The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 3. Benjamin Disraeli

A quite unique place in the history of English fiction will be universally allowed to be held by Benjamin Disraeli, once called the younger—in recognition of his learned father, who is still remembered as one of the lesser lights of critical antiquarianism—and afterwards the wonder of the world under his title the earl of Beaconsfield. W.F.Monypenny, in a Life of very high merit which he has not lived to complete with his own hand,justly observes that “novels may not be read for biography, but biography may be used to elucidate novels,” and it is only from this point of view that, in the following rapid survey of Disraeli’s principal writings, reference will be made to the events of his life, the most striking of which form part, for better or for worse, of our national history.

Nothing that Disraeli ever did, said or wrote was done, said or written without self-consciousness; everything worked together in the scheme of his life, between the private and public aspects of which it is often difficult to draw a line, and which stands freely self-revealed in his books as it does in the extra-ordinary story of his career. He became a writer when very young; his earliest book, though not the first production of his pen,appeared in 1826, when he was in his twenty-first or twenty second year, and was afterwards reckoned by himself among “books written by boys.” The earliest literary training which he received was that which, like Vivian Grey, he sought for himself in his father’s library—hence, the wide, though superficial, knowledge of books which he had not time to supplement in later life, his resolute adherence to the literary heroes of his youth (Byron and Bolingbroke above all) and, also, the ineradicable imperfection of his spelling of French, the only language except his own with which he attained to any degree of familiarity. Oxford and Cambridge remained unknown to him, and he made bold, at times, to treat them in his books with a touch of more or less friendly scorn.

During much of the earlier part of his life, he was burdened by debt; and the pressure of such a burden is nowhere more forcibly depicted than in a passage of Henrietta Temple, though at times, his buoyant nature may have led him, like Fadredeen in Tancred, to believe in indebtedness as a stimulant of genius. Partly because of these difficulties, against which he gallantly struggled, he was not a great traveller, though, like Contarini Fleming, he made the grand tour; and among his most notable literary achievements are the pictures in the same novel, and in Tancred, which, like those in Eothen, appreciatively reproduce the humours as well as the splendours of the near east.

Disraeli’s literary masterpieces have an irrefutable claim to be included in a chapter on the political and social novel of his age; but it would be an error to suppose politics to have been, from the first, the main element of his fiction any more than it was the chief interest of his early personal career. Vivian Grey (1826), written from an experience developed by a vivid imagination out of conversations to which the youthful author had listened at John Murray’s dinners, contains no serious political thought, for “the New Union” has no purpose beyond that of faction; and, when Disraeli wrote Contarini Fleming (1832), his dream, as Monypenny points out, was to acquire fame through literature, just as the hero of this romance purposed to “devote himself to the amelioration of his kind” by authorship. There can be no doubt that, as, indeed, the author himself indicates, the conception of his novel owed something to Wilhelm Meister; but, except in the imitation of the character of Philine, only in a very general way. Disraeli’s next novel, The Young Duke (1830), although containing some pungent political criticisms, deals almost exclusively with the world of fashion; and, if it professes to supply the reader with something very different from the ordinary type of fashionable novel as defined in the course of the story, certainly keeps whatever may be its special purpose well in reserve. Alroy (1833) and The Rise of Iskander (1835) are historical, or quasihistorical, romances of a more less conventional type. Henrietta Temple, which rightly calls itself “a Love Story,”and Venetia (both 1837), with its topsy-turveydom of literary portraiture and reminiscences, have nothing to do with political or social problems; nor was it before Coningsby, or The New Generation (1844) and Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845) that the author deliberately sought to concentrate the attention of his readers on the treatment of such matters. He declares that, in the frenzied period of the Reform bill, thirteen or fourteen years before the publication of these cognate if not twin novels, he took occasion “to intimate and then to develop to the first assembly of his countrymen that he ever had the honour to address the convictions which he expounds in these works.” Two or three years after that historic date—in 1835—he had, in the Vindication of the English Constitution which he addressed to the sympathetic ear of lord Lyndhurst, enunciated, with extraordinary gusto, his views on the three estates of the realm, on the difference between governing for a people and governing for a party, on the enormities of the whigs and on the enduring significance for the national welfare of the church and the house of lords. This animated essay was followed by Letters of Runnymede, which, after appearing in The Times, were published in 1836 with a brief congenial diatribe The Spirit of Whiggism, but which their author never acknowledged. Modelled, in form, upon the letters of Junius, they outdid their predecessors in scurrilous violence, but lacked that calm assumption of selfevident superiority which gave to the earlier diatribes so much of their authoritative tone. They were dedicated, as a whole, to Peel, whom the time had not yet come for attacking, but were individually, for the most part, addressed to the whig leaders, for whom no method of abuse seemed out of place

