Home » Arts & Life, biography, history, politics, Politics & History

Mary Anne and the Adventurer

By (April 1, 2015) No Comment

Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance
By Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

hayThis fascinating account of one of the most successful domestic and political partnerships of the Victorian era rests upon a body of evidence that may well be unique. It was not unusual in the 19th century for the correspondence of famous men to be collected and later published. Indeed, there is a whole genre, “The Life and Letters of . . .” that, following Lockhart’s monumental, 7 volume Life of Scott (1837-8), testifies to the popularity of such auto-/biographical presentations. But it is usually the subject’s public and professional life that is illuminated by these memorial testimonials, even though there is often in them a desire on the part of the author/editor to demonstrate an exemplary character in the subject’s private life. In this case the “strange romance” alluded to in the subtitle of Daisy Hay’s new book, comprising the courtship and marriage of Benjamin Disraeli and Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, has as its focus not only the double public life they led to its improbable triumphs but also the extremely problematic, yet fulfilling nature of their domestic union. And though some of their public and domestic experience was far from exemplary, in the end the marriage must be reckoned a remarkable success.

Hay’s book has been made possible by two collections of surviving evidence, one of which is an unparalleled contemporary domestic archive and the other an outstanding modern scholarly editorial project. The first of these is the result of Mary Anne’s determination to preserve every document, including all received correspondence and her own household accounts that recorded their life together. It may well be the 19th century’s most complete evidence of a couple’s marital relationship and social life. Mary Anne’s hoarding was motivated by her unwavering conviction that her second husband was a genius and by her devotion to his political ambitions. The second of these collections is the magnificent, fully-annotated edition of Disraeli’s letters emanating from the Disraeli Project at Queen’s University in Canada and published by the University of Toronto Press. These letters, 10 volumes thus far, reveal both the personal and political aspects of Disraeli’s life in much more detail than has ever before been available. Hay has been able to exploit both collections much to the benefit and interest of her narrative.

When Disraeli first met Mary Anne, at a party given by Edward and Rosina Bulwer in April 1832, she was the pretty, lively, voluble, and much-younger wife of the Welsh M.P. and mining magnate, Wyndham Lewis, and he (Disraeli) was a deeply-in-debt dandy, mostly known as the author of a scandalous novel, Vivian Grey (1826), who had just recently returned from an extended trip to the Middle East. In the year following this first encounter, Mary Anne’s “dear Dizzy” was often in her company at evening entertainments, or as a guest at the Lewises’ dinners, luncheons, and breakfasts. But by the summer of 1833 Disraeli was caught up in a flagrant adulterous affair with another woman, Lady Henrietta Sykes, which was, in part, a Byronic defiance of society’s rules of propriety and in part an emotional refuge from the failure thus far of his own attempts to get into parliament. That affair would last three years and bring Disraeli and Henrietta much notoriety, but it did not seem to bother Mary Anne, whose own indiscreet and flirtatious behaviour with men other than her husband was the subject of gossip.

As Hay points out in her early chapters, both Disraeli and Mary Anne were outsiders to the established social and political world they wished to join. Despite his adolescent baptism in the Church of England, Disraeli’s Jewish heritage left him vulnerable to the widespread anti-Semitism of the day. And his lack of a public school and Oxbridge education was a social liability given his ambitions. On top of this, his debts, his impudent first novel, his exotic appearance, and his talent for witty sarcasms defined him as an adventurer. Similarly, Mary Anne, despite her advantageous marriage to Wyndham Lewis, was very eccentric. Her extravagant mode of dressing (with altogether too many jewels and feathers) and her impetuous conversation lacked the usual restraints of polite society and were often thought vulgar. Her education, too, was sketchy, to say the least. Apparently she could never remember who came first, the Greeks or the Romans, and once asked one of her guests where “Dr. Johnson” lived, because she wanted to invite him to dinner. But she was clever, and she drew people to her with her vitality, warmth, sincerity and candour, all of which proved to be great assets in her husband’s electoral campaigns. She defied lady-like convention and played a conspicuous part, both in the canvassing and on the hustings, all the while showily dressed in his purple campaign colours.

