I have a confession to make. Two in fact. I do not enjoy reading biography and one of the reasons for this is that I remember little of what I read.
A biographer has to do much research and take great time. Much of the research goes into the book resulting in a lengthy volume which does not make for a good read or one of which I remember much detail. Robert Caro has written a four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, much acclaimed, but on the book programme A Good Read at least one contributor observed that it was not. On top of this the relationship between writer and subject is not always satisfactory. Gitta Sereny seemed to have fall in love with Albert Speer; others clearly dislike the subject intensely. When this becomes apparent primary sources like letters are denied by the family.
For some reason I decided I did not know enough about Benjamin Disraeli. I decided to correct this by reading a biography of him by historian David Cesarini. I should have read the title more carefully as it was in a series of Jewish Lives. His stance was that Disraeli was indifferent to his Judaism. I soon realised that this was not surprising for two reasons: firstly, he was baptised as Christian aged 12 after his scholarly father fell out with his synagogue. Secondly, he had political ambitions so in a world where antisemitism was far more prevalent Judaism was a bar to that ambition. After reading 40% of his biography I gave up on it. I then had two possibilities. The definitive biography by Robert Blake but this was 800 pages long. So I went for the shorter version by Douglas Hurd and Edwin Young. Their biography is more political, dispelling many of the myths about Disraeli.
I remain disappointed that I do not have a clear picture of Disraeli as man as opposed to a politician. What an extraordinary man he was! His early years were mired in debt after a disastrous speculation in South American mining shares and he virtually bankrupted his publisher and family friend John Muttay with a newspaper venture . He was a philanderer but some have speculated that he had homo-erotic relationships with younger men whose company he enjoyed all his life. He was the finest and most prolific novelist who was also a PM and a brilliant letter writer. Hurd’s book dispels the myth that he was the father of modern One Nation conservatism. He never used that phrase and if anything believed in two nations of aristicracy and the pooorer class to whom he extended the franchise in the second Great Reform Act, thereby turning his back on the privileged farmers who supported him for his devastation of Sir Robert Peel and his Corn Laws. He was a wit, a dandy, a man of courage and imagination who brought enormous colour to politics. Hurd contrast this with today’s politicians. Necessarily they have to adopt a more sanitised image. I doubt if Disraeli’s philandering and indebtedness would have survived any media speculation.
Disraeli has also passed into posterity for his political battles with Gladstone. I liked the observation of both by Queen Victoria:
“After sitting next to Mr Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.”