Disraeli's Path to Statesman

A PARADOX is something that seems to contradict itself, but can also be something that defies conventional expectations. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) - novelist, statesman, and dandy, an ambitious and charming womanizer who became a devoted husband and the favorite prime minister of Queen Victoria - was a paradox in both senses.

Disraeli's career defied Victorian expectations. At a time when Jews were excluded from Parliament and generally regarded with a mixture of hostility, fear, and contempt, it certainly seemed unlikely that a man born a Jew would become a leading Tory MP and eventually achieve his country's highest political office. Nor did Disraeli's comfortably middle class family possess the kind of fortune and social position that usually helped support a political career. Disraeli, indeed, did not even attend a university - although thanks to the influence of his father Isaac, an urbane and well-respected man of letters - Disraeli had a distinctly literary bent that flourished into a full-scale literary career alongside the political one.

Disraeli was baptized into the Anglican Church as a teenager. The legal prohibitions affecting Jews did not therefore apply to him. Yet the prejudices of his time were widespread, unabashed, and deeply ingrained, and Disraeli made no secret of his Jewish origins. Catcalls of ``Shylock'' and ``Old clo's'' routinely greeted his campaign speeches, although, as his latest biographer, Stanley Weintrub points out in ``Disraeli: A Biography,'' the young man's most glaring weaknesses were actually in the opposite direction: ``Dizzy's'' brightly colored, dandified clothes were anything but ``old,'' and far from being a moneylender, he was up to his ears in debt.

Even before he had embarked on his political career or his equally productive lifelong career as a novelist, the ambitious young man had pinned his hopes - and borrowed money - on capitalist dreams of riches to be made through investments in Latin American mining stocks. His gamble did not pay off.

Disraeli's marriage to Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, a well-off widow 12 years his senior, came about because he was looking for a secure financial base. Yet, as he frankly explained to her in the letters he wrote to woo her, her money, while an inducement, was not her main attraction. She was hardly the richest woman in his ambit. Dizzy, as Mary Anne liked to call him, was genuinely fond of this garrulous, silly, good-hearted woman, who offered him her support and adoration.

Weintraub's richly detailed account illustrates Disraeli's gradual - almost imperceptible - transformation from youthful adventurer to seasoned elder statesman. Disraeli first gained political attention speaking out on behalf of the more reactionary elements of the Tory party in condemning their leader, Prime Minister Robert Peel, for ending protectionist grain tariffs. Disraeli's point, oddly, was not that free trade was harmful, but that it was wrong for a Tory leader to change sides by embracing a Whig idea.

Twenty-one years later, however, Disraeli himself stole a march on the Liberals (as the Whigs were now known) with his 1867 Reform Bill doubling the number of enfranchised voters. He was also instrumental in securing public health measures to guarantee clean air, clean water, decent housing, and unadulterated food.

Disraeli became the leading exponent of ``Tory democracy.'' Although this did not mean that he consistently took what we might now call ``liberal'' positions or that he sympathized with the anti-authoritarian, pro-nationalist liberalism of the 19th century, it does represent his commitment to a vision of social justice. In one of the speeches quoted in this biography, Disraeli summed up the essence of his progressive conservatism: `` `...In a progressive country change is constant, and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.' ''

Fear of revolution's arbitrary destructiveness was clearly a motive behind progressive conservatism. But the eminently pragmatic Disraeli was also moved by a more generous compassion for the poor and the oppressed. In one of his most famous novels, ``Sybil, or The Two Nations'' (1845), he gave eloquent expression to the hardships suffered by the laboring classes. And, unlike his rival William Ewart Gladstone, he never sided with the slave-owning South in the American Civil War.

When it came to the Balkans (a problem then as now), Disraeli's sense of geopolitics, which entailed supporting the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian imperialism, overruled any sense of compassion for the sufferings of Balkan nationalists vicitmized by their Ottoman overlords. His enemies saw his pro-Turkish policy as a sort of Muslim-Jewish conspiracy. But Queen Victoria shared his anxieties about the menace of Russian imperialism.

Disraeli's flair for self-display, as Weintraub notes, makes him something of an intermediary link between Byron (whom he admired) and Oscar Wilde (who admired him). Weintraub's well-researched biography is nicely written - even epigrammatic at times - although lacking in narrative drive. Drawing on a wealth of fascinating material, Weintraub pieces together a mosaic of quotations from Disraeli and his contemporaries that leaves almost no side of his character or his politics unilluminated.

Disraeli's novels (well over a dozen) are discussed in detail: although written in a style that no longer would appeal to many modern readers, these books were bestsellers in their day, and testify to the broad sympathies and keen intelligence of their author.

But despite Weintraub's full coverage of this life, it may still require a leap of the reader's imagination to set this brilliant assemblage of still-shots into motion: to recover the dynamism that transformed the paradox into a paradigm.

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