It was at Mary Anne’s urging that Disraeli became a second Conservative candidate in her husband’s constituency during the 1837 general election. In thus joining Lewis at Maidstone, Disraeli became Mary Anne’s “pet” project. She reported their double victory to her brother with a metaphor that emphasizes the centrality of her role:

“on the 27th of this month I was safely deliver’d of all my anxieties & produced a pair of twin members with whom I returned to town in triumph on Friday morning. . . . Mark what I prophecy. Mr. Disraeli will, in a very few years, be one of the greatest men of his day – his great talents, backed by his friends . . . with Wyndham’s power to keep him in Parliament will insure him success – They call him my Parliamentary protégé.”

Wyndham Lewis’s sudden death from a heart attack, just seven and a half months later (on the 14th of March 1838), left Mary Anne a wealthy widow, with an annual income of £5,000 from his investments and lifetime possession of their house at 1 Grosvenor Gate, overlooking Hyde Park. Disraeli would marry Mary Anne on the 28th of August 1839, and there is explicit evidence in their correspondence that her money was a significant motivation in that decision. The generally held view of their marriage has until now been that it was an unequal alliance in which she — “too old for him, unable to give him children, and far from being his intellectual equal” — played a subordinate, supporting role in the pursuit of his political career. In a sense that is true, but Hay rightly challenges the sufficiency of that interpretation by showing how actively Mary Anne took control of their relationship, and “how it evolved on her terms.” She chose not to call in Wyndham’s loan for Disraeli’s election expenses, and she paid off the most urgent of his other debts.

She eventually permitted their relationship to develop into private intimacy but insisted that the marriage be delayed for propriety’s sake. She knew that there were other men who wanted to marry her, and she enjoyed their attentions. She also understood that Disraeli was a political adventurer. But she agreed, nonetheless, to join in the mutual characterization of their courtship as a grand passion. Hay is particularly good at showing the fictional nature of the construction of their sometimes rocky romance through the evidence of letters and poetry about dreams, prophecies and symbols, including the motif of the mother and her child that had also shaped Disraeli’s affair with Henrietta Sykes six years earlier. But Hay also notes and analyzes their contrasting realistic awareness of each other:

Disraeli also copied into the commonplace book a list of his and Mary Anne’s characteristics, drawn up by her shortly after their marriage. The double presence of this list in their papers, in her hand in loose-leaf draft and in his in the book in which they exchanged anecdotes and ideas, suggests something of its significance, for Mary Anne as she attempted to understand the contrast between them, and for Disraeli as he read and responded to her account of their partnership. The list opens with a couplet suggesting something of the physical pleasure Mary Anne took in her husband (‘His eyes as black as sloes / and oh so beautiful his nose’). Disraeli’s characteristics occupy the left column, hers the right:

Very Calm Very effervescent
Manner grave & almost sad Gay & happy looking when speaking
Never irritable Very irritable
Bad humoured Good humoured
Warm in love but cold in friendship Cold in love but warm in friendship
No self love Much self love
Very patient No patience
Very studious Very idle
Very generous Only generous to those she loves
Often says what he does not think Never says anything she does not think
It is impossible to find out who he Her manner is quite different to
likes or dislikes from his manner those she likes

He does not show his feelings She shows her feelings
No vanity Much vanity
Conceited No conceit
No self love Much self love
He is seldom amus’d Every thing amuses her
He is a genius She is a Dunce
He is to be depended on to a She is not to be depended on
certain degree

So that it is evident they sympathise only on one subject – Maidstone much like husbands & wives about their Children.

