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The Epistle According to Disraeli
Mel Wiebe always has a well-thumbed copy of Burke's Peerage nearby so he can identify long-dead aristocrats. The walls of his workroom at Queen's University are lined with political biographies, copies of Hansard, almanacs, and nineteenth-century encyclopedias. Tables are covered with books, microfilm readers, computers, and printouts of work-in-progress. As the senior editor at the Disraeli Project, he is editing the letters of Benjamin Disraeli, the most flamboyant of England's nineteenth-century prime ministers. To date the Project's six published volumes cover the correspondence from 1815 to 1856-3,000 edited letters. The remaining 8,000 letters, which extend to Disraeli's death in 1881, will easily fill another sixteen. What is emerging is a view of a man more complex, and possibly more discriminated against, than the British historical establishment would admit.

In the past, biographies of the famous were generally penned by respectful writers who trod deferentially when they came to the dark corners of their subjects' lives. Necessity dictates that historians and biographers use broad brush strokes when painting their portraits, selecting and highlighting some events, while omitting others. Now as once restricted archival materials become available, biographies that were once hailed as definitive are being rendered obsolete. Contributing to this trend is a new breed of specialists who have developed cottage industries collecting, editing, and annotating letters, diaries, and personal papers that were never intended to see the light of day. Their work is overturning cherished views and forcing reevaluations. Susannah Moodie's letters to her husband have an unexpected uxorious dimension. Lewis Carrol's letters to little girls are full of the same whimsical puzzles that fuel his fiction. Charles Dickens may not fare as well from such intense scrutiny: while his letters hold a wealth of material about Victorian London's literary circles, they also disclose that he contracted venereal disease during the period his marriage ended when, in the interests of protecting his reputation, he was hiding his relationship with actress Ellen Ternan. When editorial projects produce revelations like these, biographers are compelled to write better-documented works demonstrating the interaction between private and public lives.

Each generation of readers has a large element that is drawn to biographies of political leaders, if for no other reason than to discover if those who changed history were worthy of the trust they inspired. The select group of American historians that has access to the surreptitious tape recordings made in the White House will inevitably revise assessments of recent administrations. Martin Gilbert's account of the insights he gleaned into Winston Churchill's life from access to his papers is one of his most popular books. At Oxford, Colin Matthews is editing the diaries of William Ewart Gladstone, the Victorian Liberal prime minister who achieved Home Rule for Ireland. Gladstone's reputation for moral rectitude has taken a tumble due to revelations that he whipped himself after supposedly trying to convert prostitutes to a virtuous life. Disraeli, who was Gladstone's greatest rival in politics, was often vilified as an opportunistic social climber. Based on some of the recent discoveries of the Disraeli Project, Wiebe suspects future research may reveal a man of unsuspected probity.

Last year's film, Mrs. Brown, presented a screen interpretation of Disraeli, showing him adroitly mixing flattery and psychology to move Queen Victoria out of her widow's seclusion at a time when the unpopularity of the Victorian monarchy was fuelling demands for a republic. Disraeli's actual feats were far more dramatic. In 1875 he pulled off his most famous coup when he secretly masterminded England's purchase of the shares for the Suez Canal. Two years later, in keeping with the expanding Imperial mood, he enhanced the monarchy's global prestige by arranging for Victoria to be made Empress of India. So pleased was the queen with her prime minister that she started to send him primroses from the royal hothouses. As he lay dying in 1881, she dearly wanted to see him, but he refused sighing, "She'd only want me to take a message to Albert." That Disraeli achieved a special rapport with the queen was unexpected because she, like most of English society, had considered the novelist an odious social climber when he entered politics forty years earlier. He would never have had a political career had his father not had him baptized while he was child so he would not suffer from the civil disabilities then in place. His Jewish birth, his unconcealed ambition, and his outrageous youth made his ultimate triumph all the more remarkable.

As a result of the Disraeli Project, earlier studies of the man now seem to have serious shortcomings. An anthology of his letters to his sister was collected by his brother and published after his death. Each letter in the collection is suspect because, in addition to giving them incorrect dates, Ralph Disraeli was prone to cut and conflate in the interests of sanitizing them. Moneypenny and Buckle's 1906 work was the first that used Disraeli's private papers, but in spite of its six volumes, it is remarkably discreet. André Maurois' dramatic and innocuous book may have inspired the 1963 Hallmark Hall of Fame television play in which Trevor Howard was miscast as Disraeli, but it is now ignored. The definitive work for the last generation has been Robert Blake's 1964 study. In it Lord Blake drew on the early letters and brilliantly described the manoeuvers of the Tory party in the second part of the nineteenth century. Yet these various biographies all give a sense of superficially scratching the surface of Disraeli's life and times. Lord Blake openly acknowledged this deficiency in his introduction and expressed the hope that one day a wealthy foundation would collect and edit Disraeli's letters.

Given that Canadian universities are not known in international circles for their affluence, the Disraeli Project's presence in this country is all the more remarkable. The cost of microfilming all of the private papers would have been prohibitive had the task not already been done for British archival purposes. While the Project has acquired originals of some of the letters from the young Dizzy's grand tour, for the most part Wiebe works from a duplicate set of 150 microfilm reels that were ordered for the Project. These include correspondence with Disraeli, some of his political papers, and copies of Mrs. Disraeli's account books. Funding crises have allowed Wiebe few trips to England, but in his quest for material he has managed to examine papers in places like Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Churchills, and Belvoir Castle, the Duke of Rutland's estate.

