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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Lord Beaconsfield (1804–1881)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Isa Carrington Cabell (1860–1923)
 
BENJAMIN DISRAELI, Earl of Beaconsfield, born in London, December, 1804; died there April 19th, 1881. His paternal ancestors were of the house of Lara, and held high rank among Hebrew-Spanish nobles till the tribunal of Torquemada drove them from Spain to Venice. There, proud of their race and origin, they styled themselves, “Sons of Israel,” and became merchant princes. But the city’s commerce failing, the grandfather of Benjamin Disraeli removed to London with a diminished but comfortable fortune. His son, Isaac Disraeli, was a well-known literary man, and the author of ‘The Curiosities of Literature.’ On account of the political and social ostracism of the Jews in England, he had all his family baptized into the Church of England; but with Benjamin Disraeli especially, Christianity was never more than Judaism developed. His belief and his affections were in his own race.  1
  Benjamin, like most Jewish youths, was educated in private schools, and at seventeen entered a solicitor’s office. At twenty-two he published ‘Vivian Grey’ (London, 1826), which readable and amusing take-off of London society gave him great and instantaneous notoriety. Its minute descriptions of the great world, its caricatures of well-known social and political personages, its magnificent diction,—too magnificent to be taken quite seriously,—excited inquiry; and the great world was amazed to discover that the impertinent observer was not one of themselves, but a boy in a lawyer’s office. To add to the audacity, he had conceived himself the hero of these diverting situations, and by his cleverness had outwitted age, beauty, rank, diplomacy itself.  2
  Statesmen, poets, fine ladies, were all genuinely amused; and the author bade fair to become a lion, when he fell ill, and was compelled to leave England for a year or more, which he spent in travel on the Continent and in Egypt, Nubia, and Palestine. His visit to the birthplace of his race made an impression on him that lasted through his life and literature. It is embodied in his ‘Letters to His Sister’ (London, 1843), and the autobiographical novel ‘Contarini Fleming’ (1833), in which he turned his adventures into fervid English, at a guinea a volume. But although the spirit of poesy, in the form of a Childe Harold, stalks rampant through the romance, there is both feeling and fidelity to nature whenever he describes the Orient and its people. Then the bizarre, brilliant poseur forgets his rôle, and reveals his highest aspirations.  3
  When Disraeli returned to London he became the fashion. Everybody, from the prime minister to Count D’Orsay, had read his clever novels. The poets praised them, Lady Blessington invited him to dine, Sir Robert Peel was “most gracious.”  4
  But literary success could never satisfy Disraeli’s ambition: a seat in Parliament was at the end of his rainbow. He professed himself a radical, but he was a radical in his own sense of the term; and like his own Sidonia, half foreigner, half looker-on, he felt himself endowed with an insight only possible to, an outsider, an observer without inherited prepossessions.  5
  Several contemporary sketches of Disraeli at this time have been preserved. His dress was purposed affectation; it led the beholder to look for folly only: and when the brilliant flash came, it was the more startling as unexpected from such a figure. Lady Dufferin told Mr. Motley that when she met Disraeli at dinner, he wore a black-velvet coat lined with satin, purple trousers with a gold band running down the outside seam, a scarlet waistcoat, long lace ruffles falling down to the tips of his fingers, white gloves with several rings outside, and long black ringlets rippling down his shoulders. She told him he had made a fool of himself by appearing in such a dress, but she did not guess why it had been adopted. Another contemporary says of him, “When duly excited, his command of language was wonderful, his power of sarcasm unsurpassed.”  6
  He was busy making speeches and writing political squibs for the next two years; for Parliament was before his eyes. “He knew,” says Froude, “he had a devil of a tongue, and was unincumbered by the foolish form of vanity called modesty.” ‘Ixion in Heaven,’ ‘The Infernal Marriage,’ and ‘Popanilla’ were attempts to rival both Lucian and Swift on their own ground. It is doubtful, however, whether he would have risked writing ‘Henrietta Temple’ (1837) and ‘Venetia’ (1837), two ardent love stories, had he not been in debt; for notoriety as a novelist is not always a recommendation to a constituency.  7
  In ‘Henrietta’ he found an opportunity to write the biography of a lover oppressed by duns. It is a most entertaining novel even to a reader who does not read for a new light on the great statesman, and is remarkable as the beginning of what is now known as the “natural” manner; a revolt, his admirers tell us, from the stilted fashion of making love that then prevailed in novels.  8
  ‘Venetia’ is founded on the characters of Byron and Shelley, and is amusing reading. The high-flown language incrusted with the gems of rhetoric excites our risibilities, but it is not safe to laugh at Disraeli; in his most diverting aspects he has a deep sense of humor, and he who would mock at him is apt to get a whip across the face at an unguarded moment. Mr. Disraeli laughs in his sleeve at many things, but first of all at the reader.  9
  He failed in his canvass for his seat at High Wycombe, but he turned his failure to good account, and established a reputation for pluck and influence. “A mighty independent personage,” observed Charles Greville, and his famous quarrel with O’Connell did him so little harm that in 1837 he was returned for Maidstone. His first speech was a failure. The word had gone out that he was to be put down. At last, finding it useless to persist, he said he was not surprised at the reception he had experienced. He had begun several things many times and had succeeded at last. Then pausing, and looking indignantly across the house, he exclaimed in a loud and remarkable tone, “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.”  10
