Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance

Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance

by Daisy Hay


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When Mary Anne Lewis met Benjamin Disraeli, she was married to Wyndham Lewis, a rich, mildly successful politician at the center of nineteenth-century British high society. The three became friends and with his deep pockets Wyndham helped Disraeli—young, ambitious, and swimming in debt—get his start in the political arena. Mary Anne even referred to him as her "Parliamentary protégé." But when Wyndham suddenly died of a heart attack, Mary Anne's friendship with Disraeli (fifteen years her junior) soon evolved into a peculiarly romantic and undoubtedly advantageous marriage: Mary Anne avoided life as a widow, while Benjamin used her financial means to stay out of prison and make a run for office.

Anecdotally the Disraelis cultivated an outrageous reputation. Once asked if he had read any new novels, Benjamin reportedly replied, "When I want to read a novel, I write one." Mary Anne, on the other hand, supposedly once told Queen Victoria that she always slept with her arms around her husband's neck. "My wife is a very clever woman," Benjamin said, "but she can never remember who came first, the Greeks or the Romans."

An unusual story of Victorian romance and politics, Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli moves beyond the anecdotes to reveal the interior life of one of Britain's most influential couples. Often eclipsed by Benjamin, Mary Anne had at least as much political acumen as her husband, and this dual biography shows that she was frequently his voice of reason. In the wake of British Romanticism, Daisy Hay examines the paths available to women like Mary Anne, and chronicles a relationship that is surprising, unconventional, and deeply inspiring.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536008
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,294,354
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Daisy Hay is the author of Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation, for which she was awarded the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize by the British Academy. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cambridge and an M.A. in Romantic and sentimental literature from the University of York. From 2012 to 2013 she was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and she is currently a lecturer in English literature and archival studies at the University of Exeter. She lives in Devon, England.

Read an Excerpt

Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli

A Strange Romance

By Daisy Hay

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Daisy Hay
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71292-1




    But you a very fairy, must
    Have had another birth,
    For never could the cold dull clay
    Have been your native earth.

    It must have been some charmed spot,
    From whence your being sprung,
    A lovely & a sunny place,
    Where still the World was young.
    ('To Mrs Wyndham Lewis, with The Book of Beauty')

Mary Anne Disraeli was born on 11 November 1792 in the village of Brampford Speke in Devon. Brampford Speke was a small farming community four miles north of Exeter, with a church at its centre and an assortment of cottages and farmhouses scattered along the surrounding lanes. Mary Anne was the second child of John Evans, a naval seaman, and Eleanor Viney, a vicar's daughter. In later years she took pains to shroud her age and the date of her birth in mystery, prompting this poetic flight of fancy from an admirer. 'Childhood yet lingers at your head', 'To Mrs Wyndham Lewis' continued, 'so soon from most exiled. In ready kindness mirth & grace / You know you are a child.'

The house in which Mary Anne grew up was the home of her Evans grandparents and was less the picturesque 'charmed spot' of her admirer's imagination than a noisy working farm. A pen-and-ink drawing of the house during the period of Mary Anne's childhood shows a white thatched building with three tall chimneys standing in one corner of a square farmyard. Barns and outbuildings surround the other sides of the yard and the house itself is small – probably no more than seven or eight rooms – with little additional space for a young family. Anyone living there would have been intimately aware of the daily events of farm life as they unfolded outside the windows.

Mary Anne was brought up in this house by her mother and grandparents and never knew her father. From her parents' courtship letters, however, which she kept all her life, she learnt something of his character, and something too of the opposition her parents faced when they announced their intention to marry. Little is known of John Evans's background, but he was evidently not considered a suitable match for a young lady of Eleanor Viney's class. The Vineys were an old family of some standing, and Eleanor was related via her mother to several branches of the landed gentry, including the Lamberts, owners of Boyton Manor in Wiltshire since the sixteenth century, and the Scropes of Castle Combe, also in Wiltshire, who could trace their name and their ownership of Castle Combe back 500 years.

