D'Israeli, Isaac (DNB00)
|←Disraeli, Benjamin||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 15
D'ISRAELI, ISAAC (1766–1848), author, was born at his father's residence, 5 Great St. Helens, London, on 11 May 1766. His ancestors were Jews of the Levant who had settled in the sixteenth century in Italy. His grandfather Isaac Israeli, of Cento, Ferrara, married Rica or Eurichetta Rossi, a member of a distinguished Jewish-Italian family of Ferrara. His father, Benjamin D'Israeli, was born at Cento 22 Sept. 1730; settled in England in 1748, prospered first as a merchant in London, importing Italian products and manufactures, and afterwards as a stockbroker, and was made an English citizen by act of denization 24 Aug. 1801. He was a member of the London congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, and married at their synagogue in Bevis Marks: first, on 2 April 1756, Rebecca Mendez, second daughter of Gaspar Mendez Furtado, a Portuguese Jew who had sought refuge in England from the Inquisition at Lisbon, and whose elder daughter Rachel was wife of Francisco or Aaron Lara; and secondly, on 28 May 1765, Sarah Shiprut or Syprut de Gabay, whose father was descended from a Spanish-Jewish family which had intermarried with the Villareals of Portugal. By his first wife (1727–1765) he had one daughter, Rachel, who married, firstly in 1771, at the age of 14, her first cousin Aaron Nunes Lara, of London, and secondly on 4 July 1792, Mordecai, alias Angiolo Tedesco of Leghorn. Isaac was the sole issue of the second marriage. Benjamin D'Israeli died on 28 Nov. 1816, at his house in Charles Street, Stoke Newington, where he had lived since 1801, and was buried in the cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews at Mile End. He left 35,000l. One Benjamin Disraell, a Protestant, of a Huguenot family, was a public notary in Dublin from 1788 to 1796, and subsequently until 1810 a prominent member of the Dublin Stock Exchange. He built a house called Beechey Park, co. Carlow, in 1810, and in the same year became sheriff of co. Carlow. He died at Beechey Park 9 Aug. 1814, aged 48, and was buried in St. Peter's churchyard, Dublin (Foster, Collectanea Genealogica, pp. 6–16, 60; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vi. 47, 136, xi. 23, 117).
Isaac was sent at an early age to a school near Enfield kept by a Scotchman named Morison. Before 1780 he was staying with his father's agent at Amsterdam, and studying under a freethinking tutor. He returned home in 1782, determined to become a poet and a man of letters. His mother ridiculed his ambition, and his father arranged to place him in a commercial house at Bordeaux. The youth protested, and for a time was left to his own devices. He wrote a poem condemning commerce, and left it at Bolt Court for Dr. Johnson's inspection, but the doctor was ill and the manuscript was returned unopened. In April 1786 he implored Vicesimus Knox [q. v.], master of Tunbridge grammar school, whom he only knew through his writings, to receive him into his house as an enthusiastic disciple (see letters in Gent. Mag. 1848, pt. ii. p. 29). In December 1786 he first appeared in print with a vindication of Dr. Johnson's character signed ‘I.D.I.’ in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ Some poor verse addressed to Richard Gough [q. v.], the well-known topographer, then an Enfield neighbour, was printed in the ‘St. James's Chronicle’ on 20 Nov. 1787. Gough made a sarcastic acknowledgment, and temporarily damped the writer's poetic ardour. His father, dissatisfied with his studious habits, sent him to travel in France, and at Paris D'Israeli read largely and met many men of letters. He was home again in 1789, when he published in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for July an anonymous attack on Peter Pindar (Dr. John Wolcot), entitled ‘An Abuse of Satire.’ Wolcot attributed the attack to William Hayley, and virulently abused him. D'Israeli avowed himself the author, and was applauded by those who had suffered from Wolcot's lash. Henry James Pye [q. v.] patronised him, and finally led the elder D'Israeli to consent to his son's adoption of a literary career. In 1790 D'Israeli's first volume, a ‘Defence of Poetry’ in verse, was dedicated to Pye. He became intimate, through Pye, with James Pettit Andrews [q. v.], who introduced him to Samuel Rogers, and he made the acquaintance of Wolcot, who received him kindly. In 1791 and 1801 D'Israeli wrote the annual verses for the Literary Fund (cf. Gent. Mag. lxxi. 446), and in 1803 published ‘Narrative Poems.’ As a poet he showed little promise.
