Commentary Magazine


Disraeli Reconsidered

The Lord himself is the portion of mine inheritance.

Psalms 16:6.

It is doubtful whether any of the great Victorian statesmen who made England the leading power in the 19th century could have passed a modern loyalty and security check. Gladstone’s habit of bringing trollops home to tea made him a security risk and the testimony of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting that they had to lock their doors during country weekends against the ardor of Lord Palmerston would have eliminated him. It is one of the principal merits of Robert Blake’s new “full” biography of Disraeli1 to bring alive the many episodes in Disraeli’s youth that would have given bulk to his security file and that were treated with excessive discretion in Monypenny and Buckle’s Life of Benjamin Disraeli2 the “official” standard biography, commissioned by the trustees of Disraeli’s estate, and completed in 1920.

The most important of these episodes was Disraeli’s open and notorious adultery with Lady Sykes carried on just when Disraeli first presented himself as candidate for election to the House of Commons. At least one other liaison, disastrous business speculations, resulting debts and entrapments by money sharks, and the authorship of indiscreet novels, to say nothing of an outlandish and “irresistibly comic” mode of dress, marked the early years of the “dandified young bounder” leading a life dominated by “society, love, debts, and literature.” But as Robert Blake recognizes, the credit for first unraveling the many obscurities in Disraeli’s early life must go to Professor B. R. Jerman’s highly readable book The Young Disraeli, published seven years ago.3 While Blake’s account is based on his own researches in Disraeli’s papers and not on secondary sources, Blake tells us nothing new about that young sinner whom Monypenny and Buckle kept under a bushel.

Indeed, there is relatively little new of any kind in Blake’s biography. The extravagant praise given it by reviewers in England and in this country is more indicative of the low state of book-reviewing than of the quality of the book. For me at least, Monypenny and Buckle remain on their pedestal. They wrote better English, they were never obscure, and they bring not only Disraeli but his age to life with a richness of texture that neither Blake nor anyone else has matched. Even Blake’s condensation of Monypenny and Buckle’s more than three thousand pages into a biography of less than eight hundred pages is of doubtful use: for conciseness is achieved at the expense of readability. I doubt whether any reader who is not thoroughly familiar with 19th-century English history can read Blake without getting lost many times. Time and again I had the experience of being baffled by excerpts from a Disraeli letter or by uncertainties of chronological sequence in Blake which I could clarify only by reference to Monypenny and Buckle. (To give but one of many possible illustrations of these difficulties: nobody not familiar with the Don Pacifico affair could possibly obtain any insight into Disraeli’s role in it from Blake.)

Blake’s brevity is particularly disappointing in his treatment of two of the most controversial and fascinating aspects of Disraeli, his character and his views on Judaism. The little Blake has to say on the latter, is drawn from Cecil Roth’s short book, Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, published in 1952,4 and according to Blake “the most penetrating analysis of this subject so far attempted.”

Cecil Roth reflects the conventional wisdom of the contemporary Jewish establishment on religion and Jewish converts to Christianity. This wisdom holds that religion is a good thing in general, and that all believers deserve acclaim. At the same time it permits a good Jew to be an atheist, an agnostic, or even, as Ben Gurion is said to be, a dabbler in Zen Buddhism. Only by being a Christian can a Jew put himself beyond the pale of respectable Jewish approbation and his motivation beyond the benefit of any charitable doubt.

Looked at from that perspective, Disraeli’s convictions must indeed be puzzling. Messrs. Roth and Blake cannot help admitting rather grudgingly that Disraeli was a believing and practicing Christian. How then could he consider himself a Jew, and be proud of it? Their explanation is that he was ignorant of Judaism and confused about Christianity. “He really did believe,” writes Blake, “in Christianity of a somewhat peculiar sort” that did not “fit into any ordinary category. . . . He no doubt believed in the Virgin Birth, the Divinity of Christ, and the Resurrection, but with no strong conviction, or any appreciation of how fundamental these doctrines are for Christian faith.” These lines of Blake have a curious Victorian flavor, more so than anything in Monypenny and Buckle. It is difficult to believe that they were written by a learned historian who is a contemporary of Paul Tillich, Bishops Robinson and Pike, and the drafters of the new Dutch Roman Catholic catechism.

