More Than a Fancy Pants Young Man

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The New York Sun

You must meet two requirements to enjoy “Disraeli: The Victorian Dandy Who Became Prime Minister” (Palgrave Macmillan, 432 pages, $29.95): 1.) Possess a profound ignorance of British politics and no desire to rectify the problem; 2.) Venture no curiosity whatsoever about Benjamin Disraeli’s place in British literature and be content with potted summaries and reports of what the critics said about his novels.

Christopher Hibbert breezes through Disraeli’s political career, not stopping to explain what was at stake in the Reform bill of 1867, the rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli, or how it was that this “sham-Jew” (as Thomas Carlyle indelicately called Disraeli) attained the pinnacle of power, serving twice as prime minister and hailed as one of Britain’s greatest political leaders.

To be sure, Mr. Hibbert lauds Disraeli’s powers as an orator and cites his indefatigable electioneering, his savoir faire in both the social and political spheres. And an apt summary comes at the end of this biography that alludes to its subject’s compassionate conservatism, which attracted the middle and working classes to the Conservative Party’s program. But for the most part, the biographer seems content to quote extracts from Dizzy’s letters demonstrating what a wit and flatterer he was – “laying it on with a trowel,” Dis (another of his nicknames) said, especially when it came to advising Queen Victoria.

As a personality, Disraeli is superbly drawn. Here is Mr. Hibbert at his best:

When he went out in the evening he was careful not to dress as the articled clerk he was determined not long to be [Disraeli reluctantly assented to his father’s plea that he study the law], setting himself apart from his colleagues by a style of dress – a black velvet suit with ruffles and black stockings with red clocks – as well as a manner which was considered flamboyant, even in those early years of the reign of King George IV. ‘You have too much genius for Frederick’s Place [where Disraeli clerked],’ a lady pleased him by suggesting one day. ‘It will never do.’

His manner, so another lady remarked, was entirely fitted to his ‘rather conspicuous attire’ and his theatrical gestures as he ‘delivered himself of high-flown compliments and sharp asides.’ He performed his duties in Frederick’s Place adequately; but, like Charles Dickens, who started work in a small firm of solicitors a few years later, he yearned for other things. The books he read in his father’s library, the distinguished men he met at work, and the conversations he had heard at [the publisher] Murray’s dinner table stirred his imagination and ambition. He felt himself worthy of a more dramatic future than that promised by the testaments and conveyances and ledgers of Frederick’s Place, Old Jewry.

Disraeli never lost his sense of drama. In the House of Commons he would introduce his salient points with a modest cough while waving an immaculate white handkerchief under his nose,and when attacked during parliamentary debate he remained immobile, seeming to repose like the Sphinx itself.

Assailed at a time when liberals, conservatives, and radicals alike indulged in anti-Semitic slurs, Disraeli did not even try to stem the prejudicial tide. Although his father had him baptized in the Church of England, Disraeli was proud of his Jewishness and did not trouble to assimilate as a conventional public man. On the contrary, he was Byronic and opportunistic, a favorite of the ladies but also an increasingly forceful figure in Conservative Party circles, because he worked hard for other candidates and pulled his weight.

A careerist, Disraeli attacked the Conservative prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, after Peel declined to admit Disraeli into his Cabinet. Not content to register his own dissent, Disraeli became the leader of several rebellious Conservatives who called themselves “Young England.”

It was this latter move that geared up Disraeli’s ascent, making him the champion of a cause: the renewal of the British aristocracy, on the one hand, and the promotion of enhanced respect for the common people, on the other, a combination that would lead to a new national spirit.While this program was somewhat fanciful, it nevertheless provided a kind of emotional-patriotic platform that catapulted Disraeli beyond the bigotry of party regulars.

Mr. Hibbert shows no interest in exploring how Disraeli attached the engines of a political party to his personality, or the extent to which Disraeli’s fiction furthered his success. What influence did Disraeli’s novels actually have? Were they any good? These are elementary questions any reader of a Disraeli biography wishes to have answered.

One novel, “Sybil, or the Two Nations” (1845), which is part of a trilogy, drove home Disraeli’s understanding of the plight of the poor and the complacency of the upper classes. The other two parts, “Coningsby” (1844) and “Tancred” (1847), “may be regarded as the first truly political novels in English,” Margaret Drabble writes in “The Oxford Companion to English Literature.”

Why Mr. Hibbert does not address Disraeli’s novels as important turning points in his life, let alone in British literary history, is puzzling. Critics disagree about how seriously to take Disraeli’s novels, but Mr. Hibbert does not even try to adjudicate between them. Indeed, when he says that, like Dickens, Disraeli rarely created believable female characters, his judgment has to be challenged. Disraeli felt more comfortable in the company of women – as Mr. Hibbert himself reports – and he took them seriously, evincing, Ms. Drabble observes, “a skill in the characterization of clever women.”

Disraeli the novelist and Disraeli the politician were of a piece – as this statement made in 1848 (70 years before women were granted the vote) shows:

In a country governed by a woman, where you allow women to form part of the other estate of the realm – peeresses in their own right, for example – where you allow a woman not only to hold land, but to be a lady of the manor and hold legal courts, where a woman by law may be a churchwarden – I do not see, when she has so much to do with State and Church, on what reason … she has not a right to vote.

Why Mr. Hibbert, who quotes the above passage, steadfastly refuses to link the writer and the politician is mystifying.

Evidently the biographer and his publisher believe plenty of readers will be satisfied with his lively style and his focus on Disraeli as suave diner-out, a fancy pants young man playing the exotic Jew, a gustatory traveler to foreign parts, an uxorious husband, and a wily pol. So he was – but he was so much more.

The New York Sun

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