The life of Helen Gladstone (1814-80), younger sister of William Ewart Gladstone, the pre-eminent statesman of nineteenth-century Britain, was an unhappy series of rebellions against a Victorian patriarchy that sought to manage her aberrant behaviour by grinding her into submission. Helen was born in 1814, in Liverpool. She was the last daughter of a prosperous merchant, Sir John Gladstone and the last of 8 children- four boys and 4 four girls. Both parents were of Scottish descent, but the family spent many years in Liverpool. Her mother, Anne Robertson, the daughter of a leading Episcopalian lawyer, was intensely religious–an evangelical.
In the usual way for middle class families, Helen’s upbringing was probably supervised by nursemaids and later governesses, The boys were sent away to be educated. William went to Eton when Helen was seven years old and Helen was left at home with her mother and ailing older sister, Anne, to be influenced by her mother’s evangelical fervour as well as poor health. Strong willed, with long fair hair, Helen had a lively mind and wished to learn, asking William to teach her Latin.
However, it became increasingly difficult to control the headstrong Helen and a governess and an émigré abbot departed. She had no real role in the household increasingly given over to invalids. No wonder therefore that she became isolated and could not cope with adoles-cence. She became increasingly subject to bowel and other disorders.
In 1830, the family moved back to Fasque in Kincardineshire, much to the relief of John Gladstone’s wife, who much preferred her native Scotland to Liverpool. However, her own illness and that of Helen kept them moving from spa to spa in search of cures. Many prescriptions were given, including laudanum. Helen’s reliance on laudanum therefore started at a very early age, at a time when addiction was not considered a hazard. Mrs Gladstone fussed over her children’s health to an almost obsessive degree. That there was a psychological element in her condition seems very likely. Of her life’s many low points, the period in her early thirties was perhaps the most profoundly shocking. Unrequited in love, lacking any useful occupation, and alienated from her favourite brother, William, by her conversion to Catholicism, she was depressed and drug-dependent. Yet, even in despair, she demonstrated a defiance that threatened to turn a private drama into public shame. The way that her brothers and father tried to control her, both physically and mentally, highlights the predicament of many independent, yet redundant, women in upper-class Victorian society. In William, in particular, Helen brought out a bullying streak unparalleled in his relationships with other people; perhaps he recognized, in her behaviour, the darker side of his own nature and the possible consequences if it were not kept under strict control.
Around the time of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838, Helen was sent to Germany for a change of scene. There she met a young Russian -Polish count, Leon Sollohub, to whom she became engaged. The stumbling block in the affair was that the Sollohub parents insisted that Helen should join the Greek Orthodox Church and live in Russia. Ultimately, Leon was unable to secure his parents permission for the marriage and the whole affair fell through. Helen’s grief and disappointment can well be imagined and once again she became reclusive and ill.
Back in London at her father’s house in Carlton Gardens, Helen she sought solace in the Catholic Church. Was this a desperate cry for help, a rebellion against her authoritarian family or an attempt to find a caring community in which she could immerse herself? Historians are divided on the question of the sincerity of her conversion.
It was partly through the influence of William Ward and the “Oxford Movement” that she was received into the Catholic Church by Bishop Nicholas Wiseman at Oscott in 1842, at about the same time as Richard Sibthorpe; the former pastor of St. James’s, Ryde. Gladstone was shocked by his sister’s decision, saying “You are living a life of utter self deception, not in religion alone but in all bodily and mental habits”. He advised his father to expel Helen from home. Her father’s tolerance proved more charitable. “She is still my child”, – and she was allowed to remain at the house with an allowance of £1,000. She reacted well to this and, for a while, lived a regular life.
Unfortunately this relatively calm period was not to last. In February 1845 she again retreated to Germany, this time to Baden Baden. By late 1845 she had ceased to communicate with her family. William dutifully agreed to go and see her and he found her in an advanced state of various types of addiction ―She drank 150 drops of German laudanum… equal to 300 English. The consequence was that for some time she was in danger of death. Her doctor had not been able to stop her drinking eau de cologne mixed with water. She rallied however and returned to England.
