Disraeli: The Novel Politician
Yale University Press 304pp £16.99
Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance
Vintage 320pp £9.99
Benjamin Disraeli has always attracted more interest on account of who he was than for what he did. Although he secured the passage of the Second Reform Act in 1867 and other significant achievements, he is best remembered as the most unlikely prime minister of the Victorian age. Born into a Jewish family of recent Italian immigrants, he was not educated in elite institutions and spent much of his adult life burdened by large debts. He made his name and much of his income by writing romantic novels: an unusual training for a leading politician. Yet he proved an adept parliamentary tactician, who led the Conservatives in the House of Commons for 25 years and was prime minister for more than six.
These two books focus mainly on Disraeli’s personal views and relations rather than on his political activities. Cesarani’s study is the most thorough and comprehensive account of the Jewish aspect of Disraeli’s life. It questions some general assumptions about Disraeli’s Jewishness and, in a perceptive conclusion, places him in a wider European context. The book illustrates the loss to history of Cesarani, who died prematurely last year. As he points out, Disraeli’s ambivalent and idiosyncratic attitude to Judaism owed much to the influence of his father, Isaac, a prominent man of letters, who advocated a civil and political fusion between the Jews and their Gentile fellow subjects. More importantly, Isaac arranged Benjamin’s baptism as an Anglican. That enabled him to become an MP two decades before any professing Jew, which made his whole political career possible.
As an MP, Disraeli’s support for Jewish emancipation was fitful at best and markedly unenthusiastic at times. Although he painted a romanticised picture of the Jewish people in his novels, he did little to actively promote their welfare. As Cesarani states, his depiction of the Jews as an all powerful and pervasive racial force in world affairs provided ammunition for antisemites. However, it was not until the Eastern Crisis in the late 1870s that Disraeli became associated with distinctly Judaic policies.
Disraeli’s Jewishness was only one side of a complex man. Throughout his adult life he was a stalwart supporter of the monarchy, the Church of England and the landed interest and an opponent of the Whigs. In that respect, Disraeli’s outlook echoed that of his father. Isaac’s move from central London to rural Buckinghamshire was followed by Benjamin, who acquired the Hughenden estate in 1847. Cesarani, like others, claims that Disraeli became ‘a counterfeit squire’ to further his political career. But his love for ‘beechy Bucks’ was evident before he became a politician and he was particularly proud to become an MP for the county.
For over three decades Disraeli shared his life with his wife, Mary Anne, who was his senior by 12 years. She was one of a number of older women with whom Disraeli was romantically attached at various times. He was initially attracted to her as ‘a flirt and a rattle’ and his interest increased when she became a wealthy widow who was willing and able to help to finance his political career. She later famously admitted that he had married her for her money but claimed that he would do it again for love. Certainly their marriage, though stormy at times, grew closer the longer they lived together. That proved a boon to Disraeli when he first became premier. Mary Anne had long been regarded in society as a somewhat eccentric and ill-educated woman, but as the premier’s wife she was widely respected and given a peerage by Queen Victoria at Disraeli’s request.
Hay provides a lively and detailed narrative of their relationship, which is firmly based on the main primary sources. On the other hand, she does not significantly change the existing view of their relations and provides only a limited account of the political and economic context. Moreover, Hay does not fully assess how crucial Mary Anne was in ensuring Disraeli’s political rise. Others also helped. For example, it was the Bentincks, not Mary Anne, who enabled him to buy the Hughenden estate. Mary Anne died before Disraeli’s main period as premier and he did not inherit her wealth or her London house at Grosvenor Gate. As a widower, he survived her death surprisingly well and quickly developed romantic affections for another older woman, Lady Bradford. In that, as in other respects, Disraeli was always something of a chameleon.
Roland Quinault is author of British Prime Ministers, from Disraeli to Blair (Continuum, 2011).