Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day/The Right Hon. B. Disraeli
It is not our intention in this notice to attempt any review of Mr. Disraeli's political career. As cartoons in this book are chiefly portraitures of men of letters, it is of the literary achievements of the leader of the Conservative party that we propose to speak. The ex-Premier is the author of a number of clever novels, with which most readers doubtless are perfectly familiar. The first of this series of works of fiction was 'Vivian Grey,' published when the author was quite a boy. It has been followed by 'The Young Duke,' ' Contarini Fleming,' 'Henrietta Temple,' 'Yenetia,' 'Tancred,' 'Alroy,' 'Ixion,' 'Sybil,' 'Coningsby,' and 'Lothair.'
'Vivian Grey' at once seized the attention of the town, and its successors maintained, if they did not increase, the reputation of the author. They have all been very popular, have been many times reprinted, and sold at all prices, from the conventional guinea and a half form down to the popular 'Companion Library' edition, at a shilling a novel.
Mr. Disraeli comes of an old Jewish family; and the pedigrees of such families are of a length compared with which those of the princes of the blood of any of our European reigning families become insignificant.His grandfather, Benjamin Disraeli, settled in England in 1748. He was an Italian descendant from one of those Hebrew families whom the Inquisition forced to emigrate from the Spanish Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century. His ancestors, who were of the Sephardim, 'had dropped their Gothic surname' on their settlement in Italy; 'and, grateful to the God of Jacob, who had sustained them through unprecedented trials and guarded them through unheard-of perils, they assumed the name of Disraeli a name never borne before or since by any other family in order that their race might for ever be recognised.' For two centuries they were merchants at Venice; but England offering many advantages, in the middle of the eighteenth century the present Mr. Disraeli's great-grandfather
THE ARISTOCRACY OF NATURE.
determined on sending his younger son, Benjamin, to settle in this country of political quiet, and civil and religious freedom. This first of the English Disraelis is described by his distinguished grandson as a man 'of ardent character; sanguine, courageous, speculative, and fortunate; with a temper which no disappointment could disturb, and a brain amid reverses full of resource.' No wonder, then, that at middle age he had made a fortune, and settled in a country house at Enfield, where he entertained Sir Horace Mann and many celebrities of the day. He died in 1817, at the ripe age of ninety, and left one son, who had 'disappointed all his plans, and who, to the last hour of his life, was an enigma to him.' This was Isaac Disraeli, the father of the future Prime Minister, and the famous author of 'The Curiosities of Literature' and kindred works—books that will live long after his son's works of fiction have lost their ephemeral glory.
Isaac was of course designed by his father for a merchant; but having written a poem, he was consigned to his father's correspondent at Amsterdam, like a bale of goods, to be placed at a college there. On his return to England, at the age of eighteen, his genius broke the bonds of parental control. He wrote a long poem against Commerce, which strange—sentiment in the mouth of his race as we know them—he called the corrupter of man. He packed up his effusion, and took it to the emperor of the world of letters, Dr. Johnson. Young Isaac Disraeli left it himself in the hands of the Doctor's negro, at the door of the house in Bolt-court, Fleet-street; but the Doctor was then too ill to read anything, and it was returned to the author a week after.
From this time Isaac Disraeli began to lead the life of a student. He was fortunate in making the acquaintance of amiable and cultivated men, who introduced him to congenial society.
His marriage did not alter his recluse habits of life: he continued to live almost entirely in his own library. This gentleman, having had some difference with his synagogue, failed to teach Judaism to the future Prime Minister; and Samuel Rogers, the banker poet, finding the boy, at six years old, without any religious instruction, took him to Hackney church. From that time Mr. Disraeli has been a member of the Church of England. Though born of Jewish parents, he has never held the Jewish faith, but has been all his life a member of the Christian Church. Indeed, his father, Isaac Disraeli, was buried in the chancel of the village church, near his own seat in Buckinghamshire; so it would appear that, if he had made no formal profession of any change of religion, he died a Christian.
