Benjamin Disraeli and the Spirit of England

“Imagination governs mankind”. The force of this observation, made in 1833 in a diary kept by Benjamin Disraeli, who was born two hundred years ago, found no better illustration than in the course of his own political career, which involved an extraordinary triumph of imagination over adverse circumstances.

Disraeli was the son of a minor figure in London literary circles, and he did not have the advantage of a public school and university education, gaining much of his knowledge instead from intensive reading in his father’s library. As a young man he acquired a modest reputation as a writer of society novels, beginning with Vivian Grey (1826) published when he was twenty-two, but he achieved greater notoriety through his flamboyant lifestyle, dressing as a “dandy” in brightly coloured clothes with lace cuffs and buckled shoes. He was stigmatized, moreover, by the fact that he had been born a Jew (the family name was originally spelt D’Israeli) and only converted to Christianity at the age of twelve because his father thought it would help his social advancement.

Yet this man who appeared so foreign in his physical appearance and ways of thinking, and who was self- consciously an outsider, went on to become leader of the Conservative Party, which was identified with the interests of the aristocratic ruling elite. He served on two occasions as Prime Minister, and ended his life as the Earl of Beaconsfield and Queen Victoria’s personal favourite. Equally remarkable, the myths generated by his career helped to inspire the imaginations of future generations of Conservatives.

Disraeli’s character has puzzled historians as much as it did his contemporaries. Until recently, there was a tendency to accept the view of his critics at the time, that Disraeli was a cynical adventurer, a political charlatan, motivated by no consistent principle other than the fulfillment of his personal ambition. However, new insights have suggested a more sophisticated conclusion, that Disraeli did possess a clear set of ideas, derived from his interpretation of history, the insights this provided into England’s (it was always England’s) national character and destiny, and his belief in his own unique position in relation to them. While undoubtedly an opportunist in his methods, Disraeli’s underlying sense of political purpose, and the rhetoric he used to promote his objectives, never changed.

by T. A. Jenkins, History Today, 2004


1. According to the text, Disraeli’s career was marked by
A. disappointment.
B. the victory of his first-rate intelligence over social prejudice.
C. a victory of imagination over unfavourable social conditions.
D. moderate success.

2. Disraeli
A. was greatly respected because of his dress style.
B. won great admiration on account of his society novels.
C. owed his social success to his Jewish origins.
D, none of the above.

3. In Disraeli’s time, the Conservative Party
A. represented the peasantry.
B. defended the interests of the middle class.
C. was closely linked to the privileged nobility.
D. advocated social equality.

4. Disraeli was traditionally perceived as
A. an unselfish idealist.
B. a self-centred status seeker.
C. a care-free aesthete
D. a military adventurer.

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