The interesting life of a Prime Minister – and novelist
For Jane Ridley, one of Benjamin Disraeli’s most acclaimed biographers, Disraeli is never boring. With that in mind, in this post we offer a short biography of Benjamin Disraeli that aims to condense some of the most interesting aspects of his colourful life into one very brief article. What made the life of Benjamin Disraeli – politician, Prime Minister, successful novelist – so fascinating?
Benjamin Disraeli was born in 1804 into the Jewish faith, although his father had his son baptised in the Church of England at age 13. That father, Isaac D’Israeli, was the author of the sort of book we here at Interesting Literature love – a collection of anecdotes and intriguing facts called Curiosities of Literature. Like father, like son: they both appear to have gone in terror of the boring.
Disraeli married Mary Anne Lewis, who was twelve years his senior, in 1839, and although sceptics have claimed the marriage was for money (Lewis was a rich widow, whose husband, an MP named Wyndham Lewis, had been Disraeli’s patron), Disraeli was clearly devoted to her and he was devastated by her death in 1872.
Disraeli trained in Law, but found himself in dire financial straits thanks to a couple of bad investments. He promptly wrote the first of a number of popular novels of high society, Vivian Grey, to help him recover his lost fortune. One of his novels, The Young Duke (1831), gave us the phrase ‘dark horse’, after a black horse that unexpectedly wins the race in the novel. He also bequeathed us the memorable phrases ‘to climb the greasy pole’ and ‘on the side of the angels’ – the latter used to express Disraeli’s allegiances to Christianity over Darwinian natural selection, which seemed to place man on ‘the side of the apes’ instead.
Benjamin Disraeli, as a novelist, also gave us the phrase ‘two nations’ to describe the sharp split between the rich and the poor in Victorian England. Sybil (1845), probably now his best-loved and best-remembered novel, carries The Two Nations as its subtitle, and remains one of the greatest ‘Condition of England’ novels of the 1840s. Disraeli famously remarked, ‘When I want to read a novel, I write one.’ He would continue to write novels sporadically throughout his life, with his final novel – the heavily autobiographical work Endymion – appearing in 1880, a year before his death. The publisher, Longman, paid him the then record sum of £10,000 for the book. Benjamin Disraeli may well have been the first British politician to become a publishing phenomenon, commanding huge advances for his books (Boris Johnson, anyone?).
While he was forging a successful career as a novelist, Disraeli was also trying to climb the greasy pole of British politics. His breakthrough came in 1837 when he was elected MP for Maidstone. He later became Chancellor of the Exchequer and then, in 1868, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a post he held for much of that year and then again, following six years in opposition, from 1874 until 1880, the year before he died. Disraeli worked hard at his political career, often retiring to bed at three in the morning.
No biography of Benjamin Disraeli could fail to mention his much-discussed rivalry with the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who was in office between Disraeli’s two terms, in 1868-74. Disraeli is said to have been asked what the difference is between a misfortune and a calamity, and to have replied: ‘If Gladstone fell in the Thames, that would be a misfortune. But if someone fished him out again, that would be a calamity.’ However, he certainly didn’t originate this line, and probably never said it at all.
Queen Victoria disliked Gladstone (‘He always addresses me as though I were a public meeting’), and said that Benjamin Disraeli was her favourite Prime Minister, and he certainly helped his reputation with her by making her Empress of India in 1876. She returned the favour by making him Lord Beaconsfield. Victoria had removed herself from the public eye in 1861 following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, but Disraeli helped to bring her out of her retirement somewhat. She was clearly fond of her ‘best Prime Minister’. As he lay dying in 1881, he reportedly declined the offer of a visit from Queen Victoria, quipping that ‘she’d only want me to take a message to Albert.’ An annual day, designated Primrose Day by his admirers, is held in honour of Disraeli every year on 19 April, the anniversary of his death. Primroses were his favourite flowers; Queen Victoria sent a bunch of primroses to adorn Disraeli’s grave at his funeral.
We hope you found this brief biography of Benjamin Disraeli useful. If you’d like to discover more about Disraeli’s life, we recommend this website.
Image: Portrait photograph of Benjamin Disraeli by W & D Downey, via Wikimedia Commons.