Jew d’Esprit

Dan Jacobson

  • Disraeli’s Grand Tour: Benjamin Disraeli and the Holy Land 1830-31 by Robert Blake
    Weidenfeld, 141 pp, £8.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 297 77910 9

If you want to get ahead in the world, you cannot afford to be contemptuous of or ironic about your own fantasies. It is indeed important to be able, as Wordsworth puts it,

                                        to part
Vague longing that is bred by want of power
From paramount impulse not to be withstood.

Yet the poet’s phrasing implicitly suggests that what finally matters is not the nature of the things we long for, but the intensity and the confidence with which we long for them, and the place we assign to our longings within our deepest conceptions of ourselves.

In these respects, all ambitious people are probably much alike. However, an imaginative writer who nourishes the fantasy of achieving great worldly success would appear to have one important advantage. By incorporating aspects of his ambition in his work, by avowedly exposing it as a fantasy, and elaborating on it in poems, or plays, or stories, he enables his readers to participate in it; if he is talented enough, or just lucky enough, they will then reward him for doing so by heaping fame and fortune on him in the ‘real’ world, the world outside his books. When Disraeli, at the age of 26, published his third novel, which was promisingly entitled The Young Duke, his father is reputed to have asked: ‘What does Ben know of dukes?’ The vacuities and turgidities of the novel reveal that in one sense the author knew nothing about them. In another sense, the novel reveals that what he knew about dukes was what mattered most to him: namely, that he wanted to spend as much of his life as he could in their company.

The extent to which he succeeded remains astonishing to contemplate, given the race and class into which he was born. The cabinets which he was to lead abounded in dukes and the scions of ducal families. Ironically, however, he achieved this success by being, on one level, far bolder in life than he ever dared to be in his fictions – something which can be said about very few novelists indeed. Not that he was timid, as a writer, in tackling a wide variety of themes. He wrote about London high life, as if from within, when he was hardly anything more than a solicitor’s upstart clerk; he produced fiction about German court life, religious revivals in the Middle East, the relations between Byron and Shelley, the machinations of Catholic prelates against an upright Englishman (a duke, inevitably), and Garibaldi’s march on Rome; as well as the politics of Young England and the ‘Condition-of-England Question’; not to mention a verse epic on the French Revolution.

Yet for all the variety of his fictions, for all their strivings for effect, and for all their comic and satiric thrusts (for which it seems to me they have been excessively praised), the novels can leave one an impression of caution and uncertainty. There is a lack of drive, a fear of giving offence, which is revealed in many ways: most strikingly, in the absence of villains within them. There are some thinly persuasive toadies, buffoons, schemers and overbearing nobs: but almost everyone in them lives in a splendid house, looks lovely, and is ultimately well-disposed to everyone else. The effect on the reader, on this reader anyway, is extraordinarily dispiriting. Even Sybil, the novel which is ostensibly devoted to the plight of the poor, and which features both the urban and rural proletariats in some unusually lively postures of menace and pathos, ends with the poverty-stricken heroine becoming in her own right an heiress of great title and broad acres, as well as the spouse of the Earl of Marney.

How different all these quasi-idylls are from the story of his own life, with its debts and shady business deals, dubious love-affairs, caricatural dandyisms, scroungings for patronage, early and obscure breakdowns, humiliations endured and revenges taken; its unbounded audacity and calculated displays of aggression; its ever-vigilant opportunism and its deep, half-conscious, unyielding prepossessions and drives. ‘I wish to act what I write,’ he confided in a diary he kept as a young man. What he actually produced, for the most part, was a series of benignly aristocratic reveries, seasoned with half-baked but (to him) indispensable theorisings about race, religion, and the ‘traditionary’ strengths of the crown and the landed classes. Of these latter elements in his fiction more will be said shortly. But we can be sure that had he reversed the order of his verbs, and written what he had acted – as his model and idol, Lord Byron, can be said to have done – he would never have become Prime Minister, the Earl of Beaconsfield, and confidant of the Queen.

