Disraeli at rest: The idea of a prime minister who is also a popular novelist would be pretty hard to imagine today. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Disraeli: or the Two Lives
Douglas Hurd and Edward Young
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, £20
If ever a politician exemplified the precedence of personality above policy, it was Benjamin Disraeli. He may be remembered as the founder of One Nation Toryism (a phrase he never used) and the imperialist who made Queen Victoria Empress of India, but the rest of his political beliefs have been obscured by the vividness of his character.
As a novelist, dandy and orator he makes his great opponent, William Gladstone, seem dully one-dimensional. Admittedly, few people read his novels today but the idea of a prime minister producing 18 popular works of fiction seems, in this narrowminded age, nothing less than extraordinary.
The aim of Douglas Hurd and his established writing partner Edward Young is to separate the public and private strands of Disraeli’s career into a pair of brief lives in order to see how he made it to “the top of the greasy pole”. The phrase is, of course, one of Disraeli’s innumerable quips: indeed he has 88 entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations while his nearest challenger in terms of cultural roundedness, Winston Churchill, has just over 50. This verbal sprezzatura, as the authors point out, was one of the cornerstones of his character – a Boris Johnson but with substance.
Disraeli stated his political position early when he first stood for parliament as a radical in 1832: “Toryism is worn out & I cannot condescend to be a Whig.” So he helped mould a new Conservative Party – and led it twice to government as prime minister – when the Peelites split in the wake of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. It was helpful that he possessed a valuable attribute: he was “almost immune to slights on his personal honour”. Hurd and Young track the complexities of his career deftly while pointing out that although his governments did much to help the working class, Disraeli himself was no democrat.
They are perhaps more interesting, though, on his personality, one that sought “emotional support and political encouragement” rather than love or intellectual equality. Theirs is a concise but balanced assessement, full of bracing comment, on a man who “was always less interested in other people than he was in himself”.
Michael Prodger is former literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph