MR. DISRAELI'S YOUNG DUKE.*
ALL Mr. Disraeli's novels are worth reprinting, not because they are any of them very good as novels, or indeed very good in anyother respect, but because they show a great deal of irregular ability, and give a picture that is historically valuable of that hot-bed of social and political guano in which his talents as a political leader had their root, and of their origin in which, his great capacities still bear such striking traces. Some worshipper of Mr. Disraeli's, who signs himself "B," has taken to reproducing at intervals, with prefaces devoted to illustrating the greatness of his hero, Mr. Disraeli's political speeches and early novels. We cannot say that Mr. Disraeli's editor is either a skilful or a wise critic. He has an unfortunate habit of drawing attention to Mr. Disraeli's weakest points by throwing himself into an attitude of ecstasy over them, and wondering at the consummate ability which they evince. There is plenty of cleverness in Mr. Disraeli on which a discrimi- nating panegyrist might insist. But "B" picks out the ablest things • The Young Duke. "L moral bile, though gay." By B. Disraeli. New Elition. ' Loudon Warne and Co. 1866.
and the feeblest things with equal wonder for special enthusiasm, and so destroys, by the effect of his praise of what is false, glaring, and sickly, all confidence in his judgment when he is really descanting on a' picture of some power.
The Young Duke -was one of Mr. Disraeli's early efforts, written when the author was twenty-six years of age, and "when George IV. was King,"—the last fact no doubt a better excuse for its general characteristics than the first. He calls it "a moral tale, though gay," which perhaps it is, in the sense in which we speak of an engine as atmospheric which gets its chief power by pumping out the atmosphere. Mr. Disraeli's tale is moral only through the-striking impression produced upon the mind by the absolute exclusion of every moral standard from its pages,— unless indeed we take the word in the old customary sense sug- gested by its etymology, and regard that as ' moral ' which on the whole justifies the stock phraseology of society concerning good and evil. In this sense the tale is moral, as it makes the young Duke after a coarse of extravagant profligacy concur at last in the common-places of society as to such conduct, and find complete happiness in a change of external habits unaccompanied by a single pang of pure remorse, and undiminished by a single shadow of purely impersonal disapprobation on the part of the perfectly virtuous heroine and her virtuous father, the hero's guardian. Mr. Disraeli wrote a few lines of characteristic preface to the last reprint of this book in 1853, in which he betrayed a secret fondness for it. "Though its pages," he said, "attempt to portray the fleet- ing manners of a somewhat frivolous age, it is hoped that they con- vey a moral of a deeper and more permanent character" (namely, that selfish profligacy is a mistake, and does not pay after, all). "Young authors," he goes on, "are apt to fall into affectation and conceit, and the writer of this work sinned very much in these respects ; but the affectation of youth should be viewed leniently, and every man has a right to be conceited until lie is successful." Among the many powers which Mr. Disraeli's editor claims for him which he has not got he omits some which Mr. Disraeli undoubtedly has, of which the power of epigram is aasuredlythe most remarkable. A happier instance can scarcely be suggested than this epigram of his on conceit as founded upon a certain ambitious incompetence, of which, however, with all their cleverness, Mr. Disraeli's novels are generally full. While he limits himself to slight generalizations on the world expressed with piquant force, we know no more successful writer. Here, for instance, taken from The Young Duke, are a string
of epigrammatic observations, all true and all striking The proof of the general dulness of polite society is the great sensation which is always produced by a new face ;"—or this of jockeys,— " those mysterious' characters who, in their influence on their superiors and their total want of sympathy with their species, are our only match for the Oriental eunuch ;"—or this of a discon- tented and self-occupied man,—" his death bed was consoled by the reflection that his persecutors might at last feel some -com- punction; and he quitted the world without a pang because he flattered himself that his departure would cost them one ;"—or this on gaming,—" no person, whatever his apparent wealth, ever gained except from the prospect of immediate gain." "Gaming is too active, too anxious, too complicated, too troublesome, in a word too sensible an affair for spirits who fly only to a sort of dreamy and indefinite distraction. The fact is gaming is a matter of business." In sentences of this kind, betraying a lucid though superficial observing faculty, with a subtle feeling for antitheses and contrasts, Mr. Disraeli has few rivals. And yet for this epigramnzatic worldly knowledge, though he praises his knowledge of the world, his editor does not lay any claim for Mr. Disraeli, while he fills his preface with all sorts of fulsome panegyric, at which any one who reads carefully any one of his stories, the worst or the best, say The Young Duke, or Alroy, or Coningsby, or Sybil, will only laugh. Thus, when we are told that Mr. Disraeli is of a " fervent and poetic temperament," no one who reads Mr. Disraeli with insight can fail to see the unconscious humour of the statement. It is Mr. Disraeli's absolute coldness,— we do not mean as opposed to kindliness, for he is always kindly, —but coldness of purpose, and complete-absence of all enthusiasm, which is his main strength. There is no more flashy writing in existence than Mr. Disraeli's poetry : ' meretricious ' is the word which stamps Alroy and Contarini Fleming from the first page to the last. Mr. Disraeli "is ever artistic, never artificial," says this unfortunate panegyrist, almost looking out, as it would seem, for the falsest praise he can invent. This, for instance, we suppose,— and there are quires of this kind of stuff in Mr. Disraeli's novels,— is a proof of his "fervent and poetic temperament," and that he is "always artistic, never artificial :"— " The ocean of my mind is calm, but dira, and ominous of storms that
