Disraeli's novels are full of men with the swagger that he brought to politicsby Jesse Norman MP / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd & Edward Young (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)
WB Yeats once wrote that, “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work.” Benjamin Disraeli chose the former. For him as for few else the world was an epic movie, with himself in the starring role. Or rather, a novel. For as Douglas Hurd and Edward Young remind us in this highly absorbing biography, Disraeli’s novels are full of men such as he saw himself—mysterious, brilliant, destined for greatness—and he brought a novelist’s swagger and panache to the business of politics. The logic was inexorable: men of genius must succeed; he was one such; therefore it could only be a matter of time until he made it to the top of (his own words) the greasy pole.
It also nearly did for him. Disraeli’s early life was dogged by attempts to gain success without the tawdry business of actually having to earn it. An early attempt to set up a newspaper was a disaster which nearly bankrupted the publisher, John Murray. Another scheme, to pump up the value of overseas mining shares (then, as now, a byword for fraud), was a fiasco. By the mid-1830s Disraeli was in the equivalent of £2m worth of debt. Politics, and protection from debtor’s prison, was the only solution.
Hurd and Young ably chart Disraeli’s two lives—the reality and the fantasy. They show how this supreme egoist regularly cast principle aside, only to achieve grand political reform; how, far from inventing the ideas of “one nation” and “Tory democracy,” he in fact disdained them; and how his seducer’s flattery, wit and personal myth-making led to a political cult which persists to this day. It is a gripping read.