The Romantic Prime Minister: Disraeli

Article excerpt

YOUNG DISRAELI, 1804-1846

By Jane Ridley

Crown

406 pp., $35

The man who would eventually become Queen Victoria's favorite prime minister was in many ways a distinctly un-Victorian figure. Neither hard-working, nor sober, nor honest, nor chaste, nor imbued with the moral earnestness that was a hallmark of so many other great Victorians, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was a dandy, a womanizer, a financial speculator, and a political Machiavellian who often seemed more intent on advancing himself than adhering to political principles.

Disraeli's rise to power was as phenomenal as it was unlikely. He was an outsider: a Jew by birth with no family fortune, no university education. As a young man, he spent his time making rash financial speculations (that resulted in bankruptcy), writing novels, dressing in colorful clothes, and romancing the influential wives of prominent men. He first ran for Parliament (unsuccessfully) as a Radical, but finally was elected as a Tory in 1837.

Two years later, he married Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, 12 years his senior and the widow of a man who had been his political patron. Although both newlyweds had ulterior motives - political ambitions - they proved to be a devoted couple.

Not much favored by the Tories' leader, Sir Robert Peel, Disraeli attained political prominence when he spearheaded Tory opposition to Peel. Peel had repealed the protective tariffs on grain known as the Corn Laws. Disraeli's attack focused less on the issue of tariffs versus free trade than on the impropriety of a prime minister going back on his word.

Jane Ridley's "Young Disraeli" follows this brilliant and charismatic politician to just this crucial point in his career. (Presumably, her next volume will take up where this one has left off.)

Ridley views Disraeli as a quintessentially Romantic figure cutting his Byronic swath across the duller, more prosaic age of Queen Victoria.

Examining his childhood and early background, Ridley is struck by the paucity of references Disraeli ever made to his mother, in contrast to the many tributes he offered to his beloved father Isaac, who, despite great prejudice, managed to become a widely-respected man of letters. …