may arise. A cloud hangs heavy o'er the horizon's verge, and veils the future. Even now a star appears, steals into light, and now again 'tis gone ! I hear the proud swell of the growing waters,—I hear the 'Whispering of the wakening winds ; but Reason lays her trident on the cresting waves, and all again is hushed. For I am one, though young, yet old enough to know Ambition is a demon ; and I fly from what I fear. And Fame has eagle wings, and yet she mounts not so high as man's desires. When all is gained, how little then is won ! And yet to gain that little, how much is lost! Let us once aspire, and madness follows. Could we but drag the purple from the hero's heart ; could we but tear the laurel from the poet's throbbing brain, and read their doubts, their dangers, their despair, we might learn a greater lesson than we shall ever acquire by musing over their exploits or their inspiration. Think of unrecognized Omar, with his wasting youth, weeping over the Macedonian's young career! Could Pharsalia compensate for those withering pangs ? View the obscure Napoleon starving in the streets of Paris ! What was St. Helena to the bitterness of such existence ? The visions of past glory might illumine even that dark imprisonment ; but to be conscious that his supernatural energies might die away without creating their miracles : can the wheel, or the rack, rival the torture of such a suspicion ? Lo! Byron bending o'er his shattered lyre, with inspiration in his very rage. And the pert taunt could sting even this child of light ! To doubt of the truth of the creed in which you have been nurtured, is not so terrific as to doubt respecting the intellectual vigour on whose strength you have staked your happiness. Yet these were mighty ones ; perhaps the records of the world will not yield us three score to be their mates. Then tremble, ye whose cheek glows too warmly at their names ! Who would be more than man, should fear lest he be less. Yet there is hope—there should be happiness—for them—for all. Kind Nature, ever mild, extends her fond arms to her truant children, and breathes her words of solace. As we weep on her indulgent and maternal breast, the exhausted passions, one by one, expire like gladiators in yon huge pile, that has made barbarity sublime. Yes! there is hope and joy—and it is here ! "
Then his silly admirer tells us that Mr. Disraeli is "a profound student of the human mind; there is scarcely any state of feeling of whose origin and nature he is ignorant." Mr. Disraeli is a student of the human mind, and a very clever one, but his chief characteristic is that he is not a profound, but a superficial student of it, and that there is scarcely any state of feeling whose origin he can truly delineate. Many of his sketches of character have a superficial brilliancy,—some are even at first sight life-like,—but there is not one,—not even that of Mr. Rigby, in Coningsby, which is well known to have been drawn literally from life,—that impresses you with the power of a master hand, that is, with any true skill in getting beyond the merest externals of human character into any depth vforthy of a creative artist. What a picture would Thackeray have made of Mr. Rigby, if he had ever chosen to imitate from real life ! And The Young Duke is even more deficient than Mr. Disraeli's later works in the power of portraying cha- racter truly. Not one picture in the book except that of Arun- del Dacre is even superficially individualized. And with him you never get below the surface. Mr. Disraeli's heroines are uni- formly lay-damsels, enveloped in an atmosphere of ipecacuanha. "There is no trait," says his panegyrist, "in Mr. Disraeli's writings which is so charming as his chivalrous and manly appre- ciation of the beauties of the female character. May Dacre, Edith Coningsby, Flora, Sybil, Venetia, Henrietta, and others might be named as some of the most exquisite creations." We do not know one of them that has produced any other feeling in our minds than weariness at Mr. Disraeli's profuse command of the sickly qualities of maidenly heroines, and a considerable degree of nausea at the sentimentality with which he describes the faces "flushed with the impending twilight," and so forth, of the young women in question.
The most curious feature of Mr. Disraeli's ambitious philosophy is the contrast between tho respect he evidently feels for the revelation committed to the "Semitic race," at least as a power in the universe, and the complete absence of any vestige of the cha- racter it tends to produce, even in the creatures of his own imagina- tion. His editor insists on Mr. Disraeli's reverence for "Sinai and Calvary," the solemn summits of which, as the Tory chief told an Oxford audience two years ago, always reappear above the floods of infidelity which every now and then deluge Europe.