This list of qualities has been widely quoted than anything else Mary Anne wrote, in part because of its disarming frankness and its open avowal of how ill-suited she was to be the political wife of a man of intellect. ‘He is a genius — She is a Dunce’: many have agreed with her assessment. At first glance the list reads simply as a celebration of Disraeli, whose striking qualities are emphasized by proximity to his wife. ‘Very studious –Very idle’, ‘No self love – Much self love’ (repeated twice), ‘Very patient – No patience’. But Mary Anne does something more complicated than simply praise her husband as she sets up her oppositions. Disraeli appears as a chameleon, shifting opinions and manner according to circumstance, keeping his true feelings hidden. She appears initially as a creature of the moment, easily amused, happy and warm. But she represents herself as two beings, one seen by the world and one witnessed only by those closest to her. ‘Her manner is quite different to those she likes’. Disraeli, meanwhile, combines in her account patience with bad humour: his calmness translates into coldness to friends and a refusal to be amused. He is to be depended on, but only ‘to a certain degree’. Yet he is ‘warm in love’ while she is ‘cold’, belying the inference that their public personae mirror the roles they occupy as lovers. Mary Anne’s conclusion, that they sympathise over his constituency as other couples do over their children, id deliberately undermined by her presentation of them as the personification of contrasts. Her list is not merely a joke against herself but an exploration of the structural relationship of the pair defined by each other. Its portrait is optimistic, of husband and wife as two parts of a whole, a balanced, harmonious union.

Mary-anne-disraeliIn his first few years in parliament, Disraeli made strenuous efforts to support the Conservative cause and Sir Robert Peel’s leadership of the Party. His letters to Mary Anne and to his sister Sarah at this time report that his speeches have been very well received by Peel and his senior colleagues, and that he is finally gaining “the ear of the House.” And the occasional invitations he receives to Sir Robert’s select Party dinners reinforce his impression that he is seen as an invaluable political asset. Thus, when Peel formed a Conservative Ministry in 1841, Disraeli fully expected to be included in the Cabinet, or at least to be given a significant Government office. The crash of those rather naïve expectations, when no appointment was offered, came as an emotional catastrophe for him – one that prompted quite extraordinary letters to Peel from both him and Mary Anne. He pointed out that in fighting four expensive election contests he had struggled against “a storm of political hate and malice, which few men ever experienced” in the hope that the day would come when Peel, “the foremost man of this country,” would publicly recognize his ability and his character. Mary Anne, in turn, pointed out that over the years she had spent very considerable sums supporting the Conservative party. Both begged Peel to reconsider his omission and save Disraeli from what he said was an “intolerable humiliation.” Mary Anne’s emotional support in this crisis, what Disraeli called “her heroic virtues” of “ineffable tenderness and unwearied devotion” that “never for a moment slacken,” also testifies to the joint political enterprise of their marriage.

In the 1840s this enterprise also involved managing Disraeli’s precarious financial situation. The debts incurred as a young man from speculation on the stock market, and from living an extravagant, dandyish life on the fringes of fashionable society, had been augmented by the expenses of his early election campaigns in the days before he had support from the Conservative Party or help from Wyndham Lewis. Under the loan-sharking practices of his money-lenders, Disraeli’s debts grew monstrously large and complex, to the point of leaving him vulnerable to arrest from any one of a dozen or more creditors. As an MP he was protected from such arrest while Parliament was in session, but, as Hay points out, during dissolutions and election campaigns his debts posed a very real threat to his career.

In her account book Mary Anne recorded the transfer of £700 from her account to Disraeli’s and on 14 June she and Disraeli arrived in Shrewsbury to campaign. . . .On 24 June a broadsheet was posted around Shrewsbury listing the outstanding judgments against Disraeli. Parliament was now dissolved, so he had no protection against arrest. The broadsheet was explicitly anti-Semitic, calling Disraeli a ‘Child of Israel’ who owed money to ‘Tailors, Hosiers, Upholsterers’ and ‘Jew Money Lenders’. ‘Honest Electors of Shrewsbury’, it asked, ‘will you be represented by such a man? Can you confide in his pledges? Take warning by your brethren at Maidstone, whom Benjamin cannot face again. He seeks a place in Parliament merely for the purpose of avoiding the necessity of Prison, or the benefit of the Insolvent Debtors Act.’ The broadsheet listed debts totaling over £21,000 and prompted Disraeli to issue a second election address declaring its contents to be ‘UTTERLY FALSE’. Disingenuously he avowed that he would not have solicited votes had he not an income ‘which renders the attainment of any Office in the State, except as the recognition of Public Service, to me a matter of complete indifference’.

