Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Lord Beaconsfield (18041881)
[Benjamin Disraeli, son of Isaac Disraeli (vol. iv.), was born in London in 1804, and was privately educated. His first novel, Vivian Grey, appeared in 1826. After a few years spent in travelling, he returned to literature, and published The Young Duke in 1831, Contarini Fleming in 1832, and The Wondrous Tale of Alroy in 1833. In 1837, after several previous failures, he obtained a seat in Parliament, and in the same year were published Venetia and Henrietta Temple. In 1844 he published Coningsby; in 1845, Sybil; and in 1847, Tancred. In 1848 he became leader of the Conservative party, and in 1852 he published Lord George Bentinck: a Political Biography. In 1852, in 1858, and in 1866 he was Chancellor of the Exchequer; became Prime Minister for the first time in 1867, and was again Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880. He died on the 19th of April 1881.]
THERE are some men whose prominence in other spheres has unduly enhanced their literary reputation. There are othersand of these Lord Beaconsfield was onewhose literary fame has been somewhat obscured by their greatness in action. The anger and jealousy of partisanship which his career aroused extended to the criticism of his books. To men of smaller mould his versatility might well seem unnatural; and some of the distinctive peculiarities of his work undoubtedly ran counter to the instincts of our national taste. But Disraelis genius has emerged from the mists which partisanship would fain raise around it. Time has certainly not, so far, diminished his fame as a statesman, or banished him from the special niche which he occupies in the national regard. In spite of the adverse verdict of what claimed, with whatever modicum of authority, to be the serious criticism of the day, which in this case had the benefit, such as it was, of the alliance of political partisanship, the works of Disraeli first captured an astonished and entranced audience by the exuberant boldness of their fancy and the luxuriance of their descriptions, and then were discovered to carry a deeper meaning, and to bear a weightier portent under their fantastic dress. As his personality recedes into the distance, the astonishing brilliancy of his career will probably appear all the more luminous; and assuredly the respect now accorded to his literary gifts shows no signs of waning. It is noteworthy that the most recent and perhaps the most important estimate of his workthat of Professor Froudeis also the most appreciative.
It is easy to detect faults, which stand out on the very surface of his work, and are, indeed, an essential part of the methods by which he produced his effect. The imagination is often fantastic, the ornament is unduly lavish, the gilding is sometimes tawdry and overdone, the sentiment often inflated. Mediocrity will satisfy itself by calling this vulgarity and pretentiousness. But in truth it was only the natural result of an imagination singularly luxuriant, combined with a far-reaching sarcasm, and an undercurrent of deep thought and brooding melancholy. That his characters should often live in a world of faerie, surrounded by a luxury that was idealised out of all reality; that he should paint an aristocracy living in palaces, and endowed with almost impossible gifts of mind and body; that their adventures should be clothed with a sort of glamour, and their actions and utterances have all the artistic pose of actors on a distinguished stagethis was only one method by which he produced his effect. He puzzles and dazzles his readers, but never himself. The subtle humour, the brooding melancholy, the grasp of human aims, the absolute clearness of mental visionthese are never absent. No man could ever convey a sarcasm more surely under a veil of rich description, and what might at first sight seem exaggerated admiration. The most marked feature of the generation in which he lived was the close alliance between the pedantic doctrinaire and the political economist. He had no sympathy with either. His keenness of vision pierced through the mist of their theories. The seeming satisfaction of popular Whiggismadmirably adapted for the half-educated complacency of a prosperous bourgeoisiewas to him a sham and a pretence, and all the more so because it was inclined to denounce as sham all that it did not understand, and to classify as exaggeration all that was beyond the range of its own vision. To his party Disraeli gave the benefit of something higher than the maxims of a clique; and in his literary work he proved that, in the most prosaic of generations, lavish wealth of imagination and audacious boldness of fancy might be united with keen sarcasm and profound thought. His place in literature will not with posterity be less because he gave a free rein to his genius, and bid defiance to rule.
His first work, Vivian Grey, was produced when he was little more than a boy, being published when he was only twenty-one. That it was immature, incomplete, and imperfectthat it had all the omniscience and all the affectation of youth, is no matter of surprise. What surprises rather is its astonishing wealth of knowledge and boldness of thought, the reckless audacity of its treatment of things which the author only knew by his imagination. He himself felt that he had not yet learned to guide his genius, that his resources were too much for him, and that his Pegasus had yet to be subdued. I have too much, he says in closing the book, which he does in a sort of hurricane of confusionI have too much presumed upon an attention which I am not able to command. I am, as yet, but standing without the gate of the garden of romance. True it is, that as I gaze through the ivory bars of its golden portal, I would fain believe that, following my roving fancy, I might arrive at some green retreats hitherto unexplored, and loiter among some leafy bowers where none have lingered before me. But these expectations may be as vain as those dreams of youth over which all have mourned. The disappointment of manhood succeeds to the delusion of youth: let us hope that the heritage of old age is not despair.
