Benjamin Disraeli was Britain's first Jewish prime minister, which was not his greatest contribution to the political history of that land, though one might get that impression from reading Stanley Weintraub's biography of the great British statesman and politician. Disraeli (1804-81) was born Jewish into a society with perhaps a little less anti-Semitism festering within it than most other European countries. But he had the fortitude to assert his Jewishness, and make his constituents accept it, or at least overlook it.
But he never went too far in that regard. To be a Jew in 19th century Britain was quite acceptable. To be a Jewish political leader, if success were desired, one had to convert. The Parliament did not open itself to Jews until 1858. Benjamin was baptized in 1817, when he was 13.
Through his political career Disraeli was a party to great events. He was instrumental in bringing to successful ratification by Parliament the 1867 Reform Bill. This law gave the vote to millions of working-class men and set Britain firmly on the road to the system of universal suffrage it enjoys today. During his second administration, major advances were made in the living conditions of Britons. He cleared slums and introduced public health reforms, and even helped make life easier for the long-suffering factory workers of Britain's industrial revolution.
It was under Disraeli's government that Britain gained control of the Suez Canal and entered wholeheartedly into its career as an imperialist power. Queen Victoria became the Empress of India during a Disraeli government. It was a title she coveted (there was much resistance to it by a vociferous "Little England" faction) and getting it went a long way to making Disraeli the queen's favorite prime minister. She despised Gladstone, Disraeli's political antagonist and rival for a dozen years.
Benjamin Disraeli was a flamboyant and romantic figure with a vague and sentimental appreciation of his destiny. He sparked off bon mots like a flint shoots off sparks: "The defects of great men are the consolation of dunces"; "Every woman should marry, and no man"; "As a general rule, nobody who has money ought to have it." He was Byronic, and a contemporary of Lord Byron's, and so admired the poet that after he died, while on vacation in Switzerland, Disraeli sought out the poet's boatman to learn more about him. One of his novels, "Venetia," was about Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Disraeli knew from his very early youth that he was exceptional, and knew also the role he had to fill, and filled it to the hilt. He was a dandyish dresser, a lavish spender and prodigal borrower. He was also handsome, in a boy-toy kind of way, with his jet black curls framing a pale white face with delicate feminine features. He was the kind of man who would rather die than pay his tailor what he owed. By the time he was 21, he was so deep in debt that it took him 30 years to get out of it.
In fact, his political career was stimulated by his chronic debt. The debtor's prison was very much a reality in Disraeli's time, and it would have been his abode had he not ascended to the House of Commons as the representative from Maidstone in 1837.
Stanley Weintraub's biography is thorough, meticulous and occasionally dense. He has that maddening habit so many journalists and biographers are afflicted with these days of putting quotes around fragments of sentences -- the odd phrase here and there, instead of digesting the thought expressed and rephrasing it for clarity's sake. Perhaps in this he is trying to call attention to the thoroughness and diligence of his research, or create a texture of reality. But, frankly, all it does is slow the narrative down, making the reading of this book like a trudge through a sucking bog.
Another device of this Penn State University professor is to use Disraeli's novels as a key to their author's mind and heart, which is not an entirely new device. Thus, he tells us that the Vivian Grey of the eponymous novel, was "in the subtext . . . an ambitious young Benjamin Disraeli in search of himself."
Well, indeed it might have been. But Disraeli was a public and colorful man, openly ambitious, clear in his intentions. Was it necessary, or contributory to our understanding of this first-class politician to have him interpreted by a second-rank writer?
Where the professor shines, however, is in his descriptions of Disraeli's death and funeral, and the immediate aftermath:
"On the coffin lay a wreath of 'Osborne primroses' from Victoria, the card inscribed in her own hand. On the terrace the peacocks screeched, and someone remarked that a peacock feather might have been a better symbol of the departed than the primrose. Carrying a crimson velvet cushion with the Earl's coronet and insignia, Baum walked before the coffin as it was wheeled by Disraeli's tenants down the hill to the churchyard. Behind walked the chief mourners . . ."
Victoria did not attend: Protocol prohibited it. But she came to the grave in Buckinghamshire six days later, and ordered a marble monument placed there. In every way, public and private, she behaved like a woman who had lost a great friend.
Nor did Gladstone, then prime minister, appear at the funeral. Afterward, in his remarks and behavior, he acted as if his great antagonist had been of little consequence, in his own life and that of the nation. It did not reflect well upon him.
(Mr. O'Mara is a former London Bureau Chief of The Sun.)
Title: "Disraeli: a Biography"
Author: Stanley Weintraub
Length, price: 717 pages, $30.