Benjamin_Disraeli_by_Cornelius_Jabez_Hughes,_1878 (1)In this context one must remember that, though the disappointment of not being included in Peel’s ministry was undoubtedly about lost fame and power, such positions came with a salary that would also have alleviated the financial pressure. Mary Anne played a central and decisive role in saving her husband from the disgrace of arrest by amalgamating these debts and using her income and assets to pay off the most pressing of them. The matter of Dizzy’s loans was, however, not quite that simple, and they caused trouble in the marriage. Mary Anne never knew the full extent of her husband’s indebtedness, and he kept her in the dark about his true financial situation by continuing a clandestine correspondence about it with his sister, Sarah, of which his wife was both jealous and resentful when she found out about it.

The effect of Disraeli’s political alienation was soon felt, for by the fall of 1842 he had become the spiritual and intellectual leader of a small idealistic ginger group within the Conservative Party known as Young England. The other core members were young aristocratic MPs, who, from a nostalgic perspective, shared lofty ideals of noble feudalism, chivalry, and divine kingship, and who hoped passionately for a revival of the Church of England’s moral authority. The essence of the bond that held Young England together, however, was threefold; their patriotism, their desire to restore what they conceived to be an ancient social harmony, and their revulsion at the battle of warring factions that early nineteenth-century society seemed to have become. The members of Young England grew increasingly critical of Sir Robert Peel’s moderate policies and leadership, although for a few years Disraeli was careful to stay within the bounds of party loyalty. Eventually, though, he decided to use the form of fiction to propagate his views on the need for reform and revitalization of the Tory party, and his novel embodying those views, Coningsby; or the New Generation (1844), was a sensational popular success. As a result, Disraeli was invited to chair the next fall’s annual literary meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum at which he and his Young England colleagues were the featured speakers.

Some measure of Disraeli’s new fame beyond the walls of parliament can be taken from the fact that Charles Dickens had chaired this meeting in 1843, and that in October 1844 the Times reported that more than 3,200 ladies and gentlemen were in attendance at this gala evening, which ended in triumph with Disraeli receiving nine rounds of applause and profuse thanks for presiding. His domestic character also added to his popularity, for Mary Anne, who had accompanied him, was cheered three times, before the speeches gave way to the merriment of dancing until a late hour before a full military band. It is a pity that Hay does not discuss this event, beyond a passing mention of the invitation, choosing to focus instead on Disraeli’s unaccompanied trip to his constituents in Shrewsbury the previous summer. In doing so, she does capture both the domestic tenderness of Mary Anne’s care and Disraeli’s forlorn sense of their separation: “She sent him on his journey with a hot-water bottle, sleeping draughts, biscuits and a bottle of cognac, but even with the hot-water bottle ‘in constant use & a great comfort to me . . . I feel very lonely at night’.” In then quoting more of Disraeli’s letter, Hay also shows how Mary Anne continued to be significant partner in the politics of the visit: “‘Wherever I go, I hear of nothing but “Mrs. Disraeli” & why she did not come’:

‘Among the shop keepers, whom I wish most to please, your name &memory are most lively and influential. “Such a gay lady! Sir; you never can have a dull moment, Sir” & I tell them all that you are a perfect wife as well as a perfect companion; & that separated from you for the first time after five years, we are (alas! alas!) parted on our wedding day! The women shed tears, wh: indeed I can bearly myself restrain’.