In 1848 she had a prolonged epileptic fit and went to see a specialist in Edinburgh suffering from clenched jaw and fists and unable to speak. She claimed that Wiseman, after a week of fasting and prayer, by touching her with the bones of a female saint, brought about a cure. She never suffered from those particular symptoms again. However, she remained a most eccentric, neurotic and unstable character, and continued to suffer from sporadic bouts depression and anxiety. After advice from Wiseman she moved to the Isle of Wight, where set up home at Blackgang, south of Ventnor, where, for a while, she was to find the peace and tranquility for which she craved. Ten years later she moved to the village of St. Helens, a few miles south-east of Ryde. She seems to have been attracted to this village named after her patron saint. Here she leased the Priory House on the site of the pre-Reformation Cluniac Priory. In this isolated, tranquil and picturesque part of the Island, she found, once again, peace and serenity at the Priory, nestling in the woods overlooking Priory Bay and the shingle beach of Nodes Point to the east. As at Blackgang, she determined to provide a Mass Centre for local Catholics. Consequently, she applied to Bishop Grant for her own Chaplain. She opened an Oratory at her home and asked the Bishop to come to bless it. He declined and instead Fr. Telford blessed and formally opened the Oratory, dedicated to St. Dominic, for use by Catholics of the area on 13th Jan. 1859. Fr. Joseph Silveira was appointed as her chaplain. He had retired to the Island through ill health and occasionally assisted at St. Mary’s. His ministry at St. Helens was quite traumatic. Mrs Gladstone would send her coachman to collect Fr. Silveira to say Mass. Often it would arrive two hours late. The coach was open to the elements and he would often arrive soaking wet. On one occasion he had to step out of the coach to assist in pushing it clear of the treacherous mud that was a common feature of the road from Ryde to St. Helens. When he arrived he would be given “orders” by Mrs Gladstone! Mass could only commence when she was ready. The congregation could be kept waiting for an hour. She would teach the altar boys how to serve Mass. They would end up more confused. She would adorn the altar with too many flowers and candles, without reference to what was required at different times of the liturgical year. It is recorded that she was “a continual thorn in the side of all the clergy“. She seems to have bullied poor Fr. Silveira just as William Gladstone and his family used to bully her. It was no surprise when Fr. Silveira resigned as chaplain after seven months. He wrote to Bishop Grant, “I have put up with more annoyances at the Priory at St. Helen’s than during the whole of my missionary life.” She was dubbed, mischeviously, as the “Lady Cardinal Archbishop of St. Helens” by the local clergy.
On 4th August, 1861, the Feast of St. Dominic. Cardinal Wiseman and his Chaplain, Fr. Herbert Vaughan (later Cardinal) accepted an invitation to celebrate Mass at the Priory on the patronal feast and dedicate the chapel to St. Helen. Unexpectedly, William Gladstone left Osborne after seeing the Queen and Prince Albert and he travelled back through Ryde and on to St. Helen’s to see his sister, only to find Mrs Gladstone entertaining the Cardinal and other clergy and dignitaries. He recorded in his diary that she was “perfectly lucid and natural” and delighted to have “the Cardinal’s ear”. His sister was the centre of attention, holding forth on every topic of conversation and delighting in the opportunity to have such eminent personalities who were so attentive to her. She had ingratiated herself with Wiseman by adopting his orphaned nephew, Martin, and his companion, Master Bagshaw. Gladstone spent the night with his sister and the following morning they ate a hearty breakfast after the Cardinal’s Mass, served by his nephew. (We are not sure if Gladstone himself attended). The three eminent Victorian gentlemen, Cardinal Wiseman, Fr. Herbert Vaughan and Gladstone, agreed to travel together back to London.
