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The Elusive Englishman

Benjamin Disraeli, Adam Kirsch, Schocken, 288 pages

Jewish characters have often had a difficult time of it in English novels. The most notorious instance is probably Fagin, whom Dickens later publicly regretted having created. Trollope made something of a specialty out of painting Jews in an unflattering light: in The Prime Minister, Felix Lopez, a Portuguese foreigner, is an avaricious speculator who spurns the old-fashioned English habit of making money slowly and carefully, thereby ensuring his own demise. In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh depicts the esurient Anthony Blanche, modeled on Harold Acton and Brian Howard, as a mysterious creature, who, we are informed, carries with him the burden of the Wandering Jew. More tersely, Kingsley Amis dispatches young Irving Macher as a “Hebrew jackanapes” in One Fat Englishman.

If the Jew as outsider has a long pedigree, there also exists a compensatory tradition. In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot sketched out the case for a Zionist homeland. Her Jewish characters are so noble that Lionel Trilling felt they risked becoming exemplary Jews. Perhaps the most peculiar and portentous novels featuring a Jewish hero, however, were written by England’s future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Adam Kirsch takes a fresh look at the man who successfully penetrated one of the most hidebound, aristocratic societies in Europe. Kirsch sets Disraeli firmly in the context of his Jewish heritage. How Disraeli would have felt about being posthumously reconverted is an interesting question, but Kirsch makes a compelling and discerning case that Disraeli, far more than most historians have acknowledged, was profoundly shaped by his ancestry. Indeed, Kirsch notes that Disraeli tried to turn the table on his adversaries. He did not attempt to disguise his Jewish background. He embellished it.

It was a shrewd move. Disraeli could never have escaped his ancestry, even if he had wanted to. Thomas Carlyle called him a “superlative Hebrew conjuror.” Others called him, in parliament, a “Jew adventurer.” When he stood on the electoral stump, troublemakers would try to disrupt his speeches by shouting, “Shylock!” Daniel O’Connell trumped them all in the objurgation department by likening him to “the impenitent thief on the Cross, and I verily believe, if Mr. Disraeli’s family herald were to be examined and his genealogy traced, the same personage would be discovered to be the heir at law of the exalted individual to whom I allude.”

To combat such slurs, Disraeli developed, in a succession of novels minutely scrutinized by Kirsch, a racial theory of Jewish aristocratic pride, not totally dissimilar, if you think about it, to the invention of Black Athena by Martin Bernal and other votaries of a black history that alleges Greek civilization was an African knock-off.

In Disraeli’s suppositious personal history, he made out that his family could trace its origins back to the ancient world. The Disraelis, he said, belonged to a race of Iberian Jewish squires more distinguished, because older, even than the Norman barons. They had their own family crest. They were, in short, nobility. So was Disraeli. This meant that he, no less than the English grandees, was fit to exercise power in England. Racial pride, however, did not mean that he was precluded from accepting Christianity as his faith. Quite the contrary.  Disraeli declared, “I look upon the Church as the only Jewish institution that remains, and, irrespective of its being the depository of divine truth, must ever cling to it as the visible means which embalms the race.” All of this was essential in constructing the foundation of his success, for Disraeli had, as Kirsch observes, a number of other handicaps.

There was his education, for one. He went to a school for commoners called Higham Hall, where he received middling, not exceptional, tuition. Kirsch observes, “as an adult, he was touchy about his limited knowledge of Greek, that badge of a gentleman’s education.” Nor did he attend Oxford or Cambridge. The greasy pole could not have looked greasier to Disraeli. After all, Gladstone, his great rival, attended Eton, Christ Church, and entered Parliament in 1832. He was 22 years old. Disraeli, by contrast, spent several years articled to a law firm, where he trained to become an attorney.

Disraeli was, however, irrepressible. As a socially ambitious Jew, he recognized that it was better to be in debt, like many aristocrats, than to be modest and frugal. He became a preening young swell—a contemporary described him as “very showily attired in a dark bottle-green frock-coat, the front of which was almost covered with glittering chains, and in fancy-pattern pantaloons.” At the same time, Disraeli conducted a series of affairs with older, wealthy women who might help his career and who provided the essential matronly reassurance that he solicited all his life. As Kirsch astutely notes, he later recapitulated these earlier experiences with Queen Victoria, seasoning his daily correspondence to her with equal amounts of shameless flattery and keen observations about political events.

