A late Romantic with a taste for the pliable narrative, Benjamin Disraeli played notoriously fast and loose with historical facts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his construction of his own paternal ancestry. He had little interest in the family of his mother, the Basevis, who, in one of those ironic quirks of prejudice, really did emanate from the supposedly aristocratic Sephardim, expelled from Spain in 1492, whom he purported to admire. By contrast, he was keen to weave a tale about his father’s family that was rich in invented detail. This was epitomised most famously in his taut put-down of Daniel O’Connell: ‘when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.’ However, it was in an 1849 memoir of his father that Benjamin Disraeli allowed his imagination to take over. Expelled by the inquisition, his paternal ancestors wandered the Mediterranean before settling in Venice. There, ‘grateful to the God of Jacob who had sustained them through unprecedented trials and guarded them through unheard-of perils, they assumed the name of DISRAELI, a name never borne before or since by any other family, in order that their race might be for ever recognised’. The truth, of course, is that the name is common. It belonged here to a family of Italian straw-hatters from the Papal States, who had come to London to make money in commerce – an ambition amply achieved by the time of his father’s birth.
It is difficult to conceive of Disraeli’s father, Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848), as a subject for Romantic elaboration – though he could certainly do with a touch-up. Still, filial portraits of fathers are apt to be self-mythologies. One could certainly contend that Isaac is a fascinating and unfairly forgotten literary figure about whom more should be known – even if he does not entirely match up to his son’s account. In physical appearance, D’Israeli was almost parodically unprepossessing (especially when set alongside the gorgeously dandified figure of his youthful son). With a bookish character so fey that it scarcely needed the inevitable exaggeration of Disraeli fils to be sent up, it is easy to see him as a faintly comic figure. No doubt too, this had its uses for a man determined to paint his own political rise as one ex nihilo.
A trouble to his commercially-minded father, another Benjamin, who had achieved considerable financial success since his arrival in London in 1748, Isaac devoted himself early on to poetry and was once found, after running away from home, in a Chattertonian pose atop a tombstone in Hackney churchyard. Such unworldliness clearly disturbed their relationship and there is a trace of this in Isaac’s own writing. He recalls that the ‘father, who may himself be not insensible to glory, dreads lest his son be found among that obscure multitude, that populous of mean artists who must expire at the barriers of mediocrity’. Here D’Israeli’s actual subject is the nature of genius and how to spot to it in the young. Yet there is an unmistakably anxious memory of the disapproving tone of an immigrant father, newly wealthy, horrified at the idea of his son giving himself up to books. It was no good; Isaac’s course was set. When his father later tried to force him into business, the young man responded with a poem on the corruptions of commerce – and this sort of thing sustained. During the nerve-wracking near-run on the banks in 1832, by which time he had long inherited his father’s wealth, Isaac determined that he might be encouraged to leave his library in sequestered Bradenham to take possession of his gold in London, but only if there was no danger of rain.
Such faintly satirical stories do Isaac D’Israeli an injustice, however. Though he is now a largely neglected figure in current academic scholarship, he was an immensely important presence in literary circles during the last decade of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries. He had successful books in press for most of that period, and was a correspondent with many significant figures, including Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Lord Byron, John Wilson Croker, John Gibson Lockhart, Thomas Moore, John Murray (his publisher), Samuel Rogers, Walter Scott and Robert Southey. Although there has been no substantial study devoted to either his life or work for over forty years, D’Israeli, an avid collector of books and student of literature, was significant in the development of modern literary scholarship. No one did more for the popularisation of the literary past in the Romantic period. Within the context of recent academic interest in the history of publishing, the importance of collaboration and the gradual development of modern literary scholarship out of antiquarianism, his reputation surely deserves a revival.
Isaac D’Israeli was born to a Jewish, first-generation immigrant family in Enfield. His father, Benjamin, was a member of the congregation at the Bevis Marks synagogue, and Isaac remained in somewhat troubled association with it until his fifties. His religion made an important contribution to his literary identity, even though he finally decided to have his own children baptised into the Anglican faith, and D’Israeli may be said to be Britain’s first prominent Jewish intellectual and writer. Benefiting from his father’s financial security, which made him fairly independent while he was still a young man, D’Israeli was able to cultivate early interests in literature and philosophy. He went to Amsterdam as a teenager and became interested in the French philosophes, later spending a period in Paris that was to have important effects upon his writing. Although he was taken initially with the ideas of Rousseau, D’Israeli was, like his son after him, of conservative inclination. He, too, combined this with a novelistic ambition by writing the Anti-Jacobin work, Vaurien: or sketches of the times (1797), though with less obvious success.
