London, Asharq Al-Awsat—There are men of action who fancy themselves as writers—one example is Julius Caesar. Then there are writers who dream of action—Lord Byron, for example. More interesting, perhaps, are those who live the action imagined in their writings.
An outstanding example of this is Benjamin Disraeli, the leader who dominated British politics for a significant part of the 19th century. A novelist by aspiration, Disraeli rose to become leader of the Tories and, in a sense, can be regarded as the effective founder of the British Conservative Party. He subsequently used that position to move up the ladder of power, becoming one of the Victorian era’s longest serving Prime Ministers. Interestingly, the ideas expressed in at least five of his novels provided the basis of the political program he promoted and, as prime minister, put into effect. A third layer can be added to Disraeli’s literary work and politics: his own remarkable development.
That is the subject of a new biography by former British Foreign Secretary Douglas (now Lord) Hurd and co-author Edward Young.
Hurd and Young assert that Disraeli had two lives, and in fact was two men blended into one.
Disraeli was born into a family of Jewish immigrants who had moved from Palestine to Maghreb, then to Portugal and Spain and on to Venice before ending up in England where Benjamin was born. Since the family was not very religious, although it did not totally relinquish its Jewish heritage, the generations born and bred in England had little personal difficulty in adopting Englishness. In fact, young Benjamin could have been regarded as a perfect model of an Englishman. The trouble was that at the time a good part of English society did not think so. English identity, always deeply tribal, was even more so in the 19th century when the British label was not yet used as an umbrella for subjects of Her Britannic Majesty. In Disraeli’s time, Jews were not the only minority to be denied citizenship rights; even Catholics could not vote or stand for public office. Scots and Irish Protestants were tolerated often in subaltern positions in England’s empire-building adventures.
So, it was no surprise that young Benjamin, feeling he could not bear the anti-Semite taunts of schoolmates, decided to storm the citadel of Englishness from without.
He first did this by creating a persona as a dandy. He started wearing clothes that would make the most eccentric of Englishmen blush. Crimson and yellow waistcoats, flowery cravats, baggy trousers and, more shockingly, the tarbush or fez. Having no idea of what an “Oriental” looked like he also grew his hair long with tresses for good measure. Benjamin was not alone to try attracting attention by shocking the bourgeois; Beau Brummel and, later, Oscar Wilde, also practiced the art.
The tactic worked and won Benjamin a reputation in London society. This persuaded society ladies to invite Benjamin to their salons as a dinner-table companion adding a dash of color to often dull events.
Benjamin soon learned an important secret: women are less racist than men.
In a society where women were consigned to the “cackling room” while men smoked cigars and discussed matters of substance, he started treating women as human beings. That approach was to stand him in good stead throughout his life. In fact, towards the end Disraeli admitted that he owed part of his success as leader to women. This does not mean that he was a skirt-chaser let alone womanizer. In fact, he loved his wife Mary-Anne, widow of one of his closest friends, and remained faithful to her to the end.
In his novel Endymion a young politician achieves success thanks to help from women who recognize his talents. At first hostile to Disraeli, Queen Victoria ended up as one of his devotees, bestowing on him honors she extended to no other.
Next, Disraeli decided to tackle the issue of his Jewish origins.
Immigrant Jews in liberal European societies often adopted one of two strategies. The first consisted of creating an invisible ghetto by limiting themselves to certain trades and professions, avoiding politics and adopting a low profile. The second strategy was assimilation. This meant taking non-Jewish names, sending their children to expensive schools, steering clear of the synagogue or even converting to the local brand of Christianity. Disraeli’s family adopted the second strategy and, starting with his father Isaac, could be regarded as more English than Jewish.
However, Benjamin soon learned the limits of that strategy. A Jew is often defined more by how others see him, often with barely disguised hostility, rather than how he sees himself. So, he decided to assume his Jewishness, although his family had converted to Anglicanism and had had him baptized into the English Church. To find a way of asserting his Jewish heritage without rejecting his Englishness, he spent two years of his youth traveling in the Middle East—from Constantinople to Cairo via Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem, learning the rudiments of Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew.
