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Klaus Epstein

Klaus Epstein

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REVIEWS
Disraeli
and
Modern
Conservatism
KLAUS
EPSTEIN
Disraeli,
by Robert Blake,
New
York:
St.
Martin’s
Press,
1967.
xxiv
+
819
pp.
$12.50.
BLAKE’S
BIOGRAPHY
of Benjamin Disrae-li
is a
brilliant and
a
solid book which doesfull justice to
its
great subject. It succeedsin the diffidt task of weaving Disraeli’spersonal life, political achievement, andliterary activity into a remarkably well-integrated narrative; moreover, it fartranscends the task of mere biography inportraying this in many ways “un-Victo-rian Victorian” against the general back-ground of the Victorian age. The book in-corporates
all
the most recent scholarship-no mean achievement in a field whereimportant new publications appear almostevery month-but the author has also re-examined Disraeli’s papers used by pre-vious biographers; he has found that theyomitted discussion of some critical prob-
lems
and published important documentswith significant omissions which they con-sidered “embarrassing” to Disraeli’s mem-
ory.
Though Blake
is
basically sympatheticto Disraeli, he
is
free
of
any kind
of
squeamishness; above
all,
he breaks withthe “Tory Myth” which too long hero-wor-shipped Disraeli in a completely uncriticalmanner. Blake
is
not concerned with pro-moting the somewhat Protean legacy ofDisraeli, but only with discovering what hewas and what he did.
To
conventional Dis-raeli worshippers, his book will appearmore iconoclastic, to Disraeli detestersmore favorable than is really the case;Blake has simply applied ordinary, hard-headed common sense to a figure too longdistorted by friend and foe alike. The bestproof of his impartiality lies in hisvery balanced portrait
of
Disraeli’s greatfoe Gladstone.Though Blake has written a long bookthere are nonetheless several gaps and dis-proportions in his story. The account ofDisraeli’s ideas is inadequate since Blakerefuses
to
take them seriously;
so
impor-tant
a
study
of
Disraeli’s ideas as Proies-sor Graubard’s
The
Politics
of
Perse-
verance
is omitted from the bibliography.Blake’s emphasis upon Disraeli as
a
prac-tical politician no doubt
is
a
salutary cor-rective
to
those who have elevated him tothe role of
a
Tory philosopher, but likemost revisions it goes a bit too far.The book terminates too abruptly with
Dis-
raeli’s death in
1881,
a questionable stop-ping point in a statesman whose legacy-however variegated and manipulated bydifferent people for different ends-was
as
influential and controversial
as
anything hedid in his lifetime. Finally, Blake givesvery short shrift
to
the nineteen yearswhich Disraeli spent
as
Leader of the op-position in the House
of
Commons in theyears 1852-58, 1859-66, and 1868-74. Thereader learns
too
little about the difficultproblems which confronted Disraeli in thealmost equally embarrassing situationswhen the Opposition differed from the gov-
66
sinter
1967-68
 
ernment too little (when Palmerston wasPrime Minister in 1859-65) and whenit differed too much (during Gladstone’s“radical” ministry in 1868-74)
.
Relativeneglect of the years out
of
office also pre-vents any thorough analysis of the evolu-tion of Disraeli’s views on foreign policy-there
is
much too little information on Dis-raeli’s attitudes toward the Crimean Warof 1853-56, the Italian question in 1859,the American Civil War, the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of
18M,
and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In general it maybe said that Blake’s greatest strength lies inthe narration of the course of British do-mestic politiceindeed,
a
certain insular-ity is the only significant flaw of his book.
His
frequent introduction of illuminatingcomparisons
is
nearly always to Englishstatesmen and situations; he evidently findsforeign comparisons unhelpful in under-standing English ways, though-to giveonly one example-his intrinsically excel-lent analysis of the working of the Britishparliamentary system in the multi-party1850’s-with its Conservatives, Peelites,Liberals, Radicals, and Irish parties-could have benefitted by comparison withthe multi-party problems of France andGermany in later periods of their history.The discussion of foreign policy problemsis usually based almost exclusively on Eng-lish sources and does scant justice to Dis-raeli’s foreign antagonists.Such minor flaws and disproportions
do
not, however, significantly diminishBlake’s scholarly achievement.
His
book isby all odds the best biography of Disraeliever written. It provides much material foranswering the following key questions:how could a man like Disraeli, burdenedwith
so
many handicaps on the road to suc-cess, rise to the head of the British Con-servative Party and make
so
great an im-pact upon his age? What were his contri-butions
to
English history, and specifically
to
the
Conservative cause? And what lightdoes his career throw on the problems ofmodern conservatism?
Our
discussion willbe centered on these three problems.
I
OF
THE
numerous obstacles confrontingDisraeli on the road to success, some wereinherent in his circumstances but mostwere self-created by his personality andhis own avoidable follies. He could nothelp being born
a
Jew and encoun-tered much anti-Semitism in all stages ofhis career; fortunately his father’s decisionto have him baptized-when he was onlyfourteen before his pride could preventhim from rejecting
a
step
so
necessary tohis career-at least removed the legal barto his entry into parliament.
(As
a
re-ligious Jew he would have been excludeduntil 1858, obviously too late for him tohave risen to
the
front rank of politics.) Theanti-Semitism he provoked often had
a
spe-cial sharpness because it was a reaction tohis own aggressive and rather tiresomepride, whether in conversation or inhis novels; it
is
much to Disraeli’s creditthat he championed Jewish emancipationat all time-even in
1848
when he wasdesperately seeking respectability in theeyes
of
the Tory squirearchy
to
qualify forleadership in the Commons-and neverdisowned his fellow Jews in the manner ofmany assimilationists.Disraeli’s middle-class origins inevitablystamped him as
a
parvenu as he tried
to
force his way into aristocratic politics andsociety. Blake correctly points out that hisfamily background was “neither obscure,undistinguished, nor p00r”; his father was
a
conspicuous man of letters with
a
largeinherited fortune, lived
as
a
country squirein Buckinghamshire, and sent Benjamin’syounger brothers to Winchester. Nonethe-less, it was
a
breath-taking and seeminglyutopian ambition for
a
man of Disrae-li’s origins to aspire to a leading position inConservative politics. To pin-point the ob-stacles in his way, it should be rememberedthat even Sir Robert Peel, the son
of
a
prosperous manufacturer and
MP,
with
Eton and Christ Church in his background,encountered
a
good deal of social prejudiceamong traditional Tory families. Disraeli’s
Modem
Age
67
 
