent until mid 1869. Religion, which had figured initially as a topic with both correspondents, featured comparatively little after this date. Gladstone had agreed to hear Laura, as a non-denominational Christian preacher, speak at the London Polytechnic in April 1865, but he had not enjoyed the experience. In July he decided to cease lengthy written discussion on the subject: ‘I feel a great difficulty in entering upon religious controversy with you.’ However, he insisted afterwards that she should not be less freely spoken.56

Much of Laura's early preaching was in Scotland while accompanying her husband to the shooting estates; one of these was by Loch Luichart, from where she later wrote to Gladstone. The locations and circles in London and the Scottish highlands in which she preached are described by Jean Gilliland.57 The circle included Lord Kintore; Laura invited him to join her in speaking at the London Polytechnic when Gladstone declined. Her relationship with the Kintores appears, from her confidential letters to Gladstone, to have been somewhat ‘stormy’.58

From July there was increased familiarity between Gladstone and Laura. Gladstone accepted and wore a ring which he had engraved with her name and was promised more ‘personal history’, resulting in her specially written autobiography. Laura arranged for shamrock to be brought fresh for him from Ireland by her ‘good lady friend’, and she wrote from her house in Dorset to describe her country garden: ‘I wish you could see all the wild flowers here – they are too lovely.’ Below this she had drawn in ink the small shape of a heart. He later received flowers from travels in Paris and from the Holy Land: ‘The Paris violets come with all their odour wonderfully preserved.’59

Laura's promised autobiography arrived at Downing Street in at least twenty-eight parts, with accompanying letters, between early September 1869 and mid January 1870.60 Gladstone read most of the first twenty-three parts as soon as they were forwarded, during a twenty-five-day stay at Balmoral, from 10 September. On 18 September he wrote: ‘In great haste. About to read in the midst of a crowd of business what has just arrived.’61 Gladstone was undoubtedly excited by the instalments. His letters of response show that Laura confided intimate detail of a childhood running wild and lacking parental care, followed by what appear to be coerced sexual relationships with older men from the age of fourteen: ‘You blame yourself about going to the room: undeservedly, if you were at the age I suppose. For a woman it would have been blameable.’62 He was relieved that she eventually escaped to the stage. As in his ‘rescue’ work, he was familiar with, and possibly even titillated by, such backgrounds, but instead of talking on dark street corners he could now read the detail in the comfort of either Balmoral, Carlton House Terrace or his Hawarden Castle study – his ‘Temple of Peace’.

Jenkins considers that Gladstone was bombarded with this autobiography, but the reverse is true: Gladstone instigated the writing of it, commenting in a postscript of 22 October, ‘What a task of reading I have set you to me . . . about yourself, you cannot tell too much’.63 Unfortunately all of this material, originally kept by him with her letters in a locked case – in 1878 he referred to its preservation – has disappeared, possibly burnt by Gladstone in 1893 alongside her earlier letters. Among the latter were those of the autumn of 1869, which, as his biographers have stated, acted as the catalyst for increased attraction between the two.

Gladstone's own letters to Laura that autumn, together with their frequent meetings, suggest that he had neither expected this depth of emotion nor experienced it in quite this way with anyone else, including certain earlier courtesans. However, even in this period of intense correspondence, it is difficult to identify what might be termed ‘passion’ in his writings, for alongside words of deep attraction are others more cool which counterbalance or moderate their possible implication. He intermingled words of extreme feeling with those of ambiguity. Here can be observed something of Gladstone's mind. He asked for more detail about her life but was simultaneously reserved and impersonal: ‘the interest of the prose is well sustained by the thought and movement of the verse.’ He commented that friendships with women had constituted no small portion of his existence.64 He thanked her for her trust in confiding in him but also recognized this as a double-edged sword in making him intrusive. This was his first admission to her of his personal danger and fear of lack of control.

Laura posed more risk than prostitutes, not only because of her mix of reputation and respectability but also because of her emotional need and her ability to meet him alone at her Grosvenor Square home. During this more intimate period Gladstone was well aware of such need and the excitement that it posed and, rather than the sympathy she might have expected, his words suggest rapidly changing reactions and emotions. He asked for more examples of her ‘naughtiness’ when young: ‘Consider, and probe yourself, whether there is anything you could say against yourself that you have not said: anything particular, not general.’65 He appears temporarily to have been uncertain of his own aims and needs.

However, Laura Thistlethwayte's letters of October increased Gladstone's reactions. Although these letters were destroyed it appears from his responses that her expressions of hurt at his lack of sympathy then changed to those of love. Although he claimed to be shocked at this ‘weighty word’– on 27 October he defined this clearly as ‘love’, ‘a great, deep, strong, weighty word’– he was amazed at its effect, for he referred to the phrase repeatedly in his letters and recorded in his diary that ‘Duty and evil temptation are there before me’.66 He did not return the word ‘love’ in writing, although its verbal use cannot be discounted. His emotions were further heightened during Laura's visit to Scotland by delay in both receipt of her letters and in her return to London, the result of bad weather. At the same time he was obsessed with self-analysis: ‘Alas I think you do not know me: and you ought . . . If I were to send you the counterpart of what you have sent me, I should certainly repel you . . . You should know me deeply, while there is time.’67 Was this his wish to know more of himself or for her to know more of him? Her response is not available.

On Laura's return to London, Gladstone made several much anticipated visits to Grosvenor Square, including two on 15 November – one in the morning, after returning from the queen at Windsor, and another later that evening. The fact that his wife Catherine suddenly decided to travel to see him at the same time did not deter him. He had prepared Laura the previous day by writing from Windsor Castle to say that, as his wife and daughter were coming to London unexpectedly, he ought to dine ‘when they do’; he would therefore reach Laura by ten, which ‘would be better as I need not go away quite so early’.68 There was a clear need on his part to meet and talk.