The art of annotation isn't glamorous. Mel Wiebe, in his dogged dredging through arcane documents so he can write notes that give modern readers a context, exhibits a rare scholarly due diligence. There is permanence in such work because the editor does not have the luxury of imposing an artificial thesis or intellectual fad on the primary materials. Michael Foot calls the volumes "the best-edited and best-annotated political letters in the language". Stanley Weintraub, who used the Project for his 1993 biography of Disraeli, believes that, when compared to Colin Matthew's work on Gladstone, Wiebe has the more enviable task. "There is no equivalent, other than Churchill, to Disraeli as a man of letters who was also a political figure. By comparison Gladstone's letters are cranky and cramped, and his writings even more so."

Mel Wiebe is inclined to understate his accomplishments. He is a man in his fifties who can be reticent, but his blue eyes twinkle and he becomes animated as he warms to his subject. "I've been at this so long now, since 1979, that I can hardly remember what my view of Disraeli was at that time. In retrospect it seems I knew virtually nothing about him, although I didn't think so then. I am now fully aware of how little I know of him. For one thing, I have not yet had occasion to work closely on the material on which his fame rests, his two premierships. The decades we have covered now reveal a man quite different from the previous portrayal."

The Project's work has made it apparent that previous British scholars have avoided dealing directly with Disraeli's Jewish background and played down the anti-Semitism he encountered in his career and friendships. Weintraub selected the impact of Disraeli's Jewishness as a dominant leit motif in his book because he believes that, "[e]arlier biographers didn't play down the anti-Semitism that Diz encountered as much as made choices about what to focus on." Recent biographies mention that during some campaigns, Disraeli was subjected to hecklers holding roast pork under his nose. Victorian political cartoonists depicted him in images likes Moses, Fagan, and Shylock. Yet, when Vassar's Anthony Wohl gave a paper in England on Disraeli's encounters with anti-Semitism using the latest research on cartoons and press clippings, it was met with hostility. This does not surprise Wiebe. While working on the most recent volume of letters, he uncovered evidence of unscrupulous tactics used by a group who opposed Disraeli's appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1852. Some members of the press objected to his appointment, calling him an "infidel". The Morning Chronicle printed a series of satirical articles entitled "Benjamin Dejuda: A Politico-Psychological Biography". Wiebe has identified the anonymous author as George Smythe, supposedly one of Disraeli's friends.

Historians have never been able to excuse Disraeli's delivery of a plagiarized eulogy on Wellington's death. Wiebe uncovered what actually happened. Smythe provided the busy Disraeli with the speech. Members of the Commons wrote offering to defend Disraeli, but he chose to cut his losses. Instead, he combatted racism with his pen. Initially, under a pseudonym, he wrote novels lampooning people in society. After he entered Parliament, his books included tracts in which he over stated the achievements of Jews. While historically inaccurate, their purpose was to change public attitudes. Alas, they were often met with derision. Footnotes in Volume IV indicate that, after the publication of the novel, Coningsby, Disraeli was criticized in the press for suggesting that Jews were Caucasians. He did not dwell on the perfidy of friends or press persecutions by Evangelicals. Instead, he employed a public flamboyance that was characterized by his remark to Queen Victoria that he was "the blank page between the old Testament and the New".

Disraeli's relationships with the women in his life have also proven to be more complex than expected. His maiden sister, Sarah, was considered his audience until the Project made headlines when it discovered a political novel that was surreptitiously co-authored in 1834 by the two and published under a pseudonym. Wiebe appreciates Disraeli's wife, even if he has exposed the tensions in the marriage and areas in which Disraeli felt compelled to deceive her. "Given the current views regarding the powerlessness of women in the Victorian period, it is striking to reflect the most colourful Victorian prime minister was created by a woman, and sustained by women. His political career did not get started until Mary Anne took him under her wing as her boy-toy. She recognized his potential and persuaded her husband to take him on as his constituency colleague and pay the huge costs at that time involved to get elected." She was also shrewd enough to have an ironclad marriage contract that made it impossible for Disraeli to touch any of her money. His success inspired a Jewish widow to make him her heir, on condition that Disraeli and Mary Anne included her in their circle. They did so. The resulting correspondence with Mrs. Brydes Williams starts in these two volumes.

Wiebe stresses that Disraeli should not be made out to be a victim because he did ultimately "rise to the top of the greasy pole". Ultimately his enduring legacy may be his speeches, which politicians quietly continue to plunder. Kennedy borrowed from Disraeli. Last year the Project received a call from the White House asking for verification of a quote for Clinton. There is a set of the letters at 10 Downing Street. This is not surprising. Nineteenth-century political rhetoric at its best was eloquent, with polished invective and brilliant verbal ripostes. These honourable members didn't need to say fuddleduddle. Among them Disraeli remains a superior stylist whose witty epigrams contrasted with the moral earnestness that characterized his age. He raised the level of Parliamentary debate with pithy remarks that were harbingers of the sound bite.

Careful examination of the letters and their context has removed several of the slurs against Disraeli's character. His first letters to a Queen who was dubious about him have been edited and they demonstrate why she came to find him so entertaining. The Project has received a letter from a woman claiming to be a descendant of his illegitimate daughter, so later papers will be examined for evidence of infidelities. While Mel Wiebe works to get it right, the British historians are waiting, no longer sure of past interpretations, but firm in the belief that the most interesting disclosures are yet to come. 

Belinda Beaton is a Toronto writer.

The University of Toronto Press publishes the Disraeli Letters.


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