The Novel Politician
Jewish Lives series
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016
Hardcover. viii + 292 p. ISBN 978-0300137514. £16.99/$25
Reviewed by Michel Pharand
Queen's University, Kingston (Ontario)
The last ten years have been a Disraeli Decade, judging from the many studies published on Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), one of the most colourful – and controversial – political figures of the Victorian era. Full-length treatments include Richard Aldous’s The Lion and The Unicorn : Gladstone vs. Disraeli (2006); Christopher Hibbert’s Disraeli : The Victorian Dandy Who Became Prime Minister (2006); William Kuhn’s The Politics of Pleasure : A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli (2006); Jonathan Parry’s Benjamin Disraeli (2007); Adam Kirsch’s Benjamin Disraeli (2008); Miloš Ković’s Disraeli and the Eastern Question (2011); Simone Beate Borgstede’s ‘All is Race’ : Benjamin Disraeli on Race, Nation and Empire (2011);(1) Robert O’Kell’s Disraeli : The Romance of Politics (2013), a magisterial examination of Disraeli the statesman and storyteller that explores the symbiotic relationship between his politics and fiction; Catherine Styles’s Disraeli’s Daughter (2013), which offers intriguing evidence of the plausible existence of Disraeli’s secret daughter; Lord Hurd and Edward Young’s Disraeli : Or, The Two Lives (2013); Dick Leonard’s The Great Rivalry : Gladstone and Disraeli, a Dual Biography (2013); Daisy Hay’s Mr and Mrs Disraeli : A Strange Romance (2015), the first work to examine in detail the unusual (but mostly very happy) marriage of Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli; and Regina Akel’s Benjamin Disraeli and John Murray : The Politician, the Publisher and the ‘Representative’ (2016), about the young Disraeli’s attempt – a dismal failure – at newspaper publishing.
One must add to these monographs three hefty volumes in the series of Benjamin Disraeli Letters researched at the Disraeli Project:(2) Volume VIII : 1860–1864 (2009), which includes 556 letters (409 never published), reveals the hitherto unknown collaboration between Disraeli and his close friend Lionel de Rothschild on an anonymous pamphlet promoting Jewish political rights (see below); Volume IX : 1865–1867 (2013), which includes 698 letters (527 never published), features Disraeli’s pivotal role, much of it behind the scenes, in crafting and helping to pass the landmark 1867 Reform Act; and Volume X : 1868 (2014), which includes 659 letters (510 never published), charts Disraeli’s first ministry, whose major challenge was opposing Gladstone’s monomaniacal crusade to disestablish the Irish Church. Clearly then, with an average of one book every eight months, Benjamin Disraeli’s personality and accomplishments continue to fascinate and intrigue.
The latest addition to this bounty is David Cesarani’s Disraeli : The Novel Politician, a volume in Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series. Not surprisingly, given the importance ascribed by Disraeli to his own ethnicity and, more generally, to what he called the Jewish ‘race’,(3) this book marks his second appearance in a Jewish context, after Kirsch’s Benjamin Disraeli in Schocken Books’ Jewish Encounters series. However, whereas Kirsch makes the case for Disraeli as a Zionist avant la lettre, David Cesarani takes an opposing stance: his Disraeli, in short, was not Jewish enough.(4)
The obvious starting point for this view is Isaac D’Israeli’s quarrel with Bevis Marks synagogue and the Christian baptism, five months later, in July 1817, of his four children. These events are well-recounted by Cesarani, who sees Isaac as a major (albeit not very positive) influence on young Benjamin. Still, we often find the son echoing the father, sometimes almost verbatim. For example, in Isaac’s The Genius of Judaism (1833), we read that “in Judaism we have our Christianity, and in Christianity we are reminded of our Judaism”; in Disraeli’s novel Sybil (1845), we learn that “Christianity is incomprehensible without Judaism, as Judaism is incomplete without Christianity” [29, 104].(5) This leitmotif – the complementary nature of the two faiths – runs through many of Disraeli’s novels and indeed through their author, who, writes Cesarani, “constructed a compensatory myth that also conferred upon him a singular mediating role between Jews and Christians” .
