Christopher Hibbert
Disraeli: A Personal History.
HarperCollins, 401 pages, œ25

Britain during the nineteenth century was virtually free from the revolutionary turmoils that so weakened political and economic progress in continental Europe. Several factors favored Britain, but foremost among them was the transformation of the Conservative party from an interest group of landowners into a modern electoral machine appealing to a popular base. This was the work of Benjamin Disraeli, familiar to the nation as Dizzy. To be sure, he took great pleasure in the sport of “dishing the Whigs,” and was gratified to climb to the top of what he called “the greasy pole,” but he also had a vision of a country held together by common values and a belief in its own greatness. “The Tory party in this country,” he wrote in words that are as pertinent as ever,

is the national party, it is the really democratic party of England. It supports the institutions of the country, because they have been established for the common good, and because they secure the equality of civil rights, without which, whatever may be its name, no government can be free, and based upon which principle, every government, however it may be styled, is in fact a Democracy.

A more unlikely Tory democrat than Disraeli can hardly be imagined. The mystery of the man and his story fascinates. Born in 1804, he was the son of Isaac Disraeli, author of Curiosities of Literature and many other works well known in their day but now long forgotten. Benjamin Disraeli was the only Prime Minister of the century not to be educated at Eton or another of the great schools. He seems largely to have taught himself the classics. Like so many of his generation, he grew up under the shadow of Byron. It was an unforgettable thrill for him one day to row on Lake Geneva with the boatman who had taken Byron out in the storm grandiosely written up in Childe Harold. The Alps surrounding the lake looked “painfully sublime.” The attitudes, and even the idiom, of the Romantic Movement lasted all his life.

Respectable people said of Disraeli, as they said of Byron, that he was an adventurer, a coxcomb, impudent, a fop, disreputable, scandalous. His attire was outrageous, almost fancy dress. His fingers were covered with rings; his hair fell in ringlets. Hopelessly extravagant, he was almost always in debt, absolutely careless with his creditors. And he wrote novels, romans à clef, their characters easily identifiable. The day he ceased to be Prime Minister, he sat down to complete a novel with a “fizz” to it, to use the image of one critic. In similar circumstances, Gladstone sat down to write a tract on an issue of the Church. The distance between the two arch-rivals of Victorian politics could not be symbolized more tellingly.

Finally, Disraeli was Jewish, though he converted to Christianity in boyhood, which was just as well, as Jews were then excluded from parliament. “The Jew d’esprit,” people laughed. One paper marked the beginning of his career in parliament by insulting him as an “insolent Hebrew varlet,” and commentators and cartoonists were still slandering and libelling him in that style when he was a national celebrity. Carlyle thought him a “Hebrew conjuror,” and even Henry James was to call him “a tawdry old Jew.” Disraeli was “all over an eastern Jew,” according to Bishop Wilberforce. Lady Palmerston, wife of a prime minister, wrote, “We are all dreadfully disgusted at the prospect of having a Jew for our Prime Minister.” “Is it not disgusting to think of handing over [the government] to that Jew?” asked Mrs. Gladstone when Disraeli crushed her husband in the 1874 election. It was not a compliment when Gladstone himself dismissed Disraeli as someone of “Judaic feeling.”

Dizzy, surely, was a nickname that familiarized the man affectionately, and a surprised but pleased sense of his national popularity seems to have encouraged him. The more anti-Dizzyites threw his Jewish origin in his face, the more defiantly proud of it he became. He claimed for himself a grand Sephardi lineage that biographers have shown to be a fantasy. Several of his novels romanticize Jews and their role in history. One contemporary, Sir John Skelton, wrote a portrait of him that contains a brilliant insight, “England is the Israel of his imagination.” Bismarck expressed it in his approving way at the Berlin Conference in 1878 with the famous remark, “Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.” In an illuminating essay on the difficulty of being Jewish at the dawn of social emancipation in Europe, Isaiah Berlin argued similarly that Jewish pride was precisely the motor impelling Disraeli to be a conservative, in contrast to Karl Marx, who at that same moment was repudiating his heritage to the point of adopting anti-Semitism. Radically opposed as this pair might seem, both needed “a uniform,” in Berlin’s metaphor, in order to pass in their societies.

