In This Article Benjamin Disraeli

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Bibliographical Resources
  • Race and Religion
  • Disraeli and Orientalism

Victorian Literature Benjamin Disraeli
by
Nils Clausson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0135

Introduction

Benjamin Disraeli (b. 1804–d. 1881) is unique among Victorian novelists in that, outside of specialists in Victorian literature, he is much better known as a politician and statesman (he was leader of the Conservative Party, and twice prime minister) than as a novelist. Historians are as interested in him as are literary critics, if not more so, and consequently his novels have long been mined for information about Disraeli the historical figure rather than approached as works of literature and studied in relation to literary history in the 19th century. His novels have been read with two principal goals in mind: (1) to better understand the mind of the enigmatic man who wrote them, and (2) as historical documents that will shed light on Disraeli’s political career and the policies he advocated. The first of these approaches has tended to produce biographical readings of the novels, even in a time when biographical approaches to literature are no longer fashionable. The goal of historians and literary critics alike has been to peep behind the mask and uncover the real Disraeli. The second approach, reflecting the turn to history and politics in literary studies, has produced historical readings that tend to see the novels as more or less reliable reflections of ideas existing outside the text, either in history or in politics. Viewing the novels as containers of political ideas, or as reflections of dominant Victorian ideologies, is particularly prevalent in criticism of Disraeli’s major novels—the Young England trilogy consisting of Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847)—which are widely read either as the manifesto of Young England, a rather loose political grouping of Tory MPs that Disraeli was widely taken to be the leader of, or as examples of a sub-genre of the Victorian novel known, variously, as the “condition-of-England” novel, the social-problem novel, or the industrial novel. When reading criticism of the novels, then, one needs to be aware that much critical commentary on them is not written by literary critics—and thus, strictly speaking, is not literary criticism at all—and is often motivated by non-literary purposes. Nevertheless, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries there has been a reevaluation of Disraeli by historians and, to a lesser extent, by literary scholars, focusing on “the role played in Disraeli’s conception of life and politics by his Jewishness and his romanticism” (Smith 1996, cited under Biographies). A major new focus of recent criticism of the novels has been the vexing question of Disraeli’s Jewishness and, to a lesser extent, Orientalism in his novels. Particularly after the publication of Edward Said’s influential Orientalism in 1978, there was a renewed interest in the representation of the East in Disraeli’s fiction, with critics divided over whether (as Said claimed) Disraeli contributed to the construction of the Orient as “Other,” or whether he admired Oriental culture and saw his mission as one of reuniting the West with its Eastern origins.

Biographies

Because of his distinguished political career, his long career as a novelist (from 1826 to 1880), his enigmatic personality, and his puzzling pronouncements on race and religion, Disraeli has attracted a large number of biographers. Indeed, the biographical approach, to both his political career and his fiction, has dominated scholarship and commentary on him. Biographies tend to be divided between those that see Disraeli as ambitious, manipulative, and less than principled (Blake 1966 and Ridley 1995) and those that admire him (Weintraub 1993). Most biographies contain discussions of the novels, but since his biographers have not been literary scholars, they tend to read the novels either as historical documents or as revelations of their author’s inner life (or both), and only rarely as works of literature. Early biographies, such as Meynell 1903 and Monypenny and Buckle 1929, are of limited use for criticism of the novels. Ridley and Weintraub reflect, respectively, the two prevailing attitudes to Disraeli: admiring and skeptical. Of the biographies since Blake 1966, Smith 1996 has received the highest praise and is probably the most balanced. Of the many popular biographies Bradford 1982 and Hibbert 2004 are probably the best. A note of caution: biographies published before the Disraeli Project and the University of Toronto Press began publishing the Letters could not take into account the thousands of letters uncovered by John P. Matthews and later scholars and need to be supplemented with later ones.

  • Blake, Robert. Disraeli. New York: St. Martin’s, 1966.

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    Still regarded as the most authoritative biography of Disraeli. Balanced and judicious, this also contains the best critical commentary on the novels by a biographer.

  • Bradford, Sarah. Disraeli. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.

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    This is the first biography to take advantage of the first two volumes of the Letters, edited by the Disraeli Project.

  • Hibbert, Christopher. Disraeli: A Personal History. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

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    This readable popular biography, in the tradition of Meynell, is better when covering Disraeli’s personal life (such his youth in Regency England and especially his relationships with women) than either his political career or his fiction. Republished in 2006 by Palgrave Macmillan with the title The Victorian Dandy Who Became Prime Minister.

  • Meynell, Wilfrid. Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography. New York: D. Appleton, 1903.

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    One of the first of many attempts to capture Disraeli’s elusive and enigmatic “temperament.” Reprinted in 2010 by Nabu Press. A digitized version is available online.

  • Monypenny, William Flavelle, and George Earle Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Rev. ed. London: John Murray, 1929.

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    Until the publication of Blake’s biography in 1966, this was the standard life. Though perhaps too admiring of its subject for modern tastes, this is still a major source of historical information. The discussion of the novels, however, is dated. First published in 1910.

  • Ridley, Jane. Young Disraeli: 1804–1846. New York: Crown, 1995.

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    Whereas Weintraub’s biography is empathic, Ridley sees Disraeli as a sinister figure, one who “had scant respect for probity and integrity in politics—his code of behaviour was truly Machiavellian” (p. 342).

  • Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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    Despite its brevity (under 250 pages), this is an important reevaluation and reinterpretation of Disraeli. Smith is a distinguished historian of the period and this biography is the place to start for both scholars and for those with little or no prior knowledge of Disraeli.

  • Weintraub, Stanley. Disraeli: A Biography. New York: Dutton, 1993.

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    Weintraub’s main contribution to Disraeli’s biography is his controversial claim that during the mid-1860s Disraeli illegitimately fathered both a son and a daughter. The claim remains unconfirmed.

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