Time on to-read: About a year
Reason for not reading: Nothin’ but time! I was waiting for a sustained period of concentration to be available to me.
Reason for finally picking up: Stories like this are few and far between, both for documentation and historical-reputation-protecting reasons. I want to encourage them. Also I appreciate Daisy Hay.
Verdict: Excellent, better than her first book. Thought-provoking, well-researched, confidently written, a complicated picture of both her protagonists.
This is not the first time that I’ve read Daisy Hay, nor is it the first time I’ve read about Disraeli. Both of those experiences made me want to read more, so this was a pretty fortunate confluence of book events for me- very grateful that Hay’s research lead her to this topic. This book is a natural outgrowth of her previous work in Young Romantics. In that one, she looked at the Byron-Shelley generation and attempted to break down the stereotype of the loner, misunderstood genius flourishing in isolation in favor of emphasizing how none of these people would ever have become who they were without their repeated encounters with each other.
So it is fitting that her next book continues to insist upon the importance of relationships and connections in the lives of Great Men. This time, it is not Byron we focus on, but one of his most ardent disciples: Benjamin Disraeli. While many connections are covered, Mr. and Mrs. Disraelispecifically focuses on the connection that changed Disraeli’s life- that with his wife, Mary Anne. In this book, Hay does not even have to make an argument that this connection is important- it is proven and accepted by history. No, here the task is much harder and more delicate: to complicate and question the very popular Victorian love story of this couple, a story in which both participants, and eventually the wider public (including the Queen) were heavily invested.
Before he met Mary Anne, Benjamin Disraeli was a dreamer of a young man, the son of the writer Isaac D’Israeli, and a bit of a feckless waste of space for the first twenty-four years of his life. He had an unsurprisingly anti-Semitic experience at school* and never went to university**, and seemed to mostly prefer bumming around obsessing about Byron much of the time. He eventually tried his hand at writing popular “silver fork” novels (read: chick lit/aspirational fantasy) of the 1830s and got laughed out of town on his first few attempts (actually the first time literally out of the country- he fled to Europe to do a Byronic Grand Tour to escape his humiliation). He had some successive novels that did moderately well when his ego recovered a few years later, and his assumption of leadership of the “Young England” group of writers made his reputation grow a bit (this group was, as far as I can make out, sort of vaguely for reform, but mostly about giving people heroes and arguing that writers would make amazing statesmen). However, his attempts to parley this into political success were similarly at first unsuccessful. By his mid-thirties he was also deeply in debt to the tune of thousands of pounds and perhaps about to be thrown into jail by his creditors- that this didn’t happen is only thanks to his first electoral win, in which Parliamentary privilege prevented him from being prosecuted. Which is how he met Mary Anne.
When she met Disraeli, Mary Anne was Mary Anne Lewis, a poor sailor’s daughter who had had had the good fortune to become the wife of Wyndham Lewis, a wealthy businessman and eventual Conservative MP. Mary Anne was a popular local public figure, who, in lieu of the children she never had, devoted much of her life to hostessing, socializing, and political campaigning. Her popularity and tireless work was undeniably a large factor in getting her seemingly rather taciturn and unimpressive husband elected (in his career in Parliament, Lewis rose to speak only eight times). She also had a long career as a flirt behind her, with many cisibeos and hopeful lovers still clustering around her, even in her mid-forties- Mary Anne loved to be adored, and at times walked the line of reputation-ruining gossip to get what she wanted. Disraeli entered the picture when Lewis’ district became so strongly Conservative that the party wanted to put up a second candidate- Disraeli had been on the short list of go-to possible candidates for years, and this time Lewis could put up the money to support him***. Mary Anne campaigned for both him and her husband, and they grew close during the process. Wyndham died not long after, leaving his very wealthy widow (and unusually independently so, by the way) for the taking, and Disraeli as her husband’s best-placed natural successor.
As Hay points out, it would be easy to tell the cynical story that must be positively leaping into your mind right now: Disraeli swooped in on the much older wealthy widow and lied his bad-poem-writing pants off to get her money, and Mary Anne jumped at maybe her last chance to be a pretty princess at a vulnerable moment in her life with a rising star in politics. And that’s exactly what some snotty people in Disraeli’s most successful years did think- and sometimes actually had the balls to say- when they met his wife, who many of them at first considered vulgar, overdressed, frivolous, and not smart enough for Disraeli.