viviangreyThe pinnacle of the Disraelis’ social success during the mid-1840s was undoubtedly the lavish party given by the Duke of Buckingham on the evening of 17 January 1845 as a culmination of the Queen’s visit to Stowe. The Duke’s guests comprised the cream of Buckinghamshire society – aristocracy, gentry, and many persons of eminence, including various members of the Government. This was the first occasion on which Disraeli and Mary Anne were presented to Her Majesty and the moment seems to have been mutually fascinating. Mary Anne’s letter to Disraeli’s family at Bradenham with an account of the affair captured the extent of the event’s interest and excitement. The presentation to Her Majesty involved the usual formalities of curtseys and bows, but after the Queen had retired, the evening was, Mary Anne said, one of “joy & triumph” for them. Hay’s account of the evening emphasizes Mary Anne’s sense of being the belle of the ball, quoting the description of her own dress “in black velvet hanging sleeves, looped up with rosetts of blue & diamond buttons, head dress bows of the blue velvet fastened with diamonds.” Hay then goes on to report Mary Anne’s gratification at being singled out by the Duke of Buckingham and escorted to the supper room (“The Queen & your delighted Mary Anne being the only ladies so distinguished”), and at the equally gratifying intimacy with the Duchess, who told her that Her Majesty had “pointed out Dizzy, saying theres Mr. Disraeli.” The Duchess also invited her to lunch the next day and then gave her a private tour of the Royal apartment. This led Mary Anne to comment on the royal couple’s sleeping arrangements (“without pillows or bolster) and (in Hay’s more delicate wording) on the “even more interesting . . . prim protocols surrounding the Queen’s water closet.”

No doubt such voyeuristic domestic details had their interest for Mary Anne’s private readers then, as much as they do for today’s public equally fascinated by the life of the Royal family, but the triumph of the evening should also be seen as having a political resonance that is not sufficiently noticed in Hay’s narrative. In her letter, Mary Anne’s “joy & triumph” is described as follows: “First Sir R Peel came towards us, shaking hands most cordially, & remained talking for some time, then Ld Nugent introducing his lady – Col. Anson – Sir James Graham – Ld & Lady de LaWare – Ld Aberdeen – the Duke almost embraced Dizzy, saying he was one of his oldest friends. . .” On such an evening, political animosities would, of course, be set aside, but the point is sybilnot that things had changed. Disraeli was no longer expecting any preferment from the Conservative Government’s leaders. Rather, now, after the popularity of Coningsby and the success at the Manchester Athenaeum, he and Mary Anne have a new and stronger sense of his own significance. Cordial conversations with the Prime Minister and Sir James Graham on this occasion notwithstanding, a month later, when the House of Commons resumed, Disraeli continued his sarcastic attacks on both of them.

It was on his trip to Manchester and the north of England that Disraeli had absorbed much of the detailed knowledge of industrial conditions that informed his portrayal of them in his next novel, Sybil; or the Two Nations (1845). This second work of what would become known as his political trilogy was even more successful and popular than Coningsby had been. It is significant that it was dedicated to Mary Anne, “one whose noble spirit and gentle nature ever prompt her to sympathise with the suffering; to one whose sweet voice has often encouraged, and whose taste and judgment have ever guided its pages; the most severe of critics, but – a perfect Wife!”

Hay is right to suggest that at the time Disraeli was writing Sybil, their marriage, whatever its obvious convenience and its fictitious form of a great romance, had become a model of a secure and happy partnership. But her discussion of the novel itself is unsatisfactory and somewhat misleading. Hay takes the concept of “the Two Nations, the RICH AND THE POOR” at face value, and describes Disraeli’s “heroes” as “radicals, men who reveal injustice and fight its evils even as they assert the healing power of the imagination.” This ignores the pervasive satirical intent of the work that shows working-class radicalism to be naïve and misguided. As a number of critics have shown, Disraeli is at pains to discredit the idea of “the Two Nations” as a false doctrine, articulated by a radical atheist, Stephen Morley, whose socialist and materialist values are the antithesis of those held by Charles Egremont, the novel’s hero, and Sybil Warner, its heroine. Sybil is radical, not in the political sense of the 1840s, but only in that it contains a devastating critique of the selfishness of a corrupt social hierarchy. At its conclusion, Egremont and Sybil are both presented as aristocrats who in marriage represent the wedding of noble, compassionate, intelligent secular leadership to the spirit of piety and devotion in a revived Christian faith. The dedication suggests that Mary Anne shared this vision of a moral regeneration and was proud to be the valued partner of the man who articulated it.