Biographers have noted the paradox of Disraeli the Anglican convert proclaiming – often to the discomfiture of his audience – the cultural and intellectual primacy of the Jews. And here Cesarani is correct: “Disraeli compensated for the contempt in which his people were held by turning them into paragons of virtue, a noble race superior to the Anglo-Saxons” . Nonetheless, Disraeli : The Novel Politician is essentially an attempt to discredit Disraeli as a Jew, with evidence adduced not from what Disraeli says, does, or writes, but, in many instances, from what he does not say, do, or write. By his “inactivity on any practical issue concerning Jews” , Disraeli the apostate, according to Cesarani, sins by omission.
Take his baptism: “In later life, Disraeli rarely, if ever, adverted to this traumatic moment” . Yet why should he? And how does anyone know that his baptism traumatised the twelve-year-old? Further examples abound. Disraeli’s surviving correspondence describing his early travels indicates no interest “in Jewish sights or history” : he does not mention “the Jewish aspects of Venice” ; in Spain, touring a region “saturated with Jewish history, he is all but silent about Jews,” and in Seville “ignored the Judería … where Jews once lived” ; in Jerusalem, he “does not mention the Jewish Quarter or the Jews at all. … There is no evidence that Disraeli even visited a synagogue” .(6) Once again: Why should he? Disraeli’s allegiance was to the Jewish ‘race’, not to Judaism.
Even Disraeli’s novels evince, according to Cesarani, an absent, indifferent, or distorted Jewishness. Vivian Grey (1826-1827) “suggests how marginal Jews were to his interests” , and the “hash” Disraeli made in describing “Jews and Jewish history” in The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833) points to “someone ignorant or uncaring about Judaism” . In Henrietta Temple (1836), the moneylender Levison “draws on a range of anti-Jewish tropes” .(7) In Coningsby (1844), the views of the wealthy and powerful Sidonia are “those of Jewry as a whole” ; yet the result is mere “Judaic gallimaufry” . Sybil (1845) could only have been written by “someone who did not take Jewish history seriously” . For the eponymous hero of Tancred (1847), “The real Jewish Jerusalem is invisible,” and although Disraeli describes the festival of Sukkot, he “completely misunderstands its origin and meaning” [106, 107].(8) And in his late novels, there is something more sinister at work. In Lothair (1870), the artist Gaston Phoebus (a wicked caricature of Frederic Leighton) is “a Nazi before his time” whose ideas on the Aryan race “uncannily anticipate the rhetoric of National Socialism” [174, 175]. In Endymion (1880), when the foreign aristocrat Baron Sergius claims that the Semites ‘now exercise a vast influence over affairs by their smallest though most peculiar family, the Jews’, Cesarani states that this “could have been written by a classic anti-Semite” . Yet was Disraeli advocating autarchy or cautioning against it? Moreover, to marshal charges of apathy or racism against Disraeli’s fictional avatars and imply that their author endorsed their repugnant views is to arm Disraeli with a putative, nefarious hidden agenda.
Disraeli’s political career fares no better. His attitude to the so-called Jewish ‘disabilities’, for example, long a contentious issue in Parliament, is one that Disraeli confronted “reluctantly, equivocally, intermittently” . The issue is too complex to expand on here,(9) but Cesarani, to his credit, admits that although Disraeli was “publicly in favour of emancipation, yet in practice he still preferred to promote it behind the scenes” , which he did by helping Lionel de Rothschild revise the proofs of a pamphlet, The Progress of Jewish Emancipation Since 1829 [120-121]. Yet while praising Disraeli’s “energy and intelligence”  during the last stages of debate on the Jewish Disabilities Bill – allowing Rothschild, on 26 July 1858, to take his seat in Parliament over a decade after being elected – Cesarani undercuts Disraeli’s accomplishment: since Disraeli “never mentioned the struggle and its eventual conclusion” in letters or autobiographical notes, from “his silence on this subject … one can only conclude that the achievement of Jewish emancipation did not matter that much to him” [156-157]. Can one?
