1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of
BEACONSFIELD, BENJAMIN DISRAELI, Earl of (1804–1881), British statesman, second child and eldest son of Isaac D’Israeli (q.v.) and Maria Basevi, who were married in 1802, was born at No. 6 John Street, Bedford Row, on the 21st of December 1804. Of Isaac D’Israeli’s other children, Sarah was born in 1802, Naphtali in 1807, Ralph (Raphael) in 1809, and James (Jacob) in 1813. None of the family was akin to Benjamin for genius and character, except Sarah, to whom he was deeply indebted for a wise, unswerving and sympathetic devotion, when, in his earlier days, he needed it most. All Isaac D’Israeli’s children were born into the Jewish communion, in which, however, they were not to grow up. It is a reasonable inference from Isaac’s character that he was never at ease in the ritual of Judaism. His father died in the winter of 1816, and soon afterwards Isaac formally withdrew with all his household from the Jewish church. His son Benjamin, who had been admitted to it with the usual rites eight days after his birth, was baptized at St Andrew’s church in Holborn on the 31st of July 1817. One of Isaac D’Israeli’s reasons for quitting the tents of his people was that rabbinical Judaism, with its unyielding laws and fettering ceremonies, “cuts off the Jews from the great family of mankind.” Little did he know, when therefore he cut off the D’Israeli family from Judaism, what great things he was doing for one small member of it. The future prime minister was then short of thirteen years old, and there was yet time to provide the utmost freedom which his birth allowed for the faculties and ambitions he was born with. Taking the worldly view alone, of course, most fortunate for his aspirations in youth was his withdrawal from Judaism in childhood. That it was fully sanctioned by his intellect at maturity is evident; but the vindication of unbiased choice would not have been readily accepted had Disraeli abandoned Judaism of his own will at the pushing Vivian Grey period or after. And though a mind like Disraeli’s might work to satisfaction with Christianity as “completed Judaism,” it could but dwell on a breach of continuity which means so much to Jews and which he was never allowed to forget amongst Christians. With all, he was proud of his race as truly, if not as vehemently, as his paternal grandmother detested it. Family pride contributed to the feeling in his case; for in his more speculative moods he could look back upon an ancestry which was of those, perhaps, who colonized the shores of the Mediterranean from before the time of the Captivity. More definite is the history of descent from an ennobled Spanish family which escaped from the Torquemada persecutions to Venice, there found a new home, took a new name, and prospered for six generations. The Benjamin D’Israeli, Lord Beaconsfield’s grandfather, who came to England in 1748, was a younger son sent at eighteen to try his fortune in London. “A man of ardent character, sanguine, courageous, speculative, fortunate, with a temper which no disappointment could disturb” (so Lord Beaconsfield described him), he soon made the beginnings of a handsome fortune and turned country gentleman. That his grandson exaggerated his prosperity is highly probable; but that he became a man of wealth and consideration is certain. He married twice. His second wife was Sarah Siprout de Gabay, “a beautiful woman of strong intellect” and importunate ambitions, who hated the race she belonged to because it was despised by others. She felt so keenly the social disabilities it brought upon her, and her husband’s indifference to them, that “she never pardoned him his name.” Her literary son Isaac suffered equally or even more; for though he had ambitions he had none that she could recognize as such. She could ridicule him for the aspirations which he had not and for those which he had; on the other hand, he never heard from her a tender word “though she lived to be eighty.” Nor did any other member of her family, according to her grandson.
Isaac D’Israeli was devoted to the reading and writing of books in domestic quiet; and his son Benjamin suffered appreciably from his father’s gentle preoccupations. As a child—unruly and disturbing no doubt—he was sent to a school of small account at Blackheath, and was there “for years” before he was recalled at the age of twelve on the death of his grandfather. Isaac D’Israeli was his father’s sole heritor, but change of fortune seems to have awakened in him no ambitions for the most hopeful of his sons. At fifteen, not before, Benjamin was sent to a Unitarian school at Walthamstow—a well-known school, populous enough to be a little world of emulation and conflict but otherwise unfit. Not there, nor in any similar institution at that illiberal time, perhaps, was a Jewish boy likely to make a fortunate entry into “the great family of mankind.” His name, the foreign look of him, and some pronounced incompatibilities not all chargeable to young Disraeli (as afterwards the name came to be spelt), soon raised a crop of troubles. His stay at Walthamstow was brief, his departure abrupt, and he went to school no more. With the run of his father’s library, and the benefits of that born bookman’s guidance, he now set out to educate himself. This he did with an industry stiffened by matchless self-confidence and by ambitions fully mature before he was eighteen. Yet he yielded to an attempt to make a man of business of him. He was barely seventeen when (in November 1821) he was taken into the office of Messrs Swain, Stevens and Co., solicitors, in Frederick’s Place, Old Jewry. Here he remained for three years—“most assiduous in his attention to business,” said one of the partners, “and showing great ability in the transaction of it.” It was then determined that he should go to the bar; and accordingly he was entered at Lincoln’s Inn in 1824. But Disraeli had found other studies and an alien use for his pen. Though “assiduous in his attention to business” in Frederick’s Place, he found time to write for the printer. Dr Smiles, in his Memoirs of John Murray, tells of certain pamphlets on the brightening prospects of the Spanish South American colonies, then in the first enjoyment of emancipation—pamphlets seemingly written for a Mr Powles, head of a great financial firm, whose acquaintance Disraeli had made. In the same year, apparently, he wrote a novel—his first, and never published. Aylmer Papillon was the title of it, Dr Smiles informs us; and he prints a letter from Disraeli to the John Murray of that day, which indicates its character pretty clearly. The last chapter, its author says, is taken up with “Mr Papillon’s banishment under the Alien Act, from a ministerial misconception of a metaphysical sonnet.” About the same time he edited a History of Paul Jones, originally published in America, the preface of the English edition being Disraeli’s first appearance as an author. Murray could not publish Aylmer Papillon, but he had great hopes of its boyish writer (Isaac D’Israeli was an old friend of his), “took him into his confidence, and related to him his experiences of men and affairs.” Disraeli had not completed his twenty-first year when (in 1825) Murray was possessed by the idea of bringing out a great daily newspaper; “The Repre-sentative.”and if his young friend did not inspire that idea he keenly urged its execution, and was entrusted by Murray with the negotiation of all manner of preliminaries, including the attempt to bring Lockhart in as editor. The title of the paper, The Representative, was Disraeli’s suggestion. He chose reporters, looked to the setting-up of a printing-office, busied himself in all ways to Murray’s great satisfaction, and, as fully appears from Dr Smiles’s account of the matter, with extraordinary address. But when these arrangements were brought to the point of completion, Disraeli dropped out of the scheme and had nothing more to do with it. He was to have had a fourth share of the proprietorship, bringing in a corresponding amount of capital. His friend Mr Powles, whom he had enlisted for the enterprise, was to have had a similar share on the same conditions. Neither seems to have paid up, and that, perhaps, had to do with the quarrel which parted Benjamin Disraeli and John Murray before a sheet of the luckless Representative was printed. Many years afterwards (1853) Disraeli took an active interest in The Press, a weekly journal of considerable merit but meagre fortunes.
