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Benjamin Disraeli and the Spirit of England

T.A. Jenkins reviews the life and legacy of Benjamin Disraeli, statesman, novelist and man-about-town, on the bicentenary of his birth.

Imagination governs mankind’. The force of this observation, made in 1833 in a diary kept by Benjamin Disraeli, who was born two hundred years ago this month, found no better illustration than in the course of his own political career, which involved an extraordinary triumph of imagination over adverse circumstances.

Disraeli was the son of a minor figure in London literary circles, and he did not have the advantage of a public school and university education, gaining much of his knowledge instead from intensive reading in his father’s library. As a young man he acquired a modest reputation as a writer of society novels, beginning with Vivian Grey (1826) published when he was twenty-two, but he achieved greater notoriety through his flamboyant lifestyle, dressing as a ‘dandy’ in brightly coloured clothes with lace cuffs and buckled shoes. He was stigmatised, moreover, by the fact that he had been born a Jew (the family name was originally spelt D’Israeli) and only converted to Christianity at the age of twelve because his father thought it would help his social advancement.

Yet this man who appeared so foreign in his physical appearance and ways of thinking, and who was self-consciously an outsider, went on to become leader of the Conservative Party, which was identified with the interests of the aristocratic ruling elite. He served on two occasions as prime minister, and ended his life as the Earl of Beaconsfield and Queen Victoria’s personal favourite. Equally remarkable, the myths generated by his career helped to inspire the imaginations of future generations of Conservatives.

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