Dizzy the dandy
The Politics of Pleasure: a portrait of Benjamin Disraeli
William Kuhn Free P
What it takes to be a True Blue these days may be getting less certain by the hour, but there is one thing on which we can depend: Tories are the best storytellers. While the left gives us Dad Rock, on the right we have the latest Ann Widdecombe vying for shelf space alongside Jeffrey Archer, Edwina Curry, Iain Duncan Smith, Douglas Hurd and Nigel West (pseudonym of Rupert Allason). Hell, even Boris Johnson has written a novel, while in the US Caspar Weinberger and Oliver North have both put pen to paper, and Lynn Cheney, the vice-president's wife, has turned out at least three books. In terms of paperback sales the Conservatives have long been winning the culture wars, which makes the disappearance from the bookshops of Benjamin Disraeli, godfather of the Tory novel and doyen of the Silver Fork school, all the sadder.
Disraeli the novelist as opposed to Disraeli the prime minister - or, rather, "how Disraeli the writer contributed to the success of Disraeli the politician" - is the subject of William Kuhn's The Politics of Pleasure. Kuhn looks at the life of the sphinx-like politician who nobody knew - he was apparently "one of the greatest liars in British history" - through the 12 novels that once everybody knew. Kuhn sees his subject as being like Dorian Gray: it is through his art that his soul was revealed. Disraeli stuffed his stories with sexual ambivalence, and the title of Oscar Wilde's novel is clearly a tribute to Disraeli's effeminate Vivian Grey, which leads to Kuhn's next concern: Disraeli the Dandy. His sartorial sense (purple velvet and rings over white gloves) was more Prince Regent than Beau Brummel; the Beau remarked that if John Bull turned round to look at you, then you were not well dressed, and seas would part when Disraeli shimmered and sparkled his way into a room.
With his buckles and bows and perfect coiffeur, Disraeli was certainly a prototype metrosexual. But was he gay? Kuhn reminds us that the words gay and homosexual had not taken on the meaning then that they have today, but it says something that a camp, middle-class Jew who had not been to university enjoyed two terms of premiership. "Not only must this finish off once and for all the notion that the Victorians were sexually repressed and repressive," Kuhn argues, "it also makes them seem more silent though no less savvy about sexual variety than we are." Fair point: we might have introduced gay marriage, but we are still tittering about the sexuality of Michael Portillo, Disraeli's true descendent.
Kuhn's other concern - as reflected in the book's title - is with the place of pleasure in Disraeli's life, which is opposed to his driving ambition (he worked slavishly hard) and tied to his pose of sensuality and hedonistic high camp. Parties and performance were what he did best, in life and in literature; even making a parliamentary speech was an opportunity to parade. A Wildean avant la lettre, Disraeli found his depth in superficiality: dressing up, dining out and light conversation were the issues closest to his heart. City life was his métier; country people, he found, "got grey and stout and coarse - and stooped and poked", while no one at a political party would think to talk politics.
Kuhn likens his hero to the brilliant, slippery Alcibiades, but Disraeli appears more game-show host than Athenian, mincing around in the manner of Graham Norton, swishing his curls like Russell Brand, ready to camp-it-up at any opportunity. Not having anything traffic- stopping in which to appear, he fretted about attending Queen Victoria's coronation; Disraeli loved nothing better than a queen, and one of the pleasures of politics was the opportunity to meet a real one.
The Politics of Pleasure is jolly and light in precisely the way Disraeli would approve. It swerves away from too much analysis and never stays in the grumps for long; "it is impossible to argue with a depression", Kuhn says, by way of dealing with Disraeli's breakdown in the summer of 1826. The majority of readers will not be familiar with the novels - a ticklish problem Kuhn compensates for with chapter after chapter given over to plot synopses, which necessarily lack Disraeli's shine. For those who do know the works, Kuhn (a historian rather than a literary critic) might seem a somewhat crude and one-dimensional reader. He tends to yoke together the life and literature in the style of 2+2 = 4: Disraeli's hero liked a good feast and Disraeli did, too. Subtlety of style and language is given second place to story and character, and literature and autobiography are not distinguished.
But if The Politics of Pleasure can at least succeed in bringing Disraeli's novels back into print, we will have the opportunity to judge for ourselves.
Frances Wilson is the author of "The Courtesan's Revenge: the life of Harriette Wilson, the woman who blackmailed the king" (Faber & Faber)