At the death of the elder Benjamin (1817), his son Isaac had moved from the King’s Road, Gray’s Inn (now Theobald’s Road), to No. 6 Bloomsbury Square. Here he entertained the many distinguished friends, literary and political, who had been drawn to him by his “Curiosities” and other ingenious works, and here his son Benjamin also had their acquaintance and conversation. In Bloomsbury Square lived the Austens, and to their house, a great resort of similar persons, Mrs Austen cordially welcomed him. Murray’s friendship and associations helped him in like manner, no doubt; and thus was opened to Disraeli the younger a world in which he was to make a considerable stir. The very much smaller society of that day was, of course, more comprehensible to sight and hearing, when once you were within its borders, than the society of this. Reverberations of the gossip of St James’s and Mayfair extended to Bloomsbury in those days. Yet Disraeli’s range of observation “Vivan Grey.”must have been not only brief but limited when he sat down at twenty or twenty-one to write Vivian Grey. It is therefore a probable conjecture that Mrs Austen, a clever woman of the world, helped him from her knowledge. His own strongly perceptive imagination (the gift in which he was to excel every other politician of his time) and the bent of political reading and aspiration from boyhood completed his equipment; and so the wonder that so young a man in Disraeli’s social position should write a book like Vivian Grey is accounted for. It was published in 1826. The success of this insolently clever novel, the immediate introduction of its author to the great world, and the daring eccentricities of dress, demeanour, and opinion by which he fixed attention on himself there, have always been among the most favourite morsels of Disraeli’s history. With them it began, and successive generations of inquirers into a strange career and a character still shrouded and baffling refer to them as settled starting-points of investigation. What was the man who, in such a society and with political aspirations to serve, could thrive by such vagaries as these, or in spite of them? If unaffected, what is to be thought of them as keys to character? If affected, what then? Inquiry still takes this shape, and when any part of Disraeli’s career is studied, the laces and essences, the rings over gloves, the jewelled satin shirt-fronts, the guitareries and chibouqueries of his early days are never remote from memory. The report of them can hardly be doubted; and as the last relation was made (to the writer of this article) not with intent to ridicule Mr Disraeli’s taste but to illustrate his conquering abilities, the story is repeated here. One of Disraeli’s first friends in the world of fashion and genius was Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer. “And,” said Sir Henry Bulwer (“Pelham’s” brother), “we heard so much at the time of Edward’s amazingly brilliant new friend that we were the less inclined to make his acquaintance.” At length, however, Sir Edward got up a little dinner-party to convince the doubters. It was to meet at the early hour of those days at one of the Piccadilly hotels. “There was my brother, Alexander Cockburn, myself and (I think) Milnes; but for a considerable time no Mr Disraeli. Waiting for Mr Disraeli did not enhance the pleasure of meeting him, nor when he did arrive did his appearance predispose us in his favour. He wore green velvet trousers, a canary-coloured waistcoat, low shoes, silver buckles, lace at his wrists, and his hair in ringlets.” The description of the coat is forgotten. “We sat down. Not one of us was more than five-and-twenty years old. We were all—if you will allow me to include myself—on the road to distinction, all clever, all ambitious, and all with a perfect conceit of ourselves. Yet if on leaving the table we had been severally taken aside and asked which was the cleverest of the party, we should have been obliged to say ‘the man in the green velvet trousers.’” This story is a little lamp that throws much light. Here we see at their sharpest the social prejudices that Disraeli had to fight against, provocation of them carried to its utmost in every way open to him, and complete conquest in a company of young men less likely to admit superiority in a wit of their own years, probably, than any other that could have been brought together at that time.
Soon after the publication of Vivian Grey, Disraeli, who is said by Froude to have been “overtaken by a singular disorder,” marked by fits of giddiness (“once he fell into a trance, and did not recover for a week”), went with the Austens on a long summer tour in France, Switzerland and Italy. Returning to a quiet life at Bradenham—an old manor-house near High Wycombe, which his father had taken—Disraeli put law in abeyance and resumed novel-writing. His weakest book, and two or three other productions, brief, but in every literary sense the finest of his works, were written in the next two or three years. But for Ixion in Heaven, The Infernal Marriage, and Popanilla, Disraeli could not be placed among the greater writers of his kind; yet none of his imaginative books have been so little read as these. The mysterious malady continued, and Disraeli set out with William Travel.Meredith, who was to have married Sarah Disraeli, for a tour in southern Europe and the nearer East. He saw Cadiz, Seville, Granada, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo, Thebes; played the corsair with James Clay on a yacht voyage from Malta to Corfu; visited the terrible Reschid, then with a Turkish army in the Albanian capital; landed in Cyprus, and left it with an expectation in his singularly prescient mind that the island would one day be English. These travels must have profited him greatly, and we have our share of the advantage; not so much, however, in The Wondrous Tale of Alroy or Tancred, or the “Revolutionary Epic” which he was inspired to write on “the windy plains of Troy,” but in the letters he sent home to his sister. These letters, written with the utmost freedom and fullness to the one whose affection and intellect he trusted more than any, are of the greatest value for interpreting the writer. Together with other letters also published some time after Disraeli’s death, they tell more of him than anything that can be found in print elsewhere. They show, for example, that his extraordinary exuberances were unforced, leaping by natural impulse from an overcharged source. They also show that his Oriental fopperies were not so much “purposed affectation” as Froude and others have surmised. That they were so in great part is confessed again and again in these letters, but confessed in such a way as to reveal that they were permitted for his own enjoyment of them as much as planned. The “purposed affectation” sprang from an unaffected delight in gauds of attire, gauds of fancy and expression. It was not only to startle and impress the world that he paraded his eccentricities of splendour. His family also had to be impressed by them. It was to his sober father that he wrote, at the age of twenty-six: “I like a sailor’s life much, though it spoils the toilette.” It is in a letter from Gibraltar to the same hand that we read of his two canes—“a morning and an evening cane”—changed as the gun fires. And the same correspondent must be told that “Ralph’s handkerchief which he brought me from Paris is the most successful thing I ever wore.”
