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.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness