Benjamin Disraeli

Disraeli, By Francis Grant.

Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, 1804-81: Conservative Member of Parliament, Prime Minister and novelist. Disraeli cut a flamboyant, somewhat glamorous figure. There is a staid portrait of him by Sir John Everett Millais, but sketches by Harry Furniss and others – and a couple of photographic cartes de visite – suggest more than a touch of the roué, the dandy. Lady Dufferin described him as follows: “He wore a black velvet coat lined with satin, purple trousers with a gold band running down the outside seam, a scarlet waistcoat, long lace ruffles falling down to the tips of his fingers, white gloves with several brilliant rings outside them, and long black ringlets rippling down upon his shoulders…” The British establishment ennobled him as Lord Beaconsfield (pronounced ‘Beckons field’) – for many a long-awaited sign that it was finally acceptable for a Jew to hold high office in Britain . He was extremely witty, a good talker, and for this reason Queen Victoria preferred his company to that of Gladstone’s – biographers past and present have remarked that she found it difficult to resist the unique Disraeli mix of feather-light flirtatiousness and single-minded imperialism. In the Second Reform Act, which amongst other things increased the number of men able to vote from one in five to one in three, Disraeli accidentally unleashed a potent electoral force, the vote of the aspirational Tory working-class. “Increased means and increased leisure” he maintained “are the two civilizers of man.” His literary style was epigrammatic, Wildean before the dawn of Wilde: “The Athanasian Creed is the most splendid ecclesiastical lyric ever poured forth by the genius of man…”, “I like Turkish indolence, Turkish melancholy, and Turkish baths…”; “The most dangerous strategy is to jump a chasm in two leaps…”; “A precedent embalms a principle.” He dealt thus with a social climber in search of a baronetcy: “You know I cannot give you a baronetcy,” he said, “but you can tell your friends that I offered you one and you refused it. That’s much better…”

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