In Disraeli’s two great political novels, and, in a measure, in their companion romance, Tancred, or The New Crusade (1847), he fully developed the revised tory creed. Equally removed from the “stupid” and stagnant toryism of the Liverpool era, and from the colourless conservatism proposed by the party without principles which followed Peel after the passing of the Reform bill, the new generation represented by the young England party makes open war upon political radicalism and utilitarian philosophy, upon the cold-blooded whigs who have allied themselves with these tendencies, upon the middle classes, the merchants and the manufacturers who profit from their ascendancy, upon the cruelty of the new poor law (against which, in parliament, Disraeli had voted with a small minority) and upon the unimaginative and unaesthetic impoverishment of the life of the peasantry. Contempt is poured upon the existing system of government, which a “heroic” effort must be made to overthrow, instead of continuing to depend on “a crown robbed of its prerogative, a church extended to a Commission, and an aristocracy that does not lead”; and the heart must thus be taken out of chartism, the fondly trusted gospel of the second of the “two nations” into which the English people is divided. In Sybil, we seem to be nearing the thought that, in the emancipation of the people, the idealism of the church of Rome will lend powerful aid, and, in the same earlier part of Tancred, we are treated to an excursus on the English church and its defects, which might seem to tend in the same direction. But the defects of that church, we learn, lie not only in the mediocrity of its bishops, but, primarily, in its deficiency in oriental knowledge, and, thus, with a note that Tancred began to doubt “whether faith is sufficient without race,” we pass into another sphere of Disraeli’s political and historical philosophy, which concerns itself with the question of race. Here, we are scarcely any longer in the region of practical politics, but, rather, in that of semi-occult influences such as are best demonstrated by the esoteric knowledge and prophetical certainty of Sidonia, or illustrated by the traditional tale Alroy. The inner meaning of Tancred may be veiled, but its courage, as a declaration of faith in the destinies of the Jewish race, must be described as Magnificent. Disraeli’s last two novels—Lothair (1870) and Endymion (1880)—are, of course, full of political passages and invaluable to the historical and political student as containing the Obiter dicta of a statesman to whom the world of contemporary politics was as familiar as the boards of the stage are to its veteran protagonists. But these books have to no longer any political purpose; the writer looks on the contentions of ultramontanism and Mazziniansm from the outside, and the very motto of Endymion betrays the unimpassioned spirit of the observer for whom political life no longer has any secrets.