Dr. Roth’s demonstration of Disraeli’s ignorance of Judaism is equally unconvincing and worth quoting at some length. Dr. Roth starts with his lapidary conclusion: “. . . about Judaism he knew next to nothing.” There follows a parenthesis . . . “(In his writings he showed very little practical knowledge of Jewish rites)”—that is not further elucidated. Then we are told:

The notes to Alroy [an early Disraeli novel] show that he had read such works as the talmudical researches of the English Hebraist Lightfoot [of whom Lord Acton wrote that he was a critical scholar “whom neither Frenchman nor German has surpassed”] and the Jewish history of the French theologian Basnage, as well as Leon of Modena’s Rites and Ceremonies of the Jews, and Vorstius’s Latin translation of the Hebrew chronicle of David Gans: precisely such books as might then have been expected in the library of a learned English dilettante.

He certainly added to his store of knowledge in due course. There were many professing Jews who would not have been aware as he was of the ancient and loyal Jewish communities in China, rediscovered by the missionaries in 1851, to which he referred in the later debates on Jewish emancipation. Late in life, he read and benevolently criticized the jejune History and Literature of the Israelites published in 1870 by the two daughters of his friend, Sir Anthony de Rothschild.

So much for knowing “next to nothing.”

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It is a curious paradox that the religious views of Disraeli should have stirred up so much bewilderment whereas his preposterous literary pronouncements about race, secret societies, and the dominion of Jewish bankers should have been swallowed whole by people as diverse as his contemporary, the great Danish literary historian George Brandes, Adolf Hitler, and the writers of SNCC newsletters. Thus George Brandes, whose study Lord Beaconsfield was first published in 1880, and republished in slovenly edited form last year in the Crowell Historical Classics Series, said in discussing Disraeli’s novel Tancred: “With the intuition of mental affinity, Disraeli has divined the Oriental way of looking at things” (my italics, F.M.O.). Nor can there be much doubt that the ideas expressed in Tancred, the main depository of Disraeli’s lurid fantasies about race—“all is race, there is no other truth” . . . “the decay of a race is an inevitable necessity, unless it lives in deserts and never mixes its blood” . . . “it seems to me that you [Hebrews] govern every land except your own”—or his famous, and wholly erroneous, roll call of Jewish Ministers of Finance in Coningsby—all of which fantasies were published before Gobineau’s Inégalité des Races Humaines—entered into the folklore of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and were the secret godfathers of the statement in a recent SNCC Newsletter “that the famous European Jews, the Rothschilds, who have long controlled the wealth of many European nations, were involved in the original conspiracy with the British to create the ‘state of Israel’” and that “the Rothschilds control much of Africa’s mineral wealth.”

By contrast to these unfortunate fantasies5 Disraeli’s views on religion were based on facts: “Jesus . . . was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew,” and so did his mother Mary, all the Apostles, St. Paul, and indeed all his early followers. Given these beginnings, Disraeli concluded, it was the non-Jewish Christians who were the converts, not the Jewish Christians, and he castigated the Christian churches for the mistakes and crimes committed by them after their non-Jewish members had succeeded in becoming the majority. In his famous chapter on the Jews in his biography of Lord George Bentinck, Disraeli explains how the myth propagated by Christian churches at least up to the time of Vatican II, namely that “the Jews” had killed Christ, and the resulting anti-Semitism of the churches, prevented so many Jews throughout the centuries after Christ from becoming Christians: “When they first heard of Christianity, it appeared to be a Gentile religion, accompanied by idolatrous practices, from which severe monotheists . . . always recoil, and holding the Jewish race up to public scorn and hatred. This is not the way to make converts.”

Blake is quite right in sensing that for Disraeli, just as for many of our outstanding contemporary Catholic and Protestant theologians, doctrines like the virgin birth of Christ did not stand at the center of his faith, nor did he see in them the significant distinction between Christianity and Judaism. He accepted Christianity, in the words of Monypenny and Buckle, “as the highest development of Judaism,” and he believed that by stripping away some of the unessential accretions of early primitive Judaism, Jesus and Paul had made the truth of Judaism more universally acceptable: “Jesus spoke to the Gentiles, and not to the tribes of Israel only. That . . . is the great difference between Jesus and his predecessors. Christianity is Judaism for the multitude, but still it is Judaism.”