John Evans, in contrast, had no ancient lineage to bolster his prospects. 'It is true I cannot boast a long chain of distinguished forefathers', he told Eleanor when the objections of her family to their marriage appeared insurmountable. 'It will not be pleasant at a future day to hear you ... reproached for having united yourself to a man that may be held in contempt by the rest of your family.' Early in their courtship he also acknowledged that Eleanor had found him 'truly in the rough', but continued, 'it is your business to bend, burnish and shape me to whatever form will make you most happy and if you are not completely so 'twill be your own fault'. John Evans was not remotely abashed by the social disparity between him and his bride. If her family persisted in withholding Eleanor's dowry, then they would wait until they could support themselves on his pay, and she, meanwhile, should 'have more fortitude and a firmer reliance on her Lord & Master'. Yet John was not merely a martinet. He combined firmness with passion and took a frank delight in the good things in life. Writing to Eleanor in 1786, two years before their marriage, he chided her for being a virtuously punctual early riser. 'Do you think you little Hussy I will allow you to be so regular when I am your acknowledged Master, do you imagine I will go to bed at 10 & rise by 7? – dont mistake me, I am grown quite a drone, beside it is in bed the moments fly.'

Only John Evans's side of the courtship correspondence survives, so we have to infer Eleanor's responses to such statements from his letters. These suggest she was rather less sanguine about the future than he. 'Fear is the most destructive of all passions and will sooner overturn the Human powers than any other', he told her in January 1787. Yet they also suggest that she had a will of her own, and that that will could be forcibly expressed. Their epistolary courtship was punctuated by quarrels prompted by a tension between her intuitive, emotional response to circumstance and his more practical stance. 'Dont believe', he told her at one point, 'that my composition is made up of Frigid materials. I certainly have as quick a sense of pain and consequently pleasure as you.' By 1788, the couple had put aside their differences and won consent from the Vineys to their marriage. That consent was grudging. Eleanor received a smaller marriage settlement than her sister Bridget, who was married on the same day, and incurred the displeasure of a well-off aunt, Anne Viney, who appears in the courtship letters as one of the chief obstacles to the marriage. 'Your aunt is at present the only Barrier between us and Earthly happiness', wrote John exasperatedly at one point.

Anne Viney contented herself with leaving her disobliging niece an annuity worth £1,000 less than that left to her more obedient sister, but by the time she died in 1800, John was beyond the reach of either her whims or her money. After their marriage in 1788, he and Eleanor made their home with his parents in Brampford Speke. Their son, another John, was born in 1790, and Mary Anne two years later. John Evans was frequently away with his ship, and in 1794, when Mary Anne was two, he died of a fever while serving in the West Indies. Although he was always an absent figure in the lives of his wife and children, his death nevertheless changed their lives, cutting them off from his naval world and depriving them of any prospect of a settled domestic life. It also confirmed Brampford Speke as his family's only refuge, and it was here that Mary Anne lived for her first fifteen years.

Mary Anne left no account of the years she spent in Brampford Speke, and documentary evidence for this period of her life is scarce. Only one undated letter survives to give us any indication of what her childhood was like, and that letter was written from the house of friends. Composed in a childish copperplate hand it reads, 'Our School is broke up and I am very comfortable with three pleasant companions, with whom and my Brother I shall spent the holidays very agreeable. he unite with me, in duty to you, and all friends, and in wishing they may enjoy the pleasures of the season. I am my dear Mama your dutiful Daughter Mary Anne Evans.'

