The Clare Spark Blog

May 4, 2011

Disraeli’s captive Queens

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Undated portrait of Disraeli

With millions of women envying Kate Middleton, now Duchess of Cambridge, I thought it would be a nice contrast to the universal gush to quote from Benjamin Disraeli’s first novel, Vivan Grey, written when he was only twenty-one years of age, and later suppressed, but then republished at the urging of Goethe and other admirers.  It is almost inconceivable, reading this book, that he would one day be the Prime Minister of England, a close adviser to Queen Victoria, and a major player in world politics.

The young hero, wandering miserably through various German principalities after a political fiasco in England, falls in love with a mystery woman, who turns out to be an Austrian Princess incognito, who returns his passion but cannot control her fate. What follows is Disraeli’s commentary on women who marry kings or who themselves are “political queens” (i.e., like Elizabeth the First):

[Disraeli’s narrator, describing the Princess’s letter to Vivian:] She spoke of her exalted station as a woman, that station which so many women envy, in a spirit of agonising bitterness.  A royal princess is only the most flattered of state victims. She is a political sacrifice, by which enraged Governments are appeased, wavering allies conciliated and ancient amities confirmed. Debarred by her rank and her education from looking forward to that exchange of equal affection which is the great end and charm of female existence, no individual finds more fatally and feels more keenly that pomp is not felicity, and splendour not content.

Deprived of all those sources of happiness which seem inherent in woman, the wife of the Sovereign sometimes seeks in politics and in pleasure a means of excitement which may purchase oblivion. But the political queen is a rare character; she must possess an intellect of unusual power, and her lot must be considered an exception in the fortunes of female royalty. Even the political queen generally closes an agitated career with a broken heart. And for the unhappy votary of pleasure, who owns her cold duty to a royal husband, we must not forget that even in the most dissipated courts the conduct of the queen is expected to be decorous, and that the instances are not rare when the wife of the monarch has died on the scaffold, or in a dungeon, or in exile, because she dared to be indiscreet where all are debauched. But for the great majority of royal wives, they exist without a passion; they have nothing to hope, nothing to fear, nothing to envy, nothing to want, nothing to confide, nothing to hate, and nothing to love. Even their duties, though multitudinous, are mechanical, and while they require much attention, occasion no anxiety. Amusement is their moment of greatest emotion, and for them amusement is rare; for amusement is the result of equal companionship. Thus situated, they are doomed to become frivolous in their pursuits and formal in their manners, and the Court chaplain or the Court confessor is the only person who can prove they have a soul, by convincing them that it will be saved. [Book VIII, p. 492-93]

Some parts of this first novel are obviously satirical, for instance the calamitous ending that parodies German Romanticism. But the passage I quoted above seems to be written from the heart and in the author’s true voice.  Also, I am convinced that either Melville channeled the young Disraeli or read this book, for the sendups of fashion and foppery will find their echoes in Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857).

I do not claim a perfect analogy with the situation of Kate Middleton. These are more democratic times. But the abasement of many before the aristocracy is noted here, and Disraeli, born a Jew but a convert to Anglicanism, never lost the tongue of the observant artist and independent commoner, [partially] masked though he may have been.

PM Disraeli with Victoria

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