Vaurien is a slightly ungainly romantic novel that traces the effects of revolutionary fervour in London during the 1790s. Still, it has some idiosyncrasies that are worth remarking upon. These include a sympathetic portrait of a woman driven to prostitution and a defence of Jewish emancipation, which demonstrates a debt to the work of the great German-Jewish Enlightenment polymath, Moses Mendelssohn, a lasting influence upon D’Israeli. The novel depicts Vaurien – the French agent provocateur of the title – as duplicitous and self-serving. It also contains unflattering portraits of radical thinkers, in particular a verbose and fraudulent William Godwin. As a whole, the novel is indicative of the gently Tory flavour of D’Israeli’s writing – perhaps a reason for his lack of popularity today. Elsewhere this emerges not so much in obvious political prose but more in a liking for tradition and the celebration of the oddities of history. In this regard, D’Israeli is a conservative in the tradition of Edmund Burke, a preserver of the past, and his literary models confirm this. Once he had managed to dissuade his father from forcing him into
a commercial career, D’Israeli wrote a Defence of Poetry (1790), which was dedicated to Henry Pye, the poet laureate. He had earlier attempted to make himself known by letter to the dying Johnson, and to the literary world in general with a satire in the manner of Pope, whom he would later champion (on the side of Byron) during the Bowles controversy.
In the 1790s D’Israeli embarked on the series of works that would make his name. As an extraordinary literary collector and bibliophile, he saw himself as a populariser and leveller who could make intellectual history available to an audience held back by inequalities of class and occupation. His most widely issued works, Curiosities of Literature (1791; variously revised to a final edition in 1834), Miscellanies, or Literary Recreations (1796), the Calamities of Authors (1812-1813) and the Quarrels of Authors (1814), all emerge from a strange literary space. They are gradually expanding collections of short, anecdotal essays and commentaries on books and literary history itself. As contributions to the democratisation of learning at the time they can be seen in retrospect as early works of cultural criticism, inscribing a form of aesthetic curiosity or wonder as the key to both general critical consciousness and the expansion of the literary public. As well as being the fulfilment of their own rather curious literary genre (part essay collection, part literary museum), the books also tell us something about the psychology of collecting in the period. They stand as a kind of mini-museum of cultural factlets, easily available and portable for the middle-class reader. Yet they should not be dismissed because of their slightly haphazard form, since it is part of their essence that they are not organised or comprehensive. The dream of the eighteenth-century intellectual was to produce an encyclopaedic work, the summa of knowledge, approachable only by the learned. Things had changed by the Romantic period, however. This was the age of the essay, a form that stamped the character and opinions of the author firmly across itself, while never attempting to offer up universal truths. The important lesson that D’Israeli’s works teach is that cultural history is not merely the record of cold, crisp genius but is instead chaotic and deeply prey to human vagaries.
It is also significant that these works take the form of a literary museum since this was a period in which ordinary people were often fascinated by the culture of collection and display. The cliché has it that the Romantics were obsessed by the idea of the lone genius toiling away in isolation from the world of commerce and the metropolis. In fact, however, writers drew much of their inspiration from the public institutions with their collections and museums that were gradually becoming so much a part of nineteenth-century British life. The collaborative nature of D’Israeli’s enterprise is key, too, in as much as it reflects upon contemporary notions of creativity and complicates the idea of solitary, individual genius in the period. Significantly, in his own writing on The Genius of Judaism (1833) and The Literary Character of Men of Genius (1795) he endeavours to understand the idea culturally. In the former he pays attention to the Diaspora of Spanish Jewry in an attempt to understand cultural change philosophically. He also aims to increase his readers’ awareness of Jewish history and to describe the influence of Talmudic studies upon his own critical method.
Even aside from that mentioned, the work of Isaac D’Israeli is arresting in both its complexity and diversity. In the early part of his life he wrote poetry and other novels (the latter in debt to Fielding and Sterne, as well as the growing fashion for the Oriental tale) before acting as a populariser of philosophy, commentating on the German philosophical tradition and writing a life of Charles I. He contributed considerably to the reputation of Blake, wrote widely on European literature and had interests in music and opera, while also producing popular history that filtered into the medievalism of the mid-century. Most of D’Israeli’s letters and private papers are held in The Bodleian Library. These include his bank books, his will and personal documents. As well as the aforementioned correspondence, there is considerable evidence of his connections with Francis Douce (1757-1834), one of the most significant antiquarians and literary collectors of the early nineteenth century, whose library is also held in Oxford.
D’Israeli had a happy family life. He married in 1802 and had five children. He worked continuously at his writing, despite going blind late in life, and was financially successful as a result, thereby building upon his considerable inheritance. He lived grandly in the manor house at Bradenham in Buckinghamshire, where he is buried, and became a very established figure in academic and literary circles. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Leiden and Oxford. His son made much of the handicaps that faced him on his entry into public life, the greatest of which was, of course, eradicated by baptism. But it is worth dwelling too on the advantages that Isaac gave to his son. Perhaps most important among these was entry into the heart of London’s significant intellectual and literary set. D’Israeli was the intimate of John Murray and many around him. Yet he was also, interestingly, the one figure who was conservative and opposed to the French Revolution from the start – a legacy of his own time in Rousseauistic France. It was association with Murray, who took to the young Benjamin, that caused the second near-ruinous scandal of the latter’s early adulthood: the collapse of their project to begin a daily newspaper together (which came hard on the heels of disastrous speculation on the South American mines). At the same time it gave Benjamin Disraeli the material to produce his first novel, Vivian Grey. With its publication the literary celebrity beckoned that would ultimately open the way for his entry into politics.