1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/D'Israeli, Isaac
D’ISRAELI (or Disraeli), ISAAC (1766–1848), English man of letters, father of the earl of Beaconsfield (q.v.), was born at Enfield in May 1766. He belonged to a Jewish family which, having been driven by the Inquisition from Spain, towards the end of the 15th century, settled as merchants at Venice, and assumed the name which has become famous; it was generally spelt D’Israeli until the middle of the 19th century. In 1748 his father, Benjamin D’Israeli, then only about eighteen years of age, removed to England, where, before passing the prime of life, he amassed a competent fortune, and retired from business. He belonged to the London congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, of which his son also remained a nominal member until after Benjamin D’Israeli died at the end of 1816.
The strongly marked characteristics which determined Isaac D’Israeli’s career were displayed to a singular degree even in his boyhood. He spent his time over books and in long day-dreams, and evinced the strongest distaste for business and all the more bustling pursuits of life. These idiosyncrasies met with no sympathy from either of his parents, whose ambitious plans for his future career they threatened to disappoint. When he was about fourteen, in the hope of changing the bent of his mind, his father sent him to live with his agent at Amsterdam, where he worked under a tutor for four or five years. Here he studied Bayle and Voltaire, and became an ardent disciple of Rousseau. Here also he wrote a long poem against commerce, which he produced as an exposition of his opinions when, on his return to England, his father announced his intention of placing him in a commercial house at Bordeaux. Against such a destiny D’Israeli’s mind strongly revolted; and he carried his poem, with a letter earnestly appealing for advice and assistance, to Samuel Johnson; but when he called again a week after to receive an answer, the packet was returned unopened—the great Doctor was on his death-bed. He also addressed a letter to Dr Vicesimus Knox, master of Tonbridge Grammar School, begging to be received into his family, that he might enjoy the benefit of his learning and experience. How this application was answered we do not know. The evident firmness of his resolve, however, was not without effect. His parents gave up their purpose for a time. He was sent to travel in France, and allowed to occupy himself as he wished; and he had the happiness of spending some months in Paris, in the society of literary men, and devoted to the literary pursuits in which he delighted.
In the beginning of 1788 he returned home, and in the next year he attacked Peter Pindar (John Wolcot) in The Gentleman’s Magazine in a poem in the manner of Pope, “On the Abuse of Satire.” The authorship of the poem was much debated, and it was attributed by some to William Hayley, upon whom it was actually avenged, with characteristic savageness, by its victim. It is greatly to Wolcot’s credit that, on learning his mistake, he sought the acquaintance of his young opponent, whose friend he remained to the end of his life. Through the success of this satire D’Israeli made the acquaintance of Henry James Pye, who helped to persuade his father that it would be a mistake to force him into a business career, and introduced him into literary circles. D’Israeli dedicated his first book, A Defence of Poetry, to Pye in 1790. Henceforth his life was passed in the way he best liked—in quiet and almost uninterrupted study. In 1802 he married Maria Basevi, by whom he had five children, of whom Benjamin (afterwards Lord Beaconsfield and Prime Minister of England) was the second. He was able to maintain his strenuous habits of study till he reached the advanced age of seventy-two, when he was forced, by paralysis of the optic nerve, to give up work almost entirely. He lived ten years longer, and died at his seat at Bradenham House, Buckinghamshire, on the 19th of January 1848.
Isaac D’Israeli is most celebrated as the author of the Curiosities of Literature (1791, subsequent volumes in 1793, 1817, 1823 and 1834). It is a miscellany of literary and historical anecdotes, of original critical remarks, and of interesting and curious information of all kinds, animated by genuine literary feeling, taste and enthusiasm. With the Curiosities of Literature may be classed D’Israeli’s Miscellanies, or Literary Recreations (1796), the Calamities of Authors (1812–1813), and the Quarrels of Authors (1814). Towards the close of his life D’Israeli projected a continuous history of English literature, three volumes of which appeared in 1841 under the title of the Amenities of Literature. But of all his works the most delightful is his Essay on the Literary Character (1795), which, like most of his writings, abounds in illustrative anecdotes. In the famous “Pope controversy” he supported Byron and Campbell against Bowles and Hazlitt by a defence of Pope in the form of a criticism of Joseph Spence’s Anecdotes contributed to the Quarterly Review (July 1820). In 1797 D’Israeli published three novels; one of these, Mejnoun and Leila, the Arabian Petrarch and Laura, was said to be the first oriental romance in English. His last novel, Despotism, or the Fall of the Jesuits, appeared in 1811, but none of his romances was popular. He also published a slight sketch of Jewish history, and especially of the growth of the Talmud, entitled the Genius of Judaism (1833).
He was the author of two historical works—a brief defence of the literary merit and personal and political character of James I. (1816), and a learned Commentary on the Life and Reign of King Charles I. (1828–1831). This was recognized by the University of Oxford, which conferred upon the author the honorary degree of D.C.L. As an historian D’Israeli is distinguished by two characteristics. In the first place, he had small interest in politics, and no sympathy with the passionate fervour, or adequate appreciation of the importance, of political struggles. And, secondly, with a laborious zeal then less common than now among historians, he sought to bring to light fresh historical material by patient search for letters, diaries and other manuscripts of value which had escaped the notice of previous students. Indeed, the honour has been claimed for him of being one of the founders of the modern school of historical research.
Of the amiable personal character and the placid life of Isaac D’Israeli a charming picture is to be found in the brief memoir prefixed to the 1849 edition of Curiosities of Literature, by his son Lord Beaconsfield.