Helen continued to have financial problems but she received no assistance from the rest of the family. She left the Priory at St. Helen’s in 1865 having failed to attract any Dominican nuns to take up residence. Her brother persuaded his Liberal colleague, Sir John Simeon, MP for the Island, to lease her St. John’s at Appley as he had recently inherited Swainstone Manor at Calbourne. This property is just south of St. Cecilia’s Abbey and is now part of Oakfield Primary School. When the Bishop refused to allow her to open another chapel at the house she threatened to appeal to Rome. As her new home was now less than a mile from St. Mary’s, there was no need for her to have a chapel. The local clergy were much relieved! She felt the antagonism of the clergy who were reluctant say Mass at her chapel and she was alienated by Cardinal Wiseman, after he withdrew his nephew from her care. She suffered from an inferiority complex and her own failure to achieve her ambition.
Helen now attended St. Mary’s and witnessed the respect and admiration accredited to the Countess of Clare by clergy, parishioners and visitors. There is no doubt that she was jealous of the Countess. The two women barely acknowledged each other. Helen saw the influence which the Countess exerted over the local clergy. St. Mary’s was virtually her church. Helen was conscious of this as she knelt in the front row of the church. She would peer up at the Countess in her private chapel above the sacristy. She envied her position and her wealth. There is the wonderful story of Helen Gladstone arriving at Mass at St. Mary’s dressed in the liturgical colour of the day. At the Holy Saturday liturgy when the priest changes from purple vestments to white at the renewal of Batismal vows she would stand up in the front pew and cast off her purple coat to reveal her best white clothes. The rivalry between the two women was accentuated when the Dominican Priory at Carisbrooke opened in December 1866. Helen’s patronage of the Dominican Order preceded that of the Countess. She became a Dominican tertiary in the 1850s and her Priory residence at St. Helen’s was dedicated her to St. Dominic but the dulcet tones of Dominican nuns resonating around the Priory buildings never came to fruition. Now within two years she witnessed a new purpose built Priory founded by the Countess with Dominican nuns imported from Staffordshire now singing Divine Office and establishing themselves in the local community. The new St. Dominic’s Priory at Carisbrooke was far larger and more splendid than her own humble St. Dominic’s Chapel. Praise was lavished on the Countess from all quarters. The Countess had achieved everything that Helen wanted to do. She was both depressed and despondent. Soon after the opening of Carisbrooke Priory she left the Island and travelled on the Continent again before settling in Cologne. In 1870 William Gladstone explained his sister’s presence in Cologne as support for Dollinger’s “Old Catholic” movement and the fact that she had renounced the post Vatican I Catholic Church which Gladstone himself regarded as triumphalist and the realisation of everything that the Ultramontanes had promoted. “How can anyone belong to a Church with an infallible pope who had complete control over their consciences“, he declared. There is little evidence to support this. Gladstone himself was relieved that his unhappy Catholic sister was away from public gaze and saw the opportunity to discredit her religious affiliation.
Helen Gladstone, died in Cologne the following January 1880. She was suffering from paralysis of the bowel and still indulging in vast quantities of laudanum. Members of her family proceeded to Germany to convince themselves that she had renounced Catholicism, or at least left the post-Vatican I triumphalist church, as they saw it, in favour of the “Old Catholic” movement. Helen’s hotel rooms were searched thoroughly by the family, who decided that as all her Catholic devotional literature was from the pre-Vatican I period. Gladstone himself was convinced that Catholicism merely filled a vacuum in his sister’s life. He recalled, “she died at one with us as before; in a wonderful manner youth & beauty came back upon her worn face for the moment and she looked half her age. God accept her, Christ receive her”. Gladstone was determined that she would not be buried according to the rites of the Church to which, since 1870, he felt most antagonistic.
As there was no church in Britain, which now reflected her supposed, religious affiliation, she would therefore be buried at the family vault at Fasque according to the Scottish Episcopal Church. This spurious conclusion to their unfortunate sister’s religious affiliation does not reflect well on the Gladstone family, who simply, could not endure a Catholic funeral and conveniently found the most feeble of excuses to prevent it. A Requiem Mass was offered for her soul at St. Mary’s on 27th January, 1880, the same day as her burial at Fasque. No biography of this sad and eccentric woman has, as yet, been written, but when it is, it should convey an interesting insight into the emotional and moral relationships between the various members of this prominent Victorian family, and hopefully produce an analysis of their attitude and behaviour towards their youngest sibling.