Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics

Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics

by Ian St John


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This book is a comprehensive review of the political career of Benjamin Disraeli, providing a thorough critical analysis of one of the most ambitious and controversial leaders in British history. 'Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics' is a major addition to our understanding of the dynamics of nineteenth-century politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843311904
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/01/2005
Series: Anthem Perspectives in History
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ian St John has taught history at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in Hertfordshire since 2000. His chief research interests are in Victorian history.

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Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics

By Ian St John

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Ian St John
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-369-4



To understand Benjamin Disraeli, we need to take seriously the intensity of his ambition. Contemporaries did; it was one reason why so many disliked him. He was a supreme egoist who was convinced that his abilities would elevate him to the highest social position, carry him through the portals of power, and ensure that he left a permanent mark on his age. 'There were,' he later recalled, 'days when, on waking, I felt I could move dynasties and governments ...' It is tempting to see such remarks as the product of a playful and ironic character. They were, but they contained an essential kernel of self-belief which he did little to disguise. In 1844, he told his constituents:

There is no doubt, gentleman, that all men who offer themselves as candidates for public favour have motives of some sort. I candidly acknowledge that I have and I will tell you what they are: I love fame; I love public reputation; I love to live in the eyes of the country.

Disraeli felt himself to possess unique talents. 'To enter into high society, a man must possess either blood, a million, or a genius' he wrote, aged 21. Deficient in social connections and wealth, he trusted his talents to set him at the pinnacle of 19th century society. Few aspirant politicians, when asked by a senior political figure (Lord Melbourne) 'what do you want to be?' could have had the presumption to reply, 'I want to be Prime Minister'. At this point he did not possess a seat, or even a Party. Yet, Disraeli believed this and he did not merely make his own myth: he lived it. He really did go on to move governments, make Emperors and, of course, become Prime Minister. We must take Disraeli's egotism and ambition seriously.

Where did this ambition come from? The inner springs of human psychology are beyond the gaze of the historian. We naturally shape our explanations within the context of observable circumstances. Fortunately, in Disraeli's case these go some way to providing a convincing explanation. The key factor here was the ambiguity of Disraeli's position. It was sometimes said that Disraeli rose to the Premiership from a socially disadvantaged background. This was not the case. Disraeli's father, Isaac, inherited a fortune of £2 million in our values and used this to fund the life of the gentleman scholar, producing books on literature and history which brought him into contact with many of the foremost writers of his day, including Byron. It was in his Bloomsbury house in 1804 that Disraeli was born. Later Isaac moved to a country house in Buckinghamshire, where Disraeli spent much of his early twenties. So Disraeli's origins – like Peel's and Gladstone's – were middle class, though metropolitan-literary rather than northern-commercial. Yet there were a series of distinctive features. If Disraeli later summed up his politics as 'England', he could hardly say as much of his family background. Both his mother and father came from Italian families. On his father's side, Disraeli was only a second generation Englishman, his grandfather having arrived in England from Italy in 1748 to make his fortune. Similarly, though reasonably well-educated in a private school, Disraeli did not experience the public school and Oxbridge education increasingly customary for the upper and middle classes. He was one of only two 19th century Prime Ministers not to have attended university and always regretted this fact and the entrée into upper class society he had missed.

Most important, though Disraeli was a baptised member of the Church of England, he was raised as a Jew till the age of 12. That he became a Christian was due to the accident that his father quarrelled with the local synagogue, resigned from it in 1817 and had his children baptised. It was a crucial decision. If Disraeli had remained a Jew, his political career would have been impossible since Jews were not allowed to enter the House of Commons until 1858. Of course, as far as Victorian society was concerned, a Jew he always remained. One of the issues Disraeli had to confront in his life was how to deal with this fact. It is an interesting facet of his career that he celebrated rather than denied his Jewish heritage – albeit in an idiosyncratic way.

Disraeli, then, was a paradoxical and ambiguous character, and this was the mainspring of his ambition, since it was by striving for recognition and prestige that Disraeli sought to reconcile his ambiguities by transcending them. Through the sheer force of his ego, he would construct a unique and exotic personality in which potential liabilities, such as his Italian origins, unconventional education, and Jewish ancestry, were transmuted into strengths. In this sense Disraeli's life was a work of art – it was his own creation in a way that was not true of most of those who followed the well-worn tramlines of conventional upper middle class society.

The intellectual framework within which Disraeli embarked on this project to fashion his destiny was provided by the Romantic milieu of his youth. Romanticism was not merely a fashionable literary attitude when Disraeli was a young man. 'It presented,' writes Paul Smith, 'a natural affinity with his deepest needs and purposes.' For what Romanticism taught was the power of the individual to mould reality through the creative power of the imagination. To achieve this transformation was the work of the spirit of genius, an innate quality exemplified in men such as Byron, Beethoven and Rousseau. Interestingly, Isaac Disraeli had delineated the personality of the man of genius in his 1795 Essay on the Literary Character. In 1820, a re-issued copy of the book found its way into the hands of the sixteen-year-old Disraeli. 'Geniuses,' wrote Isaac, 'were born and not made and rarely excelled academically.' 'He is a daydreaming dawdling child, often delicate and sometimes physically clumsy. He takes no part in the sports of his school mates; his parents find him difficult and sullen and his teachers find him slow and dull.' As Ridley remarks:

It was almost as if Benjamin's childhood and schooldays had been formed on the template of genius ... He had felt different from the other boys at first because he was Jewish; now he knew that he was different because he was a genius.'

