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 Representative.” 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,