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Reluctant Icon

Reluctant Icon

Gladstone, Bulgaria, and the Working Classes, 1856–1878

Ann Pottinger Saab

ISBN 9780674759657

Publication date: 08/01/1991

Support of the Ottoman Empire was official British policy for some forty years following the Crimean War. A widespread and astonishing confidence prevailed in England: whatever past and continuing deficiencies might exist, the Ottoman Porte, as the government of the Empire was known in Europe, was determined to westernize and in fact was becoming more British every day. But reports of a series of alleged massacres by the Turks against their Bulgarian subjects scandalized Britain in 1876, igniting a firestorm of protest that shook the nation. Reluctant Icon tells the story of one of the most relentless social crusades of the Victorian era. Under the leadership of former prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, a loose coalition of Nonconformists, Radicals, and High Churchmen created a climate of indignation over the massacres that was strong enough to call into question the Disraeli government’s policy toward the Near East.

This absorbing analysis by Ann Pottinger Saab draws on contemporary newspaper accounts, parliamentary petitions, and the diaries and personal papers of Gladstone to recreate a pivotal episode in late nineteenth-century British history. Saab provides an informative historical backdrop to her study by tracing the multiple sources of strain in British–Ottoman relations that existed before the massacres. She then examines Gladstone’s evolving role as public idol and backstage adviser to a coterie of special groups that became bonded to him by a shared moral vision and a sense of continuing emergency. Through the lens of the Bulgarian agitation, Gladstone emerges as a man motivated more by his own complex emotional and political drives than by opportunism, a somewhat different picture from that presented by earlier historians. The heart of the book is Saab’s richly detailed exploration of the nascence and maturation of the militant, extra-parliamentary, multi-class protest movement itself, which mobilized the anger of groups previously outside politics such as newly enfranchised working men.

Reluctant Icon yields new insights on Gladstone, on the language of Victorian social protest, and on a national protest movement remarkable as much for its cohesiveness and longevity as for its fervor. It will be welcome reading for all those with an abiding interest in the Victorian age and especially for scholars and students of social, religious, and diplomatic history.


  • It is scholarly: well researched, exhaustively documented, and convincingly and intelligently argued. The intricate details of a relentless and prolonged public agitation, comprising innumerable local and many national organizations (both political and religious) and involving many personalities (some obscure but most of national political importance), are handled with great skill and sophistication. It is well-written and absorbing throughout and the overall tone is one of authority and assurance. The subject is an important one, for the Eastern Crisis and the organized agitation over the Bulgarian Atrocities and their aftermath resulted in one of those periodic outpourings of national moral indignation for which the Victorians were famous (or notorious)… A book full of meat—very nourishing stuff.

    —Anthony Wohl, Vassar College

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press