In poem after poem Byron had revealed the histrionic self-doubt and sense of evil which had goaded him from one extravagant action to another; he had then moved on to the wonderfully truth-revealing irresponsibility and mischief of Don Juan. The result? A European-wide reputation, and one great poem, certainly: but also disgrace, exile, death at an early age on a remote Greek peninsula. Whereas this is how Lord Blake, in his justly celebrated biography, describes Disraeli during his second term as prime minister: he

attended the dinners and receptions of the beaumonde with the assiduity of a man half his age ... He was not only at the top of the political pyramid, he was very close to the top of the social pyramid, too. He was sought by every great hostess. He knew exactly who was who in that restricted world, their incomes, their love-affairs, their past or impending scandals ... It is odd to think of this gaunt wheezing figure, the pallor of his lined face accentuated rather than relieved by the rouge which, like Palmerston in old age, he regularly applied, dining night after night during the season amidst the glitter of the great London houses, listening impassively to the gay rattle of duchesses and the social gossip of men-about-town.

Lord Blake’s new book is something more than a lively and entertaining footnote to the biography. It concentrates on one colourful episode, or sequence of episodes, in the young Disraeli’s life: the tour through the Mediterranean and Near East which he undertook with the man who was intended to become his brother-in-law. On the way they were joined by a raffish Wykhamist by the name of James Clay, a friend of Disraeli’s brother, and also by Tita Falcieri, who had formerly been a servant to Byron. Indeed, though Lord Blake does not quite write of it in these terms, much of the tour might almost be considered a Byronic pilgrimage of a kind. Not only did Disraeli acquire Tita as a result of it, but he actually followed the poet’s footsteps in going successively to Spain, Malta, Albania and Greece. Like Byron, he wrote vivid letters home, which are extensively quoted in this book; like Byron, he dressed himself up in Turkish costume, and consorted with the local chieftains and their followers; from Clay’s letters it would seem that, like Byron again, though probably in a less elaborate fashion, he took advantage of the sexual opportunities which came his way in the course of his journeyings. Unfortunately the whole adventure ended badly for the young men: Meredith, the brother-in-law-to-be, contracted smallpox in Cairo, and died of it within a few days. Disraeli then returned as rapidly as he could to England, and to his grief-stricken sister. His first real entry into London society (where for a time he was known as the ‘Jew d’esprit’) still lay some months ahead.

In one important respect the route of his travels in the Levant had differed from Byron’s. He and Clay, though not Meredith, had entered the Holy Land and made the ascent to Jerusalem; they had spent the months from January to March 1831 on this section of their journey. No less than four of Disraeli’s novels, Contarini Fleming, Alroy, Tancred and Lothair, were to bear the marks of this experience. One of them, Alroy, is probably the worst he ever wrote (which is saying something); the others, in different ways and in different degrees, are not much good either. English literature can hardly be said, therefore, to have gained greatly from the experience. And Disraeli himself? Lord Blake suggests that his travels in the provinces of the Ottoman Empire inclined him, when he was in office many years later, to take a more favourable attitude to Turkish power than was common among Englishmen of his time. However, the author is more interested in tracing the effects of the visit to the Holy Land on Disraeli’s view of his own position as a Jew converted to Christianity and an aspirant man-of-letters and politician. Did it make some sort of (premature) Zionist out of him? Did it enable him to develop that conviction of his belonging to a grand ‘Arabian’ or ‘Asian’ aristocracy which was to be a source of strength to him in his dealings with the English grandees among whom he made his career? Did it encourage him to conjure out of some recess of his mind the notion of ‘theocratic equality’? (This I take to be a stab at reconciling Judaism with Christianity, as well as a way of reconciling his sense of the importance of religion in the life of nations with a consciousness of his own incapacity for genuine or personally felt religious emotion.)