From an early period D'Israeli read regularly at the British Museum, where he met Douce, who encouraged him in his literary researches. In 1791 he issued anonymously the first volume of his ‘Curiosities of Literature, consisting of Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches, and Observations, Literary, Critical, and Historical.’ D'Israeli was following the example of his friend Andrews and of William Seward. He presented the copyright to his publisher, John Murray, of 32 Fleet Street (father of John Murray of Albemarle Street), but the book had an immediate success, and D'Israeli repurchased the copyright at a sale a few years later. A second volume was added in 1793, a third in 1817, two more in 1823, and a sixth and last in 1834. The work was repeatedly revised and reissued in D'Israeli's lifetime (3rd edit. 1793, 7th edit. 1823, 9th edit. 1834, 12th edit. 1841). Similar compilations followed, and achieved like success. ‘A Dissertation on Anecdotes’ appeared in 1793, ‘An Essay on the Literary Character’ in 1795 (3rd edit. 1822, 4th 1828), ‘Miscellanies, or Literary Recollections,’ dedicated to Dr. Hugh Downman [q. v.], in 1796, ‘Calamities of Authors’ in 1812–13, ‘Quarrels of Authors’ in 1814. D'Israeli also tried his hand at romances, but these were never very popular. No less than three were published in 1797, viz.: ‘Vaurien: a Sketch of the Times,’ 2 vols.; ‘Flim-Flams, or the Life of my Uncle;’ and ‘Mejnoun and Leila, the Arabian Petrarch and Laura.’ The first two, published anonymously, included general discussions on contemporary topics, and were condemned as Voltairean in tone. ‘Mejnoun and Leila’ is doubtfully stated to be the earliest oriental romance in the language. Sir William Ouseley seems to have drawn D'Israeli's attention to the Persian poem whence the plot was derived, and he acknowledges assistance from Douce. This tale was translated into German (Leipzig, 1804). With two others (‘Love and Humility’ and ‘The Lovers’), and ‘a poetical essay on romance,’ it was republished in 1799; a fourth tale (‘The Daughter’) was added to a second edition of the collection in 1801. D'Israeli's last novel, ‘Despotism, or the Fall of the Jesuits,’ appeared in 1811.
In 1795 D'Israeli's health gave way, and he spent three years in Devonshire, chiefly at Mount Radford, the house of John Baring, M.P. for Exeter. Dr. Hugh Downman of Exeter attended him, and doctor and patient became very intimate (cf. Notes and Queries, 5th ser. v. 508). On 10 Feb. 1802 D'Israeli married Maria, sister of George Basevi, whose son George [q. v.] was a well-known architect; the newly married couple settled for fifteen years at 6 King's Road, Bedford Row (now 22 Theobald's Road), London. Although no observer of Jewish customs, D'Israeli was until the age of forty-seven a member, like his father, of the London congregation of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, and an annual contributor to its funds. On 3 Oct. 1813 the elders of the synagogue without consulting him elected him warden. D'Israeli declined to serve, and in a letter dated December 1813 expressed astonishment that an office whose duties were ‘repulsive to his feelings’ should have been conferred on ‘a man who has lived out of the sphere of your observations … who can never unite in your public worship because, as now conducted, it disturbs instead of exciting religious emotions’ (Picciotto, Sketches of Anglo-Jewish Hist.) For refusal to accept the office of warden D'Israeli was fined by the elders 40l. In March 1814 he repudiated this obligation, but wrote that he was willing to continue the ordinary contributions. In 1817 the elders insisted on the payment of the fine, and D'Israeli resigned his membership of the congregation. His withdrawal was not formally accepted till 1821, when he paid up all arrears of dues down to 1817. His brother-in-law, George Basevi the elder, withdrew at the same time. D'Israeli's children were baptised at St. Andrew's, Holborn, in July and August 1817.
Meanwhile D'Israeli's reputation was growing. In 1816 he wrote, as ‘an affair of literary conscience,’ an apologetic ‘Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of James I.’ In 1820 he noticed ‘Spence's Anecdotes’ in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and sought to vindicate Pope's moral and literary character. The article excited the controversy about Pope in which Bowles, Campbell, Roscoe, and Byron took part. Between 1828 and 1830 appeared in five volumes D'Israeli's ‘Commentaries on the Life and Reign of Charles I.’ This is D'Israeli's most valuable work, and marked a distinct advance in the methods of historical research. He here consulted many diaries and letters (then unpublished), including the Eliot and Conway MSS. and the papers of Melchior de Sabran, French envoy in England in 1644–5. The ‘Mercure François’ was also laid under contribution. Southey says that in one of his ‘Quarterly’ articles he obscurely recommended such an undertaking to Dr. Christopher Wordsworth, who had written on the ‘Eikōn Basilikē,’ and that D'Israeli, assuming the hint to be addressed to himself, began his book (Southey, Correspondence with C. Bowles, ed. Dowden, p. 239). Lord Nugent contested D'Israeli's royalist conclusions in his ‘Memorials of Hampden’ (1832), and D'Israeli replied in the same year in ‘Eliot, Hampden, and Pym.’ As the biographer of Charles I, D'Israeli was created D.C.L. at Oxford 4 July 1832. In 1833 D'Israeli issued anonymously the ‘Genius of Judaism,’ in which he wrote enthusiastically of the past history and sufferings of the Jews, but protested against their social exclusiveness in his own day, and their obstinate adherence to superstitious practices and beliefs. He had written in a like vein in ‘Vaurien’ (1797), and in an article on ‘Moses Mendelssohn’ in ‘Monthly Review’ for July 1798. In 1837 Bolton Corney [q. v.] savagely attacked his ‘Curiosities’ in a privately printed pamphlet (‘Curiosities of Literature Illustrated’). Many inaccuracies were exposed, and D'Israeli's reply, ‘The Illustrator Illustrated,’ was met by Corney's ‘Ideas on Controversy’ (1838), which was issued both separately and as an appendix to a second edition of the original pamphlet. Towards the close of 1839 D'Israeli suffered from paralysis of the optic nerve, and he was totally blind for the rest of his life. With the efficient aid of his daughter Sarah he was able to complete his ‘Amenities of Literature’ (1840), which he at first intended to call ‘A Fragment of a History of English Literature.’ He had long meditated a complete history of English literature, but his only remaining works were a paper in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for January 1840 on the spelling of Shakespeare's name, which excited much controversy, and a revised edition of the ‘Curiosities’ in 1841.
