Stanley Weintraub betrays his profession in this important biography of Benjamin Disraeli. Weintraub, Evan Pugh Professor of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, is clearly no historian, but then Disraeli has been well served by historians. His politics have been widely treated by Maurice Cowling, Paul Smith, Peter Ghosh, F. B. Smith, E. J. Feuchtwanger, and others; his writing by John Vincent, Daniel Schwartz, and Sheila Smith; his life in Robert Blake’s political classic Disraeli (1966). Yet until now, no one had attempted a life as Disraeli himself might have sensed it. In this respect, Weintraub’s expertise as a cultural historian enables him to bring a fresh perspective to one of the great political figures of the nineteenth century.
Benjamin Disraeli was culturally the most unusual of Victoria’s prime ministers. In 1748, his Jewish grandfather had emigrated from Italy to England, where he established himself in business and trade. His father, Isaac, was a confirmed skeptic and noted man of letters who, according to a biographer, “lived exclusively for literature.” In 1829, Isaac D’Israeli became a country gentleman, taking a long-term lease on Bradenharn, a venerable manor house surrounded by more than thirteen hundred acres of Buckinghamshire woodland. Benjamin Disraeli was thus born into a family of comfortable means, ethnically Jewish but perfectly willing to encourage their son to convert to Anglicanism at the age of thirteen in order to further his chances in the narrow world of English high society.
Weintraub begins in 1837, with Disraeli’s fourth attempt to enter Parliament. As he spoke from the platform of the Maidstone Corn Exchange, resplendent in canary waistcoat and green trousers, chains glistening and pomaded black curls falling to his cheeks, the stereotypical anti-Semitic cliche’s of “Shylock” and “old do’s” (that is, “old clothes”; as Weintraub observes, “Selling second-hand clothes was the cliché occupation of the Jewish underclass”) resounded from the milling crowd. Thus were Maidstone’s conservative voters reminded that no one with such a name could be, as he claimed, “an uncompromising adherent to that ancient Constitution which was once the boast of our Fathers, and is still the Blessing of their Children.” Nevertheless, Disraeli’s magnificent oratory and the financial patronage of Wyndham Lewis finally propelled him onto the stage of national politics which would make him internationally famous.
A careful examination of the Maidstone election reveals a number of the suggestive ironies that characterize most lives and validate the quality of this biography. When the call for elections came upon the death of King William IV, Disraeli was diverted from the writing of his second novel, an avocation that had first gained him notoriety and that he pursued fitfully throughout his life. Prejudiced listeners at Maidstone shouted “Ol’ do’s” and “Shylock” at a dandy who was already some twenty thousand pounds in debt. According to a reliable political broadsheet, Disraeli’s list of lenders included “Tailors, Hosiers, Upholsterers, Jew Money Lenders (for this Child of Israel was not satisfied with merely spoiling the Egyptians), Spunging Housekeepers and, in short, persons of every denomination who were foolish enough to trust him.” He would not dispose of the last of his debts until the late 1870’s. In a darkly fortunate circumstance, Disraeli’s Maidstone patron, to whom he owed five thousand pounds, died in 1838. Disraeli married Mary Anne Wyndham a year later. By 1839, the defining features of his life were clear. The question for observers was, what would Disraeli make of his political ambition, his literary pretensions, his Jewishness, his debt, and a pretty wife twelve years older than himself?
Weintraub has added little to an understanding of Disraeli’s politics. His review of Disraeli’s rise to prominence, culminating in the risky challenge of 1846 over Sir Robert Peel’s renunciation of the traditional Conservative policy of protection, is sound but unexceptional and understates the value of his subject’s skill in debate. Too often in Weintraub’s account the politics are incidental to the “life.” In reviewing Disraeli’s limited role in the development of Conservative legislation in 1874-1875, for example, Weintraub simply leaves one with “However Disraeli’s Parliamentary accomplishments came about, they did come,” a nonexplanation that necessarily contributes to nebulous explanations of later failures. In an odd way, there is some justice in this confusion. Disraeli had so long been interested in achieving power for its own sake and upon such general principles that he was uncertain of how it might be put to use. Robert Browning had noticed this in the 1840’s, writing to Elizabeth Barrett that Disraeli and his followers “hold that ‘belief’ is the admirable point—in what, they judge comparatively immaterial!”
In a number of cases, Weintraub is positively misleading, taking almost at face value his subject’s own valuation of people and events. In no meaningful sense were Disraeli’s legislative programs “gestating” since his Young England novels of the 1840’s. Furthermore, Weintraub is consistently ungenerous to those who thwarted Disraeli, including the fifteenth Earl of Derby, onetime Conservative ally, and William...