His suggestions for late evening visits were repeated frequently – these were often after Commons sessions – provided that on arrival he could still ‘see light in her room’. For example, in March, April and July 1871 respectively: ‘If the House is short I shall look for light in the window. God bless you, WEG’; later, ‘Judge wisely . . . if you think it good that I come I may be able to . . . after the dinner tomorrow, say about half past ten for a short while’; and ‘I should first be in the House. Should the House break up I might call by 11 if I saw light . . . Do not wait however.’69 For a man used to walking long distances in the countryside the walk from Parliament Square to Grosvenor Square would have been straightforward. At the same time as these appointments with Laura, Gladstone was arranging meetings with colleagues to discuss the subject of Irish land, the preparation of the Irish Land Bill and its subsequent first reading in February 1870, and was entering the initial stages of what was to be a long controversy on the subject between him and the duke of Argyll.

Much of Gladstone's intense correspondence with Laura of October and November 1869 was conducted while at home with Catherine during several long periods at Hawarden. Whether the mounting relationship with Thistlethwayte was beginning to have an effect on his ability to sleep is unclear but writing to Catherine from 10 Downing Street on 7 December he recalled having had odd dreams ‘that you and I were engaged on a Sunday to dine with the King of Prussia at Cologne’.70

Indicative of further gossip about Laura among politicians was diary comment in December 1869 by Lord Derby. He referred to his shock at the report that Gladstone was keeping the company of Mrs. Thistlethwayte, ‘a kept woman in her youth’, and at Gladstone's ‘indifference to scandal’. Derby could scarcely believe that he was to stay in the Thistlethwayte's country house, ‘she not being visited or received in society’.71 This referred to a weekend at the Thistlethwayte's Dorset house from 11 December, attended also by Kinnaird. Kinnaird made the arrangements for the two men while dining at Grosvenor Square: ‘They expect us on Saturday the 11th at Boveridge – we could go down by the 11.40 train. Possibly Mrs Thistlethwayte may be going by that train and we should then go together.’ He suggested that Gladstone arrange to stay there ‘till Monday evening and come up late so as to get a look at their lovely country’.72 Catherine Gladstone was informed briefly beforehand: ‘My own C . . . Tomorrow we go down to Dorsetshire. AK and I with Mrs Th. Mr Th I believe went today . . . Ever your affte WEG.’ The three met at Waterloo and reached Boveridge together at three o’clock in heavy rain. He told Catherine, in a letter while there, that he had not intended to write to her but felt compelled to share ‘the grave news he had received from the Duke of Argyll at Inveraray regarding the Duchess's serious illness and Argyll's intention to resign’.73

Boveridge was the emotional high point of their relationship to date and Gladstone must have known that it would be. He appeared unaware or unconcerned about possible gossip, informing Laura that he would like time with her for ‘quiet conversation’ and that if he went it must be without a servant.74 In addition to meeting the local vicar at dinner on the Saturday – this was followed by his reading aloud from Longfellow's poems – Gladstone saw Laura ‘several times’, presumably alone. Sunday was marked by attendance at Cranborne church in the morning and listening to a sermon at home by Capt. Thistlethwayte in the afternoon, but there was clearly also more opportunity for privacy. He recorded: ‘Mrs Th. came to my rooms aft. & at night. Walk with her.’75

After returning from Boveridge to London on the Monday evening to join Catherine, he made a significant comment in his diary: ‘How very far I was at first from understanding her history and also her character.’76 While her apparently increasingly passionate letters of October had encouraged the attraction between the two, this appears to have been somewhat different. It could be regarded as a turning point between the excitement, titillation, self-analysis and ‘evil temptation’ in the months before, and the more serious feelings for her in the years to follow. Once back at Carlton House Terrace Gladstone wrote on 16 December one of his most affectionate letters yet: ‘On the journey to London I thought of you all the way while I made up for sleep . . . ’. He referred to the ‘intimacy which now prevails between us’. Two days later he recounted: ‘The dream! . . . the little group of images that dwell in my memory. L driving, L riding, L in red, L in red and black as she walked on Sunday.’ He also referred to ‘those rooms which were my home’. To recall the weighty word (love) was now, he said, beyond his power.77 To what extent Laura's other admirer, Arthur Kinnaird, was aware of the relationship between the two is unclear.

Matthew considers that there was nothing again as emotional as that weekend, that Laura subsequently became embarrassing in her claim for sympathy, and that Gladstone continued only because he felt bound to help her. These comments should be questioned. Certainly, in the spring of 1870 her problematic marriage was beginning to trouble him. However, it was his own ambivalence that caused him most difficulty. He eventually informed her in August that on her domestic life he had already said all he had to say. His natural inclination was morally to support and advise her in maintaining the marriage. He was most concerned about her reference to possible ‘separation’.78 Certainly, any possibility of marital separation between the Thistlethwaytes – whether or not related to Gladstone – would have brought undesirable implications for him. However, there was more to his anguish, for it would seem that with Laura's increasing love for him came his own deepening feelings. He referred to her ‘hunger of the heart. Do I not feel for it? . . . I can say with truth that to me it would be a lively gratification to minister to your weal’; but she must, he said, remember the ‘hard conditions of his life’.79 Gladstone was now under intense political pressure. As prime minister in his first administration he had been involved with the Irish Land Bill of the previous year and was now busy with such major political undertakings as the Education Act and the serious implications of the Franco-Prussian War.