difticulties were not, however, limited to hisbeing
a
Jewish parvenu; they were com-pounded by the recklessness of his ear-ly life. Some stock-exchange speculationswhile still in his twenties saddled him withdebts for most of the rest
of
his life, debtsincreased by his habitual extravaganceand made manageable only by a prudentmarriage, a number of unforseeablewindfalls, and his great earnings as an au-thor while at the zenith of his political ca-reer. His connection with an ill-starrednewspaper enterprise,
The Representative,
in
1826
(when he was only
21)
antago.nized important people like John Murray,the publisher, and
J.
G.
Lockhart, the edi-tor .of the
Quarterly
Review.
His
char-acterization of these and others in his firstnovel,
Vivian
Grey
(1826)
gave Disraelithe reputation
Sf
an impertinent youngman who unscrupulously “used” all hisexperiences’’ irrespective of the hurt doneto the people he had come into contactwith. Generally speaking, all his novelsproved
a
liability, for they showed himcynical, flamboyant, and playful with ideas-this at a time when most Englishmen ex-pected their political leaders to be sincere,staid, and above all grave. Disraeli’s socialconduct also antagonized when it did notamuse the leaders of London society. Thescandal connected with his celebrated af-fair with Henrietta Sykes (wife of a pros-perous Berkshire baronet with
a
large townhouse in London) in
1833-36
took decadesto die down.
His
affected dandyism with itsgarish clothes and pompous speech madehim a favorite target for ridicule; it
is
notsurprising that Disraeli made an unfavor-able impression upon many important peo-ple, such as Sir Robert Peel (later hismain political foe) and Edward Stanley(later
as
Lord Derby his political chief fortwenty years). Disraeli’s only prominentpolitical patron was the somewhat disrep-utable ex-Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst, who,incidentally, appears to have shared Hen-rietta Sykes’ favors with Disraeli.
TO
all these handicaps must be added
(4
Disraeli’s well-deserved reputation for po-litical opportunism as he tried to enter par-liament between
1832
and
1837.
His
friends sought Whig support for him unsuc-cessfully in his first election, and he
is
sup
posed
to
have exclaimed: “The Whigshave cast me off, and they
shall
repent it.”Thereafter he oscillated between Toryismand Radicalism, depending upon whetherhe wooed a rural
or
an urban constituency,while calling for a National Party
to
over-come the petty bickering of parties. Disrae-li finally settled for Conservatism in
1837,
but this did not silence doubts concerninghis “sincerity.Disraeli’s close friend andally Lord John Manners wrote as late
as
1842:
“Could
I
only satisfy myself thatDisraeli believed all he said,
I
should bemore happy; his historical views are quitemine, but does he believe them?” The ab-surd nostalgia for the past set
forth
in
the
“Young England” novels of the
1840’s
andthe grotesque remedies proposed for mod-ern evils-an independent crown, public-spirited aristocracy, etc. made it difficultfor men to either take Disraeli seriously, orto believe him to be serious.It
is
a tribute to Disraeli’s remarkablequalities that he was able to overcome
all
these handicaps.
He
possessed above all ex-traordinary intellectual gifts, which showedboth in his oratory and in his pamphleteer-ing. He could generally charm peoplewhen he made the effort and alwaysaroused attention even when he did notevoke admiration. He was motivated by
a
driving ambition which Blake believes wasfueled by a deep “psychological wound’’going back to his school days when he felt“different” and was not “accepted” by hisschool fellows-perhaps because of a sim-ple matter like his “dark Jewish complex-ion”; at any rate he was determinedto
dominate
what he felt was an alien andhostile world. His wonderful persistencewas demonstrated by his continued effort toget into parliament even after four failures-he finally succeeded on his
fifth
try. Hewas undiscouraged when howled down dur-
68
Winter
1967-68

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