Gladstone’s Library is situated in the beautiful and serene village of Hawarden, North Wales. It is easily reached by car and train (direct line from Liverpool) and it offers many country village ‘attractions’ such as local pubs and farmhouses with good food and drink, beautiful woods in which to work (permit required) and an imposing stone cross in the middle of the road. Hawarden is also home to Britain’s only Prime Ministerial Library, which is also residential. Gladstone, born in 1809, and Prime Minister from 1868–74, 1880–85, February–July 1886 and 1892–94, began building his library in 1889 and he designed it as a place of study and solitude for scholars, so they could access his substantial book collection and this remains its primary purpose to this day.
Set back from the road and hidden by trees, you have to enter the grounds to get a clear view of the magnificent façade of the building. Inside is just as beautiful. Turn right and you move down a corridor lined with paintings of William and Catherine Gladstone. You can then visit the restaurant which provides delicious lunches or afternoon tea, and evening meals (for its residences).
Alternatively, you can visit the ‘Gladstone Room’. Decorated with light green walls, heavy burgundy curtains and big comfy sofas, it is the perfect room to curl up and read a book, have a chat with a fellow guest, or have a drink from the honesty bar (yes, they are that welcoming, friendly and trusting). This is the room I enjoyed spending my evenings in; relaxing while studying is amazingly productive – and I was assured that in winter the open fire blazes with full force for extra comfort!
The other option is to turn left as you enter and head straight for the Library itself. Specifically built to house the Gladstone collection and other books that have been acquired over time, it still uses Gladstone’s own cataloguing system and recreates his own shelving designs to house the books as he saw fit. Again the welcoming and trusting atmosphere is felt even here as all of Gladstone’s personal books – with his annotations – are on open shelves for library users to take down and examine.
This is where my own research on Braddon comes in. Privileged to win one of their scholarships to research at the library for an entire week (this includes, bed, breakfast, evening meal and full access to the library 9am-10pm), I went to research Gladstone’s annotated copies of Braddon’s novels. Thus, having arrived, unpacked in my pleasant bedroom (I much admired the bookshelf wallpaper and that there are no TVs – only a radio), explored every inch of the place, checked out my books and staked my claim on a desk for the week, I delved into Gladstone’s relationship with Braddon.
Gladstone has seven first edition triple decker Braddon novels, two of which are lightly annotated. Both of these novels are from the 1890s (much later on in her writing career), but his diaries indicate he started reading Braddon in the 1860s (notably not Lady Audley’s Secret though). Unfortunately, these earlier novels he read are not in the library collection, which leaves one thread tantalizingly unresolved – where are these other potentially annotated Braddon novels?…
Having consoled myself of this loss, I refocused on the novels still remaining which was a rewarding experience. I spent my time reading through these novels carefully, noting down the different symbols he uses, cross checking them against the helpful code as deciphered by Ruth Windscheffel, and what aspect of the narratives he commended or disliked. I was pleased to discover more ‘v’s (indicating a tick) than ‘x’s (representing disapproval or an error), but the latter is more telling. For instance, Gladstone seems to have approved of Braddon’s religious commentary, but disagreed with her depiction of unruly women. Gladstone also, very helpfully, sometimes writing his own key in the back of each volume as a quick index to the parts he took most notice of (for whatever reason) – which is useful to the ardent scholar. Overall, Gladstone appeared to enjoy Braddon’s novels over the course of several decades (1860s-90s), reading the later novels whilst Prime Minister, suggesting he retired from the affairs of state to enjoy a little sensation!