Gladstone's personal ambivalence about Laura's marriage continued into 1871. He informed her in March that he would like to have been able to move her towards a fuller communion in her married life, yet then suggested that they meet after ten o’clock the following Wednesday evening.80 In addition, there was distinct conflict in his continuing to see Laura while at the same time having strong feelings about the sanctity of marriage. In The Mind of Gladstone, David Bebbington describes Gladstone's vehement opposition to divorce and his view that marriage was ‘the one cardinal test of Christian civilization’. Bebbington states that Gladstone also believed that the stability of society rested on the permanence of the family.81

Added to this conflict was the unease that Gladstone must have experienced on reading Elleray Lake's Longleat, published in August 1870 (he passed it immediately to Laura when he had finished it). The book told the tragic story of a young married woman, Helena, who had fallen in love with Mr. Ross, friend of her husband, Earl Cranford. The lovers ran away together, with the inevitable disastrous consequences. Gladstone may have identified Helena with Laura and so gained further understanding of his own situation. Lake wrote of the lovers: ‘Control was out of the question, beyond his power and beyond her own. Her old wild impetuosity, which had slumbered, was not dead. It came leaping, defying danger, consequences, husband – aye the whole world.’82 The story shows that Helena loved Ross because he first showed her ‘how to live a life worth living’. He loved her as a woman while her husband loved her ‘only as a child or toy for his careless hours or companionship’. She hoped to become worthy of Ross's love –‘she has given her heart’. Whether Laura felt herself mirrored in Longleat is unknown but she did ask why she had been asked to read it. Apparently uncertain of his own reasons, Gladstone merely stated that he wished to know her views about the author's handling of an ‘interesting character, abnormal marriage, a great transgression and a noble repentance’.83

As a result of Gladstone's conviction, during the intensity of the autumn of 1869, that he had hurt Laura's feelings, he addressed her more intimately in letters from 20 October 1869 to mid 1878 as ‘Dear Broken Reed’ and ‘Wounded Spirit’; this was shortened subsequently to ‘Dear Spirit’, the term he employed until the late eighteen-seventies. In general, his letters between 1870 and 1875 were shorter than before and expressed less obvious signs of temptation or self-revelation, but this was undoubtedly connected to the fact that the two no longer needed to write as often; they could now meet alone in one of Laura's rooms. Gladstone had recorded on 17 November 1869 that when he visited her at ten p.m. he was ‘lionised over her pretty room’.84 There are later references to both her ‘drawing room’ and ‘her sitting room’‘where I have seen you a few times’.85 In January 1871 he reminded her that he would trust her until she informed him that it was no longer safe.86 Indeed, confirming that the emotion between them was little changed is the fact that over thirty meetings with Laura in the eighteen-seventies are marked in the Diaries with the symbolic ‘X’. For example, he travelled from Hawarden to London on 12 February 1875 and saw Laura in the afternoon, necessitating the written ‘X’ symbol of moral temptation; and on 25 February he recorded having lunch with her and returning to her ‘late’, followed again by the ‘X’.87

Gladstone's increasing irritability in the Commons, previously noted by Carnarvon in 1866, was also recorded by Derby in April 1872, a situation now rumoured to be connected with an ‘overworked brain’.88 However, whether directly linked or not – such factors cannot be dismissed lightly – the prime minister's thoughts must have been with Laura much of the time. For example, he wrote to her not only while in London and Hawarden and during visits to the queen at Balmoral, Windsor and Osborne, but also while visiting such people as Sir Walter James at Betteshanger, Kent and Lord Granville at Walmer Castle. He also had on his mind Laura's voyage to Egypt between February and April 1872 and certain ‘rescue’ cases. He heard on 27 January that Sir William Gull, her physician, had advised Egypt for Laura's health. Although well occupied – speaking in the Commons, attending cabinet meetings and sitting for the photographer J. P. Mayall – Gladstone fitted in five visits to Grosvenor Square during the two weeks before her departure, recording the ‘X’ in his diary on all but the final occasion. As mentioned above, it was on bidding her farewell on Sunday 9 February that he expressed some relief ‘that she goes’. In four long letters to her while away – including one from the house of commons – he described imagining her in the many places that he himself had visited in the past: ‘I have travelled with you on each of your day's journeys.’ Of her route through Italy, he noted: ‘You must not let Egypt banish Italy from your heart.’89

There are two points of note here: on the one hand, Gladstone may have experienced some temporary relief at Laura's departure because of an underlying sense of personal guilt or apprehension; on the other, he faced the full psychological force of his own sense of temptation. He may already have known that he would continue their relationship after her return, but there are clear indications of his conflicted emotions: no sooner had Laura left than he started to write the long letters to her and he also met more ‘rescue’ cases. By mid April he had met eleven women who were either prostitutes or courtesans, six of which occasions warranted the ‘X’ symbol. Such meetings took place only occasionally after Laura's return. The behaviour recorded by Carnarvon in June 1866 and now by Derby might even challenge Matthew's assumption that Gladstone maintained balance, self-control and resilience during his relationship with Laura.90

In 1875 Gladstone had further distractions. He resigned the Liberal leadership – though remaining, as stated by Matthew, ‘an elemental political force’.91 He had to sell 11 Carlton House Terrace, his London house of over twenty years. In addition, he faced Catherine's views on his solitary visits to Grosvenor Square; it is unlikely that Catherine was aware of their frequency or intensity but she was clearly concerned at their occurrence. Possibly the first she knew of these was when Gladstone informed her in January of sitting for Mrs. Thistlethwayte, ‘at great inconvenience’ to himself, for a bust in clay. He then reported on the latter's talent for sculpture, the admiration of the piece by others and the creator's plan to present the bust to Catherine and to donate the money from casts to her charitable homes. Unprepared for his wife's obvious anxiety he tried to defend himself: ‘let me relieve you from your natural misapprehension about Mrs Th. . . . That clay was destroyed and she made the present bust without my sitting at all.’ He had only mentioned one visit but by July Catherine appears to have been advised – by an unidentified ‘Lady (?J)’– that he limit these. ‘Did I understand you that Lady (?J) recommended that I should not go often or so often to 15 G Square’, he wrote.92 Yet he remained undeterred.