And that he profoundly believes in the Semitic race, whatever dogmatic value he assigns to the special lessons for which they are best known, there can be no doubt. Yet the greatest dra- matic characteristic of that race,—the intense and acute appre- hension of a divine power, searching the conscience, and hu- miliating the heart with its keen purity, and its sharpness as of a two-edged sword, — is totally and blankly absent, even from Mr. Disraeli's imagination. When his Young Dukes, &c., are converted from the evil of their ways, the transi- tion is even slighter and more easy than their gradual fall into evil. Some young lady,—not over particular in her tastes, but objecting in general to profligacy of life,—takes their fancy, and they cast their slough as easily as they would change their clothes,--without remorse, without suffering, and without any intimate sense of either evil or good. Mr. Disraeli admires the immense influence exerted by the Semitic race without entering even slightly into its one essential and most profound character- istic, its sensitiveness to the moral-supernatural, to the pierc- ing, the penetrating, infinite side of the divine righteousness. Of this there is no glimmer in Mr. Disraeli's heroes, artis- tically as it would have set off their easy worldly tone, if he could have given it them. The only case in which Mr. Disraeli ever reaches to the full intensity of human nature at all, is once, and once only, in delineating the rage of greedy passion in a set of gamesters. We agree for once with his undiscriminating editor in regarding this scene as by far the most striking thing, not only in The Young Duke, but in all his writings. The forty- eight hours' game at learti between the four gamblers, with deferential Tom Cogit in soft attendance, bringing the new packs of cards, offering refreshment, whispering suggestions about supper, and ministering delicately to the fierce struggle, is a pic- ture that really deserves to live. It is neither overdrawn, nor spoiled by extraneous elements, such as the suggestion of foul play, which novelists so freely mingle in descriptions of this sort. It is true gambling, neither worse nor better, and yet there flames in it the genuine blue-light of evil passion. We give but a short extract from a scene which is the only striking thing in The Young Duke, but at the same time very striking, and the most powerful by far which ever came from Mr. Disraeli's pen :—
" Tom Cogit never presumed to come near the young Duke, but paid him constant attention. He sat at the bottom of the table and was ever sending a servant with some choice wine, or recommending him, through some third person, some choice dish. It is pleasant to be made much of,' as Shakespeare says, even by scoundrels. To be king of your company is a poor ambition,—yet homage is homage, and smoke is smoke,— whether it come out of the chimney of a palace or of a workhouse. The banquet was not hurried. Though all wished it finished, no one liked to appear urgent. It was over at last, and they walked up stairs, where the tables were arranged for all parties and all play. Tom Cogit went up a few minutes before them, like the lady of the mansion, to review the lights and arrange the cards. Feminine Tom Cogit Gaming has one advantage—it gives you an appetite ; that is to say, so long as you have a chance remaining. The Duke had thousands, —for at present his resources were unimpaired, and he was exhausted by the. constant attention and anxiety of five hours. He passed over the delicacies, and went to the side table, and began cutting himself some cold roast beef. Tom Cogit ran up, not to his Grace, but to the Baron, to announce the shocking fact that the Duke of St. James was enduring great trouble ; and then the Baron asked his Grace to permit Mr. Cogit to serve him. Our hero devoured—we use the word advisedly, as fools say in the House of Commons—he devoured the roast beef, and rejecting the hermitage with disgust, asked for porter Another morning came and there they sat, ankle deep in cards. No attempt at breakfast now—no affectation of making a toilet or airing the room. The atmo- sphere was hot, to be sure, but it well became such a hell. There they sat, in total, in positive forgetfulness of everything but the hot game they were hunting down. There was not a man in the room, except Tom Cogit, who could have told you the name of the town in which they were living. There they sat, almost breathless, watching every turn with the fell look in their cannibal eyes, which showed their total inability to sympathize with their fellow-beings. All forms of society had been long forgotten. There was no snuff-box handed about now, for courtesy, admiration, or a pinch ; no affectation of occasionally making a remark upon any other topic but the all-engrossing one. Lord Castlefort rested with his arms on the table :—a false tooth had got unhinged. His Lordship, who at any other time, would have been most annoyed, coolly put it in his pocket. His cheeks had fallen, and he looked twenty years older. Lord Dice had torn off his cravat, and his hair hung down over his callous, bloodless cheeks, straight as silk. Temple Grace looked as if he were blighted by lightning, and his deep blue eyes gleamed like a hyaina. The Baron was least changed. Tom Cogit, who smelt that the crisis was at hand, was as quiet as a bribed rat.'
There is a gleam of true power in that,—such as we should find it difficult to detect elsewhere in Mr. Disraeli's works. The general level of The Young Duke is, however, infinitely below it,—conceited, trivial, supercilious, dull. There is no wholeness about Mr. Disraeli's artistic faculty. He catches a glimpse, and makes as mach of it is if it were a study. He does not even impress us with the main fea- tures of the trivial and profligate society which he meant to draw. He produces indeed a sense of rottenness in the reader's mind, but it is put there by the reader, and not by the artist. The Young Duke itself is little more than an ill-strung chain of pictures of flippant and frivolous vice." An immoral tale, though dull," would have been a better description of it than "a moral tale, though gay."