This missive is a little more revealing than its innocuous content might initially suggest. From its subject if not from its erratic grammar it is clear that Mary Anne received an education of sorts, although it is more likely to have been from a governess shared with another family rather than from a school as we would understand it.* Eleanor Viney was more than capable of teaching her own children to read and write, so given her straitened circumstances it is noteworthy that she sent her daughter away to obtain the accomplishments of a young lady. It is possible that the cramped farm at Brampford Speke was not quite the sanctuary for Eleanor's growing children that it was for Eleanor herself, since Mary Anne and her brother evidently remained with their friends even when 'school' broke up, rather than return home.

In 1807, Mary Anne's grandparents died and Eleanor had to leave Brampford Speke. She moved to Cathedral House in Gloucester, which had been in the Viney family for many years. In 1807 Cathedral House was in the possession of Eleanor's brother James Viney, although it is not clear whether he was actually in residence when his sister and her children lived there.

James Viney was an officer in the Royal Artillery, and in 1808 he joined Wellington's army in the Spanish peninsula. He commanded regiments at the key Napoleonic battles of Roliça, Vimiera and Corunna, and by 1834 had become Major General Sir James Viney, having been given a knighthood and made Companion of the Bath in recognition of his military service. Mary Anne was fond of her uncle and he of her, although he could be irascible and appears from his letters to have been something of a rake, who fathered at least two illegitimate sons and was full of hare-brained money-making schemes. His nephew John (Mary Anne's older brother) was inspired by his example to volunteer for the army, and followed him to the Peninsula. John too fought at Roliça and Vimiera, and was quickly promoted first to ensign and then to lieutenant. His promotions were obtained through purchase, as was normal practice at the time. At the Battle of Talavera in 1809, he distinguished himself by capturing a French standard, and he also took part in the Siege of Badajoz in 1812.

Mary Anne did her utmost to shield her mother from the dangers John faced, although this cannot have been easy as they followed his progress up the Spanish Peninsula in letters, newspapers and army gazettes. John's absence affected the lives of Eleanor and Mary Anne in practical ways too. Eleanor's husband, parents and parents-in-law were dead, her brother and her son were away fighting, and she and her daughter had not only to fend for themselves but also to find the money to pay for John's promotions. Perhaps motivated by these practical concerns, in 1808 she remarried. Her new husband was one Thomas Yate, a lieutenant in the Worcestershire Militia. Yate joined in 1796 as a surgeon's mate, a position that required only the most rudimentary medical training. In the 1790s he served with the Militia in Ireland, where Britain retained a defensive military presence right through the Napoleonic wars, but he was never engaged in battle. The Militia was based in Exeter in 1805–6, which is probably when he met Eleanor, but by the time of their marriage in 1808 it had moved to Portsmouth, and it is likely that it was there that he, Eleanor and Mary Anne made their first home.

Thomas Yate has traditionally been dismissed by biographers of the Disraelis as a shadowy, unsatisfactory figure. His letters, however, suggest that he was an attentive husband and a dutiful stepfather who immersed himself in the affairs of his adopted family and did his best to help them. Mary Anne always wrote of him kindly and conspired with him to defend her mother from unpleasantness whenever possible. He worked hard to disentangle the tortuous financial arrangements between Eleanor and her brother James, in which mortgages were transferred and loans made and recalled with dizzying frequency. The family lived on income from his naval stocks and on the slender rents deriving from property inherited by Eleanor. Attempts to increase the value of these funds seem to have taken up much of Yate's time.

Eleanor's marriage resulted in more upheavals for her daughter, as the family followed the Worcestershire Militia first to Portsmouth and then in 1814 to Bristol, where they moved between a series of rented houses. It was an uncertain, peripatetic existence, in which relocation from house to house was driven by necessity as the family's small income rose and fell. Eleanor wrote to her son that she was relieved to be out of Portsmouth and settled in Bristol since 'this Place is more reasonable than Ports which is necessary as by the Peace with France Mr Yate loses the best part of his Income': a loss of income attributable to the diminution of the value of naval stocks following the Battle of Waterloo, and the accompanying reduction in the salaries of reservists like Yate. The move to Bristol suited Mary Anne. Eleanor reported that she found the society 'very preferable to Portsmouth', and that she enjoyed meeting people of her own age.

