Benjamin Disraeli Essay - Critical Essays

Disraeli, Benjamin

Introduction

Benjamin Disraeli 1804–1881

English novelist, essayist, poet, dramatist, and short story writer. For additional information on Disraeli's life and works, see NCLC, Volumes 2 and 39.

Acknowledged as the originator of the political novel, Disraeli was also a unique and remarkable politician in Victorian England. In spite of numerous obstacles, including prevalent anti-Semitism and a bias on the part of aristocrats against members of the middle class, Disraeli ascended to the highest social and political circles, his career culminating in his election as prime minister in 1868. As a literary figure, Disraeli is best known for his political trilogy of the 1840s—comprising the novels Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred, often referred to as the Young England trilogy—which celebrates England's aristocracy while also recounting the social ills brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

Biographical Information

Disraeli was born to Maria and Isaac D'Israeli in a middle-class London neighborhood. Although the family was of Jewish descent, Disraeli's father broke with Judaism and had his children baptized as Anglicans; however, throughout his life Disraeli maintained an interest in a number of religions, finding his Jewish heritage in particular to be a source of spiritual value. He grew up in a home filled with literary activity—the family library was extensive, and his father was a respected and well-liked author and critic. Disraeli's formal education was brief: he went to private schools for a time, but then his father decided to instruct him at home, hoping to prepare him for a career in law. Although he developed political aspirations at an early age, Disraeli showed no affinity for law, preferring instead to pursue his interest in literature. As a young man, he invested in several ambitious projects designed to secure him fame and fortune but that instead resulted in the accumulation of enormous debts that plagued him for years. In an attempt to alleviate these debts, Disraeli wrote his first novel, Vivian Grey, which portrays the manners and mores of upper-class English society. Published anonymously, the work caused an immediate sensation and was quite popular. When it was disclosed that the author was not actually a member of the aristocracy, but a middle-class citizen of Jewish descent, Disraeli became the object of bitter attacks from London literary figures. After the Vivian Grey controversy, Disraeli was befriended by fellow novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who helped him gain entrance to the fashionable

society that had previously despised him. Disraeli, operating under the maxim that "affectation is better than wit," earned a reputation as a dandy with his unusual behavior and flamboyant appearance. While his eccentricity proved entertaining in London's social circles, it did not assist him in realizing his political ambitions, and he soon began to modify his conduct.

In 1837, Disraeli was elected to Parliament and soon thereafter assumed leadership of the Young England movement. This group, which advocated a new direction for the conservative Tory party, espoused the preservation of the monarchy and the privileged class, compassion for the poor, and a return to the religious devotion of ages past. During the next decade, Disraeli incorporated these tenets into his Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred. In 1847, he was chosen as leader of the Tory party in the House of Commons, a position he retained for over 20 years. He served as prime minister for a short time in 1868 and was elected to that position again in 1874. For most of this time, Disraeli devoted himself solely to politics, publishing no fiction after the Young England trilogy until Lothair in 1870. He retired from public life in 1880 and published his last novel, Endymion, that same year. He had completed only a few chapters of a novel that parodied the life of his political nemesis, William Gladstone, when he died in 1881.

Major Works

Disraeli began writing fiction at a time when England was experiencing increased social mobility; an influx of money and acquisition of land was helping middle-class citizens become landed gentry. Living amidst these developments, Disraeli experimented with a fashionable literary genre known as the "silver fork" novel, which featured highly romantic depictions of aristocratic iife and which served as social guidebooks for parvenus. Frequently these novels, like Disraeli's Vivian Grey (1826) and The Young Duke (1831), contained character sketches of well-known public figures and required keys to decipher the characters' real-life counterparts. Disraeli also experimented with a number of other genres, including poetry and drama. Robert Blake, an eminent Disraeli biographer, has commented that Disraeli "produced an epic poem, unbelievably bad, and a five-act blank verse tragedy, if possible worse."

