Prime Ministers’ Pets

Robert Blake

  • Benjamin Disraeli Letters: Vol. I 1815-1834, Vol. II 1835-1837 edited by J.A.W. Gunn, John Matthews, Donald Schurman and M.G. Wiebe
    Toronto, 482 pp, £37.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 8020 5523 0
  • The Gladstone Diaries: with Cabinet Minutes and Prime Ministerial Correspondence, Vol. VII, January 1869-June 1871, Vol. VIII, July 1871-December 1874 edited by H.C.G. Matthew
    Oxford, 641 pp, £35.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 822638 1
  • Disraeli by Sarah Bradford
    Weidenfeld, 432 pp, £14.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78153 7
  • Gladstone: Vol. I 1809-1865 by Richard Shannon
    Hamish Hamilton, 580 pp, £18.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 241 10780 6
  • H.H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock
    Oxford, 676 pp, £19.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 19 212200 2

In reviewing the Gladstone Diaries and the Disraeli Letters I must declare an interest. I am chairman of the committee which superintends the publication of the former and one of the research consultants involved in the latter. But the quality and scholarship of the editors of all these volumes has been so widely acclaimed by others that there is no danger of appearing to give an unwarranted puff to works with which I am connected. Both sets of volumes are admirably edited and if the task is worth doing at all one can safely say that it could hardly have been done better. I have only one criticism of the Disraeli letters. The editors have rightly printed Disraeli’s so-called ‘Mutilated Diary’ in appendices in each volume covering the appropriate years, but whereas his correspondence is very fully annotated, no attempt at all has been made to explain the references in the diary. Yet there is just as much need for explanation here as elsewhere – in fact more, for the diary is particularly allusive and obscure.

The copies of Disraeli’s letters assembled by the Disraeli Project at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario amount to some ten thousand, of which between seven and eight hundred appear in these volumes. The editors, who began their work in 1972, have been marvellously assiduous in discovering new sources. As the author of a life of Disraeli published in 1966, I feel slightly ashamed of the deficiencies of my own research: not very ashamed, because the biographer who does not cry a halt at some stage to his investigations will never finish his biography. But I wish I had pursued more energetically the quest for papers at Belvoir Castle (Lord John Manners and George Smythe), Weston Park (Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield) and Windsor Castle, where there apparently still exists a notable private correspondence with Queen Victoria alleged by Lord Esher in 1905 to have been destroyed by King Edward VII. Perhaps some of it was, but evidently much remains. I expressed the hope in the preface to my own book that one day ‘some wealthy foundation will finance a complete edition of the correspondence of the best letter-writer among all English statesmen.’ The editors are kind enough to quote this in their Introduction. The world of historical scholarship must be immensely grateful to Queen’s University for housing and to the Canada Council for funding the Disraeli Project. Let us hope that they will continue to do so unhampered by the bleak winds of parsimony now sweeping round the Western world.

It is particularly important that the publication should continue because the first two volumes are, in gastronomic language, a mere ‘starter’. The years covered are far from being the most important in Disraeli’s life. Certainly the letters exhibit him at the top of his form as an extravagant, debt-ridden young dandy and adventurer. There are, too, some vivid letters to his family in 1830/31 from Gibraltar, Malta, Corfu, Albania, Greece, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria. Many of them have been already published, either by Monypenny and Buckle, or in the garbled and inaccurate version edited by his curmudgeonly younger brother Ralph, who has high claims to be one of the worst editors in English history. It is nice to have the correct text, and quite a number of letters have not appeared in print before – in particular, a series which concerns his finances, letters to his legal adviser, William Pyne, and to his tailor, Richard Culverwell. There has been a long upper-class tradition of owing money to one’s tailor – which, no doubt, explains the inordinate prices charged in those days. Disraeli, characteristically, went a step further and actually borrowed money from his tailor, who, like most of Disraeli’s creditors, had much difficulty in recovering it.

The Disraeli Letters have evidently been of help to Sarah Bradford in her biography. She is able to dot some i’s and cross some t’s, and she writes well and clearly. I am not sure that a new life of Disraeli is really justified, but I cannot claim to be the most impartial judge. She has had access to letters which have not been seen or used before – especially some of those to Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield, the two sisters to whom Disraeli poured out his heart in the 1870s. She has also made much of a newly found letter by Disraeli to his sister Sarah, in 1849, which on one interpretation could suggest that he had been unfaithful to his wife. I do not believe it bears that meaning at all.

Disraeli obviously had a row with Mary Anne, spent a night elsewhere, lied about his destination and squared his sister about his whereabouts. ‘I am rather confused and shaky,’ he writes, ‘having had a bad night in a strange bed.’ The suggestion that he was sleeping with some unnamed lady or with one of the gilded boys of Young England seems unlikely. He probably spent the night in a club or a hotel, and slept badly as one often does in an unfamiliar bed. Disraeli had been involved in affairs before he married his eccentric and dotty wife in 1839 but there is no evidence, apart from this enigmatic letter, to suggest that he looked elsewhere thereafter. However, this is an area of people’s private lives in which one can seldom prove anything.

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