Among those secrets is the mysterious action of personal character, on the paramount importance of which Disraeli (who never shrank from repeting himself) again and again descants. He possessed a wonderful insight into the motives that actuate men not only in their public doings, but in the shaping of their lives, or in the leaving of them to be shaped by circumstances as the agents of Providence. Thus, when he worked with special care and elaborated his presentiments, he could place on his canvas figures typically true and yet highly original, such as Monmouth in Coningsby, the selfish aristocrat of whom Carabas, in Vivian Grey, is merely a first sketch and Montfort, in Endymion, a more delicate part-copy, the omniscient Sidonia, Rigby, the embodiment of official meanness, and the radiant Mr.Phoebus. All these have in them features of actual individuals well known to fame; but they are, at the same time, types worthy to stand by the side of the best remembered in English fiction; and the same may be asserted of a few others who are types only, such as the immortal Tadpole and Taper. In many of the characters which crowd his pages, Disraeli was content to introduce contemporaries under a more or less thin disguise, without, on the one hand, working them out with fullness or, on the other, aiming at photographic exactitude. It is not of much importance whether Disraeli hit upon this device unassisted, or whether he borrowed it from a popular novelist of a rather earlier day, who had personal experience of political life, Robert Plumer Ward. In Disraeli’s novels, the real personages introduced are all recognisable by those acquainted with the social history of the age, even if they cannot attest the likeness on the strength of personal intercourse or even of a deprecatory Viditantum. Such are, among a multitude of others, the delightful Mirabel in Henrietta Temple; the almost equally delightful St. Aldegonde in Lothair, who reappears as Waldershare in Endymion; besides Coningsby himself, lord Henry Sidney, Sir Charles Buckhurst, Eustace Lyle in Coningsby; Vavasour in Tancred; Monsignore Catesby and the cardinal, and, at the other pole, Mirandola, in Lothair; and prince, afterwards king, Florestan in Endymion. As a rule, all these are touched with equal humour and a kindliness, or, at least, gentleness, in accordance with the obvious demands of good taste; but there are a few notable exceptions. The character of Rigby in Coningsby has already been mentioned; and it remains, so far as we are aware, unknown why Disraeli should have displayed so vitriolic a hatred of Croker as is displayed in this portrait—unmistakable, at all events, in the account of him as a man of letters, the author of slashing articles, full of detail constantly incorrect. Here and there, in his political novels, Disraeli gives piquancy to his array of dramatis personae by introducing among them actual personages, such as lord (John) Russell, who intervenes in the action of Sybil and whose character is not unfairly drawn in Coningsby. But no such treatment is accorded to Sir Robert Peel, whom Disraeli hated with a bitterness that can only be accounted for by the fact that the great minister, on one occasion, had behaved to him with undeserved generosity. In return, he is assailed in Coningsby (though, in the same work, a recognition is accorded to his courage), insulted in The Young Duke and held up to scorn in Tancred. Disraeli’s spite against Goldwin Smith, in the character of the Oxford professor in Lothair, was, perhaps, provoked, and certainly requited; but it is really too inept to have deserved notice. Could his equally violent, if not equally pointless, caricature of Thackeray, as St. Barbe in Endymion, have been merely the result of annoyance at the happy parody of himself as a prize novelist in Scaramouch?

Hardly less captivating than the likenesses of prominent contemporaries introduced by Disraeli into his novels are the apophthegms which he puts into their mouths or delivers on his own account. His earliest work, Vivian Grey, is full of these; but, as they come to us in more mellowed from the lips of Sidonia, they seem laden with wisdom. Where epigrams cannot conveniently be coined, mere phrases have to do their duty, and no audacity is too great to fill them with sound. The author of Vivian Grey was able to produce an aquivalent of diplomatic phraseology, as it were, from his inner consciousness; and, like the master of diplomatic speech in the period of European congresses, he could always find a formula, even when his purpose was mainly negative.

It may, perhaps, be added that the names of Disraeli’s personages are generally chosen with great felicity. In this respect, he has few equals except Thackeray, who, however, occasionally condescends, as Dickens avowdly seeks, to raise laughter by his inventive power in this respect. It is not often that Disraeli unbends so far. Not that he was wanting in the imitative humour which could reproduce, with lifelike correctness, the talk between two young sporting dukes at Doncaster, the vaunts of G.O.A. Head at Manchester and even the rodomontade of Chaffing Jack, the keeper of a musichall in a small manufacturing town, who, indeed, has in him something of the volubility of Alfred Jingle. Though he loved hyperbole, and though it would be easy to cite passages, even in his later works, which must be called grandiloquent, and others which are wholly artificial, even in the inversion of their sentences, yet, the favourite form of Disraeli’s humour was irony, in which, both as a writer and as a speaker, he excelled all his contemporaries. The earliest manifestations of this gift will be found in the short stories or sketches, beginning with Popanilla (1827), and including Ixion in Heaven (1833), pure burlesque, though almost Lucianic in its urbanity, and The Infernal Marriage (1834), a little lengthy, but containing some good political banter. The gift was carefully cultivated, and is abundantly exhibited in all Disraeli’s later works. Sarcasms like “the old ideal, to do nothing and get something” are as plentiful with him as leaves in Vallombrosa, and whole episodes—such as the diplomacy of the prime minister of the Amsarey in Tancred and the Roman plot for the conversion of Lothair—are conceived in this vein, with equal delicacy and malice.

