Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Disraeli: A Biography -- Stanley Weintraub

Universities are known to whine that their tenured professors don't publish. This could never be said about Pennsylvania State University professor Stanley Weintraub, author of some 40 serious books, many on late 19th century literary giants. But as prolific a writer as Weintraub is, it is a bit of a wonder that his dense 700-page life story of Benjamin Disraeli isn't a smoother read. Though thorough -- detailing the only Jewish British Prime Minister's life from childhood to the exact moment of his death on April 19, 1881, at 76 years old -- Disraeli: A Biography, published first in 1993, is choppy, if precise. Chronicling his years in sequential order, it seems like the author is afraid to omit any trifling fact in the rough source material he employed to complete the work. His liberal use of quotation marks is to the point of excessive, often interrupting the flow of sentences. It's as if the book is meant to be studied as opposed to read leisurely, which perhaps is excusable since the author was an esteemed professor for more than three decades.

None of this is to imply that Weintraub, who earned a doctorate in English from Penn State in 1954 before joining its faculty two years later, is simply an academic snob. Quite the opposite. Indeed, a second lieutenant Korean War vet, he earned a bronze star for heroic service. Moreover, he is reportedly the world’s foremost authority on George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, critic and infamous, if influential, political activist. Working at the same university his entire career, Weintraub ultimately attained the prestigious position of Evan Pugh Professor of Arts and Humanities, with emeritus status upon retirement in 2000. For 20 years until 1990 he was also Director of Penn State's Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies.
     Besides Disraeli's severe financial problems; his marriage for money to a woman 12 years his senior; his several bad novels; his success at ushering in the Second Reform Act 1867, which, according to Weintraub, "would double the electorate;" and his severe and painful gout as he aged; three other things jump out in my mind a year after closing the last page of the biography. These are: Disraeli's two secret out-of-wedlock children, a scandal that Weintraub is reportedly the first to reveal; his long-time and deep resentment toward Whig leader and political opponent William Gladstone, a former Conservative; and his constant letters to his beloved older sister Sarah.
      As a Jew -- though raised from age 12 in the Anglican Church, a fact that did not erase his Jewish status with the Jewish community, his English compatriots or God -- Benjamin Disraeli had somewhat limited career choices in mid-19th century England. Pushed to become a lawyer by his father Isaac, Disraeli lasted only two years apprenticing with a London firm, afterward turning his attention first to writing, then to stock speculation in mining, then to publishing, and finally back to writing. By June 1825, he owed 7,000 pounds, some $800,000 US in today's market. It would take 25 years to repay his creditors.
     As a writer Disraeli could not earn enough to pay his debts and support his lifestyle, even though some of his later books were critical successes. He used "silver fork fiction" as a means to inflict vengeance on his business adversaries, a tactic that contributed to his negative reputation and that resulted in years of terrible relationships with some important people. Over his life, between 1826 and 1880, he finished 15 novels, eight non-fiction books, one play and one book of poetry. He left one uncompleted manuscript when he died. Part of my complaint about Weintraub's work is his integrating the content of Disraeli's books into the story of his life, quoting from them extensively. It can be confusing trying to decipher Disraeli's life from his fiction.
       As a young man, Disraeli was the perfect mid-19th century London dandy -- polished, flamboyant, informed, opinionated and funny -- entertaining the city's rich ladies who continually invited him to regular and rotating dinner parties, where he ate sometimes his only meal of the day. Though his family of origin could probably have been described as almost upper middle class, it was quite impossible for him to maintain the status; his burdensome debts were exacerbated by his continued borrowing for his lavish and extensive travels. What gave Disraeli a steady foundation and ultimately saved him from financial ruin was his marriage in 1839 to widow Mary Anne Lewis, a caring woman he eventually came to love and enjoy, and who he outlived. It was her support that allowed him to thrive.
       In fact, it was with the help of Mary Ann's first husband -- who died the following year in 1838 -- that Disraeli was elected to Parliament as a backbencher in 1837, thus achieving the double good fortune of beginning his political career and avoiding debtors' prison. He was prime minister twice, briefly from February to December 1868 and then from 1874 to 1880, and is credited by most historians -- those who believe he possessed genuine opinions throughout his career and was not merely mouthing proper political statements to stay in Parliament -- with launching and designing England's modern Conservative Party. Others give that honour to Prime Minister Robert Peel, who split the original party in 1846 over the controversial proposal to repeal the corn laws -- which meant stopping the tariff on grain imports -- thus paving the way for Disraeli's historic leadership.
      Was he the most effective British prime minister of the 19th century? With his focus on international relations and strong British imperialism, most political historians say yes. Certainly Queen Victoria loved him more than any of her other PMs, a total 33, including 10 in the UK and 23 in the colonies. As was his wont with the ladies, he flattered the queen, helping her to come out of her ceaseless mourning for her late husband Prince Albert, who had died in 1861, the same year as her beloved mother. This accomplishment may very well have saved the British monarchy. Though Victoria continued to dress in black for the rest of her life, she was elated by Disraeli's success in pushing through the Royal Titles Act 1876, thus making her Empress of India.
      As Weintraub writes: "Victoria presided at a celebratory dinner, startling her guests, including Disraeli... [and] the undersecretary of India, by wearing masses of jewels given to her by Indian princes and maharajahs. On the queen's short, stout figure the baubles were incongruous, but the display demonstrated how much the title meant to her."
       There is much untidiness in Weintraub's book. As British critic and novelist David John Taylor -- who also found a couple of unimportant errors in Disraeli -- aptly puts it, "some of the longer sentences, bristling with sub-clauses, begin to resemble expanding suitcases." Taylor adds: The political background, too, is thinly sketched. Professor Weintraub has written a discursive and slightly garrulous book, which occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of incidentals."
       Am I saying don't read it? No. I would almost never recommend that about a distinguished  professor's tome. It is worth the slog just to find out how, on certain levels, Disraeli redeems himself. I would say, don't get bogged down in the minutiae, and enjoy the major experiences of this most important historical figure.

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  2. Baruch Hashem (praise God)

    Great reviews and a wonderful resource to encourage people to pick up a great book!

    Take good care and wishing you a healthy happy Summer

    friend from Venice