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.
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.
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.
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."