Put down in bare summary and a few quotations, these views of Disraeli may seem oversimplifications. But they did express what have become today widely-held Christian convictions that have led the French Dominican Father R. L. Bruckberger to write: “Christianity is more Jewish than modern Judaism.” Thus the incomprehension of Disraeli’s religious views by writers like Blake and Roth is attributable not to inherent difficulties but to the isolation of theology from other disciplines in a secular culture.

It is also true that apart from the writings of theologians, the Christian churches have not yet made any effort to give the conscious and deliberate cultivation of Jewish tradition a recognized institutional home within them. As a result, Christian Jews do not find it easy to preserve their identity. But nobody who has had the good fortune of meeting a man like the Reverend Père Cohn, of the Dominican monastery St. Jacques in Paris, can doubt that there are today as always Christians who are Jews. For Father Cohn, who, I was told, became a priest after having lost all his family during World War II, the study of the Torah became the central occupation of his priestly life. It would have taken audacity to deny him the right to call himself a Jew.

Nor are those who believe themselves physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob alone in cherishing the Jewish tradition as Christians. A friend of mine in the Episcopal clergy of quite Anglo-Saxon antecedents fasts on Yom Kippur as one way to express his spiritual Jewishness. And he tells me there are many like him. So perhaps the day is not far off when high Jewish feast days will be celebrated in Christian churches, and Christian Jews will celebrate the Seder on Passover as they did two thousand years ago.

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Disraeli’s character has now been debated for some 130 years, and Blake does less than I think he should have done to dismiss the case of the plaintiffs.

Hannah Arendt wrote in the Origins of Totalitarianism that all his life Disraeli was interested in nothing but the career of Lord Beaconsfield, and this view of Disraeli as a cynical and opportunistic careerist was widely held during his lifetime and is widely held today. Blake, who does not share this view, does explain well that distrust of the young Disraeli had nothing to do with his social, nacional, or racial origins, or what both George Brandes and Hannah Arendt call his “pariahdom.” He was born, Blake writes, “into a family neither obscure, undistinguished, nor poor”; Disraeli’s father’s “beautiful redbrick Queen Anne” country house at Bradenham was “considerably larger and a much more beautiful house than Hughenden,” Benjamin Disraeli’s eventual country estate; and young Disraeli’s blackball from the Athenaeum Club was strictly personal: his father was a founding member. But having thus clarified the real obstacles in Disraeli’s career and dispelled the Horatio Alger legend about him, Blake omits to mention some vital evidence about his character.

Thus he fails to tell us that in his first term as a member of parliament, to which he had been elected after four previous defeats, Disraeli was one of a minority of thirteen who spoke and voted for the immediate repeal of the new and oppressive Poor Law, even though it had been “quietly and good-naturedly hinted” to him that if he wished to advance in public life he had better keep his opinions on the new Poor Law to himself. “This hint,” write Monypenny and Buckle, “however, failed to deflect him from his course.” Similarly, Blake fails to appreciate that in the same year, 1839, when he was thirty-five, Disraeli as one of a minority of three voted against an advance to Birmingham for the establishment of a police force there, a measure adopted in response to the Chartist riots; and that in the following year he was one of a minority of five attempting to secure remission of the excessive punishment that had been inflicted on some of the Chartist leaders.

It is difficult to imagine how a young man who thus jeopardized his career for the sake of the poor and oppressed can have been an unprincipled opportunist. True, he was no Don Quixote, but few Don Quixotes succeed in climbing to the top of the greasy pole. Blake’s obvious difficulties in making an assessment of Disraeli’s character would have been less if he had not glossed over such available evidence.

