On the first page of this enjoyable double biography, Daisy Hay quotes the Mister-half of her titular couple as having said, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.”
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) could hardly have foreseen a world like ours, in which there is no longer any such thing as life without theory. All of our lives nowadays are judged by, or filtered through, one sort of theory or another, among the most prominent of which is the feminist theory that the personal is political and that history itself should be seen through the prism of the gradual emancipation of women from traditional assumptions about their sex, which amounted (and in many cases still amount) to bondage and oppression.
Daisy Hay herself is naturally no prisoner of such beliefs, but rather she is in thrall to the liberationist version of 19th-century social history and, therefore, of the domestic history she has chosen to relate here, which is thick with its assumptions. Thus we learn of Mrs. Disraeli that “Mary Anne’s activities were constrained by a bourgeois middle-class morality that emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century and bloomed during Queen Victoria’s reign.” Put like that, it must have seemed obvious to the author to add that “Mary Anne wanted more”—even though her documentation suggests the only thing Mary Anne wanted “more” of was attention from her (first) husband.
The outline of her story can be found in Robert Blake’s classic biography of Disraeli, now nearly a half-century old. Mary Anne Evans, born with the same name as her great contemporary, the novelist George Eliot, married a wealthy man with the same name as another great novelist of the next century, one Wyndham Lewis. The owner of an ironworks in South Wales, Lewis bought his way into Parliament and then, urged on by his wife, bought the second seat for the same constituency of Maidstone, in Kent, for his (and her) young protégé, Benjamin Disraeli. When Lewis died suddenly of a heart attack a few months later, Disraeli, already best known as a novelist, began an assiduous courtship of his widow.
Mary Anne was 45 at the time and 12 years older than he, but Dizzy (as she seems to have been the first to call him) had had a string of relations with older women whom he had invited to mother him, as he now did the childless Mary Anne. She was pleased to do so. In the aristocratic circles in which he was already moving, Disraeli was widely regarded as being rather vulgar, and Mary Anne also had a reputation as a “rattle” (chatterbox) with a fondness for extravagant dress. Disraeli, who was deeply in debt, acknowledged to his wife that he had been first attracted by her money; but all the evidence of the voluminous lifelong correspondence between the two, which has been preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, supports his (and her) claim that the two soon grew to be deeply in love.
Daisy Hay fills in the details of the Disraelis’ domestic life that Robert Blake left out, mainly by generously quoting from their correspondence. Dizzy often wrote to Mary Anne several times a day when he was in Parliament and she in their home at Grosvenor Gate (modern day Park Lane) in London, or at the country estate they bought at Hughenden in Buckinghamshire. But Hay has also dug deeply into the writings of the couple’s contemporary acquaintances, including those of Disraeli’s sister, Sarah, who was his preferred confidante through the early years of his marriage. Hay’s labors are likely to persuade even those without much time for feminist theory that the retelling of the story of such a famous and historically important man from the point of view of the women whose company he so often preferred adds richly to our store of knowledge about him.
At least part of the reason for this is that Benjamin Disraeli was among the earliest democratic politicians to see that his private life could be turned to electoral advantage. To be sure, what carried this Jewish outsider—as he was still widely seen to be, in spite of his father’s having had him baptized at 13—to the top of 19th-century British politics was his own considerable talent as speaker and parliamentarian. But it helped to be able to represent himself to the public as the uxorious husband he seems actually to have been in private life—not least with Queen Victoria, who, after hesitating at first to accept him as a cabinet minister, ended up in widowhood liking him better than Disraeli’s great rival, William Gladstone. Hay recognizes that the love story of Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli was presented to the public with a political purpose in mind, but she makes rather too much of the fact.