So extraordinary a man has attracted excellent biographers. Published in the early twentieth century, the six volumes by W. F. Monypenny and George Buckle are classics, with testimonies from people still able to recollect Disraeli. Robert Blake’s Disraeli (1966) must be one of the most thorough and rewarding portraits of any British politician. More recently, Stanley Weintraub and Jane Ridley have written distinguished studies. Joining this company, Christopher Hibbert has nothing particularly new to say, but dramatizes the life by making good use of Disraeli’s copious published correspondence, with well-chosen and extensive extracts from Monypenny and Buckle, and Blake, too. This is the work of an admirably professional popularizer of history, whose previous books include studies of Queen Victoria, Napoleon’s women, and the city of Rome.

Talent alone carried Disraeli up the social scale. A burst of youthful radicalism was soon forgotten. Elected to parliament, he struck others as impassive, sitting motionless for long stretches and giving nothing away. Once speaking, however, he had the ability to master an argument and the wit to score off opponents. Never a cozy colleague, he had to destroy the Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel before he himself could take the party over. Not surprisingly, many believed that he did so out of ambition rather than principle. Peel, it was reported, was simply unable to reply to Disraeli’s attacks in parliament, while later Gladstone was said to turn pale when Disraeli savaged him. In a memorable example of his wit, Disraeli quipped that he didn’t mind if Gladstone had the ace of trumps up his sleeve, but he did mind that Gladstone thought God had put it there.

Skirting the politics, Hibbert concentrates on the personality. Disraeli certainly devoted much time to courting the Tory grandees, visiting the great houses of England and being an entertaining guest. With a few exceptions, the dukes and earls had no idea what to make of him, but grasped that he could speak for them in a way they could not for themselves, putting the conservative case with an eloquence and persuasiveness they did not have. Following Robert Blake, Hibbert concludes that Disraeli really did come to see himself as belonging to the aristocratic order: “He had a fundamentally patrician outlook.”

Disraeli played up outrageously to women. Towards the end of his life, he told Lady Bradford, with whom he was flirting, “I owe all to women.” His conquests included some very grand ladies indeed, probably including Lady Londonderry, one of the grandest of all. A Mrs. Sarah Willyams, herself of Sephardi origins, wrote out of the blue one day to say that she had no children and proposed leaving him her fortune, which was large though not large enough to solve his financial profligacy. Mary Anne Lewis was a widow, and older than Disraeli when they married. “Dizzy married me for my money,” she was to say, “But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.” Hibbert paints an attractive picture of this eccentric and outspoken lady, and the happiness she and her Dizzy undoubtedly shared.

In Disraeli’s mind, Queen Victoria was “the Faery,” after Spenser’s Faerie Queen. He flattered her egregiously, laying it on with a trowel, to repeat one of his numerous expressions which have become clichés. A spell was cast over this most influential of the women in his life. “It is settled; you have it, Madam!” he wrote to her after arranging for the government to buy shares in the Suez Canal. He invented her resounding title of Empress of India, and acquired Cyprus for her to rule over. None of the stiff dukes and earls, and certainly not Gladstone, could have persuaded her to accept so gladly either the Tory democracy or the Empire that he was meanwhile putting in place.

Disraeli’s death provoked Gladstone to the mean-spirited reflection, “As he lived so he died—all display without reality or genuineness.” In their very different ways, both were great men, but more of Dizzy survives today than of Gladstone, in the nation’s view of itself and what it means to be British. The career can be described, as Hibbert does so well, but the how of it, and the why of it, remain as amazing and mysterious as ever.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 5, on page 64
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