When Disraeli returned to England in 1831, all thought of the law was abandoned. The pen of romance was again taken up—the poet’s also and the politician’s. In the next five years he wrote Contarini Fleming, the Revolutionary Epick, Alroy, Henrietta Temple, What is He? (a Literary production.pamphlet expository of his opinions), the Runnymede Letters, a Vindication of the British Constitution, and other matter of less note. The epic, begun in great hope and confidence, was ended in less, though its author was to the last unwilling that it should be forgotten. The novels revived the success he had with Vivian Grey, and restored him to his place among the brilliancies and powers of the time. The political writing, too, much of it in a garish, extravagant style, exercised his deeper ambitions, and stands as witness to the working of original thought and foresight. Both qualities are conspicuous in What is He? and the Vindication, of which it has been truly said that in these pages he “struck the keynote to the explanations he afterwards consistently offered of all his apparent inconsistencies.” Here an interpretation of Tory principles as capable of running with the democratic idea, and as called upon to do so, is ingeniously attempted. The aristocratic principle of government having been destroyed by the Reform Bill, and the House of Lords being practically “abrogated” by that measure, it became necessary that Toryism should start from the democratic basis, from which it had never been alien. The filched liberties of the crown and the people should be restored, and the nation redeemed from the oligarchies which had stolen from both. When at the beginning of all this writing Disraeli entered the political arena as candidate for High Wycombe (1832), he was nominated by a Tory and seconded by a Radical—in vain; and vain were two subsequent attempts in the autumn of 1832 and in 1834. In the first he was recommended to the electors by Daniel O’Connell and the Radical Hume. In his last candidature at Wycombe he stood on more independent ground, commending himself by a series of speeches which fully displayed his quality, though the prescience which gemmed them with more than one prophetic passage was veiled from his contemporaries. Among Disraeli’s great acquaintances were many—Lyndhurst at their head—whose expectations of his future were confirmed by the Wycombe speeches. He was “thought of” for various boroughs, Marylebone among the number, but his democratic Toryism seems to have stood in his way in some places and his inborn dislike of Radicalism in others. It was an impracticable situation—no getting on from it; and so, at Lyndhurst’s persuasion, as he afterwards acknowledged, he determined to side with the Tories. Accordingly, when in the spring of 1835 a vacancy occurred at Taunton, Disraeli contested the seat in the Tory interest with Carlton Club support. Here again he failed, but with enhanced reputation as a fighting politician and with other consequences good for notoriety. It was at Taunton that Disraeli fell upon O’Connell, rather ungratefully; whereupon the Liberator was roused to retort on his assailant vehemently as “a liar,” and humorously as a probable descendant of the impenitent thief. And then followed the challenge which, when O’Connell declined it, was fastened on his son Morgan, and the interruption of the duel by seizure of Mr Disraeli in his bed, and his famous appearance in the Marylebone police court. He declared himself very well satisfied with this episode, but nothing in it can really have pleased him, not even the noise it made.
Here the first period of Disraeli’s public life came to an end, a period of preliminaries and flourishes, and of what he himself called sowing his political wild oats. It was a more mature Disraeli who in the general election of 1837 was returned for Maidstone as the colleague of his Enters Parliament.providential friend Mr Wyndham Lewis. Though the fortunes of the Tory party were fast reviving under Peel’s guidance, the victory was denied him on this occasion; but, for once, the return of the Whigs to power was no great disappointment for the junior member for Maidstone. To gain a footing in the House of Commons was all that his confident spirit ever asked, and Froude vouches for it that he succeeded only just in time to avert financial ruin. His electioneering ventures, the friendly backing of bills, and his own expense in keeping up appearances, had loaded him with debt. Yet (mark his worldly wisdom) “he had never entangled his friends in his financial dealings. He had gone frankly to the professional money-lenders, who made advances to him in a speculation on his success”: they were to get their money back with large interest or lose it altogether. Such conditions were themselves incitement enough to a prompt redemption of the promise of parliamentary distinction, even without the restless spurring of ambition. And Disraeli had another promise to redeem: that which he uttered when he told O’Connell that they would meet again at Philippi. Therefore when, three weeks after the session began, a debate on Irish election petitions gave him opportunity, Disraeli attempted that first House of Commons speech which imagination still dwells upon as something wondrous strange. That he should not have known better, even by hearsay, than to address the House of Commons in fantastic phrase from the mouth of a fantastic figure is indeed remarkable, but not that he retained self-confidence enough to tell the unwitting crew who laughed him down that a time would come when they would hear him. It was one of the least memorable of his prophecies. The speech was a humiliating but not an oppressive failure. In about a week afterwards he spoke again, which shows how little damage he felt, while the good sense, brevity, and blameless manner of the speech (on a copyright bill) announced that he could learn. And for some time thereafter he affected no importance in the House, though not as withdrawing from attention.
Meanwhile, consciously and unconsciously, as is the way with men of genius, his mind was working upon problems of government, the magnitude, the relations and the natural developments of which he was more sensible of than any known politician of his time. “Sensible of,” we say, to mark the difference between one sort of understanding and another which comes of labour and pains alone. Disraeli studied too, no doubt, reading and inquiring and applying set thought, but such means were insufficient to put into his mind all that he found there. It seems that opinions may be formed of inquiry and study alone, which are then constructive; but where intuitive perception or the perceptive imagination is a robust possession, the fruits of research become assimilative—the food of a divining faculty which needs more or less of it according to the power of divination. The better judgment in all affairs derives from this quality, which has some very covetable advantages for its possessor. His judgments may be held with greater confidence, which is an intellectual advantage; and, standing in his mind not so Mental character-istics.much an edifice as a natural growth, they cannot be so readily abandoned at the call of ease or self-interest. They may be denied assertion or even outraged for a purpose, but they cannot be got rid of,—which is a moral advantage. Disraeli’s mind and its judgments were of this character. Its greatest gift was not the romantic imagination which he possessed abundantly and employed overmuch, but the perceptive, interpretative, judicial or divining imagination, without which there can be no great man of affairs. Breadth of view, insight, foresight, are more familiar but less adequate descriptions of a faculty which Disraeli had in such force that it took command of him from first to last. Although he knew and acted on the principle that “a statesman is a practical character,” whose business is to “serve the country according to its present necessities,” he was unable to confine his vision to the nearer consequences of whatever policy, or course of action, or group of conditions it rested on. Without effort, and even without intention probably, it looked beyond first consequences to the farther or the final outcome; and to complete the operation, the faculty which detected the remoter consequences did not allow them to remain in obscurity, but brought them out as actualities no less than the first and perhaps far more important than the first. Moreover, it did not allow him to keep silence where the remoter consequences were of that character, and ought to be provided for betimes. Of course silence was always possible. These renderings to foresight might be denied assertion either for the sake of present ease (and Disraeli’s prescience of much of his country’s later troubles only made him laughed at) or in deference to hopes of personal advancement. But the same divining imagination which showed him these things also showed him the near time when it would be too late to speak of them, and when not to have spoken would leave him irredeemably in the common herd of hand-to-mouth politicians. Therefore he spoke.