But all that lay in the future. Disraeli’s first bid for fame wasn’t as a politician but as a novelist. Vivian Grey was a sensation as soon as it appeared in the spring of 1826. Vivian, who will sacrifice anything to make his mark, hires out his talents to the aristocracy. The plot adumbrated Disraeli’s own career, selling out his intelligence to what John Stuart Mill called “the stupid party.” But Disraeli would have it no other way. According to Kirsch, “His lifestyle, his novels, his politics, and his thinking about Judaism can all be understood as gambits to convince the world, and himself, that the aristocracy was where he belonged.” Yet it never took completely. Kirsch again: “This is the tragic element in Disraeli’s career: even at the height of his power, even among his closest allies, he remained an outsider. And it was his Jewishness, that irreducible otherness, that made it impossible for him to close the gap.”

On the theory that creating a narrative of Jewish power would make him seem indispensable, Disraeli produced a stream of novels expanding on the idea of the Jews as the chosen people. In Alroy, he mooted the possibility of a Jewish national homeland, only to put aside such dreams. He realized that becoming the next Messiah was incompatible with becoming prime minister.

Disraeli really only hit his stride as a novelist, though, with Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred. In this “Young England” trilogy, he outlined his agenda of radical change to be effected conservatively, a political program that permitted him to reinvent himself as the representative not only of the wealthy and the working class but of the Tory Party, too. Disraeli’s target was the Tory leader Robert Peel, whom he depicted as feckless trimmer, a Tory in name only who espoused Whiggish principles. This was a canard. Peel was a boulder in Disraeli’s path and had to be dislodged. After Peel—sensibly—reversed field on the Corn Law duties, Disraeli went on the attack. Peel, he said, was “a burglar of others’ intellect” and guilty of “petty political larceny.” Peel resigned. Lord Ponsonby wrote to Disraeli that he had “crucified” Peel.

The Jewish charge, then, never stopped hovering over Disraeli. Kirsch believes that he inadvertently helped give it renewed life with his character Sidonia, an all-powerful Jew who works behind the scenes in finance and politics. According to Kirsch, “after a century and a half of Jewish history that Disraeli could never have foreseen, Sidonia looks like nothing so much as an anti-Semitic hate figure. It is amazing, in fact, how Disraeli manages to combine in this one character every malicious slander and paranoid fear that the anti-Semitic imagination can breed.”

This is well put. But is it really true that Disraeli was defined by his Jewishness to the extent that Kirsch suggests? Two objections raise themselves. First, Disraeli did enjoy close relations with Queen Victoria. In this instance, he did succeed in closing the gap, though his intimate ties with her further aroused the exasperation of his enemies, who continued to view him as a conniving Jew who had suborned the Queen herself. Indeed, the most common accusation was that Disraeli was, at bottom, not a true Englishman. Rather, he was a foreigner, plotting to entangle England in wars that were antithetical to national interests—the very charge that today is lodged against the neoconservatives.

The true problem with Kirsch’s thesis is Disraeli himself. As Kirsch reminds us, Disraeli had an elastic sense of the politically possible. Expediency was his great credo. He was, you might say, the great communicator of the 19th century, capable of holding the House of Commons spellbound for hours. But given his dexterity, how deeply held were any of his beliefs? Was he really, at bottom, deeply influenced by his ancestry, or was it simply part of the charade?

There is no way that Kirsch can provide a definitive answer. But he displays a very deft touch indeed in exploring Disraeli’s psychology and the tenacity with which he tried to convert—the word is not too strong—himself into an Englishman. Disraeli’s desire to become a part of the aristocracy was so powerful that he attempted, as far as possible, to impersonate a country gentleman. He dressed in a velveteen coat, leather leggings, soft felt hat, and carried a little hatchet on his Hughenden estate. Nothing delighted him more than when a neighbor asked him for a favor: “For the Tyrwhitt Drakes to ask a service from me is the Hapsburgs soliciting something from a parvenu Napoleon. After thirty years of scorn and sullenness they have melted before time and events.”

Kirsch also demonstrates that Disraeli did not seek to further Jewish interests abroad. Quite the contrary. He espoused realpolitik. Kirsch writes that he “instinctively favored established, multinational empires over national liberation movements.” The Turkish massacre of the Bulgarians left him unmoved. He threatened Russia with war over the Dardanelles before engineering a diplomatic triumph at the Congress of Berlin in 1876. In Kirsch’s view, he was a precursor to Winston Churchill.

That may be overblown. Disraeli’s greatest triumph was as a domestic political operator, while Churchill’s was abroad. Disraeli created a modern, meliorative conservatism, while Churchill was booted out of office as a reactionary after the Second World War. But as conservatives in England and America scramble for a formula for political success, Disraeli has come back into vogue. Perhaps Disraeli was something of a charlatan, but his wizardry remains enchanting.  

Jacob Heilbrunn, whose book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of The Neocons has recently appeared in paperback, is a senior editor at The National Interest.

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