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Gentle rebel was Gladstone's rock; Mary Gladstone was at the centre of world politics half a century before women had the vote. Penny Fray discovers why William Gladstone's daughter is about to become an icon for 21st century feminists.

MORE than 30 years before the Suffragettes chained themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace in their campaign for votes a Welsh woman was enjoying political influence only dreamed of by Sylvia Pankhurst and her daughters.

Mary Gladstone occupied a grey walled office at the heart of political power in Downing Street. Unelected and there by virtue of her father she nevertheless gained a political voice that was heard by some of the most influential names in history.

In silent awe the likes of Arthur Balfour and Lord Acton listened to her liberal opinions and admired her sharp intellect.

As daughter and private secretary to William Gladstone, the eminent Liberal Prime Minister,Mary was one of the most powerful women of the 1880s and 1890s. But she was oblivious to her political status.

She dealt with official correspondence,controlled access to the PM,and disseminated information to his ministers.

But flick through the brown speckled pages of any history book and you'll see no trace of her existence. Instead, you'll be told about how her father attempted to give home rule to Ireland and introduced domestic reforms such as universal male suffrage to an enlightened age.

But thanks to author Sheila Gooddie, who grew up in the shadow of Mary's home at Hawarden Castle, the gentle rebel's true place in Victorian history has been discovered and is being told to a modern female audience keen to rediscover women's history.

Joining the ranks of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her feminist essays, the efforts of the suffragettes and the new wave of feminists of the 1960s,is a new female revolutionary,finally making her mark in an exciting new biography.

And Sheila Goodie who has spent the last decade researching Mary Gladstone's life is astounded by the excitement her work has been met with by modern women brought up in a liberal and liberated age.

``It's strange how Mary Gladstone, a quintessentially Victorian young woman,eager to please, subservient, artistic and musically talented has become a political icon,'' she says. ``After all, she had no notion of feminism and little interest in upsetting the apple-cart. Yet, the political dimension to her life makes her a unique figure. She had her own office in Downing Street and often acted as a buffer zone between her father and ministers.

``It's difficult to figure out how influential Mary actually was. Certainly she had strong opinions, plus prominent men liked and listened to her but she had no interest in making a name for herself in the political field.''

But after poring over thousands ofletters,diaries and documents,Sheila has no doubt that Mary was Gladstone's rock and is shocked by history's oversight.

``It's taken me more than 10 years to write the biography because Mary seems to have been ignored in the history books,'' says Sheila. ``My research began with sifting through some of the 250,000 or so letters in Hawarden Castle, the National Library and the Gladstone family's private collection.''

Evidently, the 60-something grandmother of two is as tenacious as her subject matter. But she explains that she has had to be in order to complete her book. ``I'm determined,otherwise I would have given up on Mary Gladstone years ago,'' she says honestly.

Sheila's biggest challenge was to bring to life a figure made from the bare bones of correspondence and work beyond Mary's exciting liaisons. ``Mary didn't get married until she was 38 years old,'' says Sheila. ``Her husband Hallam Tennyson was a 28-year-old curate who moved into Hawarden Castle with her. He was supportive of the Gladstone family and devoted to his wife.''

Mary was indeed a female who had it all - a job she adored, the freedom to voice her own views, but most importantly, the entitlement to chose her own spouse. ``Unlike her peers, she refused to settle for second best,''explains Sheila. ``She wanted to marry for love not convenience. ``In her 20s there is evidence that she had fallen in love with senior politician Arthur Balfour and took years to get over him. There was also a platonic relationship with one of the Littleton cousins. We know this because correspondence suggests that her mother was concerned about the union. ``But generally, there seems to be an unwillingness to settle down before Tennyson. Perhaps because no man could compete with her father. After all, she adored Gladstone and saw him as a giant among men. It is only in old age she became aware of his human frailties.'' By focusing on a tale never told before,Sheila has succeeded to renew the reader's interest in Victorian history. And the interest in her biography has been illuminating. Perhaps modern day women have had their fill of chick lit and girl power and want to re-examine the roots of female struggle for equality.

``When working with the publishers, I was surprised how much Mary appealed to modern women,'' says Sheila. ``I suppose they see a bit of themselves in her.'' But for Sheila, the fascination is rooted in Mary's link to the Gladstones of Hawarden Castle.

``I grew up in the neighbouring village of Hawarden and started to hold a sympathy for this great figure who had evolved from being a modest young girl to a confident woman,'' she admits. The Cambridge-educated Gooddie has seen herself develop in a similar way to her subject. Despite devoting most of her life to family duties, she developed a passion for writing in her late 40s. She's already written the biography of the actress Annie Horniman and now plans to reveal another side to the American author May Farton,having met her a few years ago.

``I've always been fascinated by biographies. They're hard work but they can sometimes be as fascinating as fiction. That was certainly the case with Mary Gladstone,anyhow.''

April 24, 2003 DAILY POST

CAPTION(S):

The Gladstone family in 1894 at Hawarden Castle with Mary and her husband (back row centre); Picture: FLINTSHIRE RECORDS OFFICE; Picture: FLINTSHIRE RECORDS OFFICE; The Gladstone family in the 1870's with Mary pictured leaning againt the door frame; Writer Sheila Goodie who was inspired by Mary Gladstone (left)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 24, 2003
Words:1026
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