Legacy of William Beckford
You will surely not find it strange that this subject,
so profound and difficult, should bear various
interpretations, for it will not impair the face of the
argument with which we are here concerned. Either
explanation may be adopted.
SHORTLY AFTER THE PASSAGE OF THE FIRST REFORM BILL IN 1832, BENjamin Disraeli began to write a romance about a legendary Jewish hero named David Alroy.1 Why did he do so at a time when he was attempting to launch a political career in England, a country where Jews were not permitted to hold seats in Parliament? Why, moreover, did the book, when published, bring Disraeli to the attention of William Beckford, a wealthy amateur musician and author of an Oriental romance, whose main claim to fame had been his involvement in a notorious sexual scandal? And why did Richard Harris Barham, a noted humorist and Anglican divine, immediately pen a parody of Disraeli’s text, in which Barham identifies Jewish literary aspiration with theft and Jewish heroism with an assault on the Established Church? In a poisonous sketch, Barham identifies Alroy and Disraeli with Isaac Solomon, the best known Jewish criminal of the 1830s (and the model of Fagin in Oliver Twist, 1838).
In publishing The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), Disraeli attempted to constitute himself as a national subject, affirming his identity simultaneously as a minority and an imperial subject. As a young man, he wrote: “My mind is a continental mind. It is a revolutionary mind.”2 Nor did a single continent suffice. Disraeli’s mind and travels included not only Europe but also the Middle East, where he traveled in 1830 and 1831, and extended as far afield as