The Romantic Prime Minister: Disraeli

YOUNG DISRAELI, 1804-1846

By Jane Ridley

Crown

406 pp., $35

The man who would eventually become Queen Victoria's favorite prime minister was in many ways a distinctly un-Victorian figure. Neither hard-working, nor sober, nor honest, nor chaste, nor imbued with the moral earnestness that was a hallmark of so many other great Victorians, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was a dandy, a womanizer, a financial speculator, and a political Machiavellian who often seemed more intent on advancing himself than adhering to political principles.

Disraeli's rise to power was as phenomenal as it was unlikely. He was an outsider: a Jew by birth with no family fortune, no university education. As a young man, he spent his time making rash financial speculations (that resulted in bankruptcy), writing novels, dressing in colorful clothes, and romancing the influential wives of prominent men. He first ran for Parliament (unsuccessfully) as a Radical, but finally was elected as a Tory in 1837.

Two years later, he married Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, 12 years his senior and the widow of a man who had been his political patron. Although both newlyweds had ulterior motives - political ambitions - they proved to be a devoted couple.

Not much favored by the Tories' leader, Sir Robert Peel, Disraeli attained political prominence when he spearheaded Tory opposition to Peel. Peel had repealed the protective tariffs on grain known as the Corn Laws. Disraeli's attack focused less on the issue of tariffs versus free trade than on the impropriety of a prime minister going back on his word.

Jane Ridley's ''Young Disraeli'' follows this brilliant and charismatic politician to just this crucial point in his career. (Presumably, her next volume will take up where this one has left off.)

Ridley views Disraeli as a quintessentially Romantic figure cutting his Byronic swath across the duller, more prosaic age of Queen Victoria.

Examining his childhood and early background, Ridley is struck by the paucity of references Disraeli ever made to his mother, in contrast to the many tributes he offered to his beloved father Isaac, who, despite great prejudice, managed to become a widely-respected man of letters. Isaac Disraeli admired Byron - who, in turn, admired him. It was Isaac's firm belief in his son's genius that gave young Benjamin the inner confidence to embark on a career filled with risk, Ridley feels, and this belief in the prerogatives of ''genius'' was linked to the model of Byron.

The young Benjamin Disraeli set out to be a novelist before he entered politics, and he continued to write novels throughout his long political career. His 1845 novel ''Sybil'' coined the memorable phrase ''the two nations'' to summon up the terrible gap that had opened up between rich and poor - and the need for rulers and governments to take responsibility for improving the lives of the governed.

Disraeli's vision of ''Tory democracy'' committed his party to an ambitious program of progressive legislation serving the cause of social justice. Intelligently managed reform, he believed, circumvented the dangers of mass movements and revolutions. (President Richard Nixon was fond of declaring Robert Blake's 1966 biography of Disraeli his favorite reading matter.)

Ridley, chairman of the history department at the University of Buckingham in England, counts herself the beneficiary of the vast trove of letters recently made available by the Disraeli Project of Queen's University at Kingston. She provides an insightful, and sharply-focused history of her subject's early years, a period filled with scandal, intrigue, romance, and travel.

Ridley is particularly concerned with finding some pattern or consistency underlying Disraeli's seemingly self-contradictory stances. Her Disraeli is no mere opportunist nor even a confused thinker switching ideological allegiance as whim or situation might decree, but an original political thinker: ''a true Romantic,'' who ''consistently stressed the role of imagination.''

Occasionally, one feels the biographer may be overworking a rather vaguely defined idea of Romanticism to paper over too many of Disraeli's inconsistencies.

Yet, clearly, there was something more inspired than political expediency, something larger than ambition, that drove this daring young man to become one of the greatest and ablest statesmen of his century.

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