Remembrance of these characteristics—remembrance, too, that his mind, which was neither English nor European, worked in absolute detachment—should accompany the traveller through all the turns and incidents of Disraeli’s long career. They are sometimes puzzling, often speculative; yet nearly all that is obscure in them becomes clear, much apparent contradiction disappears, when read by these persistent unvarying lights. The command which his idiosyncrasies had upon him is shown, for example, by reproachful speeches on the treatment of Ireland, and by a startling harangue on behalf of the Chartists, at a time when such irregularities could but damage him, a new man, where he hoped for influence and office. At about the same time his political genius directed him to open a resolute critical campaign against the Conservatism of the party he “Coningsby,” “Sybil.”proposed to thrive in, and he could but obey. This he did in writing Coningsby, a novel of the day and for the day, but commended to us of a later generation not only by the undimmed truth of its character-portraits, but by qualities of insight and foresight which we who have seen the proof of them can measure as his contemporaries could not. Sybil, which was written in the following year (1845), is still more remarkable for the faculties celebrated in the preceding paragraph. When Sybil was written a long historic day was ending in England, a new era beginning; and no eyes saw so clearly as Disraeli’s the death of the old day, the birth of the new, or what and how great their differences would be. In Coningsby the political conditions of the country were illustrated and discussed from the constitutional point of view, and by light of the theory that for generations before the passing of the Reform Bill the authority of the crown and the liberties of the people had been absorbed and extinguished in an oligarchic system of government, itself become fossilized and soulless. In Sybil were exhibited the social relations of rich and poor (the “two nations”) under this régime, and under changes in which, while the peasantry were neglected by a shoddy aristocracy ignorant of its duties, factory life and a purblind gospel of political economy imbruted the rest of the population. These views were enforced by a startling yet strictly accurate representation of the state of things in the factory districts at that time. Taken from the life by Disraeli himself, accompanied by one or two members of the Young England party of which he was the head, it was the first of its kind; and the facts as there displayed, and Disraeli’s interpretation of them—a marvel of perceptive and prophetic criticism—opened eyes, roused consciences, and led direct to many reforms.
These two books, the Vindication, published in 1835, and his speeches up to this time and a little beyond, are quite enough to show what Disraeli’s Tory democracy meant, how truly national was its aim, and how exclusive of partisanship for the “landed interest”; though he did believe the stability and prosperity of the agricultural class a national interest of the first order, not on economic grounds alone or even chiefly. And if Disraeli, possessed by these views, became aggressively insubordinate some time before Peel’s proclaimed conversion to Free Trade, we can account for it on reasonable and even creditable grounds. Spite, resentment at being passed over when Peel formed the 1841 government, is one explanation of these outbreaks, and a letter to Peel, lately published, is proof to many minds that Disraeli’s denial to Peel’s face in 1846 that he had ever solicited office was daringly mendacious. The letter certainly reads like solicitation in the customary half-veiled form. All that can be said in doubt is that since the ’41 government came into existence on the 6th of September, and the letter was written on the 5th, its interpretation as complaint of being publicly neglected, as a craving for some mark of recognition, is possible. More than possible it is if Disraeli knew on the 5th (as he very well might from his friend Lyndhurst, Peel’s lord chancellor) that the appointments were then complete. The pecuniary need of office, if that comes into the question, had been lightened, if not extinguished, two years before by his marriage with Mrs Wyndham Lewis. Mrs Lewis—a lady fifteen years his senior—brought him a considerable fortune which, however, was but for her life. She lived to a great age, and would gladly have lived longer, in any of the afflictions that time brings on, to continue her mere money-worth to her “Dizzy.” Her devotion to him, and his devotion to her, is the whole known story of their private life; and we may believe that nothing ever gratified him more than offering her a coronet from Mr Disraeli.
Disraeli made Peel’s acquaintance early in his career and showed that he was proud of it. In his Life of Lord George Bentinck he writes of Peel fairly and even generously. But they were essentially antipathetic persons; and it is clear that the great minister and complete Briton took no pains to understand the dazzling young Jew of whom Lyndhurst thought so much, and wished to have little to do with him. Such men make such feelings evident; and there is no reason for thinking that when, after 1841, Disraeli charged at Peel in obedience to his principles, he gave himself pain. It was not long after it had settled in office that Peel’s government, the creature of an anxious Conservative reaction, began to be suspected of drifting toward Manchester. That it was forced in that direction we should say rather, looking back, for it was a time of dire distress, especially in the manufacturing districts of the north; so Politics. 1841–67. that in his second session Peel had to provide some relief by revising the corn laws and reducing import dues generally. His measures were supported by Disraeli, who understood that Protection must bend to the menacing poverty of the time, though unprepared for total abolition of the corn tax and strongly of opinion that it was not for Peel to abolish it. In the next session (1843) he and his Young England party took up a definitely independent rôle, which became more sharply critical to the end. Disraeli’s first strong vote of hostility was on a coercion bill for perishing and rebellious Ireland. It was repeated with greater emphasis in the session of 1844, also in a condition-of-Ireland debate; and from that time forth, as if foreseeing Peel’s course and its effect on the country party, Disraeli kept up the attack. Meanwhile bad harvests deepened the country’s distress, Ireland was approached by famine, the Anti-Corn-Law League became menacingly powerful, and Peel showed signs of yielding to free trade. Disraeli’s opportunity was soon to come now; and in 1845, seeing it on the way, he launched the brilliantly destructive series of speeches which, though they could not prevent the abolition of the corn-laws, abolished the minister who ended them. These speeches appeal more to admiration than to sympathy, even where the limitations of Disraeli’s protectionist beliefs are understood and where his perception of the later consequences of free trade is most cordially acknowledged. That he remained satisfied with them himself is doubtful, unless for their foresight, their tremendous effect as instruments of punishment, and as they swept him to so much distinction. Within three years, on the death of Lord George Bentinck, there was none to dispute with him the leadership of the Conservative party in the House of Commons.
In the parliament of 1841 he was member for Shrewsbury. In 1847 he was returned for Buckinghamshire, and never again had occasion to change his constituency. Up to this time his old debts still embarrassed him, but now his private and political fortunes changed together. Froude reports that he “received a large sum from a private hand for his Life of Lord George Bentinck” (published in 1852), “while a Conservative millionaire took upon himself the debts to the usurers; the 3% with which he was content being exchanged for the 10% under which Disraeli had been staggering.” In 1848 his father Isaac D’Israeli died, leaving to his son Benjamin nearly the whole of his estate. This went to the purchase of Hughenden Manor—not, of course, a great property, but with so much of the pleasant and picturesque, of the dignified also, as quite to explain what it was to the affectionate fancy of its lord. About this time, too (1851), his acquaintance was sought by an old Mrs Brydges Willyams—born a Spanish Jewess and then the widow of a long-deceased Cornish squire—who in her distant home at Torquay had conceived a restless admiration for Benjamin Disraeli. She wrote to him again and again, pressing for an appointment to consult on an important matter of business: would meet him at the fountain of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Her importunity succeeded, and the very small, oddly-dressed, strange-mannered old lady whom Disraeli met at the fountain became his adoring friend to the end of her life. Gratitude for her devotion brought him and his wife in constant intimacy with her. There were many visits to Torquay; he gratified her with gossiping letters about the great people with whom and the great affairs with which the man who did so much honour to her race was connected, that being the inspiration of her regard for him. She died in 1863, leaving him all her fortune, which was considerable; and, as she wished, was buried at Hughenden, close to the grave where Disraeli was to lie.
It is agreed that the first three years of Disraeli’s leadership in Opposition were skilfully employed in reconstructing the shattered Tory party. In doing this he made it sufficiently clear that there could be no sudden return to Protectionist principles. At the same time, however, he insisted (as he did from first to last) on the enormous importance to the country, to the character of its people no less than to its material welfare, of agricultural contentment and prosperity; and he also obtained As leader in the House of Commons. a more general recognition of the fact that “the land” had borne fiscal burdens under the old régime which were unfair and unendurable under the new. So far he did well; and when in 1852 he took office as chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Derby’s first administration, the prospect was a smiling one for a man who, striving against difficulties and prejudices almost too formidable for imagination in these days, had attained to a place where he could fancy them all giving way. That, however, they were not. New difficulties were to arise and old prejudices to revive in full force. His first budget was a quaint failure, and was thrown out by a coalition of Liberals and Peelites which he believed was formed against Mr Disraeli more than against the chancellor of the exchequer. It was on this occasion that he exclaimed, “England does not love coalitions.” After a reign of ten months he was again in Opposition, and remained so for seven years. Of the Crimean War he had a better judgment than those whose weakness led them into it, and he could tell them the whole truth of the affair in twenty words: “You are going to war with an opponent who does not want to fight, and whom you are unwilling to encounter.” Neither were they prepared; and the scandals and political disturbances that ensued revealed him as a party leader who could act on such occasions with a dignity, moderation and sagacity that served his country well, maintained the honour of party government and cost his friends nothing. The mismanagement of the war broke down the Aberdeen government in 1855, and then Disraeli had the mortification of seeing a fortunate chance of return to office lost by the timidity and distrust of his chief, Lord Derby—the distrust too clearly including the under-valuation of Disraeli himself. Lord Derby wanted Lord Palmerston’s help, Mr Gladstone’s, Mr Sidney Herbert’s. This arrangement could not be made; Lord Derby therefore gave up the attempt to form a ministry and Lord Palmerston came in. The next chance was taken in less favouring times. The government in which Disraeli was again financial minister lasted for less than eighteen months (1858–1859), and then ensued another seven years in the cold and yet colder shade of Opposition. Both of these seven-year outings were bad, but the second by far the worse. Parliamentary reform had become a burning question and an embarrassing one for the Tory party. An enormous increase of business, consequent upon the use of steam machinery and free-trade openings to commerce, filled the land with prosperity, and discredited all statesmanship but that which steered by the star over Manchester. Mr Gladstone’s budgets, made possible by this prosperity, were so many triumphs for Liberalism. Foreign questions arose which strongly excited English feeling—the arrangements of peace with Russia, Italian struggles for freedom, an American quarrel, the “Arrow” affair and the Chinese war, the affair of the French colonels and the Conspiracy Bill; and as they arose Palmerston gathered into his own sails (except on the last occasion) every wind of popular favour. Amid all this the Tory fortunes sank rapidly, becoming nearly hopeless when Lord Palmerston, without appreciable loss of confidence on his own side, persuaded many Tories in and out of parliament that Conservatism would suffer little while he was in power. Yet there was great despondency, of course, in the Conservative ranks; with despondency discontent; with discontent rancour. The prejudice against Disraeli as Jew, the revolt at his theatricalisms, the distrust of him as “mystery man,” which up to this time had never died out even among men who were his nearest colleagues, were now more openly indulged. Out of doors he had a “bad press,” in parliament he had some steady, enthusiastic friends, but more that were cold. Sometimes he was seen on the front Opposition bench for hours quite alone. Little conspiracies were got up to displace him, and might have succeeded but for an unconquerable dread of the weapon that destroyed Peel. In this state of things he patiently held his ground, working for his party more carefully than it knew, and never seizing upon false or discrediting advantages. But it was an extremely bad time for Benjamin Disraeli.
Though Lord Palmerston stumbled over his Foreign Conspiracy Bill in 1858, his popularity was little damaged, and it was in no hopeful spirit that the Tories took office again in that year. They were perilously weak in the House of Commons, and affairs abroad, in which they had small practice and no prestige, were alarming. Yet the new administration did very well till, after resettling the government of India, and recovering from a blunder committed by their Indian secretary, Lord Ellenborough, they must needs launch a Reform Bill to put that dangerous question out of controversial politics. The well-intended but fantastic measure brought in for the purpose was rejected. The country was appealed to, with good but insufficient results; and at the first meeting of the new parliament the Tories were turned out on a no-confidence vote moved by Lord Hartington. Foreign affairs supplied the motive: failure to preserve the peace of Europe at the time of the Italian war of independence. It is said that the foreign office had then in print a series of despatches which would have answered its accusers had they been presented when the debate began, as for some unexplained reason they were not. Lord Palmerston now returned to Downing Street, and while he lived Disraeli and his colleagues had to satisfy themselves with what was meant for useful criticism, though with small hope that it was so for their own service. A Polish insurrection, the Schleswig-Holstein question, a commercial treaty with France, the Civil War in America, gave Disraeli occasions for speech that was always forcible and often wiser than all could see at the time. He never doubted that England should be strictly neutral in the American quarrel when there was a strong feeling in favour of the South. All the while he would have gladly welcomed any just means of taking an animated course, for these were dull, dark days for the Conservatives as a parliamentary party. Yet, unperceived, Conservatism was advancing. It was much more than a joke that Palmerston sheltered Conservative principles under the Liberal flag. The warmth of his popularity, to which Radical applause contributed nothing in his later days, created an atmosphere entirely favourable to the quiet growth of Conservatism. He died in 1865. Earl Russell succeeded him as prime minister, Mr Gladstone as leader of the House of Commons. The party most pleased with the change was the Radical; the party best served was Disraeli’s. Another Reform Bill, memorable for driving certain good Liberals into a Cave of Aduilam, broke up the new government in a few months; Disraeli contributing to the result by the delivery of opinions not new to him and of lasting worth, though presently to be subordinated to arguments of an inferior order and much less characteristic. “At this rate,” he said in 1866, “you will have a parliament that will entirely lose its command over the executive, and it will meet with less consideration and possess less influence.” Look for declining statesmanship, inferior aptitude, genius dying off. “Instead of these you will have a horde of selfish and obscure mediocrities, incapable of anything but mischief, and that mischief devised and regulated by the raging demagogue of the hour.” The Reform legislation which promised these results in 1866 was thrown out. Lord Derby’s third administration was then formed in the summer of the same year, and for the third time there was a Tory government on sufferance. Its followers were still a minority in the House of Commons; an angry Reform agitation was going on; an ingenious resolution founded on the demand for an enlarged franchise serviceable to Liberals might extinguish the new government almost immediately; and it is pretty evident that the Tory leaders took office meaning to seek a cure for this Reform Bill of 1867. desperate weakness by wholesale extension of the suffrage. Their excuses and calculations are well known, but when all is said, Lord Derby’s statement of its character, “a leap in the dark,” and of its intention, “dishing the Whigs,” cannot be bettered. Whether Lord Derby or Mr Disraeli originated this resolve has been much discussed, and it remains an unsettled question. It is known that Disraeli’s private secretary, Mr Ralph Earle, quarrelled with him violently at about this time; and Sir William Fraser relates that, meeting Mr Earle, that gentleman said: “I know what your feelings must be about this Reform Bill, and I think it right to tell you that it was not Disraeli’s bill, but Lord Derby’s. I know everything that occurred.” Mr Earle gave the same assurances to the writer of these lines, and did so with hints and half-confidences (quite intelligible, however) as to the persuasions that wrought upon his chief. Mr Earle’s listener on these occasions confesses that he heard with a doubting mind, and that belief in what he heard still keeps company with Mahomet’s coffin. One thing, however, is clear. To suppose Disraeli satisfied with the excuses made for his adoption of the “dishing” process is forbidden by the whole tenor of his teaching and conduct. He could not have become suddenly blind to the fallacy of the expectations derived from such a course; and all his life it had been his distinction to look above the transient and trafficking expedients of the professional politician. However, the thing was done. After various remodellings, and amid much perturbation, secession, violent reproach, the Household Suffrage Bill passed in August 1867. Another memorable piece of work, the confederation of Canada, had already been accomplished. A few days after parliament met Premier, 1868.in the next year Lord Derby’s failing health compelled him to resign and Mr Disraeli became prime minister. Irish disaffection had long been astir; the Fenian menace looked formidable not only in Ireland but in England also. The reconstructed government announced its intention of dealing with Irish grievances. Mr Gladstone approved, proposing the abolition of the Irish Church to begin with. A resolution to that effect was immediately carried against the strong opposition of the government. Disraeli insisted that the question should be settled in the new parliament which the franchise act called for, and he seems to have had little doubt that the country would declare against Mr Gladstone’s proposal. He was mistaken. It was the great question at the polls; and the first elections by the new constituencies went violently against the authors of their being.