There was one further event which was equally, if not more, emotional for Gladstone than the Boveridge weekend. This was a stay of four days from 1 October 1875 at Earl Bathurst's Oakley Park, Cirencester. Gladstone was invited on Laura's initiative.93 He was keen to attend but informed Laura of his uncertainty in view of having to withdraw from ‘entertainment’ because of his brother's death and subsequent funeral on 27 September. He included a brief but touching description of Robertson Gladstone in his letter but decided to persist with the arrangements.94 He was welcomed at the station by a small crowd who had heard of his impending arrival and was ably entertained thereafter by Bathurst with games of whist, reading of hymns and visits to the agricultural college, Chedworth Villa, and to all parts of his ‘vast and noble park’. On writing to Catherine he referred to the guests but did not mention Laura or the fact that he intended to travel afterwards with her and others to Gloucester and Worcester cathedrals on his way back to Hawarden.95 The guests included Lord Cobham, Melita and Julia Ponsonby, and Laura's friend, the artist J. Herbert.

Of most significance in Gladstone's personal record is that here, at Oakley Park, there was a strong suggestion of deeper intimacy with Laura Thistlethwayte. Matthew comments that nothing of the crisis at Boveridge in 1869 was repeated yet, for this later weekend, he omits Gladstone's precise wording. He states that Gladstone recorded having three separate conversations. The Diaries, however, refer not to ‘conversations’ but to three separate visits: ‘Sat. Saw Mrs Th. Visit 1. S[unday]– ev[enin]g. Mrs Th. No 2. M[onday]. Mrs Th. No 3.’ This was followed by: ‘It was worth remembering; she gained I trust a victory.’96

Whether the visits were his or hers, and the precise nature of the victory, are not readily apparent. A letter to Laura of 6 October, not discussed by his biographers, is equally difficult to interpret. Gladstone asked her to accept his acknowledgement of ‘the rare truthfulness of spirit and courage’ that she had shown. He then spoke of a word she had used, ‘humbling’, to which he took exception:

There may be something humbling when that is withheld, which it is optional to give, but not when there is, in honour and faith, no option. . . . This however makes no deduction from the admiring acknowledgement I make – I feel that you achieved a greater triumph. Most earnestly I hope that the gracious Father may enable (you) to keep that which He has enabled you to gain.

He assured her that in this thought and prayer he could never change. Oakley Park would be remembered by him, for itself, and for more than itself.97 As with Boveridge, it is impossible to know what this weekend meant to the pair. With regard to the former occasion, Gladstone had shown surprise at Laura's later comment, in September 1871, that it was only two years previously that she had ‘become a woman’ which, whatever it implied, would have coincided approximately with that first weekend.98 With Oakley Park, it appears that there may have been even more depth of shared emotion – and possibly, therefore, temptation and anguish – than at any time previously.

In this context it is necessary to refer also to Gladstone's much later ‘marriage bed’ declaration, prepared on 7 December 1896 in the presence of his eldest surviving son Stephen, rector of Hawarden, to be used if necessary after his death. This stated:

with reference to rumours which I believe were at one time afloat though I know not with what degree of currency: and also with reference to the time when I shall not be here to answer for myself: I desire to record my solemn declaration and assurance as in the light of God and before his judgement seat that at no period of my life have I been guilty of the act which is known as that of infidelity to the marriage bed. I limit myself to this negation . . . 99

The words ‘at no period’ could be said to include Laura Thistlethwayte, in which case, in spite of clear affection and temptation between the pair at this time, there was no infidelity at either Boveridge or Oakley Park. Alternatively, ‘rumours’ undoubtedly referred to certain prostitutes and courtesans and this may indeed have been all that the declaration was meant to encompass.

The wording of both the declaration and the Oakley Park letter, like much of Gladstone's writing, could be considered ambiguous. As in speech, he selected his form of words with extreme care. While there may be no untruth, neither is there necessarily truth in its entirety or in an easily definable context. Statements which might on their own have one meaning become vague and uncertain when linked to additional qualifying wording. Matthew bases on this declaration his view that, although Laura fulfilled the other functions of that office, she was not Gladstone's mistress in a physical sense. Travis L. Crosby, like Matthew and Jenkins, considers that it was self-control that saved Gladstone but also, and questionably, that maintaining control would have been relatively easy for a man of sixty with a ‘settled pattern of domestic life’.100 Jenkins, although referring to the earlier Boveridge weekend as ‘that Dorset weekend, with whatever intimacies did or did not take place’, describes Gladstone as bicycling towards the edge of a cliff without much risk or intention of going over.101 We cannot know precisely what occurred at Boveridge or whether Gladstone did go over the cliff; without Laura's letters for this period, or any awareness of the pair's spoken words, no fuller understanding of the circumstances is possible.

In February 1893, aged eighty-four, Gladstone burnt what must have been Laura's most emotional correspondence. The majority of her extant letters – these are largely unsorted and undated – are legible and it is possible from their content to identify that they do not belong to the most intimate period between August 1869 and 1875. The missing correspondence can therefore be considered to be her ‘love’ letters. In destroying these he chose to forget not only the relationship's early intensity but also his earlier view that burning was ‘dangerous’ in removing ‘a bridle’ and that they should be retained: ‘Burned my box of Mrs Thistlethwayte's older letters . . . They would lead to misapprehension: it was in the main a one-sided correspondence: not easy to understand.’102 Matthew presumes that Gladstone referred to ‘one-sided’ because the substantial letters were his. However, the opposite is equally or more likely: that Gladstone wanted to believe, in retrospect, that Laura's more emotional letters bore greater blame for the relationship than his. In apparent denial of their original significance he now felt the need to dismiss them totally in his own mind and all that they had meant to him. He may also have considered it pertinent to defend himself and place this remark ‘on record’. The correspondence had not been one-sided for him at the time, as shown by his own prolific letter-writing and by his description of certain of Laura's writings as having ‘that remarkable written detail which . . . I cannot forget’.103

