Young Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli was the eldest son of a respected Jewish intellectual. Recognizing in himself a genius, the ambitious young man at first despaired of rising through the ceiling imposed on Jews, however brilliant. He suffered a typically Victorian nervous breakdown, rose on the ether of his own tremendous ego, and smashed at last through the stratosphere of British politics. Jane Ridley examines Disraeli’s early life and discerns in his letters, his speeches, and especially his novels the insights and motives that propelled him, zigzagging from party to party, through Victorian England’s bewildering political arena.

Disraeli’s marriage portrait appears on the dust jacket. It is a portrait of the charismatic dandy: effeminate, egotistical, wary—a dilettante, not a politician. Yet his marriage to Mary Anne Lewis largely freed him from the liabilities (financial and otherwise) incurred during his rash, experimental youth. Leading the Young England movement and, incredibly, attaining a seat in Parliament, Disraeli ultimately unseated the capable and respected Robert Peel with an incessant barrage of ridicule and bombast.

Ridley’s narrative is insightful, her subject never dull. The young Disraeli’s early disappointment and frustration, his invention of aristocratic ancestors, and his conclusion that he belonged to a superior if conquered race are well presented and go far to explain both his ambition and his ability to shout down a mob. Yet it is hard to see in Ridley’s detailed profile other than the vain, reckless, opportunistic manipulator. Much more of Disraeli’s character might have been revealed had greater light been shed on the system he wished to control and the society he wished to dominate. However questionable his ideas, however unprincipled his alliances, his political skills were honed by bitter experience and rare tenacity. If a little flighty, his genius made him a figure of seminal importance to Victoria’s reign.