His difficulties in assessing Disraeli’s character and in evaluating his religious thinking are really related. Disraeli’s ability to love, the warmth beneath the sardonic witticisms, his talent for friendship are outward signs of grace, and grace is given to few without religous faith. We read in Blake, for instance (though for once not in Monypenny and Buckle), that when the son of Disraeli’s old friend Lady Jersey vanished from London, leaving behind him not only huge debts but also the forged signatures of many nobles to the acceptances of bills circulating among the moneylenders, Disraeli acted as virtual trustee in buying up the bills to prevent a criminal prosecution and public exposure. “The episode illustrates one of Disraeli’s most agreeable traits, his willingness to take an infinity of trouble for the sake of gratitude and friendship.” Blake also tells us that Disraeli was devoted to children and loved his friends: in a letter to Lady Blessington, written when he was thirty-two and quoted by Blake, he said: “I have a disagreeable habit of saying everything I feel: but I love my friends.”

These indications of grace—the warmth, the human concern—are found in his public as well as in his private life. I suspect that one reason for the popularity of Blake’s biography is its fashionable diffidence. Blake seems so afraid of committing hero-worship that he often belittles when he could have praised, and selects the least creditable motive to explain Disraeli’s actions. For instance, in discussing Disraeli’s opposition to increased expenditures for the navy in 1858, when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Blake writes: “It was as if he wanted to out-Gladstone Gladstone,” and finds him guilty of a “surprising streak of Little-Englander hostility to armaments.” “As it was,” he concludes, “the fact that Britannia continued to rule the waves owed nothing to Benjamin Disraeli.” I believe Buckle’s judgment was fairer and more realistic: “the Chancellor of the Exchequer, though he realized that increased estimates could not be avoided, was as in official duty, bound [emphasis mine], rather the critic than the inspirer of these valuable measures.” Likewise, Blake explains the only instance of Disraeli’s opposing a social reform bill, his opposition in 1850 to a bill providing for the inspection of coal mines, by saying that Disraeli “palpably allowed political and social considerations to override the generous sentiments of Sybil.” Buckle attributes the same lapse to the fact that Disraeli “seems to have rather listened to the voice of friendship than followed his natural political course.”

Blake, I think, is at his most misleading in this vein when he belittles Disraeli’s part as Prime Minister in the passage of what Blake calls “the biggest instalment of social reform passed by any one government in the 19th century.” Among these laws passed by the parliamentary session of 1875 was the Artisans’ Dwellings Act which contained the essential element of our own urban redevelopment legislation of 1949. This Act empowered local authorities in large towns to remove existing buildings for sanitary reasons and replace them by adequate housing for workers. The arguments against such a heretical departure from the laws of laissez-faire were the same then as now: “the eminent Radical, Fawcett, . . . asked why Parliament should facilitate the housing of working men and not that of dukes?” Another element of our legislation of the 1960’s was added by an Amending Bill in 1879 which provided that if overcrowding had created a nuisance, compensation to the owner should be fixed on the value of the house after abatement of the nuisance. The same session took the essential measures for the legalization of trade unions and collective bargaining more than fifty years before the passage of the Wagner Act in the United States; consolidated earlier laws in a Public Health Act; adopted the Sale of Food and Drugs Act which remained the principal measure on that subject in England until 1928; and placed new limitations on the working hours of women and children. Yet Blake comments that “it would be wrong to pitch Disraeli’s claims too high as author of this valuable legislation.” The principal reasons given for this warning are that Disraeli “took little interest in details,” that much of the legislation was due to the hard work of the Home Secretary Richard Cross, and that reform was in the air anyway. But Cross owed his promotion to the Cabinet entirely to Disraeli, and Blake himself mentions that it took Disraeli’s backing against the rest of the Cabinet to make Cross’s proposals on trade union legislation prevail.

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Blake’s negative comments are almost regularly balanced by lines of faint praise, so that I may be accused of quoting out of context. He gives the impression of admiring Disraeli, but being afraid of what the New Statesman would say if his admiration became noticeable. Thus, after having poopoohed any connection between Disraeli’s ideas about Tory democracy in the 1840’s and the social legislation of his second administration in the 70’s, having distributed credit for that legislation to Richard Cross, “electoral necessity,” “the Civil Service pipeline,” and the temper of the times, he sums up:

Disraeli was at the head of the administration that brought this [social reform legislation] about, and he encouraged the policy even if he did not concern himself with its details. He deserves his share of the credit.

