I first heard of Benjamin Disraeli in a school assembly when I was ten or eleven. Our headmaster also taught history, and though he was known to us mainly as an expert in horse-drawn hoes, seed drills and threshing machines, that day he introduced us to a man born into the wrong religion and given an imperfect education, an author of unlikely novels and unlikelier cheques, sniffed at by the upper classes when he arrived at their dinner tables and baited by the mob when he asked for their votes. I remember most clearly the description of Disraeli: a bottle-green waistcoat, purple pantaloons, rings worn over white gloves, hair meticulously curled and parted so as to fall languorously on one cheek. Finally, in a coup de théâtre too rarely allowed the historian of the 18th-century harvest, it was revealed that, against all the odds, Disraeli had risen to the position of prime minister. Combining admonition and uplift in a manner typical of the assembly address, our headmaster urged us to work hard(er) and follow our dreams, be ourselves and never give up; thus Disraeli became a model of self-empowerment.
Daisy Hay makes it clear that Disraeli’s wife, Mary Anne, was in some ways even more of an interloper than Disraeli, whose family wealth and connections (his father, Isaac, was a successful littérateur) are often underplayed. Of undistinguished parentage – Mary Anne’s father, who died when she was an infant, served in the navy and her stepfather was a soldier – and possessed of little more than prettiness and good temper, she married the wealthy iron magnate Wyndham Lewis at 24. Catapulted into the upper echelons of London society, Mary Anne gave herself away by her sartorial extravagance, as she piled ribbons on ruffles on diamonds. Worse still, she talked too often and too fast, on the wrong subjects and to the wrong sort of people.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Mary Anne and Disraeli’s lives converged. Her closest friend was the eyebrow-raising Rosina Bulwer Lytton, whose husband, Edward, was a close friend (and possibly lover) of Disraeli’s. When they first met in 1832 she struck him as a ‘flirt and a rattle’. They became closer in 1837 when Disraeli was elected for Maidstone as a Conservative MP, with Wyndham Lewis as his co-member. When Lewis died shortly afterwards, his widow paid Disraeli’s election expenses, and the two began an affair that culminated in marriage a year later. She was 46 and childless, he was 34; he had debts of around £20,000, she had inherited a London house and an annual income of close to £5000.
This might look like a straightforward case of seduction, but Mary Anne was no victim. She tortured Disraeli with flirtations and silences, wore mourning for as long as she dared, but was finally outplayed after an argument that seemed to have ended the affair. In a fervid letter Disraeli confessed he had initially been attracted to her money but had continued his pursuit even after discovering she had much less of it than he had imagined. Were Mary Anne to abandon him now, the time would come when she would think of him ‘with remorse, admiration and despair – then you will recall to your memory the passionate heart that you have forfeited, and the genius you have betrayed.’ Unaware that Disraeli feared debtors’ prison and was in no position to be scrupulous about the size of fortunes, Mary Anne crumbled, and they were married on 28 August 1839.
The story of the Disraelis’ marriage is familiar, and Hay does little to alter our understanding of it. Mary Anne alternated between affection and jealousy, and took a severe, almost Gladstonian approach to the household budget, with the result that £13,000 of Disraeli’s debts were paid off within three years. She wasn’t a typical political wife. Although she campaigned during several elections, she didn’t attend a Commons debate until 1868, when Disraeli made his first speech as prime minister. In 1864, after winning a crucial censure vote in the Commons at three in the morning, the octogenarian Lord Palmerston ran up the stairs to the Ladies’ Gallery to embrace his wife, who had been present throughout. In 1867, after the successful passage of the Reform Act, Disraeli returned home, where Mary Anne was waiting up with a bottle of champagne and a raised pie (‘My dear,’ Disraeli said, ‘you are more like a mistress than a wife’). Mary Anne’s cheerful distance from politics was part of her appeal. She obsessively searched the press for information relating to ‘Dizzy’ (a pursuit which crowded out any other interests, she told Lord Rosebery), showed self-effacing regard for his comfort (she once trapped her hand in a carriage door but stopped herself crying out for fear of distracting him before a speech), and parcelled up and kept his hair clippings after every trim.
The devoted Mary Anne is made by Hay to complement the school assembly version of Disraeli’s life. The Britain of their youth, she writes, ‘was still governed by aristocratic families who would not willingly open their doors to a sailor’s daughter or a Jew. Disraeli and Mary Anne knew that they would have to be made to do so, compelled to stop and listen by exceptional voices and extraordinary stories.’ If Disraeli spoke like his novels, Mary Anne spoke like her letters: emotion overtook grammar, sentence structure and sometimes sense. She was ill-informed and indiscreet, kind-hearted and sympathetic, but irredeemably vulgar. Their ostentatious affection could be touching, but also embarrassing (Mary Anne shocked dinner party guests with descriptions of Dizzy in his bath). Perhaps most important, they looked odd, since neither was willing to make concessions to the passing years. Attending a reception in 1872, in what must have been one of their last appearances together before Mary Anne’s death from stomach cancer, the French chargé d’affaires noticed
a strange being trapped out like a kind of pagoda, whom he took for some aged rajah. It was Mary Anne, and behind her was Dizzy, painted and sepulchral, his last ringlet dyed jet-black and fixed on his bald brow. On her heart Mary Anne wore, as one wears the badge of an order, a huge medallion which framed a portrait of her husband.
