On 26 February 1868, the leader of the Tories in the House of Commons called on Her Majesty Queen Victoria at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. The queen ‘came into her closet with a very radiant face and saying ‘You must kiss hands.’’ This her caller did, heartily, falling on one knee. Well, that was and is the traditional way in which the English sovereign acknowledges the choice of her parliament for the office of Prime Minister. In a letter preceding the kissing of hands, the queen had said in that third person mode: ‘It must be a proud moment for him to feel that his own talent and successful labours in the service of his country have earned him the high and influential position on which he is now placed.’ It certainly was a proud moment.
The grandfather of this PM had migrated to England sixty years before he was born. Benjamin Disraeli, the grandson of an Italian Jew, was the leader of the Tory Party, the Prime Minister of England, and he would become the closest confidant and adviser to the most powerful monarch in the entire world, and whom he, Disraeli, would anoint as the Empress of India. It is a truly remarkable story.
It had not always been so smooth. Disraeli had been a frightful dandy, and he had an acid tongue. The queen had called him ‘detestable, unprincipled, reckless & not respectable.’ Her husband had dismissed him as ‘having not one single element of the gentleman in his composition.’ Well, Her Majesty and His Royal Highness may have had held strong views, but they were free to change their mind. And Disraeli could ‘work’ the queen. He said that with her, you had to ‘lay it on with a trowel’ – and he did so, ever so shamelessly; and he was always careful to heap honour and praise on the late Prince. Her Majesty loved it, and she loathed poor Mr Gladstone. She felt like he addressed her like he was addressing a public meeting.
And besides, having a PM with a background in finance might be useful. In 1875, the bankruptcy of the Sultan of Turkey left the Khedive of Egypt wanting to sell his shares in the Suez Canal. The French were in the market. Disraeli was determined to get this stake in the Canal. He could not get the money from Parliament as it was in recess. He sent his private secretary to ask Baron Rothschild for a loan of 4,000,000 pounds. Baron Rothschild asked two questions: ‘When?’, and after eating a grape and spitting out a grape skin, ‘What is your security?’ (The crown jewels?) The money was available next day to the British government at 2 ½ %, and a one-off fee of 100,000 pounds. Disraeli wrote: ‘It is just settled: you have it Madam.’ The Queen was ‘in ecstasies’ but was keen to hear how her Prime Minister had got the ‘great sum.’ ‘What particularly delighted the Faery was the thought of Bismarck’s fury, for only shortly before, he had insolently declared that England had ceased to be a political force.’
Not long after this, the French nation would be convulsed by controversy over the fate of a Jewish officer named Dreyfus, and it is more than a little difficult to imagine the third generation of a migrant Jewish family becoming Prime Minister of any country in Europe at that time.
What I have said so far about Disraeli comes from something I wrote years ago. Since that was supposed to be a constitutional history of England, you can guess how keen I was to get those anecdotes out there. That is the kind of stuff I live for.
One leading biography was written by André Maurois. That name can evoke the same kind of snobbery that the name Puccini does. Maurois was a writer rather than a historian. And he excelled in biography. He followed in the steps of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (which is looked at here) – although he did say that Strachey was ‘a shade nastier than is really fair’: which sounds like a very English thing to say. Maurois said:
The search for historical truth is the work of a scholar; the search for the expression of a personality is rather the work of the artist; can the two things be done together?
Putting the question that way focuses on the writer. What about us – the readers? We know what we want. For someone like Pitt the Younger or perhaps Gladstone, we might stick with the prosaic. But for titans like Disraeli, Lloyd George or Churchill, we want Romance – with the Full Monty. And Maurois delivers in his inimitable style. The word ‘readable’ could have been invented for him – even when read in translation.
What was the dandy like? ‘A coat of black velvet, poppy-coloured trousers broidered with gold, a scarlet waistcoat, sparkling rings worn on top of white kid gloves.’ What drove Disraeli in the Commons? Perhaps it was the standing, cheering ovations, or the opportunity to say: ‘I am not one who will be insulted, even by a Yahoo.’ Why did he marry Mary Anne? For money – and it may have been the most loving marriage ever felt. How did he feel on becoming PM?
The adventurer, his genius tolerated by some, his authority contested by others, referred to as ‘Dizzy’ with a familiarity sometimes affectionate, sometimes scornful, had now become an object of respect….No people are more sensitive than the English to the beauty wherewith time can adorn an object; they love old statesmen, worn and polished in the struggle, as they love old leather and old wood.
You can see that there is great merit in reading an urbane Frenchman portray an English comet – a man described by Lord Sumption in the Reith Lectures as possibly the only authentic genius to reach the top in English politics. (And there was merit in having a Scot, Thomas Carlyle, write a long tone poem about the French Revolution.) Disraeli was a titan who walked among giants. Now we get pygmies following charlatans. The agony of our fall is made explicit by this gorgeous book.