The history of the next five years is Mr Gladstone’s. The Irish Church abolished, he set to work with passionate good intention on the Irish land laws. The while he did so sedition took courage and flourished exceedingly, so that to pacify Ireland the constable went hand in hand with the legislator. The abolition of the Irish Church was followed by a coercion act, and the land act by suspension of Habeas Corpus. Disraeli, who at first preferred retirement and the writing of Lothair, came forward from time to time to point the moral and predict the end of Mr Gladstone’s impulsive courses, which soon began to fret the confidence of his friends. Some unpleasant errors of conduct—the case of Sir R. Collier (afterwards Lord Monkswell, q.v.), the Ewelme rectory case, the significant Odo Russell (Lord Ampthill) episode (to help the government out of a scrape the ambassador was accused of exceeding his instructions)—told yet more. Above all, many humiliating proofs that England was losing her place among the nations came out in these days, the discovery being then new and unendurable. To be brief, in less than four years the government had well-nigh worn out its own patience with its own errors, failures and distractions, and would gladly have gone to pieces when it was defeated on an Irish university bill. But Disraeli, having good constitutional reasons for declining office at the moment, could not allow this. Still gathering unpopularity, still offending, alarming, alienating, the government went on till 1874, suddenly dissolved parliament, and was signally beaten, the Liberal party breaking up. Like most of his political friends, Disraeli had no expectation of such a victory—little hope, indeed, of any distinct success. Yet when he went to Manchester on a brief political outing two years before, he was received with such acclaim as he had never known in his life. He was then sixty-eight years old, and this was his first full banquet of popularity. The elation and confidence drawn from the Manchester meetings were confirmed by every circumstance of the 1874 elections. But he was well aware of how much he owed to his opponents’ errors, seeing at the same time how safely he could lay his future course by them. He had always rejected the political economy of his time, and it was breaking down. He had always refused to accept the economist’s dictum without reference to other considerations than the turnover of trade; and even Manchester could pardon the refusal now. The national spirit, vaporized into a cosmopolitan mist, was fast condensing again under mortification and insult from abroad uncompensated by any appreciable percentage of cash profit. This was a changing England, and one that Disraeli could govern on terms of mutual satisfaction; but not if the reviving “spirit of the country” ran to extremes of self-assertion. At one of the great Manchester meetings he said, “Do not suppose, because I counsel firmness and decision at the right moment, that I am of that school of statesmen who are favourable to a turbulent and aggressive diplomacy. I have resisted it during a large part of my life.”
But for the hubbub occasioned by the Public Worship Regulation Act, the first two years of the 1874 administration had no remarkable excitements till near the end of them. The Public Worship Act, introduced by the archbishop of Canterbury, was meant to restrain ritualism. Disraeli, who from first to last held to the Reformed Church as capable of dispensing social good as no other organization might, supported the Bill as “putting down ritualism”; spoke very vehemently; gave so much offence that at one time neither the bill nor the government seemed quite safe. For some time afterwards there was so little legislation of the kind called “enterprising” that even some friends of the government began to think it too tame; but at the end of the second year an announcement was made which put that fear to rest. The news that the khedive’s Suez Canal Suez Canal shares.shares had been bought by the government was received with boundless applause. It was a courageous thing to do; but it was not a Disraeli conception, nor did it originate in any government department. It was suggested from without at a moment when the possibility of ever acquiring the shares was passing away. On the morning of the 15th of November 1875, Mr Frederick Greenwood, then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, went to Lord Derby at the foreign office, informed him that the khedive’s shares were passing into the hands of a French syndicate, and urged arrest of the transaction by purchase for England. (The shares being private property their sale could not, of course, be forbidden.) Lord Derby thought there must be a mistake. He could not believe that bargaining of that kind could go on in Cairo without coming to the knowledge of the British consul there. He was answered that nevertheless it was going on. The difficulties of purchase by England were then arrayed by Lord Derby. They were more than one or two, and of course they had a formidable look, but so also had the alternative and the lost opportunity. One difficulty had already come into existence, and had to be met at once. Lord Derby had either to make direct inquiry of the khedive or to let the matter go. If he inquired, and there was no such negotiation, his question might be interpreted in a very troublesome way; moreover, we should put the idea of selling the shares into the khedive’s head, which would be unfortunate. “There’s my position, and now what do you say?” The answer given, Lord Derby drafted a telegram to the British consul-general at Cairo, and read it out. It instructed Colonel Stanton to go immediately to the khedive and put the question point blank. Meanwhile the prime minister would be seen, and Lord Derby’s visitor might call next day to hear the reply from Cairo. It is enough to add here that on receipt of the answer the purchase for England was taken up and went to a speedy conclusion.
As if upon the impulse of this transaction, Disraeli opened the next session of parliament with a bill to confer upon the queen the title of empress of India—a measure which offended the instincts of many Englishmen, and, for the time, revived the prejudices against its author. More important was the revival of disturbances in European Turkey, which, in their outcome, were to fill the last chapter of Disraeli’s career. But for this interruption it is likely that he would have given much of his attention to Ireland, not because it was an attractive employment for his few remaining years, but because he saw with alarm the gathering troubles in that country. And his mind was strongly drawn in another direction. In a remarkable speech delivered in 1872, he spoke with great warmth of the slighting of the colonies, saying that “no minister in this country will do his duty who neglects any opportunity of reconstructing as much as possible our colonial empire, and of responding to those distant sympathies which may become the source of incalculable strength and happiness to this island.” However, nothing was done in fulfilment of this duty in the first two years Eastern question.from 1874, and early in the third the famous Andrassy note, the Berlin memorandum, the Bashi-Bazouk atrocities, and the accumulative excitement thereby created in England, reopened the Eastern question with a vengeance. The policy which Disraeli’s government now took up may be truly called the national policy. Springing from the natural suggestions of self-defence against the march of a dangerous rivalry, it had the sanction of all British statesmanship for generations, backed by the consenting instinct of the people. It was quite unsentimental, being pro-Turkish or anti-Russian only as it became so in being pro-British. The statesmen by whom it was established and continued saw in Russia a power which, unless firmly kept within bounds, would dominate Europe; more particularly that it would undermine and supersede British authority in the East. And without nicely considering the desire of Russia to expand to the Mediterranean, the Pacific or in any other direction, they thought it one of their first duties to maintain their own Eastern empire; or, to put it another way, to contrive that Great Britain should be subject to Russian ascendancy (if ever), at the remotest period allowed by destiny. Such were the ideas on which England’s Russian policy was founded. In 1876 this policy revived as a matter of course in the cabinet, and as spontaneously, though not upon a first provocation, became popular almost to fury. And furiously popular it remained. But a strong opposing current of feeling, equally passionate, set in against the Turks; war began and lasted long; and as the agitation at home and the conflict abroad went on, certain of Disraeli’s colleagues, who were staunch enough at the beginning, gradually weakened. It is certainly true that Disraeli was prepared, in all senses of the word, to take strong measures against such an end to the war as the San Stefano treaty threatened. Rather than suffer that, he would have fought the Russians in alliance with the Turks, and had gone much farther in maturing a scheme of attack and defence than was known at the time or is commonly known now. That there was a master motive for this resolution may be taken for granted; and it is to be found in a belief that not to throw back the Russian advance then was to lose England’s last chance of postponing to a far future the predominance of a great rival power in the East. How much or how little judgment shows in that calculation, when viewed in the light of later days, we do not discuss. What countenance it had from his colleagues dropped away. At the end their voices were strong enough to insist upon the diplomatic action which at no point falls back on the sword; Lord Derby (foreign minister) being among the first to make a stand on that resolution, though he was not the first seceder from the government. Such diplomacy in such conditions is paralytic. It cannot speak thrice, with whatever affectation of boldness, without discovering its true character to trained ears; which should be remembered when Disraeli’s successes at Berlin are measured. It should be remembered that what with the known timidity of his colleagues, and what with the strength and violence of the Russian party in England, his achievement at Berlin was like the reclamation of butter from a dog’s mouth; as Prince Bismarck understood in acknowledging Disraeli’s gifts of statesmanship. It should also be remembered, when his Eastern policy in 1876–1878 is denounced as malign and a failure, that it was never carried out. Good or bad, ill or well calculated, effective existence was denied to it; and a man cannot be said to have failed in what he was never permitted to attempt. The nondescript course of action which began at the Constantinople conference and ended at Berlin was not of his direction until its few last days. It only marked at various stages the thwarting and suppression of his policy by colleagues who were haunted night and day by memories of the Crimean War, and not least, probably, by the fate of the statesmen who suffered for its blunders and their own. Disraeli also looked back to those blunders, and he was by no means insensible to the fate of fallen ministers. But just as he maintained at the time of the conflict, and after, that there would have been no Crimean War had not the British government convinced the tsar that it was in the hands of the peace party, so now he believed that a bold policy would prevent or limit war, and at the worst put off grave consequences which otherwise would make a rapid advance.
As if aware of much of this, the country was well content with Disraeli’s successes at Berlin, though sore on some points, he himself sharing the soreness. Yet there were great days for him after his return. At the Berlin conference he had established a formidable reputation; the popularity he enjoyed at home was affectionately enthusiastic; no minister had ever stood in more cordial relations with his sovereign; and his honours in every kind were his own achievement against unending disadvantage. But he was soon to suffer irretrievable defeat. A confused and unsatisfactory war in Afghanistan, troubles yet more unsatisfactory in South Africa, conspired with two or three years of commercial distress to invigorate “the swing of the pendulum” when he dissolved parliament in 1880. Dissolution the year before would have been wiser, but a certain pride forbade. The elections went heavily against him. He took the blow with composure, and sank easily into a comparative retirement. Yet he still watched affairs as a great party leader should, and from time to time figured vigorously in debate. Meanwhile he had another novel to sit down to—the poor though highly characteristic Endymion; which, to his great surprise and equal pleasure, was replaced on his table by a cheque for ten thousand pounds. Yet even this satisfaction had its tang of disappointment; for though Endymion was not wholly written in his last days, it was in no respect the success that Lothair was. This also he could bear. His description of his grandfather recurs to us: “A man of ardent character, sanguine, courageous and fortunate, with a temper which no disappointment could disturb.”
As earl of Beaconsfield (failing health had compelled him to take refuge in the House of Lords in 1876) Benjamin Disraeli died in his house in Curzon Street on the 19th of April 1881. The likelihood of his death was publicly known for some days before the event, and then the greatness of his popularity and its warmth were declared for the first time. No such demonstration of grief was expected even by those who grieved the most. He lies in Hughenden churchyard, in a rail-enclosed grave, with liberty for the turf to grow between him and the sky. Within the church is a marble tablet, placed there by his queen, with a generous inscription to his memory. The anniversary of his death has since been honoured in an unprecedented manner, the 19th of April being celebrated as “Primrose Day”—the primrose, for reasons impossible accurately to define, being popularly supposed to have been Disraeli’s favourite flower. Even among his friends Death and influence.in youth (Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer, for example), and not improbably among the city men who wagered their money in irrecoverable loans to him on the chance of his success, there may have been some who compassed the thought of Benjamin Disraeli as prime minister and peer; but at no time could any fancy have imagined him remembered so enduringly as Lord Beaconsfield has been. It is possible that Sarah Disraeli (the Myra of Endymion), or that “the most severe of critics but a perfect wife,” may have had such dreams—hardly that they could have occurred to any mind but a devoted woman’s. Disraeli’s life was a succession of surprises, but none was so great as that he should be remembered after death more widely, lastingly, respectfully, affectionately, than any other statesman in the long reign of Queen Victoria. While he lived he did not seem at all cut out for that distinction even as an Imperialist. Significant as was the common grief when he died, no such consequence could be inferred from it, and certainly not from the elections of 1880. It stands, however, this high distinction, and with it the thought that it would have been denied to him altogether had the “adventurer” and “mystery man” of the sixties died at the age of threescore years and ten. We have said that never till 1872 did he look upon the full cup of popularity. It might have been said that even at that time intrigue to get rid of him had yet to cease in his own party; and but a few years before, a man growing old, he was still in the lowest deeps of his disappointments and humiliations. How, then, could it be imagined that with six years of power from his seventieth year, the Jew “adventurer,” mysterious and theatrical to the last, should fill a greater space in the mind of England twenty years after death than Peel or Palmerston after five? Of course it can be explained; and when explained, we see that Disraeli’s good fortune in this respect is not due entirely to his own merits. His last years of power might have been followed by as long a period of more acceptable government than his own, to the effacement of his own from memory; but that did not happen. What did follow was a time of universal turbulence and suspicion, in which the pride of the nation was wounded again and again. To say “Majuba” and “Gordon” recalls its deepest hurts, but not all of them; and it may be that a pained and angry people, looking back, saw in the man whom they lately displaced more than they had ever seen before. From that time, at any rate, Disraeli has been acknowledged as the regenerator and representative of the Imperial idea in England. He has also been accused on the same grounds; and if the giver of good wine may be blamed for the guest who gets drunk on it, there is justice in the accusation. It is but a statement of fact, however, that Disraeli retains his hold upon the popular mind on this account mainly. The rekindling of the Imperial idea is understood as a timely act of revolt and redemption: of revolt against continuous humiliations deeply felt, redemption from the fate of nations obviously weak and suspected of timidity. It has been called rescue-work—deliverance from the dangers of invited aggression and a philosophical neglect of the means of defence. And its first achievement for the country (this is again a mere statement of fact) was the restoration of a much-damaged self-respect and the creation of a great defensive fleet not a day too soon for safety. So much for “the great heart of the people.” Meanwhile political students find to their satisfaction that he never courted popularity, and never practised the art of working for “quick returns” of sympathy or applause. As “adventurer,” he should have done so; yet he neglected the cultivation of that paying art for the wisdom that looks to the long future, and bears its fruit, perchance, when no one cares to remember who sowed the seed. So it is that to read some of his books and many of his speeches is to draw more respect and admiration from their pages than could have been found there originally. The student of his life understands that Disraeli’s claim to remembrance rests not only on the breadth of his views, his deep insight, his long foresight, but even more on the courage which allowed him to declare opinions supplied from those qualities when there was no visible likelihood of their justification by experience, and therefore when their natural fate was to be slighted. His judgments had to wait the event before they were absolved from ridicule or delivered from neglect. The event arrives; he is in his grave; but his reputation loses nothing by that. It gains by regret that death was beforehand with him.