Disraeli's ambition and egotism had now acquired a justifying ideology. His restless desire to make his mark was the striving of the man of genius to realize his capabilities within the stultifying constraints of commonplace society. His role model was Byron, who was at the peak of his infamy when Disraeli was a teenager. Disraeli idolized Byron, whom he considered to be a 'master spirit', and 'wished to be thought the new Byron'. He affected Byronic poses, dressed in black in the manner of his hero, had himself rowed on Lake Geneva during a thunderstorm by Byron's boatman Maurice and eventually acquired the services of Byron's servant Tita, in whose arms the poet had died at Missolongi.

Defining and realizing his 'genius' now became Disraeli's preoccupation. His father had arranged for him to enter a solicitor's office in London, but the legal profession was never going to satisfy the restive longings of such a man of destiny:

I passed my evenings at home, alone and always deep in study ... I became pensive and restless and before I was 20, I was obliged to terminate the dream of my father ... Nothing would satisfy me but travel ... the hour of adventure had arrived.

Years of Adventure, 1824–1831

We now enter what were, for Disraeli, eventful but frustrating years. The objective was simple – to make his mark on his age. Yet the methods adopted were unfocused and frequently unconventional and the reputation he acquired remained with him for the rest of his life.

Disraeli first endeavoured to become rich. In the early 1820s, the stock market had been booming, with shares in South American mining companies doing particularly well. Disraeli and his partners bought in November 1824 – at precisely the moment the shares began losing value. Attempting to revive interest in the shares Disraeli produced his first publication, An Enquiry into the Plans, Progress and Policy of the American Mining Companies. But it was to no avail and by June 1825, Disraeli (aged only 20) had incurred debts of around £2,000, almost £120,000 in today's prices.

Another disaster soon followed. In 1825, Disraeli became involved with the publisher John Murray, a friend of his father's, in a project to commence a new newspaper called The Representative. Its politics were to be Liberal Tory. Disraeli was to provide one-quarter of the capital. But the project did not proceed smoothly. The editor chosen was Lockhart, a Scottish Tory and son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott. Disraeli travelled north to interview both men. Unfortunately, Scott objected strongly to Lockhart becoming involved in anything so vulgar as newspaper journalism. The paper, when it finally appeared in January 1826, was a failure. By the time it ceased publication in July, Murray's debts stood at £26,000. Disraeli, already indebted, was in no position to bear his share.

Out of work and in debt, Disraeli turned for salvation to his pen. The result was his first published novel, Vivian Grey (1826). Like most first novels, it was autobiographical, relating the story of the failed Representative but in the guise of the formation of a new political party. The young Vivian is Disraeli, while the old and ineffectual aristocrat behind the new party is Murray. The book was a 'Society Novel', affecting to describe the lives of the rich and famous, and at first the author was simply known as a 'man of fashion'. But when Disraeli's authorship emerged and the fact that he was far from intimate with the privileged world he described, the reviewers were fierce in their criticism. Murray was particularly hurt by his caricature as the frequently inebriated Marquis and broke off his relations with the Disraeli family.

Thus, although Disraeli emerged from the Vivian Grey episode with £700 and some of the notoriety he craved, he had also acquired a number of enemies and, what was more damaging, they were to be found in the very levels of society in which he wished to move. To his debts he had added, says Blake, 'a reputation for cynicism, double dealing, recklessness and insincerity which it took him years to live down'.

The strain of the period 1824–1826 took its toll on Disraeli and he spent much of the following three years under a cloud of poor health, low spirits and debts. Richmond and Post believe he was suffering from a 'major clinical depression', brought on by a series of rebuffs to his highly sensitive, narcissistic personality. He now doubted 'whether I shall ever do anything which may mark me out from the crowd. I am one of those to whom moderate reputation can give no pleasure and who, in all probability, am incapable of achieving a great one.' However in 1830, his health revived. His dress became increasingly dandified. Henry Bulwer described how he came to one dinner wearing green velvet trousers, a yellow waistcoat, shoes with silver buckles, lace at his wrists and his hair in ringlets.