It would have been more accurate, I think, to say that he deserved the lion’s share. It is as great an error to be blind to the organic links between the young Disraeli who spoke out against the Poor Laws in his thirties, the middle-aged Disraeli who expressed his political vision in the Young England novels of the 1840’s and the social reform legislation of the Prime Minister in his seventies, as to accuse him of opportunism because he changed his mind on protection and other matters. As to the latter accusation, one may quote Goethe’s rejoinder to a similar charge: “Did I have to become eighty, just to keep the same views?”

As soon as he had grown enough to stop doing childish things, he no longer worshiped carved images or idols. His life was all of a piece, despite all his failures, setbacks, and frustrations. Indeed, it may be the very contrast between the perilous movement of the climb and the abiding qualities of temperament and intelligence that has made his life so fascinating. Only fascination can account for the fact that, according to Professor B. R. Jerman, there have appeared at least fifty book-length studies of one or another aspect of his life, and thousands of other items on him in books and periodicals, and that the New York Post—of all places—has published excerpts from Blake’s biography this past fall.

Disraeli hated cant and was remarkably free of it. Few of the blinders that bound the vision of other Victorians could prevent him from seeing facts as they were, and only now can the clarity of his judgment be fully appreciated. The Eastern Question may be dead history today, but Disraeli’s lack of sympathy for nationalism, that scourge of his and our centuries, and his realistic appraisal of the inevitable consequences of a Balkanization of Eastern Europe are as topical as this year’s news out of Africa. His housing legislation rested on insights expressed earlier in his novels Tancred and Lothair, insights that remain controversial among conservatives even today. In Lothair he said, “pauperism is not an affair so much of wages as of dwellings. If the working classes were properly lodged, at their present rate of wages, they would be richer. They would be healthier and happier at the same cost.” In Tancred he indicted urban developments, “the creatures of our commerical wealth,” referring to “all those flat, dull, spiritless streets, all resembling each other like a large family of plain children,” and pointed out that even the quarters erected by private enterprise for the rich were “so contrived as to be at the same time insipid and tawdry.” His famous passage in Sybil about the two nations was written some thirty years before his social legislation and almost a hundred years before Michael Harrington’s The Other America, and could have been written about America today:

Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.

“You speak of—” said Egremont, hesitatingly.

The Rich and the Poor.

It would be easy to add more examples of the modernity of Disraeli’s thought, indeed its prophetic quality. The peculiar grace given Disraeli was to carry his judgment, his concern for the poor, his life in political combat lightly. His zest for life, his delight in society, his love for his friends, his sense of romance and poetry were not jaundiced by his earnestness of purpose. Blake quotes a passage from a letter written to Disraeli by his political opponent Sir William Harcourt: “To the imagination of the younger generation your life will always have a special fascination. For them you have enlarged the horizon of the possibilities of the future,” and adds: “It would not be a bad epitaph.” I like E. L. Woodward’s evaluation in the Oxford English History6 even better: “Disraeli’s courage, quickness of wit, capacity for affection, and freedom from sordid motive, earned him his position. He brought politics nearer to poetry or, at all events, to poetical prose, than any English politician since Burke.” But the best epitaph may be the final passage in André Maurois’s Disraeli,7 which is still the best short biography extant and the most in tune with Disraeli’s spirit. Maurois comments on a remark made by a Dr. Ball to Lord Eustace Cecil some years after Disraeli’s death. Ball recalled how they had berated their leaders Disraeli and Lord Darby as “the Jew and the Jockey,” and now, he said, “I have seen his statue all covered with flowers,” adding: “They have canonized him as a saint.” And Maurois adds:

As a saint? No, Disraeli was very far from being a saint. But perhaps as some old Spirit of Spring, ever vanquished and ever alive, and as a symbol of what can be accomplished in a cold and hostile universe by a long youthfulness of heart.

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Footnotes

1 Disraeli, St. Martin's Press, 819 pp. $12.50.

2 2nd ed. 1929, Macmillan.

3 Princeton University Press, 1960.

4 Philosophical Library.

5 There is at least an inkling in Disraeli's late novel Lothair, published in 1870, that the equally preposterous notions about “Aryan principles” expounded by one of the characters were meant to burlesque Disraeli's earlier pronouncements on the Semitic race principles.

6 The Age of Reform 1815-1870. Oxford, 1938. Reprinted 1954.

7 Modern Library, 1942.

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