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

By Kuhn, William | History Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Kuhn, William, History Today


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    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.