Hay interprets the couple’s success in gaining entry to the British establishment in narrow terms. Her account of Disraeli’s life is leached of politics, and she does no more than gesture to the idea that his relationship with Mary Anne might have played well with the electorate. She suggests (though doesn’t quite state) that the real measure of their achievement is that both acquired in death the respectability that eluded them in life. We’re familiar with Disraeli’s posthumous reinvention as a Tory totem, but after her death, nine years before her husband’s, Mary Anne too was flattened into stereotype, portrayed by obituarists as a saintly domestic helpmeet and a pattern for British womanhood.
What’s missing, in Hay’s book as in all recent writing on Disraeli (there have been seven biographies in less than ten years), is an attempt to identify the place he occupied in the public imagination in his lifetime. The audience for politics became larger and more engaged over the course of his career. The electorate almost doubled to 2.5 million as a direct consequence of Disraeli’s Reform Act, and was still quietly increasing when he died. The public speech, once reserved for the electoral hustings, became an essential mode of communication between governors and governed. After the final repeal of the ‘taxes on knowledge’ (the stamp and paper duties), newspaper circulation grew relentlessly, trebling between 1855 and 1860, doubling again in the following decade, then increasing by a third in the next. The nature of political coverage changed too and a new form of political writing – the parliamentary sketch – began to provoke a great deal of anxiety about the trivialisation of history: ‘Our great-great-grandchildren will know how Mr Disraeli arranges his hair, whether Mr Gladstone generally sits with his legs crossed, and what is the pattern of trousers peculiarly affected by Lord Brougham.’ Photographs disseminated a politician’s authentic likeness throughout the country, and the illustrated press – which depicted statesmen in Parliament and on the platform – grew in popularity (the Illustrated London News was selling 300,000 copies a week by 1860).
The effect of these changes was that leading politicians started to be treated as celebrities. As early as 1852 Disraeli had a wax model in Madame Tussaud’s; the next year a shilling edition of his novels sold 300,000 copies in 12 months. In 1860 he told a putative biographer (another sign of the times) that ‘my life, since I emerged from the crowd, has been passed in a glasshouse.’ He sat for his first photographs in 1861; sending one to a friend, Mary Anne wrote that ‘some more will be out in a short time, & in a few weeks the man says all over the world.’ He took to the public platform, addressing Conservative rallies in Manchester and London in 1872 sustained by white brandy disguised as water. Disraeli not only understood the significance of these changes, but was able to condense them into a quotable phrase. Two years before his only general election victory, in 1874, he pronounced that ‘publicity is now the soul of our political life.’
Biographies tend to rake over the same letters and diaries with diminishing returns, adding quotes from newspapers only to add local colour and images merely as illustrations. What if this hierarchy of evidence were inverted, and the public Disraeli became the focus of our attention? How would his political import be understood then? In 1868, as prime minister, he was travelling by train to Edinburgh while the provisions of the Scottish Reform Bill were still being settled. When the train stopped at Galashiels, he lowered his window and asked the crowd gathered on the platform whether they wished their town to be represented within the borough or the county. Receiving a declaration in favour of the latter, he thanked them and sat back in his seat. One local paper marvelled:
Mr Disraeli is perhaps the only statesman now living who could have brought about this little scene. As for Earl Russell, to imagine him forgetting his dignity so far as to set about picking up information from a local crowd assembled at a railway station, with a possible view to its being used in the preparation of a Reform Bill, is simply to imagine the impossible. But it is quite in Mr Disraeli’s way to do this kind of thing, and nobody, we suppose, will think the worse of him for doing it.
The public’s understanding of Disraeli’s personality seems to have licensed his departures from orthodox political behaviour. Perhaps his wife was similarly indulged?
Disraeli’s ‘career has altogether been of such an exceptional nature’, the Graphic noted, ‘that his public appearances always excite great interest, independently of politics’. In 1872, Disraeli and Mary Anne were greeted by twenty thousand people in Manchester, a group of whom unharnessed their carriage and dragged it through the crowded streets. The next day thirty thousand came to hear Disraeli speak, many with his photograph tucked into their hatbands. In 1878, 52,800 working men from 115 towns paid a penny towards the creation of a ‘People’s Tribute’ to Disraeli, in the form of a 22-carat golden wreath. (It was eventually rejected as politically unhelpful.) The Primrose League, a Conservative Party organisation founded in his memory, attracted a million members in a decade. Those who dismiss the posthumous adulation of Disraeli as manufactured should consider the possibility that his legend was built on genuine popularity.
He belonged not only to Mary Anne. When he lay dying at 19 Curzon Street in April 1881, ‘half a dozen agency reporters were literally encamped on the doorstep, waiting for the first opportunity of capturing the fateful news, and for days they picketed the spot in relays.’ As the Saturday Review put it in 1874, ‘Mr Gladstone and Mr Disraeli are, in a sense, public property.’