These words are strange indeed in the mouth of one who had scarcely emerged from boyhood. His achievements were to be far different from those at which he then aspired. But the mood is the same as that which endured with him to the endwhen his generation had been conquered and had brought him as a tribute all the honours and all the fame which it had to bestow.
In the preface to Lothair, Disraeli speaks of himself as born in a library, and trained from early childhood by learned men who did not share the passions and the prejudices of our political and social life. Extravagant and immature as they often are, these early novels have more of literary finish, and bear more evidence of literary training and of wide reading than those which came after his thoughts were directed into other channels. After Vivian Grey, he was silent for a time; and although his next novel, Alroy, was begun just after Vivian Grey, it was not completed until 1832, when Contarini Fleming also appeared. By that time, Disraelis fancy had been still further stimulated by travelling in the East; and what he saw there supplied just the colouring and the glow which struck a sympathetic chord in his own fancy. The result is fully seen in Contarini Fleming, which has the merits as well as the defects of a poem in prose. However overcharged with ornament it may appear, its author could long afterwards recall with satisfaction and pride the tribute of admiration paid to it by Goethe and by Heine; and in his letters at the time, he reports that the staunchest admirer he had in London, and the most discerning appreciator of Contarini is old Madame dArblay.
Henrietta Temple and Venetia appeared in 1837, when Disraeli entered Parliament. From this time his pen was stopped until in 1844 appeared Coningsby, the first of the trilogy completed by Sybil and Tancred. It is evident that Disraeli himself looked upon these three books as the chief monuments of his literary fame; and although they have the common defect of being written with a purpose, they probably represent his literary gifts at their best. In Coningsby much of the early exaggeration has disappeared. The characters are drawn with strength and insight. In no other novel has he used the weapon of satire so openly as in the picture of Rigby. Much as he still dwells on what is picturesque, or rather pictorial, in English life, he yet shows a masculine keenness of judgment, and a practical aim, which were absent from his previous books, and which his experience of parliamentary life had now supplied. Sybil showed that the gorgeous pictures of an extravagant imagination did not wholly enthral him, and that he could bring industry and attention to study, and a graphic pen to describe, the sordid details of life in the manufacturing districts. The story is very slight, and is at most a framework on which to hang his thoughts upon the deeper mysteries of national life. The style is correctsometimes even unduly formal; but the effects of the education of the library were evidently passing away, and Disraeli was deliberately making his literary gift subservient to the political part that he was now to play. In Tancred, the third of the trilogy, a new vein was touched, that of racial sympathies, which lay very deep in his nature. He takes his hero to the Holy Land, and in his descriptions of it, the old richness of ornament breaks out, and the imagination again indulges in all its wealth of half-poetical rhapsody. The story is left incomplete, as if the authors aim was accomplished when he had painted the home of his race, and vindicated its place in history; and with this book his romances ceased for nearly a quarter of a century.
Before he became leader of the Conservative party, Disraeli published, in 1852, Lord George Bentinck: a Political Biography. As the name seems partly to imply, the book is not a biography, but a political pamphlet; and although the authors personal part in the events of which it treats is minimised as far as possible, yet it is in many aspects a manifesto issued to his party. The principles he sets forth are essentially the same as those enunciated in the trilogy; but they are here regarded from the point of view of the party politician, and stript of the rhetorical and imaginative dress in which he had clothed them in the novels. There is exceeding skill in the presentation; and above all there is boldness and originality in the treatment of the question of Jewish disabilities, which was a stumbling block to many of his party. With regard to style the habit of the debater is often distinctly felt. Disraeli seems to be throwing off his former style without definitely adopting a new one. Skilfully as the book is fitted to its purpose, it is not on the whole happy in its style. It is often heavy; we miss his epigrammatic force; and the sentences are often long and cumbrous. There are signssuch as the use of unusual words, e.g., scrutinous, judicative, etc.which show that Disraeli gave some attention to the style, and he seems to have aimed at a sort of historical diction, midway between his novels and his oratory. If he did so, the attempt was a failure; because, interesting as the book is for other reasons, and especially as a specimen of a party pamphlet without any bitterness, pettiness, or spite, it is not a good example of Disraelis literary style.
It was only in his later years that Disraeli resumed the pen. After his first premiership he wrote Lothair; and in 1880, after his final retirement from office, Endymion. In both there is a lavish profusion of scenic machinery, which is perhaps overdone, and which at least roused the easy gibes of the critics. In style they show, often at its perfection, the characteristic of polished epigram which distinguished his oratory. The wit never fails, and often when the diction is most inflated, it is redeemed by the satire that his rotund periods veil. But it is evident that the pen had long ceased to be his chief instrument. He often permits himself slipshod phrases and solecisms from which his education in a library would have preserved him in earlier days. None the less both booksand Lothair especiallyare full of interest, as showing the same habit of mind in relation to the problems of the day, modified but not transformed by the long responsibilities of power in the affairs of men. Superficial critics decried them as pieces of tawdry tinsel; posterity may more likely recognise, with Professor Froude, the mellow and impartial wisdom which raises Lothair from an ephemeral novel into a work of enduring value.