It is hard to get a sense of the daily rhythms of Mary Anne's life at this stage, since in later life she richly embroidered accounts of her youth. She told Sir Stafford Northcote and others that she had been a milliner's apprentice and her friend Mrs Duncan Stewart that she had worked as a factory girl and walked barefoot to work every morning before being rescued by her first husband, who in this account fell in love with her in all her ragged glory. Neither story had any basis in fact. The family's resources were not so stretched as to render it necessary for Eleanor Viney's daughter to work for her living, and the documentary evidence that does survive suggests instead a life filled with social visits and some dutiful voluntary work at a local Sunday school. Her closest friends during this period were the Clutton sisters – Elizabeth, Barbara, Dolly and Frances – who lived at Pensax in Worcestershire. Their father Thomas Clutton served throughout the 1790s in the Militia with Thomas Yate, and it was probably in 1805–6, when the Militia was based in Exeter and Eleanor and the children were living in Brampford Speke, that the two families met. By 1808 Thomas Clutton had died and his widow and daughters had moved to Pensax, where both Mary Anne and Eleanor were frequent visitors. In the 1860s Dolly wrote to Mary Anne of her memories of 'our early love – and wanderings up to our knees in snow & dirt at Pensas'. The two women kept up their correspondence until Dolly's death, and her children subsequently described Mary Anne as their mother's oldest friend.

Mary Anne may not have experienced the life of a factory drudge that she later recounted, but nor was her youth untouched by suffering. In 1812, when she was twenty, Thomas Yate's brother committed suicide, apparently fearing the prospect of a court martial. Richard Yate had followed his brother into the Worcestershire Militia in 1799, but he resigned his commission to join the regular army and served in the Peninsula between 1808 and 1812. By the winter of 1812 he had returned with his regiment to barracks at Kingsbridge in Devon and his suicide note suggests he believed he was about to be discovered in some regimental accounting irregularity. The note, rambling in its desperation, also reveals something of the toll the Peninsula War took on men like Richard Yate, James Viney and John Evans, who spent years away from home as the British army, under the command of the Duke of Wellington, pushed Napoleon's forces back through Portugal and Spain into France. In the military communities in which Mary Anne grew up, the absence of these men and the changes wrought in them by war were particularly evident. 'I must say', Richard Yate wrote with some understatement, 'it is truly unfortunate after having stopped for war four years ... to suffer by my own hand at last.' 'I beg', he continued, in a note addressed to Thomas Yate, 'you will not nor any of my relations allow yourselves to be too much affected at my determination.'

Given the circumstances of Richard Yate's death, it is hard to see how this wish could have been fulfilled. The local newspaper gave graphic details about how he managed to shoot himself with a musket, leaning the gun against a wall and forcing the trigger with his sword. The press reports made no mention of accusations of fraud or a looming court martial, although whether out of ignorance, respect for a serving officer, or because the accusations and court martial were figments of Yate's troubled mind is not clear. 'The deceased', ran one report, 'had lately returned with his regiment from the Peninsula, and it appearing on evidence that he had for some time past displayed symptoms of a disordered mind, the jury without hesitation returned a verdict of Lunacy.'


Excerpted from Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli by Daisy Hay. Copyright © 2015 Daisy Hay. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Part 1 At the Beginning (1792-1839)

1 Storytelling 3

2 Tall Tales 17

3 Tittle-Tattle 44

4 Fairy Story 68

Part 2 Ever After (1840-1867)

5 On Heroes and Hero-Worship 109

6 Household Words 142

7 Princess Nobody 169

8 The Rose and the Ring 196

Part 3 Once Upon a Time (1868-1873)

9 Happy Ending 225

10 Afterwards 243

List of Illustrations 263

Select Bibliography 265

Notes 271

Acknowledgements 293

Index 295

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