Even Disraeli’s struggles with anti-Semitism are deemed lackluster. Disraeli was perennially mocked and taunted,(10) and in order to survive the onslaught of racial slights and caricatures, he retreated behind a carapace of stoic aloofness. (If Disraeli possessed one distinguishing character trait, it is sang froid.) However, that he did not always react vehemently, or at all, to insult and invective does not imply that he was insensitive or indifferent to them. When radical MP Daniel O’Connell famously included Disraeli among the worst of “the lowest and most disgusting grade of moral turpitude” of the Jews , “Strangely,” writes Cesarani about Disraeli’s written response, “Disraeli barely tackled the reference to his Jewish birth. … The feebleness of his riposte … suggests that Disraeli did not take the slur that seriously at all” . And this despite the fact that Disraeli’s immediate reaction (noted by Cesarani) was to challenge O’Connell to a duel!
Going beyond depicting Disraeli as non-Jewish or un-Jewish, Cesarani also portrays him as anti-Jewish. Chapter 24 of Lord George Bentinck : A Political Biography (1852), “Disraeli’s most extensive disquisition on the Jews”, is deemed “one of the most … damaging things a Jew ever wrote about his own people, their religion and their history” . Granted, some of Disraeli’s ideas in that peculiar chapter are unconvincing. Yet this vigorous (and apparently sincere) defense of a downtrodden people cannot be dismissed as “an advertisement for racial inequality” or a mere “regurgitation of anti-Jewish canards” . True, there were, as Cesarani phrases it, “anti-Semitic appropriations of Disraeli’s utterances” , and some of those utterances (both fictional and in Disraeli’s speeches or writings) were co-opted by everyone from Henry Ford to Adolf Hitler.(11) Disraeli, therefore, may have been an unwitting precursor of twentieth-century anti-Semitic discourse; but to claim that he “almost single-handedly invented the lexicon of modern racial anti-Semitism”  is hyperbole. Disraeli was neither Phoebus nor Sergius.
Biography must shun hagiography or vilification. Disraeli : The Novel Politician, in castigating both novelist and politician, skirts the latter. Cesarani’s Disraeli is a calculating, unscrupulous opportunist whose interest in and knowledge of Jewishness and Judaism were overblown, perverse, or altogether absent.(12) Yes, the clever and ambitious Disraeli, in his efforts to aggrandise his Jewish heritage, did get much of it wrong. Even so, at the core of the Church-going country squire of Hughenden Manor there was, for better or worse, a Jewishness that preoccupied, indeed obsessed him. Cesarani quotes the bons mots of some of Disraeli’s early biographers: George Buckle concludes that “The fundamental fact about Disraeli was that he was a Jew” , and J.A. Froude believes that, “Though calling himself a Christian, [Disraeli] was a Jew in his heart” . Even Cesarani admits that this is “what Disraeli believed himself” .
Although well written, Disraeli : The Novel Politician is marred by a number of errors: the Edinburgh Review is mistitled Edinburgh Quarterly ; Skanderberg should be Skanderbeg ; famed diarist Charles Greville would be surprised to find himself designated “Tory Party manager” when he was Clerk of the Privy Council ; George I was the great grandson (not grandson) of James I ; Lady Selina Bradford, 55 and not widowed, is confused with her sister, Lady Anne Chesterfield, 71 and widowed ; it was not Disraeli’s solicitor Philip Rose but his private secretary Montagu Corry who was ennobled as Lord Rowton ; and Hughenden, Disraeli’s cherished country house, is misspelled Hughendon (eighteen times) throughout. For all that, however, the book is thoroughly documented, with 236 pages of text and forty-five pages of endnotes (many of them explanatory) and an exemplary index. A Works Cited section (inconveniently missing) would have listed almost every major study on Disraeli – with the odd exception, given its relevant title, of Borgstede’s ‘All is Race’. But despite his rather skewed perspective, David Cesarani has nonetheless made an important contribution to the vast body of Disraeli scholarship by engaging with a crucial, influential aspect of Disraeli’s psychology and worldview: his ethnicity.