Mr. Disraeli, in his youth, was articled to a firm of attorneys, who carried on business in Old Jewry, in the city of London; but he did not remain to complete the term for which he was articled. His genius pointed to greater things; and until he himself contradicted the report, when Mr. Grant's 'History of the Newspaper Press' appeared, it had always been supposed that he had devoted some considerable time at this period of his life to writing for the newspapers. This, however, was a mistake. Mr. Disraeli must be allowed to know best; and it appears that his first literary effort was 'Vivian Grey.' Though the style is turgid, there are strong outbursts of imagination in the novel. 'Books,' says the author, 'written by boys, which pretend to give a picture of manners, arid to deal in knowledge of human nature, can be at the best but the results of imagination, acting upon knowledge not acquired by experience.' This sentence precisely describes the character of his first novel. Yet, read by the light of events which have come to pass since he wrote it, 'Vivian Grey' is very full of interest. The hero is so like the author, that it is not easy to separate them. 'Mankind, then,' says Vivian Grey, 'is my game. At this moment, how many a powerful noble only wants wit to be a Minister; and what wants Vivian Grey to attain the same end? That noble's influence.' And, in due time, the creator of 'Vivian' became a Minister; for in February 1852, Lord Derby made Mr. Disraeli his Chancellor of the Exchequer, an office he held a second time when Lord Derby was made Premier in 1858-9; and a third time he filled the office under his veteran friend and leader in 1866. As everybody knows, in 1868, in the month of February, Lord Derby's health compelled him to resign, and her Majesty was pleased to send for Mr. Disraeli, who thus had conferred upon him the crowning distinction of his life, the greatest post the Sovereign has it in her power to bestow.
But Mr. Disraeli did not find his way into the House he was afterwards to lead without a fight for his seat. In 1829, after the very rapid production of his earlier novels, the brilliant young littérateur left England, spent the winter in Constantinople, and visited Syria, Egypt, and Nubia, before his return in 1831. He came back with new views of life and politics. He had penetrated the Asian Mystery, and was something between a Tory and a Whig. Recommended by Hume and O'Connell, he tried Wycombe three times for a seat in Parliament, and was unsuccessful. Then he turned up at Taunton, and discovered himself, what he is now, a Conservative; and in the ardour of his electioneering eloquence attacked the Irish demagogue.
Politics ran higher then than now, and O'Connell replied: 'Mr. Disraeli calls me traitor: my answer to that is that he is a liar. He is a liar in action and in words. His life is a living lie.' This was not quite strong enough. He went on: 'When I speak of Mr. Disraeli as a Jew, I mean not to taunt him on that account. Better ladies and gentleman than amongst the Jews I have never met with. They were once the chosen people of God. There were miscreants among them, however; and it must certainly have been from one of those that Disraeli descended. He possesses just the qualities of the impenitent thief who died upon the Cross, whose name must have been Disraeli. For aught I know, the present Disraeli is descended from him; and, with the impression that he is, I now forgive the heir-at-law of the blasphemous thief that died upon the Cross.'
O'Connell's coarse wit stopped at nothing; but he had a foeman worthy of his steel in the younger Disraeli, as he was called then. O'Connell was bound by a vow not to fight a duel; and Disraeli called upon the son of the demagogue to assume 'his vicarious duties of yielding satisfaction for the insults which his father lavished with impunity on his political opponents.'
Morgan O'Connell did not accept the challenge; and Disraeli wrote Daniel O'Connell a letter, in which he said:
'Although you have long since placed yourself out of the pale of civilisation, still I am one that will not be insulted even by a Yahoo without chastising IT....I called upon your son to assume his vicarious office of yielding satisfaction for his shrinking sire. I admire your scurrilous allusions to my origin...You say that I was once a Radical and am now a Tory. My conscience acquits me of ever having deserted a political friend, or of ever having changed a political opinion. I have nothing to appeal to but the good sense of the people. A death's head and cross bones were not blazoned on my banners.'
He called the great demagogue a 'big beggarman,' who gathered 'rint' from the wretched Irish peasantry by promising to procure a 'repale' for them, which he knew he should never get.
Altogether, Mr. Disraeli had much the best of the correspondence. Few men could write a better letter of accusation or of vindication; and he has been charged with the authorship of the 'Runnymede' letters, which appeared in the 'Times.' They are inferior to the letters of 'Junius,' but they display great powers of invective; and, on internal evidence only, most people would say they were written by Disraeli.
