The Dizzy heights : BOOKS : POLITICS

THE YOUNG DISRAELI 1804-1846 by Jane Ridley, Sinclair-Stevenson £20
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"DISRAELI's vulgar charlatanerie offends me so," wrote Harriet Martineau, confessing that she could not bring herself to read Coningsby. Most Victorian intellectuals distrusted the flashy, unprincipled Jew, while admitting his intelligence. He returned their contempt. "When I want to read a novel I write one," he said, on the publication of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.

It was easy to disapprove of Disraeli. He was unscrupulous in private and in public. He used his friends, then discarded them. He flirted with women while borrowing from their husbands. He married, for money, a widow 12 years older than himself, and while she was away from home mortgaged her furniture. A brilliant but destructive speaker, he hounded prime minister Peel from office then abandoned the cause for which he had split his party.

The young Disraeli was a dandy who wore his hair in ringlets, smelled of scent, and affected a lisp. His exuberant wardrobe astonished the public, who jeered "old clothes" at the election platform. He was convinced of his own genius from in early age, yet he suffered a nervous breakdown in his twenties, and frequently lapsed into hypochondriacal lethargy.

There was no humbug about Disraeli. He was a stranger to moral earnestness, the dominant emotion of the Victorian age and the chief characteristic of his rival Gladstone. Far from being repelled, he was delighted to be entertained by the Grand Vizier, the "man who was daily decapitating half the province" of Albania, where a rebellion against Turkish rule had been brutally crushed.

Disraeli's politics are a puzzle for modern observers. The "Young England" movement that caused such a stir in the early 1840s harked back to feudalism; Engels described it as ridiculous, "a satire on historical development". In retrospect, it seems nothing more than blue-blooded young men wearing white waistcoats. "The Tory Party is the real democratic party of this country," he announced - an implausible claim in the 1990s, utterly absurd in the 1830s. Closer to the mark was his quip that "a Conservative Government is an Organised Hypocrisy."

Yet Disraeli saw the way forward. He understood that the Tories' future lay in extending the franchise, not in trying to undo the Reform Bill of 1832 which had seemed to guarantee the Whigs a permanent monopoly. Disraeli sympathised with the Chart-ists, and recognised that the country was divided between "Two Nations" - the rich and the poor. He consistently opposed the Poor Law legislation. The principle that relief to the poor is a charity is a moral error, he declared in an election address - "I maintain that it is a right!" Opposition to the Poor Law makes us popular with the multitude, he told his sister - but his cynicism was a relief from the middle-class sanctimonious- ness that immured the poor man in the workhouse.

"My works are my life," wrote Disraeli. "They are all written from my own feelings and experience." This new biography uses Disraeli's novels as source material, particularly the three early novels which he described as "the secret history of my feelings". One of the attractions to the public of Dis-raeli's works was that they drew so obviously on real people and events. But to survive in high society Disraeli walked a fine line between fact and fiction. Occasionally Jane Ridley confuses the two.

Nevertheless this is a good book, authoritative, perspicacious and well- written. It is the first of two projected volumes, covering 42 years of Disraeli's life. Do we need another biography of Disraeli? Hardly. Since Robert Blake's standard biography in 1966, there have been two substantial lives, by Sarah Bradford and Stanley Weintraub. Ridley claims that the publication of Disraeli's letters in a definitive edition by the University of Toronto Press has transformed the study of Disraeli. No such justification is necessary. This book stands on its own strengths; in particular, rescuing the reputation of Disraeli's wife Mary Anne, much ridiculed by male biographers. Mary Anne admitted she was a "dunce" by comparison with her adored "Dizzy", but Jane Ridley shows how much of his success he owed to her shrewdness and her devotion. Disraeli loved her, too, in his way; he needed someone to fuss over him. What Mary Anne lacked he made up for in a series of passionate intellectual friendships with young aristocrats.

Disraeli's debts were enormous. By the time he was 21, he had already lost a fortune. As he rescheduled the debts, apparently at ever higher rates of interest, they mounted inexorably. When he stood for parliament at Shrewsbury in 1841, a handbill listing debts of more than £22,000 was distributed, claiming that Disraeli "seeks a place in parliament merely for the purpose of avoiding the necessity of a prison". Disraeli's financial diffi- culties were a real obstacle to his political career, preventing him from appearing in public to avoid the humiliation of arrest; on one occasion, he escaped the bailiff only by jumping down a well.

But Jane Ridley shows how debt taught Disraeli to treat his friends ruthlessly, a lesson valuable to a politician. One of his fictional characters admits as much: "All my knowledge of human nature is owing to them: it is in managing my affairs that I have sounded the depths of the human heart... What expedient in negotiation is unknown to me? ... Yes, among my creditors, I shall have disciplined that diplomatic ability, that shall some day confound and control cabinets." It is a shame that Ridley does not explain the system of selling debts, or the principles of the Corn Law agitation, background that may not be familiar to the general reader. But this is a quibble; Disraeli is a sparkling subject, and this is a sparkling biography.