There are interesting comparisons to be made between Gladstone's letters to Laura Thistlethwayte and those to his wife Catherine. With regard to the former, there can be few letters from Gladstone to anyone which demonstrate such a wide range of personal fascination and temptation, excitement and frustration, yet, at the same time, in his desire to understand her, a caring, gentle and, occasionally, sad tone. In contrast, letters to Catherine reveal ongoing devotion, duty and a deep sense of family commitment, focusing on such matters as births, deaths and marriages and their children's educational activities and careers. Husband and wife corresponded during periods of enforced separation throughout their marriage, with Catherine usually at Hawarden and Gladstone either in London or visiting the country homes of colleagues. However, it is apparent from Gladstone's letters that he was unable at this time to sustain the same degree of loving concern for Catherine's health and welfare that she offered him or that he, in turn, demonstrated at times to Laura. He occasionally informed Catherine that he missed her. For example, he wrote from the University Club in February 1858: ‘My own Cathie, What would I give to have you here or come to you this night . . . In hours of great joy as well as great sorrow it is very sad to be away from you.’104 Such comment from her husband was infrequent after he met Laura Thistlethwayte, but Catherine continued to miss him throughout. On 1 October 1869 she stated: ‘how I long to be with you and quiet’; and in January 1871 she wrote from Hatfield House, attending a ball without him and perturbed, with snow falling, that he would not be arriving for several days. In June 1874, she wrote from Hawarden: ‘My own, Your departure makes a fresh gap. Oh how one clings to you.’105

Whether Gladstone found it difficult to correspond with Catherine and Laura simultaneously, and just how much he referred verbally about one to the other, is not known but there were, on occasion, letters written at the same time from Gladstone to Laura and from Catherine to Gladstone. For example, on 1 October 1869, he wrote from Hawarden to tell Laura that, in his determination to read immediately the instalments of her autobiography, he was at risk of ‘being put a little past’ his sleep. While he lost sleep over Laura, he received a message from Catherine, briefly away from home: ‘My own darling . . . go to bed at half past eleven please. God bless you darling.’106 At approximately the same time as Catherine wrote to him in June 1874 saying that she missed him, Gladstone, due to arrive in London, was writing to Laura to suggest a luncheon date at her house.107

Although there is much self-exploration and disclosure in letters to Laura at this time, Gladstone is sparing of comment on his daily political life. He informed her at an early stage that he would never give ‘reasons’ if unable to meet her. This is in contrast to letters to Catherine which include not only regular political news but secrets and confidences concerning political engagements and fellow members of parliament. For example: ‘We go to Irish Land on Tuesday. Mens minds are moving in the right direction.’108 In letters to his wife there is little evidence of a facility on Gladstone's part with romantic expression or, for that matter, insight into a woman's feelings. This is particularly noticeable in his lengthy written marriage proposal to Catherine of 17 January 1839 and subsequent courting letters. Where a proposal might be expected to profess affection or love, that to Catherine was concerned primarily with seeking a wife. His meaning is clear: ‘I address you dear Miss Glynne in terms below my desire yet perhaps beyond my right . . . My heart and hand are at your disposal.’109 Magnus notes a ‘breathless and tortuous style’.110 There is also an early sign of self doubt: ‘I seek for much in a wife . . . and am also sensible that she can find little in me.’ This may have been due to a lack of confidence after having been rejected by two other women previously. However, such doubt does not equal the terminology of self denigration contained thirty years later in letters to Laura concerning her autobiography: ‘If I were to send you the counterpart of what you have sent me, I should certainly repel you.’111

After Catherine's agreement to marriage Gladstone was more expressive, addressing her as ‘Beloved Catherine’ and, on 29 June 1839, replying to her letter: ‘Dearest and Sweetest Catherine . . . never as I trust will you speak such words without their finding in my breast a clear and faithful echo.’112 The majority of his letters thereafter were addressed ‘My own Cathie’ (or Catherine) or ‘My dearest Cathie’ while – increasingly from 1862 – he wrote simply ‘My own C’. Most end with the term ‘Your affte “WEG”’. During the eighteen-sixties and seventies Catherine's letters employ such terms as ‘My most precious’, ‘My own treasure’, ‘My own’ and ‘My darling’– closing with ‘Your own wifie’ or, more often, ‘Your own CG’.

In spite of Gladstone's fascination, attraction, care and concern his letters to Laura Thistlethwayte, as with earlier courting letters to Catherine, cannot be described as ‘romantic’. Although for much of this ten-year period he struggled, perhaps not surprisingly, to understand Laura's changing moods and emotional needs, part of that struggle was his effort to communicate personally with a woman on a level at which, undoubtedly, he had little previous experience. Until the autumn of 1869 Gladstone addressed his letters ‘Dear Mrs Thistlethwayte’ but, as discussed above, with the increasing intensity which then occurred he started to use the term ‘Dear Spirit’, which he employed throughout the period in question. The majority of the extant letters from Laura, before the autumn of 1869, bear no salutation.

In comparing Gladstone's relationship with Laura and those with certain other women it can be seen that there are some similarities but many differences. In connection with his wife Catherine, the duchess of Sutherland and some of the ‘rescue’ cases this was mainly because of the contrasting nature of the relationships and the different stages of Gladstone's life. His relationship with the duchess of Sutherland, member of one of the most prominent and wealthy Whig families, close to Queen Victoria as mistress of the robes until 1861 and four years Gladstone's senior, for example, could not have been more different from that with Laura Thistlethwayte. The respectability of this particular friendship, lasting for approximately twenty years until her death in 1868, was recognized within aristocratic and parliamentary circles. Argyll, her son-in-law, whom Gladstone met frequently at the duchess's Cliveden residence, among such guests as Earl Grosvenor, Alfred Tennyson and the bishop of Oxford, stated ‘his rich and abundant nature overflowed in his conversation, and the high interests of which it was full were just those to captivate her generous, sympathetic and appreciative character’.113 Gladstone's letters to her – now lost but selectively printed by Morley – are more factual than those to Laura, concerning politics, family, holidays, social engagements and literature. Matthew considers that, although very different, Laura partially filled the space left by the death of the dowager duchess in 1868. Gladstone would certainly have found difficulty in managing both situations simultaneously.

