Hob-nobbing with the grand vizier

THE YOUNG DISRAELI: 1804-1846 Jane Ridley Sinclair-Stevenson £20 Andrew Marr on the early life of Disraeli, a politician who always stood again, toadied again, and lobbied again Debt taught Disraeli to treat his friends ruthlessly and to lie plausibly .
A liar; a cheat; a sponger; a crawler; cold-hearted; vain; politically frivolous and almost entirely amoral - that, broadly speaking, was the character of the greatest Tory leader Victorian Britain produced. Jane Ridley's biography of the first 42 years of Benjamin Disraeli's life is the most detailed and meticulous account yet made. It is unjudgemental and careful in its conclusions, slow to condemn and keener to describe than to rationalise. It bases its psychological assessment heavily on Disraeli's own letters, mutilated journal, and early novels. So it is particularly impressive that the overall impact is of a man who was, though brilliant and brave, utterly repulsive.

Disraeli's political achievement in the first half of his life may have been still ahead of him. But he had achieved an extraordinary feat in those first decades: he had Got In. Expected to stay well outside the charmed circle of English imperial power because of his Jewishness and lack of property, the young Disraeli is like a manic fly buzzing against panes of richly-painted glass. His power and energy produce a nervous breakdown and several lesser collapses; but he always buzzes back.

As a politician he is pelted, rejected, ridiculed, snubbed, and defeated. The certainty of him shortly becoming an MP is a frequent theme in his letters to his sister, but these hopes turn again and again into dust. Yet he always stands again, toadies again, lobbies again.

Similarly, as an author - of no fewer than 12 novels by the time this volume finishes, as well as huge quantities of journalism, political pamphleteering, the odd of work of constitutional theory and a verse epic or two - he is crushingly reviewed, but he is never cast down.

As a result of this sinewy, unflinching determination, he achieves a transformation which has no parallel in British politics. He begins as an unknown and faintly disreputable outsider, a Byron-adoring dandy; and ends in early middle age having broken into the inner sanctum of power. Now soberly dressed, with a dyed black beard, he has destroyed the career of the great Robert Peel, his only rival for the title of the century's greatest Tory, and split that party, and become a considerable figure.

That would make, in itself, a remarkable story, but the life of Disraeli is packed with lesser themes which crackle and glow. There are the sexual liaisons and betrayals, from the early hints of homosexuality, through whoring and mistresses, to the strange bittersweet marriage to a much older woman, the widow of a political colleague. There is the mind-dazing and sapping story of his mountainous debts, the complex of bills used to cover other bills, money obtained under suspicious circumstances and the continual threat of exposure and ruin. And the whole is shot through with the exotica of a cheap Victorian novella - the father who worshipped the French Enlightenment philosophes, shady foreign noblemen, the diplomatic plots, the wild excursions to Spain, the Balkans and the Middle East, the sudden deaths, the gambling houses, the bordellos.

Given all this, never mind what is still to come, it is all too easy to see why the popular view of Disraeli has come plastered with a half- dazed, indulgent smile. Add the fact that he was striving against vicious anti-Semitism and snobbery, and triumphing through courage and wit, as well as grit, and the case for the defence almost makes itself.

Almost. But the accumulation of detail about Disraeli's bleakly self- obsessed attitude to politics and his cold personal betrayals in this study swings the verdict damningly against him. As Jane Ridley says at one point: "Debt taught Disraeli to treat his friends ruthlessly, and to lie plausibly. It was to be an invaluable education for parliamentary politics."

As a late teenager and in his twenties, it is hard to separate the pose and the man. He gloried in the company of a Turkish grand vizier who had recently decapitated thousands and burned towns. On the matter of the Great Reform Bill, he tells his sister: "I care very little what may be the result as, under all circumstances, I hope to float uppermost."

But the studied amorality hardens into political policy: floating uppermost becomes the sole aim. On the Corn Laws, he tried to have it both ways. More significantly, Ridley's narrative strongly suggests that Disraeli's famous alliance of monarchical and mass interests to form a new version of Toryism began life almost accidentally, as an attempt to defend his own opportunistic behaviour.

Nor was it, initially, more than a destructive weapon, fashioned equally against the Whigs and against the Conservative leader. His destruction of Peel may have set the foundations for his own rise to the top; but it was devastating for the Tory party - which was the least of Disraeli's worries.

In the end, betrayal and deceit stud the story too regularly for even the fondest admirer of Disraeli to miss. This is a rich, dense and thoughtful biography which may, depending on what follows in the second volume, become the definitive one. For this reader, at least, it has already had a transforming effect: I started by thinking of Disraeli as a loveable rogue, and ended by seeing him as a brilliant bastard.