The Man Who Never Glared

John Pemble

  • Disraeli: or, The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young
    Orion, 320 pp, £20.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 297 86097 6
  • The Great Rivalry: Gladstone and Disraeli by Dick Leonard
    I.B. Tauris, 226 pp, £22.50, June 2013, ISBN 978 1 84885 925 8
  • Disraeli: The Romance of Politics by Robert O’Kell
    Toronto, 595 pp, £66.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 1 4426 4459 5

‘All actors want to play Disraeli, except fat ones,’ the American filmmaker Nunnally Johnson said. ‘It’s such a showy part – half Satan, half Don Juan, man of so many talents, he could write novels, flatter a queen, dig the Suez Canal. Present her with India. You can’t beat that, it’s better than Wyatt Earp.’ And it’s as good as Lord Byron. Take the life of Disraeli, for ‘novelist’ read ‘poet’, and you’ve got an epic about what happened to Byron after he’d recovered from that deadly fever at Missolonghi.

Having fought for Greek independence, he falls out of love with the country and returns home to make a career in British politics. He comes with no fortune, no influence and an unsavoury reputation. The territorial and financial magnates of the Whig party don’t want to know. Undaunted, Byron reinvents himself as a Tory: the Tories are now led by his contemporary and old school friend, Robert Peel. At Harrow, Peel was a model pupil; Byron was a madcap, and he still thinks a lot more of Peel than Peel thinks of him. Peel is committed to transforming the Tory Party. He’s out of sympathy with horsey aristocrats, rustic squires, dissolute half-pay officers, high and dry parsons and Romantic intellectuals. He wants to promote men like his father and grandfather – sober, hard-working, hard-headed industrialists with the Bible in one hand and The Wealth of Nations in the other. Byron doesn’t fit, so Peel leaves him out of his cabinet in 1841.

Hurt and resentful, Byron turns back to literature. He invents a new sort of Tory-radical fiction – satirical, engaged with recent history and current affairs, and bitingly critical of Peel. This brings him to the attention of a group of young and wealthy backbench Tories who want a high-profile leader for their campaign against Peel’s ‘Conservatives’, and Peel is duly destroyed. Deserted by the majority of Tory MPs, he’s forced to resign and dies a few years later as the result of a riding accident. Byron eventually finds himself chief of the truncated, old-fashioned Tory Party, with no apparent prospects of substantial power. Very late in life, he unexpectedly becomes prime minister with a big parliamentary majority and the support of a devoted queen. By now he is no longer Byronic. The athletic figure is bent; the hyacinthine locks have vanished and their ghostly remnant is dyed; the Apollonian cheeks are withered and rouged. The crusader for compassionate Toryism falls asleep during cabinet discussions of welfare legislation. The once restless traveller hardly ever goes abroad. The champion of oppressed nationalities has become an apologist for the Turkish sultanate, Britain’s broker for imperial trophies (Cyprus, a trunkful of Suez Canal shares) and the transformer of English queens into empresses of India. Peel, reincarnated as William Gladstone, denounces him from beyond the grave. Gladstone sweeps to victory, Byron is toppled and Peel is avenged. Byron dies, leaving posterity perplexed. Had he been a writer who happened to become prime minister, or a prime minister who happened to be a writer? Professors of history talk a great deal about him, but professors of English ignore him and publishers put his works out of print.

Disraeli saw himself as Byron resurrected, and Gladstone saw him as Byron travestied. In a Punch cartoon of 1868 Disraeli is looking into a full-length mirror with a fatuous smirk: he sees Byron. Gladstone is standing by, arms folded, looking grimly on. He sees what we see – a conceited thespian. Can either see what’s there? Or does each see half of the truth?

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