Non­fic­tion

Ben­jamin Disraeli

  • Review
By – November 15, 2011
The biographer’s craft com­pels him to recount the life of his sub­ject; his art enables him to slip inside his subject’s mind and heart and bring him to life. In Ben­jamin Dis­raeli, the ninth book (of twen­ty- sev­en pro­ject­ed) in Schocken’s Jew­ish Encoun­ters” series, Adam Kirsch vivid­ly reveals Dis­raeli, the nov­el­ist-politi­cian, and the Vic­to­ri­an age which pro­duced him.

Kirsch decon­structs his sub­ject by ana­lyz­ing Disraeli’s fic­tion­al cre­ations and con­vey­ing how they reflect his ambi­tions and inse­cu­ri­ties. Born Jew­ish into a nation with so few Jews Eng­land lacked even legal dis­crim­i­na­tion, unlike the rest of Europe, Dis­raeli man­u­fac­tured his family’s his­to­ry and assumed a name which two gen­er­a­tions pre­vi­ous­ly had sim­ply been Israeli. This best known of England’s Jews, in fact, spent most of his adult years as a Chris­t­ian, hav­ing been bap­tized at twelve years of age, togeth­er with his sib­lings. Despite lack­ing famil­iar­i­ty with Jew­ish cus­toms, as a young man and as Prime Min­is­ter Dis­raeli was sub­ject­ed to ridicule and derid­ed as a stranger, regard­ed as an oppor­tunist, and char­ac­ter­ized as stereo­typ­i­cal­ly arro­gant and aloof, all as a result of his geneal­o­gy. Yet sim­i­lar to George Eliot’s Daniel Deron­da, Kirsch observes, Dis­raeli believed that there was less shame in being a Jew than in try­ing to deny it.” 

His ear­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­els, which are insight­ful­ly sum­ma­rized by Kirsch, pro­vide a reveal­ing self­por­trait. As Dis­raeli not­ed, In Vivian Grey I have por­trayed my active and real ambi­tion; in Alroy my ide­al ambi­tion; The Psy­cho­log­i­cal Romance is a devel­op­ment of my poet­ic char­ac­ter. This tril­o­gy is the secret his­to­ry of my feel­ings.” And when one adds Kirsch’s analy­sis of such illu­mi­nat­ing nov­els as Tan­cred and Con­ings­by, a roadmap to under­stand­ing Disraeli’s com­plex and provoca­tive per­son­al­i­ty can be drawn. These works pro­vide the read­er with a key to dis­cern­ing how the Jew was per­ceived in Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land, as well as in Europe, and how this pow­er­ful polit­i­cal fig­ure influ­enced the Vic­to­ri­an per­cep­tion of hon­or and jus­tice. 

Iden­ti­fied close­ly with Queen Vic­to­ria, hav­ing been elect­ed to Par­lia­ment in the year she assumed the throne, Dis­raeli served only one monarch. From his role in enact­ing the Reform Act of 1867, which trans­formed Eng­land into a democ­ra­cy,” to his serendip­i­tous coup in secur­ing the Suez Canal, to his cau­tious advo­ca­cy of Jew­ish achieve­ment of pow­er, Dis­raeli exert­ed over­sized influ­ence on Victoria’s age. And despite a lim­it­ed under­stand­ing of tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish prac­tices, his self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a Jew was com­plete. Kirsch has woven a nuanced tale of a com­plex man whose mark on his­to­ry con­tin­ues to be felt today.
Noël Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

Discussion Questions