  He married the widow of his patron, Wyndham Lewis, in 1838. This put him in possession of a fortune, and gave him the power to continue his political career. His radicalism was a thing of the past. He had drifted from Conservatism, with Peel for a leader, to aristocratic socialism; and in 1844, 1845, and 1847 appeared the Trilogy, as he styled the novels ‘Coningsby,’ ‘Tancred,’ and ‘Sibyl.’ Of the three, ‘Coningsby’ will prove the most entertaining to the modern reader. The hero is a gentleman, and in this respect is an improvement on Vivian Grey, for his audacity is tempered by good breeding. The plot is slight, but the scenes are entertaining. The famous Sidonia, the Jew financier, is a favorite with the author, and betrays his affection and respect for race. Lord Monmouth, the wild peer, is a rival of the “Marquis of Steyne,” and worthy of a place in ‘Vanity Fair’; the political intriguers are photographed from life, the pictures of fashionable London tickle both the vanity and the fancy of the reader.  11
  ‘Sibyl’ is too clearly a novel with a motive to give so much pleasure. It is a study of the contrasts between the lives of the very rich and the hopelessly poor, and an attempt to show the superior condition of the latter when the Catholic Church was all-powerful in England and the king an absolute monarch.  12
  ‘Tancred’ was composed when Disraeli was under “the illusion of a possibly regenerated aristocracy.” He sends Tancred, the hero, the heir of a ducal house, to Palestine to find the inspiration to a true religious belief, and details his adventures with a power of sarcasm that is seldom equaled. In certain scenes in this novel the author rises from a mere mocker to a genuine satirist. Tancred’s interview with the bishop, in which he takes that dignitary’s religious tenets seriously; that with Lady Constance, when she explains the “Mystery of Chaos” and shows how “the stars are formed out of the cream of the Milky Way, a sort of celestial cheese churned into light”; the vision of the angels on Mt. Sinai, and the celestial Sidonia who talks about the “Sublime and Solacing Doctrine of Theocratic Equality,”—all these are passages where we wonder whether the author sneered or blushed when he wrote. Certainly what has since been known as the Disraelian irony stings as we turn each page.  13
  Meanwhile Disraeli had become a power in Parliament, and the bitter opponent of Peel, under whom Catholic emancipation, parliamentary reform, and the abrogation of the commercial system, had been carried without conditions and almost without mitigations.  14
  Disraeli’s assaults on his leader delighted the Liberals; the country members felt indignant satisfaction at the deserved chastisement of their betrayer. With malicious skill, Disraeli touched one after another the weak points in a character that was superficially vulnerable. Finally the point before the House became Peel’s general conduct. He was beaten by an overwhelming majority, and to the hand that dethroned him descended the task of building up the ruins of the Conservative party. Disraeli’s best friends felt this a welcome necessity. There is no example of a rise so sudden under such conditions. His politics were as much distrusted as his serious literary passages. But Disraeli was the single person equal to the task. For the next twenty-five years he led the Conservative opposition in the House of Commons, varied by short intervals of power. He was three times Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1853, 1858, and 1859; and on Lord Derby’s retirement in 1868 he became Prime Minister.  15
  In 1870, having laid aside novel-writing for twenty years, he published ‘Lothair.’ It is a politico-religious romance aimed at the Jesuits, the Fenians, and the Communists. It had an instantaneous success, for its author was the most conspicuous figure in Europe, but its popularity is also due to its own merits. We are all of us snobs after a fashion and love high society. The glory of entering the splendid portals of the real English dukes and duchesses seems to be ours when Disraeli throws open the magic door and ushers the reader in. The decorations do not seem tawdry, nor the tinsel other than real. We move with pleasurable excitement with Lothair from palace to castle, and thence to battle-field and scenes of dark intrigue. The hint of the love affair with the Olympian Theodora appeals to our romance; the circumventing of the wily Cardinal and his accomplices is agreeable to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant mind; their discomfiture, and the crowning of virtue in the shape of a rescued Lothair married to the English Duke’s daughter with the fixed Church of England views, is what the reader expects and prays for, and is the last privilege of the real story-teller. That the author has thrown aside his proclivities for Romanism as he showed them in ‘Sibyl,’ no more disturbs us than the eccentricities of his politics. We do not quite give him our faith when he is most in earnest, talking Semitic Arianism on Mt. Sinai.  16
  A peerage was offered to him in 1868. He refused it for himself, but asked Queen Victoria to grant the honor to his wife, who became the Countess of Beaconsfield. But in 1876 he accepted the rank and title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The author of ‘Vivian Grey’ received the title that Burke had refused.  17
  His last novel, ‘Endymion,’ was written for the £10,000 its publishers paid for it. It adds nothing to his fame, but is an agreeable picture of fashionable London life and the struggles of a youth to gain power and place.  18
  Lord Beaconsfield put more dukes, earls, lords and ladies, more gold and jewels, more splendor and wealth into his books than any one else ever tried to do. But beside his Oriental delight in the display of luxury, it is interesting to see the effect of that Orientalism when he describes the people from whom he sprang. His rare tenderness and genuine respect are for those of the race “that is the aristocracy of nature, the purest race, the chosen people.” He sends all his heroes to Palestine for inspiration; wisdom dwells in her gates. Another aristocracy, that of talent, he recognizes and applauds. No dullard ever succeeds, no genius goes unrewarded.  19
  It is the part of the story-teller to make his story a probable one to the listener, no matter how impossible both character and situation. Mr. Disraeli was accredited with the faculty of persuading himself to believe or disbelieve whatever he liked; and did he possess the same power over his readers, these entertaining volumes would lift him to the highest rank the novelist attains. As it is, he does not quite succeed in creating an illusion, and we are conscious of two lobes in the author’s brain; in one sits a sentimentalist, in the other a mocking devil.  20
 
 
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