YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 24, 2011

“Queer” Disraeli, Glitz, and the Royals

Endymion and Selene, Sebastiono Ricci, 1713

Reposting this because of the Royal Wedding this week. The blog is relevant because the old deference was supposed to give way to self-reliance and excellent public education in the U.S. I am wondering whether the celebrity culture is not reactionary and an obstacle to a functioning democracy based on neither hero-worship nor state worship. Or should I be drawing distinctions between British royals and Hollywood movie stars, who come from the People?

I spent much of this week reading Benjamin Disraeli’s last published novel, Endymion (1880), which I found generally engrossing and possibly a displaced memoir of his own rise to power. Several recent events prompt this particular blog: 1. a Pajamas Media essay today (March 24, 2011) by Rick Moran complaining about the massive attention paid to the glitzy and vulgar upcoming royal wedding in the U.K., and 2. My surprise that Disraeli’s novels are not in the British literary canon, though his large body of fiction, all dealing with thinly veiled political prime movers and tangential personalities in the world he knew so intimately, is a comprehensive social history of the British aristocracy as it dealt with its gradual displacement by the new “middle class” created by the Industrial Revolution. But more, Disraeli’s novels, devoted as they are to the masculinized intelligence of the British female aristocracy– the powers behind every nobleman and every move up the social ladder for parvenus such as himself– are feasts for fashionistas, gourmands, the horsy set, and admirers of statuesque pre-Raphaelite women with their cascades of hair and enormous long-lashed colored eyes.  Disraeli’s women, so au courant in international and national politics, languages, and the arts, and so astute in the management of their noble spouses, are almost surely men to whom Disraeli was attracted.

Take Endymion. A fantastically beautiful set of twins, Endymion and Myra Ferrars, experience sudden and drastic fall in status owing to the politics surrounding the Reform Bill of 1832. The rest of the book is devoted to their triumphant rise to power beyond the dreams of their fallen genteel parents: they become orphans, but do not complain; rather through ferocious acts of will, self-discipline, and patience they will prevail over the fates. By the end of the story, Myra has become the queen of a new Latin monarchy,  and the beauteous and suave Endymion, coached throughout by his sister and another gorgeous and determined woman, Lady Montfort, becomes Prime Minister and Lady Montfort, newly widowed and
fabulously rich will wed him.  Leaving aside the sub-textual themes of incest and probable gayness, many political lessons are apparent to the American reader, especially to me, for some of the themes developed on this website are vindicated:

1. The landed class of Victorian England maintained its cohesiveness. Aristocratic Whigs and Tories socialized together through all the turmoil: the Reform Bill, the Corn Laws agitation, the Chartists, the revolutions in Europe (1848), the development of a national railroad system. It was clear that they had a common enemy: the new industrial working class and the rising industrialists, all of whom looked back to the puritans of the English Civil War and the poet John Milton. The answer to this challenge from below was moderation, continued paternalism, and an alliance with bankers. The “Neuchatel” family (modeled perhaps on the Rothschilds, though they are definitely not Jewish) are hand in glove with the aristocracy and quickly learn to share their finely wrought tastes and manners.

2. It is almost overwhelming to contrast the paradisaical world inhabited by Endymion and Myra with the description of the working classes of Manchester in 1844 as rendered famously by Friedrich Engels.  The English aristocracy, however apparently engrossed in luxury and frivolity, was faithful to its tradition of paternalism and the providing of spectacle to the lower orders (their tenant farmers, but also small traders and artisans). But among themselves, their young were educated from early childhood on in languages, and learned that the path to glory and the maintenance of class position lay in the mixing with powerful visitors and each other. No frivolity in their table talk; rather it was crucial to read “character” early on, for in Disraeli’s view, it was the will to power by exceptional individuals that caused history (also “race”), and the psychological reading of (highly placed and informed) men and women was their most valuable tool in the race of life.

3. Shockingly, Disraeli allows one of his Continental noble characters to articulate the conspiratorial fantasies alleging Jewish aspirations for world domination that rocked 19th century Europe after the emancipation of the Jews. This is a minor theme, but he does not distance himself from “Baron Sergius.”

4. I was going to say that American feminists should read Disraeli, for his heroines are ever alert to the details of politics and management of foreign relations, but they are probably not typical, and may be masks for men. It is true that there have been European women of learning, distinction, and power, but I can’t take these Ladies too seriously as they are drawn by Disraeli. (On the other hand, Georg Brandes, in his biography of Voltaire describes aristocratic French women of great artistic accomplishment and intellectual power, so Disraeli may not have been exaggerating or masking.  Still, give me Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand any day.)

5. I think that the exclusion of Disraeli from the literary canon  is deliberate. He may have been an insider, but he was enough of the outsider to expose the foolishness of the English aristocracy and all other reactionary medievalists. When he isn’t fantasizing about matches made in heaven, he has a sharp tongue and a sense of the absurd that is unsurpassed in more famously comic authors.

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2 Comments »

  1. Hi Clare,

    I’ve been thinking of reading a Disraeli. I’m reading Elizabeth Gaskell and enjoying it. Started with North and South, which has a hero-manufacturer worthy of Ayn Rand. He gains compassion from the genteel South, while she gains energy from the industrial North. Wow! Am now reading Mary Barton, which is a strange mix of pity for the poor and contempt for the union movement.

    I’m mostly looking for more like North and South (such as Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, which is on my list), but an interesting political novel of the age might be good. Would you most recomment Endymion?

    See you on Facebook!
    Kurt

    Comment by Kurt Keefner — September 13, 2011 @ 3:44 am | Reply


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