With Coningsby; or, The New Generation (1844), Disraeli infused the novel genre with political sensibility, espousing the belief that England's future as a world power depended not on the complacent old guard, but on youthful, idealistic politicians. This novel was followed by Sybil; or, The Two Nations (1845), which was less idealistic than Coningsby in its examination of the vast economic and social disparity between the privileged and working classes. Completing Disraeli's political novel trilogy was Tancred; or, The New Crusade (1847), in which the author advocated the restoration of the Anglican Church to a position of spiritual preeminence in England. Disraeli rounded out his literary career with Lothair and Endymion, the former a novel of political life and a commentary on the Roman Catholic Church, and the latter a concluding statement of his economic and political policies.

Critical Reception

Although critics have acknowledged that Romantic elements can be found in all of Disraeli's works, his early novels particularly reflect that influence. Daniel Schwarz has suggested that "as an outsider, as a man who savoured his own feelings and sought unusual sensations, the youthful Disraeli saw himself as an heir to Byron and Shelley." The young heroes of his novels frequently travel to mysterious lands in search of adventure and romance, and they often consult an older man whose wisdom is of a prophetic, even mystical, nature. Commentators have also discussed how Disraeli's political philosophy heavily influenced his novels, observing that while the early works reflect a youthful idealism, the later ones show evidence of more mature and humanitarian concerns. The cumulative effect of these insights, critics have maintained, make Disraeli's novels exceptionally valuable both as highly original works of art and as important reflections of the social changes that took place during the Victorian age.

Commentators have also argued that stylistically Disraeli's prose reveals a sparkling wit and colorful imagination, as well as a skillful use of irony, deft psychological analysis, and the creative depiction of aristocratic mores and fashions. However, supporters and detractors alike have acknowledged that certain stylistic flaws cannot be ignored. They cite clumsy prose and poorly constructed plots as particularly weak elements of Disraeli's novels and point out his failure to convey emotions sincerely and to describe working-class life and poverty convincingly. Furthermore, while Disraeli has been censured for what some scholars consider the unwieldy, rambling nature of his novels, Schwarz has defended the author by asserting that "reading Disraeli's novels … is more like moving from room to room in a large museum than studying a single painting for hours."

Principal Works

Vivian Grey (novel) 1826

The Voyage of Captain Popanilla (satire) 1828

The Young Duke (novel) 1831

Contarini Fleming: A Psychological Autobiography (novel) 1832

The Wondrous Tale of Alroy. The Rise of Iskander (novel and short story) 1832

The Revolutionary Epick (poem) 1834

A Year at Hartlebury; or, The Election [published with his sister Sarah, under the pseudonyms Cherry and Fair Star] (novel) 1834

Henrietta Temple: A Love Story (novel) 1836

Venetia; or, The Poet's Daughter(novel) 1837

The Tragedy of Count Alarcos (drama) 1839

Coningsby; or, The New Generation (novel) 1844

Sybil; or, The Two Nations (novel) 1845

Tancred; or, The New Crusade (novel) 1847

Lothair (novel) 1870

Endymion (novel) 1880

Whigs and Whiggism: Political Writings (essays) 1913

Criticism

Patrick Brantlinger (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Tory Radicalism and 'The Two Nations' in Disraeli's Sybil," The Victorian Newsletter, No. 41, Spring, 1972, pp. 13-17.

[In the following essay, Brantlinger explores the political theory expressed in Sybil, focusing on Disraeli's Tory-Radicalism and analyzing his purported acceptance of the "two-nations" theory of the Chartists.]

Despite F. R. Leavis' praise of Disraeli's neglected maturity in a footnote to The Great Tradition, there has been no revival of interest in his novels. And rightly so, if only because Disraeli's three most important novels, Coningsby Sybil and Tancred espoused a cause that was more laughed at than respected...

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Robert O'Kell (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The Autobiographical Nature of Disraeli's Early Fiction," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, December, 1976, pp. 253-84.

[In the essay that follows, O'Kell discusses how Disraeli's early novels reflect his attempt to forge a public identity. According to O'Kell, these early works represent Disraeli's struggle to combine a desire for public recognition with an acute sense of his marginalization as a writer of Jewish descent.]

Extant biographical material suggests that the young Disraeli held two opposing senses of himself that were manifested in contradictory desires for recognition of very different sorts. Although he gloried in the ambitious egotism...