“Adventurer,” as applied to Disraeli, was a mere term of abuse. “Mystery-man” had much of the same intention, but in a blameless though not in a happy sense it was true of him to the end of his days. Even to his friends, and to many near him, he remained mysterious to the last. It is impossible to doubt that some two or three, four or five perchance, were at home in his mind, being freely admitted there; but of partial admissions to its inner places there seem to have been few or none. Men who were long associated with him in affairs, and had much of his stinted companionship, have confessed that with every wish to understand his character they never succeeded. Sometimes they fancied they had got within the topping walls of the maze, and might hope to gain the point whence survey could be made of the whole; but as often they found themselves, in a moment, where they stood at last and at first—outside. His speeches carry us but a little way beyond the mental range; his novels rather baffle than instruct. It is commonly believed that Disraeli looked in the glass while describing Sidonia in Coningsby. We group the following sentences from this description for a purpose that will be presently seen:—(1) “He was admired by Character.women, idolized by artists, received in all circles with great distinction, and appreciated for his intellect by the very few to whom he at all opened himself.” (2) “For, though affable and generous, it was impossible to penetrate him: though unreserved in his manners his frankness was limited to the surface. He observed everything, thought ever, but avoided serious discussion. If you pressed him for an opinion he took refuge in raillery, and threw out some paradox with which it was not easy to cope. The secret history of the world was Sidonia’s pastime. His great pleasure was to contrast the hidden motive with the public pretext of transactions.” (3) “He might have discovered a spring of happiness in susceptibilities of the heart; but this was a sealed fountain for Sidonia. In his organization there was a peculiar, perhaps a great deficiency; he was a man without affection. It would be hard to say that he had no heart, for he was susceptible of deep emotions; but not for individuals. Woman was to him a toy, man a machine.” These sentences are separately grouped here for the sake of suggesting that they will more truly illustrate Disraeli’s character if taken as follows:—The first as representing his most cherished social ambitions—in whatever degree achieved. The second group as faithfully and closely descriptive of himself; descriptive too of a character purposely cloaked. The third as much less simple; in part a mixture of truth with Byronic affectation, and for the rest (and more significantly), as intimating the resolute exercise of extraordinary powers of control over the promptings and passions by which so many capable ambitions have come to grief. So read, Sidonia and Benjamin Disraeli are brought into close resemblance by Disraeli himself; for what in this description is untrue to the suspected fundamentals of his character is true to his known foibles. But for a general interpretation of Lord Beaconsfield and his career none serves so well as that which Froude insists on most. He was thoroughly and unchangeably a Jew. At but one remove by birth from southern Europe and the East, he was an Englishman in nothing but his devotion to England and his solicitude for her honour and prosperity. It was not wholly by volition and design that his mind was strange to others and worked in absolute detachment. He had “none of the hereditary prepossessions of the native Englishman.” No such prepossessions disturbed his vision when it was bent upon the rising problems of the time, or rested on the machinery of government and the kind of men who worked it and their ways of working. The advantages of Sidonia’s intellect and temperament were largely his, in affairs, but not without their drawbacks. His pride in his knowledge of the English character was the pride of a student; and we may doubt if it ever occurred to him that there would have been less pride but more knowledge had he been an Englishman. It is certain that in shrouding his own character he checked the communication of others to himself, and so could continue to the end of his career the costly mistake of being theatrical in England. There was a great deal too (though little to his blame) in Lord Malmesbury’s observation that he was not only disliked in the House of Commons for his mysterious manner, but prejudiced by a pronounced foreign air and aspect. Lord Malmesbury does not put it quite as strongly as that, but he might have done so with truth. No Englishman could approach Disraeli without some immediate consciousness that he was in the presence of a foreigner.
Lord Beaconsfield has been praised for his integrity in money matters; the praise could have been spared—it does not rise high enough. It is also said to his honour that he “never struck at a little man,” and that was well; but it is explained as readily by pride and calculation as by magnanimity. A man of extraordinary coolness and self-control, his faults in every kind were faults of excess: it is the mark of them all. But whatever offence they gave, whatever mischief they did, was soon exhausted, and has long since been pardoned.
Authorities.—The writer’s personal knowledge is largely represented in the above article. Among the biographical literature available prior to the authoritative Life the following may be cited:—Lord Beaconsfield’s Preface to 1849 edition of Isaac D’Israeli’s works; Correspondence with his Sister, and Home Letters, edited by Ralph Disraeli; Samuel Smiles, Memoirs and Correspondence of John Murray; Life of the Earl of Beaconsfield, by F. Hitchman; Memoir by T. E. Kebbel; Memoir by J. A. Froude; Memoir by Harold Gorst; Sir William Fraser’s Disraeli and his Day; The Speeches of Lord Beaconsfield, edited by T. E. Kebbel. In 1904, however, the large collection of material for Lord Beaconsfield’s life, in the hands of his executors Lord Rowton and Lord Rothschild, was acquired by The Times, and the task of preparing the biography was assigned to Mr W. F. Monypenny, an assistant editor of The Times (1894–1899), who was best known to the public as editor of the Johannesburg Star during the crisis of 1899–1903. (F. G.)
- The crown had in 1871 appointed the Rev. W. W. Harvey (1810–1883), a Cambridge man, to the living of Ewelme, near Oxford, for which members of the Oxford house of convocation were alone eligible. Gladstone was charged with evading this limitation in allowing Harvey to qualify for the appointment by being formally admitted M.A. by incorporation.
- For a detailed, if somewhat controversial, account of this affair, see Lucien Wolf’s article in The Times of December 26, 1905, and Mr Greenwood’s letters on the subject.