Disraeli: The Victorian Dandy Who Became Prime Minister, by Christopher Hibbert
I must admit that I had mixed feelings about this particular book. The author did a good job at writing about the life of Benjamin Disraeli, a man who lived an almost impossibly complex life and whose later success and regard were completely at odds with the rakish reputation that he had during his early career when he was viewed as a thoroughly disreputable character. And yet the complex life of Disraeli is one that demonstrates the sort of corruption that laid at the heart of even Conservative British society that helped explain why it is that the 20th and 21st century has been so disastrous for Great Britain, with fears of losing influence and identity related to leftist anti-Semitism and the moral decline of those who were supposed to be defending traditional British moral virtues. This book demonstrates that the popular touch that was necessary to make Conservative politics appealing to a broad spectrum of British society (something that remains to this day) was often tied to behavior that often undercut the traditional virtue that the Tories have sought to defend, which reminds us that defending tradition rhetorically and politically and through one’s example are not the same thing, and it is easy to confuse that sort of matter.
This book is a bit more than 350 pages long and is divided into two parts and 40 chapters. The first part, which takes up the first 20 chapters, examines the part of Benjamin Disraeli’s life from his birth in 1804 to his assumption of leadership of the Conservative Party in 1846. These 20 chapters examine the Disraeli’s childhood, including his close relationship with his sister and his ambivalent relationship with his father, his education, his early study of the law and his decision to seek to make a living through being a novelist, as well as his adoption of the Anglican faith instead of his ancestral Judaism, even if his Jewish identity hung around him like a millstone around the neck at times. His youthful immaturity and demagoguery (he was, like many, a young radical who got more conservative as he got older) mellowed into statesmanship as his political ambitions were satisfied through first the office of Chancellor and then through his multiple terms as Prime Minister. The book details Disraeli’s relationship with his wife, his possible illegitimate children, his novels and plays, his efforts at diplomacy and his skilled handling of the Royal Family, and his decline in old age up to his death in 1881.
Ultimately, the author is fond of Disraeli and finds much to respect about him and the way that he was able to use his undoubted rhetorical skills to build an enduring Conservative identity in an age where repeated reforms that expanded the electorate in the period from 1832 to 1890 were thought to have made Conservatism an obsolete political party because of the inherent support of working class urban and rural voters for more radical political options. Conservatives not unlike Disraeli in their ability to combine nationalistic and traditionalist appeals with an interest in the well-being of all classes and segments of society are still able to win elections thanks in part to the skilled leadership of Disraeli. And let us not forget that in addition to a massively important political figure Disraeli was also a popular novelist whose popularity was due in large part to the skillful way he blended his plots with real life characters that his readers could identify. For all of that, the author also demonstrates an interest in contemporary matters like Disraeli’s apparent homoerotic friendships with younger men throughout his career, although the author is at least discreet enough not to think of it as a physical matter. But a contemporary book is going to wallow in contemporary concerns just as people in the past exploited the concerns of their own place and time.