Indeed, Disraeli scholarship continues to flourish and a second Disraeli Decade may be at hand, judging from the many monographs currently being researched: Daniele Niedda is exploring Disraeli’s early years in government; Frederick Schweitzer is examining the impact of Disraeli’s ideas about conspiracy, race, and religion on contemporaneous and later public figures; and Sandra Mayer is completing a study of Disraeli’s literary celebrity that links authorship, fame, and politics. In addition, Benjamin Disraeli Letters. Volume XI : 1869-1873, covering Disraeli’s years in opposition prior to his second ministry (1874-1880), should be published within a few years. All of these books – and there will be others – are evidence that Benjamin Disraeli remains a compelling and perplexing figure – and, as we have seen, an exasperating one as well.
(1) Her title is from Disraeli’s 1847 novel Tancred: “All is race: there is no other truth,” quoted by Cesarani .
(2) Established in 1975 at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, the Disraeli Project, which researched and annotated Disraeli’s correspondence, closed its doors in 2015 but will relocate in 2017 to the Institute of Historical Research, London. The University of Toronto Press has published all ten volumes in the BDL series; eight more would be needed to bring it to a close.
(3) A well-mined topic; see, e.g., Stanley Weintraub, Disraeli : A Biography (1993), Michael Selzer, ed., Disraeli, the Jew : Essays by Benjamin Cardozo and Emma Lazarus (1993), Bernard Glassman’s Benjamin Disraeli : The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory (2002), essays in Todd M. Edelman & Tony Kushner, eds., Disraeli’s Jewishness (2002), and Adam Kirsch’s Benjamin Disraeli (2008).
(4) Cesarani unfairly dismisses Disraeli’s idea (during an 1851 conversation with Edward Stanley recorded at length in Stanley’s diary) to restore the Jews to Palestine as a product of his imagination “to be taken no more seriously than the plot for an unwritten novel” .
(5) Cesarani enigmatically calls Disraeli “his father’s most slavish disciple” .
(6) In Jerusalem, “Jewish sites, Jewish people, Jewish history simply did not arouse in him the passion or excitement reflected in his letters on a hundred other topics” .
(7) “The absence of any evidence that Disraeli was himself in debt to Jewish moneylenders renders his use of Jewish stereotyping purely gratuitous and all the more shocking” . Had Disraeli been thus victimised, would such stereotyping be justified?
(8) But see Weintraub’s interpretation of Disraeli’s “poignant description” of Sukkot in Disraeli : A Biography : 266.
(9) See Cesarani at 80–81, 112-113, 118-121, 139-143, and 153-157.
(10) Cesarani sees Disraeli as being partly responsible for attacks on his Jewishness. Of the jeers of “Shylock” and the slices of ham on poles waved in Disraeli’s face during the 1837 Maidstone election, Cesarani asks: “But how far did he provoke this treatment?” The answer lies in Disraeli’s “flashy clothing and extravagant gestures,” which “attracted attention to himself” [78, 79]. Generally, then, “Disraeli positively invited attack by bruiting his Jewish origins and bragging about the ubiquity and power of ‘the Jews’” .
(11) See the examples at 235 and in sources listed at 263 note 112, and 282 note 20.
(12) Cesarani omits to mention that upon Isaac D’Israeli’s death in 1848, Benjamin inherited his father’s 25,000-volume library. Deeply in debt, he sold most of it at Sotheby’s – except for the Judaica. See The Self-Fashioning of Disraeli, 1818-1851, ed. Charles Richmond & Paul Smith (Cambridge, 1998) : 196-197.
☞ Illustrated version on The Victorian Web :
Cercles © 2017
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.
Please contact us before using any material on this website.