There are many Disraeli books around at the moment. Last year I read Douglas Hurd and Edward Young’s. The Lion and the Unicorn by Richard Aldous is also on my radar, as is Dick Leonard’s more recent book on the same topic: the political rivalry between Dizzy and Gladstone. Daisy Hay’s is the most recent of them all, and one I was particularly looking forward to.
I have a keen interest in Disraeli matters. For many years I have lived on theedge (albeit sadly outside) of his Hughenden estate. These days it is basically part of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, but it is easy to imagine a time when it stood apart on its hill overlooking the Hughenden valley and the distant church tower in Wycombe town centre. Get the right view from one of the many public footpaths around and about, and you are instantly transported back to the middle of the nineteenth century, with trees and hills blocking out all the recent growth of the town.
Daisy Hay’s book is unique in considering in depth the relationship between Dizzy and his historically underrated wife. Mary Anne Evans - no, not George Eliot, who was Mary Ann Evans - had been married and widowed once before, and had always been involved in London politics with her first husband. A dozen years older than Benjamin Disraeli, their marriage is famous for being one of convenience. Following that entirely coincidental George Eliot comparison would likely be a fruitful journey, but not one for today.
In his younger days, Disraeli made his name as a novelist, following in father Isaac’s footsteps as a professional writer. But he was a touch too imaginative, and he became involved in a few too many bizarre investments that ruined him and some of his friends. Most strikingly, he brought some financial suffering to the famous publisher, John Murray (Junior or II, not the original one) after a ridiculous newspaper venture that was doomed from the off.
But Daisy Hay’s book gets as quickly as possible to the relationship and later marriage between Benjamin and Mary Anne. He desperately needed her money, and she needed a husband who could keep her involved in politics. Mary Anne was unable to have children, and Benjamin showed little sign of wanting to start a family. But what happened next is perhaps what attracted Hay to her topic: the blossoming of an unexpected and now-famous romance between Dizzy and his older wife. With her at his side, he became not only Prime Minister, but a close confidant of Queen Victoria herself. He received the largest ever advance from a publisher for his final, semi-autobiographical novel. These two facts perhaps explain the fascination with Disraeli to this day. And one more titbit: Dizzy gave us ‘Two Nation Toryism’ which through an unlikely set of misinterpretations and circumstance ended up being remembered as ‘One Nation Toryism’, a philosophy which has in only the last few weeks been exhumed by our current Prime Minister. Yes, Benjamin Disraeli, the novelist and dandy, become one of the most celebrated Tories of them all.
What is most striking to me in this reading of the story is just how bad Disraeli’s debts were. Recalculated in today’s money, they rose to around a million pounds, which he certainly could not pay. Even Mary Anne’s money could only pay the interest, and only in later life did he manage to resurface financially, thanks to benefactors. For most of his life, Hughenden Manor, his famous country house, was effectively rented.
And surely that is one mark of a truly great biography, as this one is. There is something for everyone. I’m interested in the story because I’m interested in the house and local area. Others will be pulled in by the ‘strange romance’ of the subtitle. Others will come for politics, and others will be following an impressive literary career, which was in many ways the family business. Disraeli always saw that politics was theatre, and even more so in his day than now. But so did Mary Anne, and it is telling that she was made a Viscountess ‘in her own right’, years before Benjamin received his peerage. It was his idea, one decades if not a century ahead of its time, and it is a mark of the fascination in which society held this couple that everyone publicly and privately supported her honour.