“Thought and passion,” Disraeli writes in Henrietta Temple, “are required in a fine novel, besides the descriptive accessories.” The intense energy of his nature, the strength of his will and the consistency of his purpose did duty for the primary ingredients. When their flow might have seemed to slacken, imagination, wit and extraordinary quickness of insight did the rest. His power of construction was considerable; Coningsby and Sybil, in different ways, are interesting as stories, and the turn of the narrative in Lothair (by the appearance of Mr.Phoebus) is very deftly contrived. On the other hand, not only Vivian Grey, but Tancred, lacks an ending, and Endymion (it must be confessed) a hero. Yet, with all their combined effectiveness and particular brilliancy, his literary gifts were limited in their range; notwithstanding his extraordinary power of writing dialogue, he had no essentially dramatic gifts, while the feebleness of his lyrics is manifest in both Henrietta Temple and Venetia, though, in the latter novel, they are introduced as the productions of a second Byron. His blank verse was not much superior, though it found its way into some of his prose. The merits of his style are confined to his prose, though estimates have differed as to the work or works in which it attained to its highest excellence. He himself thought that ContariniFleming was the perfection of English prose, and his biographer considers that this novel shows him at his best as a prose-writer. But, to us, the afflatus of the latter part of his favourite Tancred appears stronger, and its effect more stimulating. The vividness, subtle humour and attractive lightness of his general prose style seem to have reached their height in Coningsby or, perhaps, in Sybil, where his historical and other excursuses begin to have a value of their own, something like that of the openings of Fielding or the digressions of Thackeray; but none of his earlier works exhibits the exquisite finish of style which, in his latter days, he knew how to impart to Lothair and to Endymion. In the former of these, at all events, his genius for depicting the conflict of great ideas had not deserted him.

Of Disraeli’s contributions to literature outside the field of prose fiction, very little needs to be said here. He took himself very seriously in writing The Revolutionary Epick (1834), of which he states himself to have conceived the idea on the plains of Troy; but the fragment of a blank verse poem which remains consists partly of commonplace rhetoric, partly of a faint reflection of the influence of Childe Harold, with a troublesome interference of the allegorical element. Count Alarcos, a Tragedy (1839), though not without telling points, has neither reality of passion nor strength of style. Quite at the beginning of his career, Disraeli incurred and escaped the chance of settling down into journalism; but he withdrew from the Murray-Lockhart scheme of The Representative, and had no share in the production of that short-lived journal (1825). So late as 1853, he returned to journalism, as the founder and guiding spirit of a weekly journal called The Press, for which he wrote the opening leader Coalition, and which he did not sell till 1866. To his published political writings proper, no further reference is needed; but it may be well to note that, in his “political biography” of lord George Bentinck, Disraeli essayed a kind of writing of which there are not many examples in English literature, namely, the life of a statesman designed, primarily, to illustrate the nature and value of the political principles by which it was animated, and only secondarily the character and qualities of the man himself. How far he was successful in fulfilling the former purpose must largely depend on political opinion and sentiment; but, of the purpose itself, even without the guidance of a recent editor of the book, no doubt can remain; and the work is almost as much an attack upon Peel as a panegyric upon the protectionist leader. The personal touches, so far as the hero of the story is concerned, are effectively introduced, though the elegiac note at the close, with its three Greek quotations, is strained. On the other hand. a scene or two in the narrative—Peel in a reverie, and the same statesman in the hour of final defeat—as well as some incidental touches—O’Connell in decay, and the duke explaining the motives of his policy to the press—are worthy of the author at his best. His own self he more or less effaces, tactfully, in the biography of his friend, but he finds room for a chapter on the Jewish question, in which both were at one.