Magazine article The Spectator

Consciously Defying Analysis

Magazine article The Spectator

Consciously Defying Analysis

Article excerpt

THE SELF-FASHIONING OF DISRAELI, 1818-1851 edited by Charles Richmond and Paul Smith CUP, L30, pp. 212

This collection of eight interpretative essays by seven different hands explores different aspects of Disraeli's personality. It does so for the period when least is known about him. As with Shakespeare, the less it is possible to know, the more ardently we wish to know. We do not, we cannot, admit to ourselves the simple truth that the first half of Disraeli's life is exceedingly obscure and likely always to remain so - partly, of course, because Disraeli himself wished it to be so. Deeply learned though these essayists are, they can do little more than rearrange the existing limited stock of printed information in slightly more portentous ways. False notes may be absent, but though the different contributors achieve a unity of tone, which is good, that unity owes rather too much to North American psychotherapy, which is not so good. Readers who seek a study in psychological history which treats Disraeli as a romantic artist fashioning his identity may do better to stay with Paul Smith's Disraeli: A Brief Life (CUP paperback, 1999).

Charles Richmond on Disraeli's education shows that if not deep or linguistically disciplined, it was wide and to the purpose. Few can come away from Disraeli's library without feeling that he was an homme serieux. Schwarz, on Disraeli's romanticism, shows the streak of modern self-analysis permeating the 'autobiographical' novels. Brantlinger on Disraeli's orientalism, arguing the toss with Edward Said, shows Disraeli giving a positive value to the East and blending it into his personal identity, though not, however, to the extent of ever revisiting it even when tourism grew more practicable. Endelman looks at the many-- faceted nature of Disraeli's Jewishness: was it a momentary literary pose of his forties, or a necessary means of dipping into Rothschild's pockets? Niall Ferguson's recent 1200-page doorstopper on the Rothschilds is not short of references to Disraeli, but for all that the inner meaning of the Disraeli-Rothschild relationship does not quite emerge, and there may be much more evidence to come. Peter Jupp looks efficiently at Disraeli's interpretation of English history and how it was specifically tailored to pre-Victorian conditions. This makes rather better sense of some of Disraeli's doctrinal absurdities. Jupp also shows, I think for the first time, that much of Disraeli's history was simply lifted from the leading authorities. The central Disraeli doctrine of a Whig oligarchy ruling over a Tory silent majority seems to be both true and something rediscovered by each generation of historians. Disraeli may have found it in such a classic Whig writer as Hallam.

The chapter which perplexes most is that on `Disraeli's Crucial Illness' and is written jointly by a medical man and a member of the New York Bar. Disraeli was indeed seriously ill from the age of 22 to 25, perhaps a good deal longer, following a spell of indubitably manic excitement. His father also suffered from a long depressive breakdown in his twenties, and such things can be inherited. But with no patient to examine it is not easy to know if Disraeli's 'brainfever' was mainly neurological or psychiatric, and still more difficult to know if manic-depressive tendencies underlay his personality in some sense through adult life. One cannot rule out some quite banal nervous condition: meningitis, ME and epilepsy are possible candidates. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.