But you know what’s incredible? Nobody did think that by the end. Absolutely nobody at all. In fact, the Disraelis became celebrated for their marriage, and by the time Mary Anne began experiencing her last illnesses at the end of her life, and when she finally died, there was national mourning for her, and for their great love story. Over the course of their thirty years of marriage, their family, their friends, Disraeli’s colleagues and the public came to know their relationship as a true, chivalrous, old-fashioned romance, thoroughly devoted, a true partnership. And you know who believed in it the most, after all, in the end? Mary Anne and Dizzy themselves. Which for me is the most remarkable part of the whole thing. ****
This is the real thread of Hay’s argument: illuminating how this couple created a fiction in which they both came to believe. The Disraelis spun a romance out of some very unromantic circumstances, built with the stories that they wanted for themselves and by covering over all the things that were perhaps really true again and again. And then they made it happen. It really worked.
It was fascinating. From the beginning of their courtship, you can see the importance of their stories to them. They tacitly (never openly, of course), feel each other out and figuring out what story the other will find acceptable in order to make what they want to happen happen. But the cynical story tempted them, too- Disraeli really needed her money to stave off his creditors and tried to rush her into marriage- with ardor being the excuse, of course, and pushed too hard. Mary Anne didn’t want to be rushed into remarriage, was kind of enjoying the attention old admirers were giving her as a wealthy widow. But when she confronted him with this story openly and caused a huge dramatic storming-out-of-the-house fight, Disraeli pushed back wildly, indignantly and at length. For the only time, he addressed that narrative about his motives openly, basically saying that yeah, he initially was interested in her money, but it wasn’t as much as he thought in the first place, and he still loved and adored her, SO THERE. He was ready to give her up rather than be the fortune hunter in the marriage, no matter how desperate he was:
Now for your fortune: I write the sheer truth. That fortune proved to be much less than I, or the world, imagined. It was, in fact, as far as I was concerned, a fortune which could not benefit me to the slightest degree, merely a jointure…Was this an inducement for me to sacrifice my sweet liberty, and that indefinite future, which is one of the charms of existence? No; when months ago I told you one day, that there was only one link between us, I felt that my heart was inextricably engaged to you, and but for that I would have terminated our acquaintance. From that moment I devoted to you all the passion of my being…
…dramatic declarations of parting follow, I need hardly tell you. He wanted to be thought the ideal lover or nothing. Mary Anne decided she’d rather have the white knight too, no matter what the reality was. And there it was, the deal that lasted a lifetime. From that point on, neither of them backed away from that story, no matter what came up. This story lasted through Disraeli’s continual lies about debts (and when Mary Anne discovered them), through separation and Disraeli’s rise in prominence and power. It lasted through Mary Anne’s aging much earlier than he did, through his deep and sometimes even stronger confiding relationship with his sister, through her occasional failures to impress where he would have liked her to, through his years of opposition, through possible affairs with handsome young men***** and through family troubles on both sides.
Sometimes this fiction was best maintained at a distance. Sometimes they spent many silent evenings in seperate rooms so as not to endanger their script. Sometimes it threatened to become a necessary rather than voluntary one, since Disraeli had long since turned the story of their devoted marriage into one of his greatest public assets (much like the Queen and Albert did, and much as many politicians did after him, as Hay points out). But the farthest Disraeli would go towards hinting at these imperfections would be to write coded messages in his yearly birthday poems to her, hoping for reconciliation, or in the absence of any poetry to her at all (which, considering the quality of some of it, some of us may think was actually a real sign of love). And he never broke loyalty to her publicly, not once in nearly thirty years.******
And in the end, after twenty years, it was real. They got old, and the last five years of their marriage was everything they pretended it was for years before that, everything Mary Anne had ever wanted and only sometimes got, and everything Disraeli wanted to be and only sometimes had the focus and time and good sense to perform. When offered a peerage around this time, Disraeli asked that it go to his wife instead, so she proudly became Viscountess Beaconsfield, able to look down her nose at her detractors at last. Disraeli also would write her, for the first time since their courtship (and probably much more genuinely), just because he missed her. Once, when they were both ill, they wrote back and forth to each other in their sickbeds on separate floors because they were too ill to be moved- Disraeli had become ill in the first place by sitting up at his wife’s beside, by the way. And his last note to her, in the midst of her final illness, is quietly moving in its revelation of how truly he had become attached to her:
My dearest darling,
I have nothing to tell you, except that I love you, which I fear that you will think rather dull…Natty was very affectionate about you and wanted me to come home and dine with him; quite alone; but I told him that you were the only person now whom I could dine with and only relinquished you tonight for my country.