Finally, no reference to ‘other women’ in Gladstone's life would be complete without mention of those ‘rescue’ cases with whom he appears to have experienced a compulsive need for solitary meetings. Such meetings were separate to that part of the work undertaken officially with Catherine. Most are recorded by name and the letter ‘R’ in the Diaries, and some are marked by the symbolic ‘X’. Although the ‘X’ was often recorded after meetings with Laura she was not a ‘rescue’ case.

In this re-examination of previous interpretations of the relationship between Gladstone and Laura Thistlethwayte for the period 1865–75, certain evidence has been assessed more rigorously than before; in addition, both new and previously omitted information has been included. This relationship was closer, more equal and more emotionally challenging to Gladstone than his biographers have portrayed. Gladstone had free choice about its continuation and at no point appears seriously to have considered withdrawing from it. Detailed discussion by those biographers writing since publication of the Gladstone Diaries, and especially that by Matthew, has added considerably to the historian's knowledge. However, the suggestion that Gladstone was tempted by the worldly Thistlethwayte, and bound within the relationship by personal benevolence, naivety or romanticism, must be regarded as continuing the protection of Gladstone's reputation. Although much of Thistlethwayte's correspondence was burnt, there is some indication from Gladstone's own writings that this may not necessarily have been the entirely platonic relationship previously suggested. Within the evidence available, however, much of which is ambiguous, there cannot be a definitive statement on the matter. Gladstone was a master of ambiguity. He was careful in his writings not to lay himself open to possible accusation. He was economical with the truth, his words were selected carefully and some consequent difficulty in interpretation may have been his intention.

Although in the eighteen-eighties, with Gladstone in his seventies, his friendship with Laura Thistlethwayte lost its earlier intensity it was, until October 1875, more important to him than his biographers allow. Her significance has been underestimated. She offered not only interest, conversation, appreciation and professed love but also a tantalizing emotional need of her own. Apart from a few minor favours for family and friends she sought little beyond Gladstone's personal affection and the opportunity to be with him alone.114 It is likely that, initially, there was for Gladstone a mix of sexual attraction and curiosity followed by a genuine wish to help with Laura's marriage problems and in raising her name socially. The situation then became more serious than intended. Above all, this was a woman the like of whom Gladstone may not previously have encountered and may long have sought, and for whom he clearly had a complex affection and desire. Although warned by colleagues, he deliberately chose to continue the relationship at considerable personal and political risk, considering he was then prime minister in his first administration. Algernon West, his private secretary, later stated of Gladstone ‘After years of intimacy, private and official, I have never felt capable of adequately depicting a hundredth part of his complex character’.115 Indeed, it is the fact that much about this relationship remains both a mystery and part of that complexity that continues to make it intriguing.


  • 1

     J. Morley, Life of Gladstone (3 vols., 1903).

  • 2

     J. P. Gardiner, ‘Gladstone, gossip and the post-war generation’, Hist. Research, lxxiv (2001), 40924, at p. 411.

  • 3

     The Gladstone Diaries, ed. M. R. D. Foot and H. C. G. Matthew (13 vols., Oxford, 1968–94) (hereafter Gladstone Diaries), viii. 570, Gladstone to Thistlethwayte, 25 Oct. 1869. (Volumes of the Diaries referred to here are among those edited by H. C. G. Matthew (v–xiii). References to the Gladstone Diaries with date only concern Gladstone's daily diary entries. Those in volumes viii and xii with date and page reference concern letters between Gladstone and Thistlethwayte, held by Lambeth Palace Library and selected for publication by the editor, H. C. G. Matthew).

  • 4

     The duchess of Sutherland is referred to by her son (R. Gower, My Reminiscences (2 vols., 1883), i. 160, 317). ‘Rescue work’ with ‘fallen women’ was undertaken partly with his wife, but often alone.

  • 5

     H. C. G. Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98 (Oxford, 1997), p. 242.

  • 6

     Gladstone Diaries, vii, 9 Nov., 29 Dec. 1869.

  • 7

     The Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton, 1880–5, ed. D. W. R. Bahlman (2 vols., Oxford, 1972) (hereafter Hamilton Diary), ii. 797.

  • 8

     Diary comment by Carnarvon, Derby and Hamilton will be referred to individually below. S. Bradford, Disraeli (1982), p. 338.

  • 9

     Accounts include C. A. Pearl, The Girl with the Swansdown Seat (1955); F. C. Burnand, Records and Reminiscences: Personal and General (2 vols., 1904); H. J. Coke, Tracks of a Rolling Stone (1905); H. Blyth, Skittles: the Last Victorian Courtesan (1970).

  • 10

     Hamilton Diary, i. 221; the warning to Gladstone from Rosebery was at an unknown date before Feb. 1882.

  • 11

     Morley, i. 6.

  • 12

    The Wright Case is discussed in Gardiner, pp. 409–24.

  • 13

    Gladstone Diaries, v and vii include specific editorial comment on Thistlethwayte; viii and xii include a selection of Gladstone's letters to her.

  • 14

    R. Jenkins, Gladstone (1995 edn.); Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98; R. Shannon, Gladstone: Peel's Inheritor, 1809–65 (1999); and R. Shannon, Gladstone: Heroic Minister, 1865–98 (1999 edn.). The subject is also discussed by T. L. Crosby, The Two Mr Gladstones: a Study in Psychology and History (New Haven, Conn., 1997).

  • 15

    Reference to Laura Thistlethwayte as a prostitute is made in Blyth, but reliable evidence is lacking. The publication by Gilliland is the only one entirely concerned with Thistlethwayte but, as it is largely based on accounts by such authors as Pearl, Burnand and Coke, much of the comment is unsubstantiated and some inconsistent (J. Gilliland, Gladstone's ‘Dear Spirit’, Laura Thistlethwayte (published privately, Oxford, 1994)).

