Magazine article History Today

Disraeli, Dandyism and Decadence: William Kuhn Considers Some of the Ways a Look at Benjamin Disraeli's Sexuality Challenges Our Idea of the Victorians and the Man Himself

Magazine article History Today

Disraeli, Dandyism and Decadence: William Kuhn Considers Some of the Ways a Look at Benjamin Disraeli's Sexuality Challenges Our Idea of the Victorians and the Man Himself

Article excerpt

Benjamin Disraeli is one of the most studied men in history. There are now more than seventy works of biography, history, drama and fiction that take him as their subject. Among these are also volumes of his correspondence and speeches, as well as three biographies of his wife. What is left to say about him after so much has already appeared in print?

One preoccupation of the present is our attempt to recapture the Victorians for something more than the principled prudes who were reliable jokes of the twentieth century. Something in the passing of the millennium has spurred our interest in nineteenth-century people. Moreover, Bloomsburian cynicism about the Victorians has itself come to seem dated. Lytton Strachey cut Victorian heroes down to size in Eminent Victorians (1920), but he was writing from the point of view of a generation angry at what they perceived as the Victorian origins of the First World War. For a long time the popularity of his book sustained a historical animus against the Victorians.

More recently, the easing of social prejudice, the rise of gender as a category of historical analysis and an interest among historians in questions of sexuality have reinvigorated interest in familiar subjects. Much in the voluminous printed record of Disraeli's life makes us sit up and take notice in light of these new considerations. Those areas of his life previous historians have dismissed as froth, or speculation--for example, his love of royalty and aristocracy, or his reputation for sexual ambiguity--call for a new look.

One reward of taking seriously those elements of Disraeli's career that have embarrassed or failed to interest others is the revelation of a hidden dimension of Victorian conservatism. Another is to see how Disraeli surmounted a significant obstacle to his advancement and turned it to his advantage. Finally, in grasping some of the ways a prominent Victorian figure could both conceal and reveal his sexuality, one comes away with increased admiration not only for the man, but also for the worldliness and savvy of his generation.

Disraeli was a writer as well as a politician. From his writing, particularly his twelve novels, as well as his unpublished reminiscences, we can begin to sense how his attraction to aristocratic society was both silly and serious at the same time. Born into a family of upper-middle-class Jews, with a father who spent all day in the library, Disraeli aspired to assemble in salons and attend Drawing Rooms. He published his earliest fiction during the Regency and his heroes were flamboyantly-dressed flaneurs and dandies. He was an expert on the aristocracy and he remembered 'Of founding families Lord Ellenborough said "there is always a sybarite in the third generation".' A sybarite himself, Disraeli was always on the lookout for the third generation.

Disraeli's light-hearted anecdotes about the social world, such a feature of both his retrospective and autobiographical fiction, marked him as very different from his political opposition. Gladstonian Liberals dwelled on reform and improvement. Theirs was a future-orientated world with a firm belief in progress. The underlying theme of Disraeli's politics, however, was pleasure, enjoyment of things as they are and respect for what they have been. The social good of living in London and going to parties was a desire to please others. This is the point of Disraeli's recalling that the Duke of Beaufort:

   ... used to say that Town life was
   favourable to a youthful appearance.
   That people who always lived in the
   country got to look older so much
   sooner than the habitues of London.
   He attributed this to selfishness, self
   indulgence and not living with the
   desire to please.

The art of pleasing others was not just an element of charm, it was social glue that preserved and enhanced life as it was.

The twentieth-century philosopher and analyst of conservatism Michael Oakeshott employed the title of a Noel Coward play to make his point that to be conservative is to prefer 'present laughter' to a millennial or utopian vision of social perfection. …

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