In 1829 D'Israeli removed from Bloomsbury Square, where he had lived since 1817, to Bradenham House, Buckinghamshire. He died at Bradenham, 19 Jan. 1848, aged 82, and was buried in the church there. The wife of his son Benjamin erected a monument to his memory on a hill near Hughenden Manor in 1862. D'Israeli's wife died 21 April 1847, aged 72, and also lies buried in Bradenham Church. By her he had four sons and a daughter. Benjamin, the eldest son, was the well-known statesman; Naphtali, the second, born 5 Nov. 1807, died young. Ralph, born 9 May 1809, was deputy clerk of parliament, and died 18 Oct. 1898, being buried in Hughenden churchyard. James, born 21 Jan. 1813, was commissioner of inland revenue, died 23 Dec. 1868, and was buried at Hughenden. Sarah, born 29 Dec. 1802, died unmarried 19 Dec. 1859, and was buried in Paddington cemetery. She was engaged to be married to William Meredith, who travelled with her brother Benjamin in the East in 1830, and died at Cairo in 1831 (Beaconsfield, Home Letters, p. 138).
D'Israeli was very popular with the literary men of his day. Sir Walter Scott is said to have repeated one of D'Israeli's forgotten poems when they first met, and to have added, ‘If the writer of these lines had gone on, he would have been an English poet.’ The poem was printed by Scott in his ‘Minstrelsy,’ i. 230. Byron wrote to Moore (17 March 1814) that he, had just read ‘“The Quarrels of Authors,” a new work by that most entertaining and researching writer, Israeli’ (Byron, Works, iii. 15). In 1820 Byron dedicated to D'Israeli his ‘Observations on “Blackwood's Magazine.”’ Southey, to whom D'Israeli inscribed the 1828 edition of his ‘Literary Character,’ was always a firm friend (cf. pref. to Southey, Doctor). Moore frequently met him at the house of Murray the publisher (Moore, Diaries, iv. 23, 26). Bulwer Lytton was a devoted admirer (Beaconsfield, Corresp. p. 13). Samuel Rogers, another intimate friend, said of him, according to Southey, ‘There's a man with only half an intellect who writes books that must live.’ Charles Purton Cooper [q. v.] dedicated to him his ‘Lettres sur la Cour de la Chancellerie’ in 1828, and D'Israeli's letter acknowledging the compliment was privately printed in 1857. John Nichols frequently acknowledges his assistance in his ‘Literary Anecdotes,’ and S. W. Singer, Basil Montagu, and Francis Douce often mention their indebtedness to him. John Murray, the publisher of Albemarle Street, whose father was the original publisher of the ‘Curiosities,’ repeatedly consulted him in his literary undertakings, until a quarrel caused by Murray's arrangement in 1826 to issue the ‘Representative’ newspaper in conjunction with Benjamin Disraeli interrupted their friendship.
As a populariser of literary researches D'Israeli achieved a deserved reputation. If not very accurate, he was learned and widely read. He is described by his son as a nervous man of retiring disposition. Benjamin Disraeli edited a new edition of ‘Charles I’ in 1851, and a collected edition of his father's other works in 1858–9 (7 vols.) The ‘Curiosities’ has been repeatedly reissued in cheap editions both here and in America.
Engraved portraits after an Italian artist (1777) and from a painting by S. P. Denning appear respectively in the first and third volumes of the 1858–9 edition. There are other drawings by Drummond, in ‘Monthly Mirror,’ January 1797; by Alfred Crowquill in ‘Fraser's Magazine;’ and by Count D'Orsay, whence an engraving was made for the ‘Illustrated London News,’ 29 Jan. 1848.[A sketch by Benjamin Disraeli, earl of Beaconsfield, was prefixed to the 1849 edition of the Curiosities, and has been often reprinted. See also Gent. Mag. 1848, ii. 96–8; Lord Beaconsfield's Home Letters, 1831–2 (1885), and his Cor- respondence with his sister 1832–52 (1886); Picciotto's Sketches of Anglo-Jewish Hist.; Foster's Collectanea Genealogica; Southey's Letters to Caroline Bowles, ed. Prof. Dowden.]