Mr. Disraeli first sat in Parliament for Maidstone, in 1832; and his speeches are, perhaps, the best efforts of his genius. He is a splendid Parliamentary debater, and a perfect master of epigrammatic phrases that stick wherever they are applied. When he wrote 'Tancred,' it was his opinion that 'we sadly lack a new stock of public images. The current similes, if not absolutely counterfeit, are quite worn out. They have no intrinsic value, and serve only as counters to represent the absence of ideas. The critics should really call them in.' No man has done more to replace the old images with new ones than the author of 'Tancred.' Perhaps 'Tancred' is the best book of imagination, and 'Coningsby' of political life, that their author has produced. The style of all his novels is sparkling and clever sometimes, at others turgid and over-daubed with colour.
It is curious that the best specimen of Disraeli's style that can be given in a few lines is not Disraeli's at all, but Thackeray's. In his 'Novels by Eminent Hands,' he has 'Codlingsby: by the Right Hon. B. Shrewsberry'—a wonderfully good imitation in caricature of Disraeli's style.
The carpet was of white velvet—laid over several webs of Aubusson, Ispahan, and Axminster, so that your foot gave no more sound as it trod upon the yielding plain than the shadow which followed you—of white velvet painted with flowers, arabesques, and classic figures by Sir William Ross, J. M. W. Turner, R.A., Mrs. Mee, and Paul Delaroche. The edges were wrought with seed-pearl, Valenciennes lace, and bullion. The walls were hung with cloth of silver, embroidered with gold figures, over which were worked pomegranates, polyanthuses, and passion-flowers, in ruby, amethyst, and smaragd. The drops of dew which the artificers had sprinkled on the flowers were of diamonds. The hangings were overhung with pictures yet more costly. Giorgione the gorgeous, Titian the golden, Rubens the ruddy and pulpy (the Pan of painting), some of Murillo's beatified shepherdesses, who smile on you out of darkness like a star; a few score of first-class Leonardos, and fifty of the masterpieces of the patron of Julius and Leo, the imperial genius of Urbino, covered the walls of the little chamber. Divans of carved amber, covered with ermine, went round the room, and in the midst was a fountain pattering and babbling into jets of double-distilled otto of roses.
'Pipes, Goliath!' Rafael said gaily, to a little negro with a silver collar (he spoke to him in his native tongue of Dongola); 'and welcome to our snuggery, my Codlingsby.'
Her hair had that deep glowing tinge in it which has been the delight of all painters, and which therefore the vulgar sneer at. It was of burning auburn, meandering over her fairest shoulders in twenty thousand minute ringlets; it hung to her waist, and below it. A light-blue velvet fillet, clasped with a diamond aigrette, valued at two hundred thousand tomauns, and bought from Lieutenant Vicovich, who had received it from Dost Mahomet, with a simple bird of Paradise, formed her head-gear. A sea-green cymar, with short sleeves, displayed her exquisitely-moulded arms to perfection, and was fastened by a girdle of emeralds over a yellow-satin frock. Pink-gauze trousers, spangled with silver, and slippers of the same colour as the band which clasped her ringlets (but so covered with pearls, that the original hue of the charming papoosh disappeared entirely), completed her costume. She had three necklaces on, each of which would have dowered a princess; her fingers glittered with rings to their rosy tips; and priceless bracelets, bangles, and armlets wound round an arm that was winter than the ivory grand-piano on which it leaned.
Compare Thackeray's admirable caricature with Disraeli's own serious production:
'And this divan is for you,' said Fakredeen, showing Tancred into a chamber, which opened upon a flower-garden, shaded by lemon trees. 'I am proud of my mirror,' he added, with some exultation, as he called Tancred's attention to a large French looking-glass, the only one in Lebanon. 'And this,' added Fakredeen, leading Tancred through a suite of marble chambers, this is your bath.'
In the centre of one chamber, fed by a perpetual fountain, was a large alabaster basin, the edges of which were strewn with flowers just culled. The chamber was entirely of porcelain; a golden flower on a ground of delicate green.
