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The gentle Rebel; 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.

Byline: Penny Fray

THE world was at a point of transition between the Victorian age and the modern world. The Ottoman empire was in decline and the European states were jostling for power in Africa, while the proletariat was fighting for a better life.

But in a grey-walled office in Downing Street,one young woman found herself at the heart of an exciting era.

Half a century before women had the vote, Mary Gladstone had gained her political voice and 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 females in the 1880s and 1890s. But she was oblivious to her political status.

Shedealt with officialcorrespondence, 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 Liverpool-born father attempted to give home rule to Ireland and introduced domestic reforms such as universal male suffrage to an enlightened age.

But thanks to Cheshire author Sheila Gooddie, the gentle rebel's true place in Victorian history has been discovered and told to a salivating femaleaudience.

Sweeping aside the essays of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the efforts of the suffragettes and the new wave of feminists of the 1960s,a new female revolutionary has finally made her mark in an exciting new biography.

And Sheila, from Knutsford, is astounded by the excitement her work has injected among women.

``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 SWEEPING through thousands of letters, 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 becauseMary 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 privatecollection.''

Evidently, the 60-something grandmother of two is as tenacious as her subject matter. But explains 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. 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 HallamTennyson 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 tog et 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. Finally, chick-lit has been given some gravitas.

`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 in North Wales.

``I grew up in the neighbouring v illageof Hawarden and started to hold a sympathy for this great figure. She evolved from being a modest young girl to a confident woman.''

The Cambridge-educatedGooddie has seen herself metamorphisisein a similar way. Despite devoting most of her life to domestic duties, she developed a passion for writing in her late40s.

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.

``Back in the 1950s being a wife and mother was the goal,'' she explains. ``But in my late 40s I went back to university to study English and regained my love of words.

``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 withMary Gladstone,anyhow.'' 8 A Gentle Rebel by Sheila Gooddie is published on 24thApril (pounds 16.99)

CAPTION(S):

FEMINIST ICON: Sheila Gooddie has been surpised at the excitement generated by her new book on the life of a previously unknown politcal heroine.Below, William Gladstone
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 26, 2003
Words:988
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