My country, I fear, will be very late; but I hope to find you in a sweet sleep.
Your own, D.
Despite everything ranged against her, her age, her class, her personality, her preferences, her money, Mary Anne made herself beloved, both of Disraeli and the country. In one of her last final illnesses, there were bulletins in the newspapers reporting on the state of her health and vigils outside her front door, like scenes out of Evita or the pictures after Princess Diana died. The Queen had come to admire her, and the country went into virtual national mourning when she eventually died. But Disraeli refused a grand funeral, refused display and attention. For one of the few times in his life, he chose obscurity- something he chose again when he himself died. He could have been buried in Westminster with a public funeral and celebrity, and he chose a grave in the country next to Mary Anne.********
As you can probably tell, I loved this. It touched me. Despite Hay revealing the cracks in this marriage- no, actually because of that. That’s why I loved it. Ultimately, and much less dramatically, this is as revealing a portrait of marriage as Madame Bovary was for me, perhaps even more so in its way. Lucidly, Hay shows how most marriages are stories that the participants choose to believe in, no matter what evidence is arrayed against them. They are idealistic stories that are never, never what they seem or what the participants want them to be- at least not for more than fleeting moments, just enough to keep the dream alive. Marriages end when people opt out of these stories, don’t live up to their end of the tale, or want a different story in the end after all. But if both people choose to believe hard enough in the story, if both people keep choosing to try to be the people they agreed they would be and act up to it enough times- well, that may truly be the last utopia.
*Disraeli’s grandfather seems to have been the last practicing Jewish member of the family- his father broke with the synagogue over an argument and had Benjamin baptised as an Anglican at the age of 13- which is lucky since Jews were prevented from holding public office until the mid 1850s. Disraeli’s career would not have been possible without this happening. There’s a fascinating little story later in the book about how Louis Rothschild was elected to the House of Commons around that time and then provoked a crisis by refusing to swear his oath on the New Testament, which then caused the reform to be passed.
**(Something he was bitter about for the rest of his life- mostly because of the lost potential connections and status implications- it certainly didn’t help that his younger brothers were sent to upper class schools where they learned all the class mannerisms that Disraeli had to try desperately to figure out from the outside- it gives his idolization of Byron a whole other spin when you think about it in terms of class, actually.)
***Oh man, the stories about how much money it cost to bribe people to vote for you were pretty incredible, actually. It makes being in Parliament sound like the sort of expensive status symbol that, I dunno, Apple Watches and Ferraris are now. Sort of your sign you could afford to flush enormous amounts of money down the drain and still keep your wife in diamonds, you know?
****Is there a more humanizing, bring-you-down-to-earth nickname that a Great Man could have than “Dizzy”? I submit to you there is not.
*****Never proven, but there are some racy letters that make me believe something was going down at least on Disraeli’s side, even if it wasn’t physical. Hay reminds us that dudes were much more comfortable expressing love for each other at this time, and Platonic friendships were a thing in this Greek and Roman worshiping age, but man, even so. I put money on some unexplored same sex attraction- that or its the most desperate need to be looked up to as an authoritative daddy figure I’ve ever seen.
******He was famous for it. There’s several stories about it, but the one I remember is about how the Countess of Derby was rude to Mary Anne at a dinner party at her home, after Disraeli had been angling for an invite to that house for years. Mary Anne was hurt, and Disraeli politely, but firmly, refused to ever set foot in that house again, no matter how useful it would have been to him politically. This struck me because Disraeli was all about power and advancement and getting into the highest circles, and he was willing to give up one of his first breaks in that wall for her.
*******Even though after she died, he became attached to another woman a few years later and contemplated marrying again (her sister, she was already married) to be near her. He was also famous for his courtly relationship with the Queen- she knew he was buttering her up, and ate it up. Another woman who chose to believe in the best of Disraeli. Despite all of this, he still chose Mary Anne in the end. As he always, always did.