  • 16

    Gladstone Diaries, xii. 435, WEG to LT, 24, 21 Aug. 1870 (the date on the original letter is 21 Aug. but in the appendix to the Diaries it has been mistakenly transcribed as 31 Aug.). British Library, Loan 57, piece 99, Bathurst Diary, 29 Nov. 1870.

  • 17

    London, Lambeth Palace Library, Gladstone Papers (hereafter Gladstone Papers), MS. 2767 fo. 23, Laura Thistlethwayte to W. E. Gladstone, 3 Feb. 1866.

  • 18

    Shannon, Gladstone: Heroic Minister, 1865–98, p. 79.

  • 19

    Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98, p. 240.

  • 20

    Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98, pp. 242–3, 322; Jenkins, p. 308.

  • 21

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 564, 19 Oct. 1869.

  • 22

    Burke's Landed Gentry (1855), p. 1194. He was half-brother of one of Hampshire's largest landowners.

  • 23

    F. Boase, Modern English Biography (3 vols., 2nd impression, 1965) iii. 922. Arthur Thistlethwayte is said to have been ‘a sort of partner’ of Frederick Gye and Brownlow William Knox, M.P. for Marlow, in an operatic enterprise at Covent Garden in 1853, bringing in a sum of £12,000 (see Boase, i. 1267, ii. 2611).

  • 24

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2761 fo. 56, WEG to LT, May 1868; MS. 2767 fos. 96–7, LT to WEG, 26 July 1868. William Lennox, 5th Earl Bathurst, William Richard, 4th Earl Annesley and Welbore Ellis Agar, 2nd Earl Normanton (son of the archbishop of Dublin), whom Laura described as a father to her. Annesley was said by Laura's friend Lady Pringle to have had ‘a great influence on Laura's destiny in early life’ (Brit. Libr., Additional MS. 44444, Pringle to WEG, 12 Aug. 1874).

  • 25

    Brit. Libr., Loan 57, pieces 99, 100, Bathurst Diary, 20 Nov. 1870, 26 March 1874.

  • 26

    Gladstone Diaries, ix. 663.

  • 27

    F. Leveson Gower, Bygone Years: Recollections (1905), p. 296.

  • 28

    Brit. Libr., Add. MS. 44230 fos. 85–6, Kinnaird to Gladstone, 11 Aug. 1874; Jenkins, p. 310.

  • 29

    Brit. Libr., Add. MS. 44230 fos. 116–18, Kinnaird to Gladstone, 25 Nov. 1875.

  • 30

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2762, fos. 9–10, WEG to LT, 11 Jan. 1870.

  • 31

    Royal Blue Book (1860), p. 121.

  • 32

    Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98, p. 543.

  • 33

    Coke, pp. 334–6; Gladstone Papers, MS. 2768, n.d. Laura also told Gladstone about her husband entertaining some of ‘Lord Derby's party’ and fearing that they might influence him.

  • 34

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2763 fos. 48–51, WEG to LT, 30 Aug. 1872. This included Thistlethwayte's approaches to two of Laura's titled friends.

  • 35

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2770 fo. 104, Thistlethwayte obituary notice 1887; Coke, p. 337.

  • 36

    In his discussion of the event Shannon considers that it was suicide (Shannon, Gladstone: Heroic Minister, p. 468).  

  • 37

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 564, WEG to LT, 19 Oct. 1869.

  • 38

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2767 fo. 36, LT to WEG, 23 Jan. (1865); MS. 2763 fo. 9, WEG to LT, 11 March 1872.

  • 39

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2767 fos. 36–7, LT to WEG, 23 Jan. (1865); Gladstone Diaries, vi, 5 Feb. 1865.

  • 40

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2767 fo. 98, LT to WEG, May 1868.

  • 41

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2761 fos. 19–20, WEG to LT, 30 Oct. 1865.

  • 42

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2761 fos. 25–6, 43, WEG to LT, 26 Jan. 1866, 15 May 1867.

  • 43

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2767 fo. 36, LT to WEG, n.d.

  • 44

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2763 fo. 9, WEG to LT, 11 March 1872.

  • 45

    Brit. Libr., Add. MS. 60897, Carnarvon Diary, fo. 24, 9 June 1866.

  • 46

    Gladstone Diaries, vii, 2 July 1869. The ‘X’ symbol is believed to record moral temptation.

  • 47

    Gladstone Diaries, vii, 11 Nov. 1869.

  • 48

    Hawarden, St. Deiniol's Library, Glynne-Gladstone (hereafter Glynne-Gladstone) MS. 619, Catherine Gladstone to WEG, 7 Jan., 4 Sept. 1869. Reference is made to the Glynne-Gladstone papers by permission of Mr. C. A. Gladstone.

  • 49

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 580, WEG to LT, 16 Dec. 1869.

  • 50

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2763 fos. 48–51, 30 Aug. 1872.

  • 51

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2761 fos. 19–20, WEG to LT, 30 Oct. 1865; MS. 2762 fos. 9–10, 11 Jan. 1870.

  • 52

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 559, WEG to LT, 1 Oct. 1869.

  • 53

    Daily Telegraph, Saturday 12 Aug. 1871. Glynne-Gladstone MS. 778, WEG to CG, 10 Aug. 1871.

  • 54

    Son of the duke of Newcastle. Gladstone Diaries, viii. 564, WEG to LT, 18 Oct. 1869. Matthew states that the correspondence was probably recovered by Gladstone's son Henry (Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98, p. 617).

  • 55

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 564, 569, WEG to LT, 18, 23 Oct. 1869.

  • 56

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2761 fos. 11–16, WEG to LT, 30 July 1865; MS. 2767 fos. 2–13, LT to WEG, n.d.

  • 57

    Gilliland, pp. 11–12.

  • 58

    Laura Thistlethwayte mentions both the Kintores and makes personal comment on ‘K’. Matthew has assumed that this refers to Kinnaird but it is far more likely to refer to Kintore.

  • 59

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2767 fos. 124–5, LT to WEG, 17 March or May 1869; MS. 2763 fo. 3, WEG to LT, 15 Feb. 1872.

