In Disraeli’s novel Contarini Fleming, the eponymous hero, after being thrashed into unconsciousness on a dunghill by a school ‘chum’, leaves home and sets out on series on travels. He arrives in Venice, where he marries a distant relative. After this, interest in the story interest quickly evaporates.
Reading Douglas Hurd and Edward Young’s, contribution to Disraeli history; Disraeli: or the Two Lives, I was reminded of that traveller in Venice.
Most of the famous Venetian sights-St Mark’s- his Square and Basilica, the Campanile, Bridge of Sighs,the Rialto Bridge and the Arsenale have been ticked off. The attraction then moves into the small streets and squares; the bridges over dark canals. The traveller eventually gets completely and enjoyably lost.
In ‘The Two Lives’, Disraeli’s political career is all there. His Jewish birth and baptism into the Church of England; ‘Two Nations’; his excoriation of Sir Robert Peel over Corn Law repeal; the cunning political manoeverings to double the franchise in the 1867 Reform Act; the sparking debates in the Commons with Gladstone during the passage of the Bill. Though Disraeli saw extending the franchise not as a totally democratic policy, but as a way of increasing the Tory vote. In the foreign policy file- The purchase of the Suez Canal shares, The Eastern Question, the Dreikaiserbund and the Congress of Berlin.
But one of the pleasures of the book is when the Hurd and Young wander off into those narrow, dark, sunless lanes of Dizzy’s personal life, bashing down myths as they go.
His relationships with younger men and older women.The authors conclude these relationships, though perhaps not the ones with his wife, Mary Anne and Queen Victoria, were largely ways of helping him climb the ‘greasy pole’. His sometimes fraudulent financial dealings-Disraeli was bankrupt most of his life. He was never a democrat; the idea of ‘one nation’, rich and poor together, was a myth modern politicians have invented.
But I can imagine Hurd and Young’s enjoyment in taking the reader to a small Venetian cafe, far away from St Mark’s Square, plonking a glass bright orange ‘spritz’ on the table wondering what Dizzy would make of modern politics and politicians.
‘If Disraeli were alive today he would despair at the lack of courage and bravery amongst our political leaders. These days we are subjected to parliamentary performances that border on banal. Hour after hour, politicians in Parliament and in the media operate at the bottom of their abilities, churning out featureless, indeed often thoughtless, phrases without the courage to take a real argument to an interviewer or an opponent. The result is that we are driven to accept, even applaud, the platitudinous exchange of abuse as the essence of politics. Wit has almost disappeared from our political discourse. Indeed, this is partly why our leaders so often resort to the quotation book in order to borrow their wit from Disraeli.’
A good point, perhaps damaged by the use of too wide a brush.