Benjamin Disraeli (dihz-RAY-lee), born in London on December 21, 1804, was the son of Isaac D’Israeli, a well-known literary commentator and biographer. Like the title character of his sensational first novel, Vivian Grey, he was privately educated—chiefly in his father’s library—and took the Grand Tour of Europe as a young man. He chafed at his law studies and with a powerful self-assurance wrote a quick succession of shallowly brilliant novels: The Young Duke, Contarini Fleming, and The Wondrous Tale of Alroy, as well as a number of political pamphlets and a trio of burlesque extravaganzas, The Voyage of Captain Popanilla, Ixion in Heaven, and The Infernal Marriage. Then, despite the handicaps of his Jewish heritage and his foppish manners, he brazenly experimented with politics. Failing as a radical, he was elected to Parliament as a Tory, as part of a group of young radical conservative ministers dubbed “Young England.” Out of this experience he wrote his three best-known novels, Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred. They deal specifically with the “two nations” debate, a phrase Disraeli himself coined to describe what he saw as a divided country. He gave up his writing temporarily, married in 1839 the widow of his colleague Wyndham Lewis, then gradually rose to be three times Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, finally, prime minister from 1867 to 1868 and again from 1874 to 1880, alternating with his great political rival, the Liberal William Gladstone.
During his second term of office, when he was knighted, Disraeli took a name from his first novel and became the first earl of Beaconsfield. In his later years, he resumed his writing; he also became an intimate friend of Queen Victoria. Disraeli died in London on April 19, 1881.