  • 60

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2761 fo. 167, WEG to LT, 5 Dec. 1869, where he refers to pt. xxviii.

  • 61

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2761 fo. 84, WEG to LT, Balmoral, 18 Sept. 1869.

  • 62

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 561, WEG to LT, 7 Oct. 1869.

  • 63

    Jenkins, p. 308; Gladstone Diaries, viii. 568, WEG to LT, 22 Oct. 1869.

  • 64

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 570, WEG to LT, 25 Oct. 1869.

  • 65

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 560, WEG to LT, 5 Oct. 1869.

  • 66

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 572–3, WEG to LT, 27, 28 Oct. 1869.

  • 67

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 567–8, WEG to LT, 22 Oct. 1869.

  • 68

    Gladstone Diaries, vii, 14 Nov. 1869.

  • 69

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2762 fos. 148, 157, 169–70, WEG to LT, 27 March 1871, 28 Apr. 1871, 7 July 1871.

  • 70

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 777, WEG to CG, 7 Dec. 1869.

  • 71

    Disraeli, Derby and the Conservative Party: Journals and Memoirs of Edward Henry, Lord Stanley, 1849–69, ed. J. Vincent (Hassocks, 1978), p. 346.

  • 72

    Brit. Libr., Add. MS. 44230 fos. 58–9, Kinnaird to Gladstone, 26 Nov. 1869.

  • 73

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 777, WEG to CG, 10, 11 Dec. 1869.

  • 74

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 577, WEG to LT, 13 Nov. 1869.

  • 75

    Gladstone Diaries, vii, Saturday 11 to Monday 13 Dec. 1869.

  • 76

    Gladstone Diaries, vii, 13 Dec. 1869.

  • 77

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 579–80, 581, WEG to LT, 16, 18 Dec. 1869.

  • 78

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2763 fos. 48–51, 30 Aug. 1872.

  • 79

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2762, WEG to LT, 21 Aug. 1870 (mistakenly transcribed in the Diaries as 31 Aug.).

  • 80

    Gladstone Diaries, xii. 442, 26 March 1871.

  • 81

    D. Bebbington, The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer and Politics (Oxford, 2004), pp. 271–2.

  • 82

    E. Lake, Longleat (3 vols., 1870), ii.

  • 83

    Gladstone Diaries, xii. 436, 21 Aug. 1870 (labelled incorrectly in transcription as 31 Aug.).

  • 84

    Gladstone Diaries, vii, 17 Nov. 1869; this must have been 10 p.m., as he was visiting the king of the Belgians at 10 a.m.

  • 85

    Gladstone Diaries, xii. 442, WEG to LT, 26 March 1871.

  • 86

    Gladstone Diaries, xii. 440, WEG to LT, 1 Jan. 1871.

  • 87

    Gladstone Diaries, ix, 12, 25 Feb. 1875.

  • 88

    The Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby (1826–93), ed. J. Vincent (Camden, 5th ser., iv, 1994), pp. 105–6, 29 Apr. 1872 .

  • 89

    Gladstone Diaries, xii, WEG to LT, 15 Feb., 1 March, 9, 24 Apr. 1872.

  • 90

    Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98, p. 242.

  • 91

    Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98, p. 256.

  • 92

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 779, WEG to CG, 9 Jan., 17 Feb., 3, 12 March, 20 May, 3 July 1875.

  • 93

    Brit. Libr., Loan 57, piece 100, Bathurst Diary, 1–2 Oct. 1875; Gladstone Papers, MS. 2764 fo. 33, WEG to LT, 4 Sept. 1875.

  • 94

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2764 fos. 38–9, WEG to LT, Hawarden, 26 Sept. 1875.

  • 95

    Gloucester, Gloucestershire Record Office, Gloucestershire Chronicle, 9 Oct. 1875, p. 8.

  • 96

    Gladstone Diaries, ix, Friday 1 to Tuesday 5 Oct. 1875 (author's emphasis); Matthew, Gladstone 1809–98, p. 321.

  • 97

    Gladstone Diaries, xii. 475, WEG to LT, 6 Oct. 1875.

  • 98

    The date was 11–13 Dec. 1869.

  • 99

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2760 fo. 204, 7 Dec. 1896.

  • 100

    Crosby, p. 164. Gladstone's apparent emotional needs beyond his family at this time, resulting in numerous meetings with Laura away from Hawarden and Catherine, did not represent a settled pattern.

  • 101

    Jenkins, p. 311.

  • 102

    Gladstone Diaries, xiii, 25 Feb. 1893.

  • 103

    Gladstone Papers, MS. 2763 fos. 48–51, 30 Aug. 1872.

  • 104

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 774, WEG to CG, 21 Feb. 1858.

  • 105

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 619, 620, CG to WEG, Oct. 1869, Jan. 1871, June 1874.

  • 106

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 619, CG to WEG, 1 Oct. 1869.

  • 107

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 468, WEG to LT, 14 June 1874.

  • 108

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 777, WEG to CG, 10 Dec. 1869.

  • 109

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 769, WEG to CG, 17 Jan. 1839.

  • 110

    P. Magnus, Gladstone: a Biography (1954), pp. 38–9.

  • 111

    Gladstone Diaries, viii. 567–8, WEG to LT, 22 Oct. 1869.

  • 112

    Glynne-Gladstone MS. 769, WEG to CG, 29 June 1839.

  • 113

    The Duke of Argyll: Autobiography and Memoirs (2 vols., 1906), i. 479.

  • 114

    Personal invitations were sought for Lord Bathurst, for a reception of Catherine Gladstone, and, to Catherine's Ball, for the owner of Morley Hall, Norfolk, son of Capt. Thistlethwayte's cousin (Gladstone Papers, MS. 2767 fos. 110, 126–7, LT to WEG, 10, 17 May 1869).

  • 115

    A. West, Recollections 1832–86 (2 vols., 2nd edn., 1899), ii. 27.