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Robert O'Kell (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Disraeli's Coningsby: Political Manifesto or Psychological Romance?," Victorian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, Autumn, 1979, pp. 57-78.

[In the following essay, O'Kell interprets Coningsby as an attempt by Disraeli to clarify his developing Tory ideology by "replacing the actuality of his struggle to transcend his alienation from the establishment … with ideal versions of the past as it should have been."]

Coningsby; or, the New Generation, written in the autumn and winter of 1843-44, has traditionally been seen as the first example of a subgenre, the political novel, and, as such, part of a trilogy that is overtly propagandist in conception....

(The entire section is 9141 words.)

Daniel R. Schwarz (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "From Immersion to Reflection: Romance and Realism in Henrietta Temple and Venetia" in Disraeli's Fiction, Macmillan, 1979, pp. 55-77.

[In the following excerpt, Schwarz defends Henrietta Temple and Venetia against charges that the novels lack aesthetic value and are discontinuous with Disraeli's other works.]

I

The only book-length critical study of Disraeli's novels, Richard A. Levine's Benjamin Disraeli, criticises Henrietta Temple (1836) and Venetia (1837) because of their supposed objectivity:

In the final analysis, however, [Henrietta...

(The entire section is 9755 words.)

Robert O'Kell (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Two Nations, or One?: Disraeli's Allegorical Romance," Victorian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 211-34.

[In this essay, O'Kell examines Sybil in terms of its political, religious, and allegorical content, distinguishing it from the psychological romances typical of Disraeli's early work.]

The popularity of Coningsby: Or The New Generation when it first appeared in May 1844 was undoubtedly part of what prompted Disraeli to begin immediately writing another "political" novel. But part of his motive must also have been his realization that the enormous success of Coningsby derived less from any appreciation of his reflexive...

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Gary Handwerk (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Behind Sybil's Veil: Disraeli's Mix of Ideological Messages," Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, December, 1988, pp. 321-41.

[In the following essay, Handwerk analyzes Disraeli's rhetorical and political aims in Sybil, contending that despite the tension among the various strands of the novel, Disraeli actually put forward a coherent ideology.]

The status accorded Benjamin Disraeli's fiction has begun to shift significantly of late as critics have started to reestimate the interest and complexity of his novels. Those texts were long considered to be of secondary or merely historical value as novels of ideas whose aesthetic possibilities...

(The entire section is 8631 words.)

Daniel Bivona (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Disraeli's Political Trilogy and the Antinomic Structure of Imperial Desire," Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 305-25.

[In the following essay, Bivona argues that Disraeli's political trilogy was written in order to reinvigorate the Tory party and, particularly, to give him "a forum in which to ally ideological argument with imperial fantasy" through his portrayal of the government's expansion to include the middle and working classes.]

Recent history provides few examples of successful political careers founded on literary careers. When politicians turn to letters, they usually do so after leaving the political wars to beguile the...

(The entire section is 11416 words.)

John Vincent (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Earlier Writings" in Disraeli, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 57-80.

[[In this excerpt, Vincent surveys Disraeli's early novels, concluding that they have little literary value.]

Disraeli's novels have never lacked intelligent, if unlikely, admirers, The great Victorian critic Sir Leslie Stephen, inventor of muscular atheism, warmly approved. The equally austere Dr Leavis, in the least damnatory footnote in The Great Tradition, singled out Disraeli as a supreme intelligence. In youth, Disraeli was saluted by Heine; in age, Henry James wrote in his defence. The reviewer and Labour leader Michael Foot (who called his dog Dizzy) has argued...

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Mary S. Millar and M. G. Wiebe (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'This power so vast … & so generally misunderstood': Disraeli and the Press in the 1840s," Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 79-85.

[In the essay that follows, Millar and Wiebe discuss ways in which Disraeli used his writing for newspapers as a means to transmit his political views, and conclude that his "management of the press" contributed significantly to his political success.]

In October of 1849, Disraeli wrote to G. Lathom Browne, the editor of his local newspaper, The Bucks Herald: "No newspaper is important as far as its advocacy. The importance of newspapers is to circulate your opinions, and a good report...

(The entire section is 5542 words.)