Hurd and Young show that the trip had a profound effect on the future Prime Minister. However, they miss some of the complexities of the inner identity Disraeli developed for himself. He saw Judaism, Christianity and Islam as versions of the same Abrahamic religion and assumed the freedom to move across their boundaries as he wished. To the end of his life, Disraeli often used the Muslim slogan “Allah Akbar” (Allah is the Greatest) to conclude a discussion or an argument. In 1868, the day he was appointed Prime Minister, he told his friend James Kelly: “As we say in the East: Allah is the Greatest.”
To Disraeli, the Orient, a semi-historic semi-fictitious cosmos, was the source of wisdom, especially when it came to matters pertaining to organizing a society. He believed that though the ascending power in a world reshaped by the Industrial revolution, the West still had much to learn from his “Orient.”
That theme is present, either starkly or in filigree, in his literary work, starting with his first novel Vivian Grey. In Tancred, his most accomplished novel, a kind of Oriental wise-man teaches a young Englishman the secrets of good society. In Coningsby his most popular novel, Sidonia, an Oriental character speaking for the author, develops the theme of a union between “young” England and the “old” East. His other novel The Rise of Iskander is even more “Oriental” in theme and tone.
In Sybil: Or the Two Nations the theme is that of a union between the English landed gentry and the “people”, the mass of proletarians created by the Industrial revolution.
Even in Lothair, where he developed his vision of English national-imperialism, the theme of East-West dialogue is present.
Disraeli’s interest in “Eastern wisdom” and his own Jewish identity was influenced by the growing popularity of those themes in Europe at the time. In her magisterial novel Daniel Deronda, for example, George Elliot tells the story of a young English aristocrat who tries to deal with the consequences of his discovery that he has Jewish origins. Disraeli’s writings also influenced the emergence of Zionism as a new brand of Jewish nationalism. In his book Altneuland (The Old-New Land), for example, Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of Zionism, developed some of the themes launched by Disraeli including the dream of a new type of society in which the old “ East” and the new “ West” are blended to produce a new Utopia. Disraeli thought that such a Utopia could take shape in England; Herzl wanted it to be built in Palestine.
Not surprisingly, Disraeli’s opponents, notably William Gladstone, did not resist attacking his “Jewishness”. Gladstone called him “the Hebrew juggler.” Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle went further by branding Disraeli as “that absurd monkey.”
Disraeli dreamed of a spiritual aristocracy in a nation of new middle classes. He used his conservatism to preserve and strengthen key institutions such as the monarchy, the parliament, and the Church of England. However, he also knew that for any conservation to succeeded social reform was needed. Thus, he initiated measures that could portray him as more of a socialist than a conservative. These include the legalization of trade unions, the reduction and fixing of the working day, the introduction of holidays, and contracts for workers.
Disraeli could also be described as an Imperialist, not least for his role in the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 in which European powers delineated their respective colonial empires. It was also Disraeli who bought the controlling share of the Suez Canal from the Khedive with four million pounds borrowed from Rothschild and then named a banker friend as effective ruler of Egypt. Since the 1950s when anti-colonialism and post-colonialism became fashionable ideologies the Berlin Conference has been regarded as symbol of imperialist perfidy. However, in that conference, Disraeli helped stop Europe from being plunged into what would have been the First World War, thus buying decades of peace. And that was achieved without a single bullet being fired.
Hurd and Young make a great effort to show that Disraeli’s image as developed over the past 150 years does not always correspond to his reality. For example, they insist that Disraeli should not be regarded as the ideological father of “one-nation” conservatism. One wonders what the point of such efforts is. All historic figures are, at least in part, products of popular imagination. The greater the historic figure the more likely that he becomes the center of memories and myths, often contradictory, that end up producing a synthesis that fixes his or her persona. In that sense, the myth-based Disraeli is as much real as the actual political figure as established by stark facts. At a crucial moment in the development of their society, many Englishmen and women projected their own hopes and fears on Disraeli’s image.
Hurd and Young spent some time proving that some of the famous quotations attributed to Disraeli were not his. However, here is one that is not in dispute: “Don’t act under the pressure of public opinion or you shall become its slave!”
Politicians everywhere would do well to ponder that piece of “Oriental’ wisdom.
Disraeli: or, The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 2013.