Catherine Gladstone (née Glynne), by William Walker & Sons, albumen carte-de-visite, 1862-1866. © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG Ax68082 (by kind permission).

On 17 January 1839 William Gladstone sent a proposal of marriage to Catherine Glynne. The style of writing is typically Gladstonian: convoluted and often unclear. According to Philip Magnus's biography, when Gladstone accompanied the Glynnes to view the Colosseum by moonlight on 3 January 1839, "he had then an opportunity to speak to Catherine, for a moment, alone. He began to speak of his love, but Catherine would not respond. She moved away, and Gladstone blamed himself bitterly; he feared that his hopes had all been ruined. He was inhibited by his repressions from folding the girl in his arms, and taking her by surprise, and by storm. He resolved, therefore, to trust to a letter, but he postponed writing it until 17 January, two days before he was due to return home." As Magnus points out, the letter's "breathless and tortuous style bears witness to the tumult of his emotions. The fact that he emerged more or less successfully from its second paragraph, consisting of one enormous sentence of 141 words and 18 clauses and sub-clauses, is perhaps worthy of remark."

62 Piazza di Spagna
17 January, 1839: night

I address you, my dear Miss Glynne, in terms below my desires, yet perhaps beyond my right to say in the simple words which I believe will in any event be most acceptable to you, and which no occasion has offered to address to you otherwise than by letter. My heart and hand are at your disposal.

I seek much in a wife in gifts better than those of our human pride, and am also sensible that she can find little in me: sensible that, were you to treat this note as the offspring of utter presumption, I must not be surprised: sensible that the lot I invite you to share, even if it be not attended, as I trust it is not, with peculiar disadvantages of an outward kind, is one, I do not say unequal to your deserts, for that were saying little, but liable at best to changes and perplexities and pains which, for myself, I contemplate without apprehension, but to which it is perhaps selfishness in the main, with the sense of inward dependence counteracting an opposite sense of my too real unworthiness, which would make me contribute to expose another — and that other!

For the substance of what I write I have no apology to offer which can be effectual. As respects its time, my own mind required no postponement, and I could not presume that it would give me any more reasonable hope of access to your affections. I wait your Command with the humility which I owe to a being so far purer and better than my own, and with other feelings which I have not the right to describe in the colours of truth. And, indeed, they are chequered with the consciousness that I ought to wish you a more blessed portion in life than that which alone it is in my power to tender. For pardon, for indulgence, I do not ask. Your own nature will yield me, unsolicited, much more than I desire. But I must cease. May you live, and die, it is not less my anticipation than my desire, from day to day more possessed of the peace which passeth understanding, and of the holiness which is its fountain.

With esteem, with gratitude, suffer me by one more act of boldness to add, with warm and true affection,

I am, Yours,


Magnus, Philip. Gladstone: a Biography. London, John Murray, 1954. Pp. 38-39

Last modified 17 January 2021