The answer to all these questions must be a qualified yes: qualified not only because they are difficult questions, but also because everything Disraeli said or did is subject to qualification by something else he may have done or said at some other time. Consider, for instance, the idea of Disraeli as a kind of Zionist-before-Zionism. Surely, one thinks, his novel Alroy, which is about a medieval Jewish leader who wishes to redeem the Jews from captivity and bring them back to Zion – a novel which Disraeli himself spoke of as an expression of his ‘ideal ambition’ – should provide us with irrefutable, positive evidence on that score. Well, it does not. We are not long into the novel before we find that the eponymous hero is bored with the Jews and Zion and what they have to offer him. ‘Shall this quick blaze of empire,’ he asks in characteristic vein, ‘sink to a glimmering and a twilight sway over some petty province? ... I have no mandate to yield my glorious empire for my meanest province.’ True, Alroy is chastised in the novel for these Tamburlane-like vauntings: but we have only to recall his creator’s attitude to the British Empire and its Queen to know that he would never have exchanged the position he eventually achieved, or even the prospect of gaining it, in order to become what his Alroy scornfully describes as ‘the decent patriarch of a pastoral horde’.

It is a noteworthy fact that though Disraeli refers bitterly in several of his novels, and elsewhere, to the sufferings of the Jews at the hands of Christians and Moslems, he can never really bring himself to portray a suffering or disadvantaged Jew. (It is doubtful, according to Lord Blake, whether during his stay in Jerusalem he even visited the Jewish quarter of the city, where he would have been unable to avoid seeing plenty of disadvantaged members of his race.) Instead, virtually all the Jewish characters in his novels are rich, haughty, powerful, beautiful, wise, and (perhaps most implausible of all) wholeheartedly admired by the people among whom they live. The most famous of these paragons is the great financier, Sidonia, in Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred, who owns everything, knows everybody, and describes the power and pre-eminence of the Jews in terms that could not be outdone by the most luridly paranoiac fantasies of a convinced anti-semite. In fact, with his restlessness, his lordly airs, his mysterious comings and goings, and the secret sorrow or crime (his Jewishness) which in some sense cuts him off from ordinary intercourse with society, Sidonia represents a curious and unexpected cultural transmutation of the Byronic hero. As it were: from Childe Harold to Rothschild, in a single generation.

Here and elsewhere Disraeli was using his peculiar notions about the Jews and their role in history as a mode of self-advancement; or, to put the same point in another but equally meaningful way, his self-advancement demanded that something special and striking be made of his Jewish origins and appearance. One can make a similar kind of observation about his espousal (after some divagations) of the Tory cause in general, and of the cause of Young England in particular. (In the biography Lord Blake characterises Young England as ‘the Oxford Movement translated by Cambridge from religion into politics’.) Only the Tories, only a party which supported the prerogatives of the crown, the privileges of the peers, and the rights of the Established Church, could have tolerated or afforded so exotic a personage as its spokesman and leader. Disraeli knew this better, and sooner, than the Tories themselves did; and he acted, and wrote, and theorised accordingly. He was a subtle and passionate man, with an indomitable will and a mind that kept its alertness and flexibility to the very end. (He published Endymion, which seems to me his most entertaining novel, or at any rate his least embarrassing novel, at the age of 76, after his second term as prime minister.) But all these advantages would have availed him little if he had not also had the capacity to fabricate histories and ideologies which in effect served as self-justificatory myths, in all his strivings with himself and others. Paradoxically enough, these myths, which purported to describe and explain what had actually happened in the world, or was going to happen in it, were by far the most important fictions he ever invented; and he did not merely act on them, as he had asked of himself in his diary. He did more. He believed in them.

There is one entertaining anecdote from the Grand Tour which appears in Monypenny and Buckle’s official biography, but which, rather surprisingly, Lord Blake does not include in his book. In a letter from Albania to his fiancée, Meredith wrote of a Greek doctor who gazed wonderingly at Disraeli’s garb of red shirt, silver buttons, green pantaloons, jacket festooned with ribbons, Turkish slippers, and then asked: ‘Questo vestito Inglese o di fantasia?’ To this there came a reply which Monypenny describes as ‘oracular’, but which seems to me richly appropriate to the story as a whole: ‘Inglese e fantastico.’