The recovery of his spirits was completed by an extensive tour of the Mediterranean and Middle East in 1830–1831, including Constantinople, Jerusalem, Spain and Egypt. This was one of the turning points in Disraeli's life. He revelled in the atmosphere of the East – its colours, smells, indulgences, ideas and social mores. He felt instantly at home and engaged with the people on their own terms – there was none of the judgmental reproach of the Englishman abroad. 'I am quite the Turk,' he wrote during his stay at Navarina, 'wear a turban, smoke a pipe six feet long and squat on a Divan ... I find the habits of this calm and luxurious people entirely agree with my own preconceived opinions of propriety and enjoyment ...' For Edward Said, Disraeli exemplifies the mentality of the 19th century Orientalist, believing that Orientals live in the Orient, live lives of Oriental ease, subject to Oriental despotism and imbued with Oriental fatalism. But Brantlinger qualifies Said's characterization, pointing out that Disraeli, as a Jew, was able to think of himself as an Oriental – he Orientalized himself. As a consequence, he evolved a positive Orientalism which, while stereotyping the East, did so in ways that evoked a vision of its spiritual and cultural superiority to the West. Indeed, for Disraeli, Eastern travel represented a return to the birthplace of his people. Romanticism and latent Judaism thus converged. The result was 'the Great Asian Mystery' – that insight Disraeli believed he possessed into the Oriental mind and manner of life. Like all Oriental truths, it defied verbal articulation. When a clergyman later wrote to request an explanation of the Asiatic Mystery, Disraeli could only suggest that he read his novels.

Thus, by the early 1830s, Disraeli presented a striking, if affected, character. He was an individualist. He possessed a self-proclaimed, if not altogether apparent, genius. He had penetrated the profundities of the Eastern consciousness. For such a young man to fail to be ambitious would be a denial of his essence. Even so, the problem remained of finding the appropriate vehicle for this potential. The obvious medium was literature. Turned to first as an economic necessity, novels, journalism and poetry became, for Disraeli, a means of working out his ideas, reflecting upon his psychology, and making his mark. A succession of novels (eight in all by 1837) sought to do this with varying degrees of success, both literary and financial. The Young Duke, Contarini Fleming, Alroy — all revisited the theme of Vivian Grey, that of the young man seeking to work out his place in the world and realize his capacities.

Unfortunately, none established the literary recognition he craved and the financial dividends provided little compensation. In 1833, he produced the first instalment of his Revolutionary Epic – a poem designed to capture the spirit of the French Revolution. It was, he believed, the best thing he had ever done and when this, too, failed to elicit a response, Disraeli, writes Smith, 'must have known the game was up'.

Supreme literary talent was not his and he lacked the patience and application to go on trying to cultivate it ... Action was better for the system than the sedentary musings of authorship, its rapid results more suited to his nature than the grinding disciplines of literary development ... the full exhibition of his genius must take place elsewhere.

Into Politics, 1832–1837

From 1832, Disraeli began to see the political world as the most appropriate sphere for the realization of his genius. For Disraeli, politics was from the beginning, and remained, a game, in the sense of a complex social activity played for the 'only real object for a man' – power. And it really was the greatest of all games, for its raw material was the psychology of individuals and nations as shaped by countless influences, great and small, open and hidden, class allegiances, party strategies, race, prestige, ideas, secret societies, international diplomacy, money, family loyalties, monarchs, newspaper editorials, rhetoric and ambition. The list of relevant variables was endless, yet at any given moment a pattern was formed, rather in the manner of the images formed by a kaleidoscope. These images were always changing: as old patterns dissolved, new ones replaced them. All this was fascinating enough. But more alluring still was the fact that it appeared to be within the power of certain individuals to form and break these patterns, to hold the diverse threads in their hands. These were the men of power, the leaders of societies and the shapers of national destinies. To aspire to be such a man was a worthy ambition for a genius such as Disraeli. If he could not shape the character of his age through his literary genius, he might realize the same end through his political genius. As he wrote in one of his first purely political works:

Let us not forget also an influence too much underrated in this age of bustling mediocrity – the influence of individual character. Great spirits may yet arise to guide the groaning helm through the world of troubled waters – spirits whose proud destiny it may still be at the same time to maintain the glory of the Empire and the happiness of the People.

Where was a Britain, besieged by bustling mediocrity, to find such a spirit? There can be little doubt that Disraeli had in mind a candidate close at hand – himself.


Excerpted from Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics by Ian St John. Copyright © 2010 Ian St John. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Timeline; Introduction; Disraeli's Political Career, 1804-1846; The Politics of Opposition, 1846-1866; The 1867 Reform Act; Disraeli's Political Ideology; Opposition Again, 1868-1874; Prime Minister, 1874-1880: Domestic Policy; Prime Minister: Foreign and Imperial Policy; Disraeli and the Art of Politics; Notes; Bibliography; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

'Dr St John has not merely given us a satisfying tool for analysing Disraeli. He has also provided a well-researched political biography...a solid work of scholarship.' —John McLeod, Associate Professor of History, University of Louisville

'An excellent and enjoyable political biography of Benjamin Disraeli... Notable are the author's use of diaries and letters which provide a decidedly 'first-hand' commentary on the thoughts and actions of Disraeli and those with whom he came in contact.' —Howard B. Fedrick, Assistant Professor, Department of History, King's College

'With welcome clarity and deft analysis, Ian St John unlocks the mind of one of the most fascinating figures in nineteenth-century England, and in so doing makes accessible to the uninitiated the mysteries, manoevrings and machinations of Victorian politics.' —Tod E. Jones, Professor of English, University of Maryland and author of 'The Broad Church: A Biography of a Movement'

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