A model politician
The Bodleian Library has mounted an exhibition to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, in December 2004. The exhibition is displayed in a single room off the main entrance of the library and is drawn from the Disraeli letters which passed to the National Trust from Disraeli's descendants at Hughenden, but which have been on deposit at the Bodleian in Oxford since 1978. On display are Disraeli's diaries and letters, written in his free and sloping hand, as well as letters from his principal correspondents. There are also political cartoons, early editions of his novels, pictures of his friends, as well as manuscripts from other Bodleian collections, such as those of the Labour premier, Harold Wilson. Lord Wilson admired Disraeli, even though he was an architect of the modern Tory party, and described him as 'the most fascinating and inscrutable Prime Minister Britain has ever had'.
The story of the man who was born a Jew, became an Anglican, wrote 20 books, served more than 40 years in Parliament and twice rose to the premiership retains its power to amaze. The exhibition is also attractive because it shows the sensual enjoyment Disraeli derived from writing, whether describing a dinner party or amusing an elderly friend. For example, in a letter written when he was not yet 21, he described a dinner of 'captain-voyageurs' at the publishers, John Murray. He told his father there had been much discussion of 'the savouriness of stewed lizard and rattlesnake ragouts'. Disraeli loved food, and possessed a talent for satire. They were both part of his appetite for enjoyment.
Another example is a line from a letter to Mrs Brydges Williams, a rich widow who left him about /30,000 in her will. He flattered her, but she was also a real friend and was buried next to him in the churchyard at Hughenden, with his wife on the other side. He wrote to her from Downing Street, where he was enjoying his second — brief — spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1858: 'My life has been passed in constant combat, but I am glad to add with respect to all important matters, of constant victory.' He was exaggerating and sending himself up at the same time.
Helen Langley, the curator, has organised the exhibition chronologically around ten 'stepping stones' in Disraeli's life. She has also edited a book to accompany the exhibition with six essays by experts. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, reviews the disaster of Disraeli's first Budget and links it to Disraeli's personal incompetence with money. He was in debt for most of his life and first sought election to Parliament as a way of gaining an MP's immunity from prosecution by creditors. Angus Hawkins describes Disraeli's triangular relationship with a father and son, the 14th and 15th Earls of Derby. Annabel Jones examines Disraeli's relations with his publishers, while Timothy Mowl unveils Disraeli's relationship with the aesthete, William Beckford. Roland Quinault takes issue with the dean of Disraeli biographers, Lord Blake, by arguing that Disraeli as Buckinghamshire squire made perfect sense and was an entirely natural identity. Finally, Jane Ridley puts the case for Disraeli's women as influential forces in transforming him into a political insider.
Disraeli was no idealist. He conforms to modern prejudices about politicians as an opportunistic and ambitious breed. What this prejudice obscures is how democracy thrives on the ambition of politicians. The second Reform Bill in 1867, which enfranchised hundreds of thousands of new voters, would never have happened without Disraeli's self-seeking opportunism and ruthless party manoeuvring. Nor could a greater victory for toleration ever have been won than by his success in the face of powerful anti-Semitism. The exhibition's title, 'Scenes from an Extraordinary Life', emphasises the extraordinary way 19thcentury liberty prospered from Disraeli's determination to satisfy his own ambition, seeking to please others and enjoy himself.
Scenes from an Extraordinary Life continues in Oxford until May 2004 and then moves to Hughenden. William Kuhn 's book on Disraeli, The Politics of Pleasure, will be published by Simon & Schuster next year.