Marriage as an institution has a long and varied history. For centuries, its purpose was to allow families to consolidate land, create alliances, and produce heirs. Yet in the 19th century, marriage was transformed into a marker of morality. Romance and Christian virtue should be its foundation, the thinking went – and novelists like Austen, Brontë, and Dickens led the way in promoting this ideal, one that still prevails today. When the Clintons or John Kerry (or the fictional Alicia Florrick of "The Good Wife") are accused of politically motivated marriages, the implication is a moral lapse.
"Young Romantics" author and scholar Daisy Hay questions this paradigm in Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, through her portrait of the 33-year union of Mary Anne Lewis (née Evans) and the Victorian prime minister and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Exploring “what happens after the wedding, when the marriage plot is over,” she suggests their match was fueled by love as well as ambition – and that these qualities are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Disraeli and Mary Anne were both outsiders by birth. Her father was a sailor; Disraeli was Jewish at a time when that fact barred him from political office. Both would remake themselves to gain acceptance from the powerful British elites.
Mary Anne’s first opportunity came at 22 through marriage to the tradesman Wyndham Lewis, who won her hand despite the flurry of suitors around her. He was wealthy and she was practical, but she also proved a devoted wife. Disraeli’s initial transformation came at 13 when his father Isaac broke with the family’s synagogue, and Benjamin was baptized as an Anglican, opening the door for a political future.
Hay emphasizes these acts of re-invention, noting the way literature allowed each to imagine new pasts and prospects – Mary Anne through reading and Disraeli through writing. By closely examining their correspondence, Hay also traces the evolution and shifting power dynamics of their marriage.
Their wedding took place in 1839. She was 47. He was 35.
Disraeli brought to it unflagging political ambition and a mountain of debt, the latter of which he hid as long as possible. Yet he also showed great devotion to Mary Anne, even as their actual intimacy ebbed and flowed. Disraeli was committed to the Romantic ideal set by his hero Byron, and Hay suggests that though their courtship was strategic, it grew into a love-match because both needed to see themselves as romantic lovers.
Hay’s greatest contribution to the discourse around the Disraelis, however, is her rehabilitation of Mary Anne’s character, countering earlier biographies that belittle her, much as the filmmaker Jane Campion rehabilitated John Keats’s lover Fanny Brawne.
Hays begins each chapter with the story of a less fortunate woman, some “fallen” or otherwise unlucky in marriage, all with a connection to Mary Anne. This strategy proves remarkably effective in contextualizing her marriages, repeatedly reminding readers that getting married and staying married was no trivial matter for a 19th-century woman.
Some stories sound straight out of Austen: Five desperate cousins named Bennet, whose father mismanaged the family finances, visit Mary Anne for company and matchmaking. A childhood friend is ejected from the home where she bore 10 children and managed the estate, when her son inherits and liquidates it “to fund disreputable living.” Mary Anne herself had a profligate brother whom she supported throughout his Naval career, much to her first husband’s dismay.
By contrast, Disraeli’s sister and most intimate correspondent, Sarah, lived in solitude after the early death of her fiancé and, later, her parents. She is a kind of “Shakespeare’s sister” – a female counterpart who shared her brother’s intelligence, but lived in the shadows.
Mary Anne, then, is notable for her survivalist instincts – more Scarlett O’Hara than Elizabeth Bennet – and commitment to family and friends. She brought to her second marriage not just her fortune, but an unwavering devotion to Disraeli, a head for financial management (scrimping herself, while never asking him to) and a personality many found endearing, albeit eccentric. (Like Fanny Brawne, her fashion sense was also a bit outré.) She cultivated friendships that were helpful in promoting Disraeli’s career, but that also sustained them emotionally.
There is something touching about the Disraelis’ attachment in their later years and the widespread popularity they finally gained. In one anecdote, Disraeli referred to “gratitude” as the foundation of his marriage, suggesting emotional maturity, rather than a lukewarm attachment. Shared aspirations and mutual appreciation… not such a bad way to maintain a good marriage. Happy Valentine’s Day, Victorians.
Elizabeth Toohey is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College (CUNY) and a regular Monitor contributor.