'I will send your people to you,' said Fakredeen, 'but in the mean time there are attendants here, who are, perhaps, more used to the duty;' and so saying, he clapped his hands, and several servants appeared bearing baskets of curious linen, whiter than the snow of Lebanon, and a variety of robes.'
And this passage is equalled by hundreds of others profusely strewn through all his works.
You feel, all the while you are reading his books, that the author is laughing at you. There is an air of insincerity about them all; there is not a passage in one of the romances that ever moved the passions of a boarding-school miss. They are very unreal, and very clever; but with all the splendour and wealth of his Eastern imagination, Mr. Disraeli has a fine sense of genuine English humour. What is finer in this way than the talk of the two servants, Mr. Freeman and Mr. Trueman, that Tancred takes with him to Palestine? They are so inimitably true as portraits of the English upper servant.
When Tancred's life is in danger in an Arab encampment where he is wounded and a prisoner, they come in a great state to explain that they don't know how his boots are to be blacked, for in the night these savages have drunk up all the blacking. On another occasion they go to stay at a 'superb Saracenic castle.'
It strikes Freeman and Trueman thus:
'This is the first gentleman's seat I've seen since we left England,' said Freeman.
'There must have been a fine coming of age here,' rejoined Trueman.
'As for that,' replied Freeman, 'comings of age depend in a manner upon meat and drink. They ain't in noways to be carried out with coffee and pipes. Without oxen roasted whole, and broached hogsheads, they ain't in a manner legal.'
The servants' Paradise is meat and drink in England or in Palestine, and Tancred's gentlemen were sorely tried with the coffee and pipes.
They are at a great feast at the castle, when the following conversation occurs:
'Or eating without knives and forks?" added Trueman.
'It would astonish their weak minds in the steward's room at Bellamont, if they could see all this, John,' said Mr. Freeman pensively. 'A man who travels has very great advantages.'
'And very great hardships too,' said Trueman. 'I don't care for work, but I do like to have my meals regular.'
'This is not bad picking, though,' said Mr. Freeman; 'they call it gazelle, which I suppose is the foreign for venison.'
'If you called this venison at Bellamont,' said Trueman, 'they would look very queer in the steward's room.'
'Bellamont is Bellamont, and this place is this place, John,' said Mr. Freeman. 'The Hameer is a noble gentleman, every inch of him, and I am very glad my lord has got a companion of his own kidney. It is much better than monks and hermits, and low people of that sort, who are not by no means fit company for somebody I could mention, and might turn him into a Papist into the bargain.'
'That would be a bad business,' said Trueman; 'my lady could never abide that. It would be better that he should turn Turk.'
'I am not sure it wouldn't,' said Mr. Freeman. 'It would be in a manner more constitutional. The Sultan of Turkey may send an Ambassador to our Queen, but the Pope of Rome may not.'
'I should not like to turn Turk,' said Trueman, very thoughtfully.
'I know what you are thinking of, John,' said Mr. Freeman, in a serious tone. 'You are thinking if anything were to happen to either of us in this heathen land, where we should get Christian burial.'
'Lord love you, Mr. Freeman, no I wasn't. I was thinking of a glass of ale.'
'Ah!' sighed Freeman, 'it softens the heart to think of such things away from home, as we are. Do you know, John, there are times when I feel very queer—there are indeed. I catched myself a singing "Sweet Home" one night, among those savages in the wilderness. One wants consolation, John, sometimes one does, indeed; and, for my part, I do miss the family prayers and the home-brewed.'
No author has ever done better in portraying the characteristic feeling of the servants' hall; and at the other social extreme, Mr. Disraeli has had more practice than any other novelist. He has put more dukes, duchesses, lords, and ladies, more gold and jewels, more splendour and wealth into his books than anybody else has attempted to do. They are full of them. They are full, too, of his peculiar opinions about the race from which he has sprung. 'Race,' he tells us, 'is the only truth.' 'The Jews are the aristocracy of nature—the purest race, the chosen people.'
Whatever fate his fame as a statesman and a novelist may meet with at the hands of the future, there is, then, one thing at least he can never lose—his connection with the aristocracy of nature.