Podcast #13 is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Robert O'Kell about his study of the literary and political career of Benjamin Disraeli (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
For all of their treatment as a species apart from humanity, politicians are no different than the rest of us in one respect: they harbor a passion to see their name on the front cover of a book. Many of them take advantage of their position to fulfill this ambition, with most of their efforts falling into the category of either political tract or memoir. Far more unusual is the elected official who fancies him- or herself a novelist, yet even there more than a few politicians (Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart, Jeffrey Archer, William Weld, Edwina Currie) have tried their hand at producing works that are self-admitted fiction. For most of them, writing fiction is a lark, and the overwhelming majority of them are wise not to quit their day jobs.
In a category by himself is the Benjamin Disraeli. One reason for this is that his career path was the reverse of many politician-authors, as he embarked upon a career as a novelist prior to winning election to office. Another factor is that, unlike those of his counterparts, his novels are much more highly regarded as works of fiction. Yet these differences have long posed a challenge for biographers of the nineteenth-century British prime minister, as many are uncertain as to how to deal with his books and their place in the broader context of his life. Some have dismissed them, while others have viewed it as representing part of a duality in Disraeli's life.
Robert O'Kell, however, takes a different approach in his study of Disraeli's literary and political career, seeing them not as two distinct parts of his life but as parts of a whole, with each part offering insight into the other. O'Kell uses the novels and other writings to delve into Disraeli's inner life, finding within many of the works' central characters a series of portrayals of Disraeli's self-image. Many of the issues that Disraeli faced, such as with his Jewish heritage and his social standing, are central to the plots of his novels, with the their resolutions serving to define his own beliefs. Once in Parliament his fiction took a more overtly political turn, with such works as Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred serving as manifestos with their portrayal of his political views in action. Even his later works, written between his periods in office, continued to reflect his ongoing quest for self-understanding, demonstrating a consistency with his early works in a number of key respects.
O'Kell's book offers an important reinterpretation of Disraeli's dual career, one that nobody interested in understanding his life can afford to ignore. Clearly written and persuasively argued, its analysis of Disraeli's works is likely to serve as the standard by which this key dynamic within his life is assessed. Through it readers can appreciate just how invaluable Disraeli's fictional writings are, not just as works of literature but for the understanding they offer of such an important figure. It is difficult to imagine the same could be said for the books by any of the others who aspire to the dual labels of novelist and politician.
Benjamin Disraeli was most famously Prime Minister of England under Queen Victoria, serving on two separate occasions. His grand vision of England as an enduring, globe-spanning cultural and political force coincided with the zenith of the British Empire's power and prosperity. "Highlights" (depending on your view) of Disraeli's PM tenure include (but are not limited to)
- perhaps most important is Disraeli's participation in debates and steering the Parliament towards consensus that Great Britain should not intervene on behalf of one side or the other, in the American Civil War. A large contingent of Parliament wished to at least diplomatically recognize the Confederate States of the South... the British textile industry being vital to the economy, and domestic textiles being reliant on (American) Southern cotton. This part of the book is well worth reading, but the short summary is that Disraeli was weary of provoking the North into attacking Canada. British military assets were tied up around the world, and particularly concerned at the time with preserving peace between Greece and the Ottoman Empire in the Agean (the Eastern Mediterranean being vital to peaceful passage of British ships through the Suez Canal and on India). Canada's 2000+ mile unfortified border with the U.S. was regarded as vulnerable, and impractical, if not impossible, to defend at that time. There was also concern about what future obligations or embarrassments might ensure if Britain showed support for the Confederate States, and then the war turned against the South (which it did, in fact).
- the particularly clandestine acquisition of controlling interest in the Suez Canal, using secret go-betweens, and representing one of the rare recorded instances in history when one arm of the Rothschild banking family (the British side of the family, on this occasion) opposed another arm (the French)
- a diplomatic coup in which a second Crimean War was avoided, when Disraeli was able to convince (German Chancellor) Otto von Bismark to stand with Britain in propping the Ottoman Empire up against the Russians. The accomplishment is slightly diminished by (1) the fact that a good deal of blame falls on Disraeli for the FIRST Crimean War; and (2) the fortifications Disraeli commissioned at Galipoli against the Russians are the same ones which so many British soldiers would lose their lives attacking forty years later, in World War I.
- a decision to wrest control of India from the British East India Company (BEIC), and place it officially under the Foreign Office of the British government. To seal it, Queen Victoria's title was ammended to include "Empress of India". The decision came after a revolt in Calcutta resulted in a failure of confidence in agents of the BEIC to manage civil unrest on the subcontinent.
- a decision to press British interests in South Africa, against revolting (Dutch) Boers, who essentially did not recognize transfer of South Africa from the Dutch to British crown, as a term of surrender in a minor conflict in 1803. Conflict would persist well beyond Disraeli's tenure.
Prior to his terms as Prime Minister, Disraeli spent several decades as a Member of Parliament (MP). There is quite a lot of diplomatic wrangling, and coalition building, and vote courting, but oddly, most of the issues discussed during this portion of the narration deal with issues that seem almost trivial. If this book is to be believed, the largest and most contentious issue which Disraeli was forced to visit and re-visit repeatedly, was whether the official Church of Ireland should be dis-established. I mean... (what???)
This section was, frankly, not nearly as interesting as I had expected.
The early portion of Disraeli's life is a whirlwind of philandering and exotic travel. Young Disraeli was an author of middling success- mainly writing throwaway adventure trash, who borrowed far beyond his means to maintain a foppish, dissolute, dandy lifestyle. He bedded a large number of married and unmarried women, greatly altering my perception of how common and socially acceptable pre/extra-marital sex was, in the Victorian Era.
I don't know if I'm just listening to the news too much lately, or if there's a legitimate comparison here, but I started to notice a lot of parallels between the young Benjamin Disraeli, and present-day Donald Trump. Okay, okay! ...now hear me out:
1. Both had success in other fields prior to entering politics, and were not initially considered to be serious by the career politicians of their day.
2. Both had their private lives roundly criticized for philandering and other less-than-honorable vices.
3. Both regarded as egotistical dandies in their youth.
4. Both accused of only entering politics in order to inflate their public recognition, in the service of profiting in their "real" careers (Trump: real estate, Disraeli: novelist) after they leave public office.
5. Both promoted the image of being a faithful Christian, but both came to their (supposed) beliefs late in life (if at all), and both were accused by political rivals of merely appropriating the faith as a political tool. Disraeli was nominally Jewish, but was raised essentially non-observant, and converted in his university years. Whether he had an eye to politics is uncertain. (Jews were not allowed to hold high public office in Great Britain until 1848- more than 10 years after Disraeli held his first office.)
6. Both surprised their critics with a greater degree of political success than anybody had expected.
7. (And yes, I know this is the only item on my list which speaks to the substance of their politics) Both Trump and Disraeli defied the popular opinion of the times by favoring relatively protectionist stances, in periods where "free trade" was either favored or deemed inevitable/unopposeable.
I don't know.... too much of a stretch?
This was an okay book, if read for passing interest in the subject. My major complaint is that author Stanley Weintraub seems to want to discuss Disraeli's novels as much or more than his politics... not that there's anything *wrong* with that, but it's not my interest.
Interesting and quite well done. I have some problems with the world view but I think they're probably a function of the point of view character than the creators' values.