tancredHay does make this point about the depth of the Disraeli’s marriage partnership when she turns to the next novel, Tancred; or the New Crusade, by suggesting that “it reveals the intellectual significance of his [Disraeli’s] friendship with the Rothchilds and the emotional importance of Mary Anne’s whole-hearted embrace of Jewish history.” But once again the novel is dismissed rather casually as “an extended meditation on Jewish history and culture,” which is not very helpful. Hay believes Disraeli’s novels “always functioned as a respite for the moments when real life failed him,” and so she doesn’t look for the ways in which they might be imaginatively autobiographical, either embodying the conflicts and intensities of those failures or exploring compensations for them. Part of the difficulty may arise from the occasionally imprecise, and sometimes confused chronology of Hay’s narrative. Tancred was written and published in 1847 after Disraeli’s vitriolic attacks on Peel over the repeal of the Corn Law in 1846, but the novel is here discussed first. Those attacks, which culminated in the defeat of Peel’s Government, precipitated a storm of controversy in the press about Disraeli’s character, whether principled or merely opportunistic – a topic that resonates profoundly in the differences of character between the alter-ego protagonists of the novel, the idealistic Tancred and the deceitful scoundrel, Fakredeen.

There is also important personal context to consider. For many years, even before she met Disraeli, Mary Anne had been a close friend of her neighbor, Mary Dawson, Peel’s sister. Hay mentions this friendship at the time of the Disraelis’ courtship , but might also have noted that in 1844 Mary Dawson had written to her friend deploring the growing rift between Disraeli and her brother, suggesting that the next time they met, Disraeli should take the initiative of putting out his hand as a sign of willing reconciliation. From this it would seem that Mary Anne’s feelings about the Corn Law debate, and her response to the novel that followed it, might well be more complicated than Hay has described. To be fair, Hay does note that Mary Anne expressed some unhappiness in her account book for these years with the phrase “pas content,” which appeared for the first time as early as March 1846, during the period of the Corn Law debates and recurred a number of times in 1847 and 1848. Mary Anne’s complaint refers mostly to the frequency with which her husband is dining out with political colleagues, while she is left at home alone. But the real issue seems to be a lack of daily political intimacy — any sense of joint enterprise –, for when they are together in the evenings it is mostly in situations and company that would preclude it.

In 1848, with a loan from the Duke of Portland to further his political prospects, Disraeli arranged the purchase of Hughenden, a manor house and estate near High Wycombe. Mary Anne thus took on the complex task of running both this house and Grovesnor Gate, their residence in London that Wyndham Lewis had bought. This sometimes entailed separations, when she was at Hughenden and Disraeli had personal or political business in the city; but it also meant she had more responsibilities in keeping Disraeli’s political career on track, both during the parliamentary sessions and the recesses. During the leadership crisis by which he became the de facto leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, and at the three subsequent times he held office as Chancellor of the Exchequer, her roles as her husband’s most intimate advisor and successful public hostess became ever more essential to the management of the myriad complexities his career now entailed. Hay’s careful tracking of Mary Anne’s accounts shows that every year there were dozens of dinners and breakfasts to be arranged in London, and many hundreds of letters to be Coningsbykept track of. And as, well, there was a steady stream of guests invited to stay at Hughenden. For all her eccentricities Mary Anne, it is clear, was a genuine partner of her husband’s rise to power. In that regard Hughenden was more than the visible emblem of Disraeli’s political standing. It was also a private retreat from the hectic life in London. And the garden at Hughenden, that quintessential aspect of the English gentleman’s country house, gloriously reflected her taste and her efforts. Disraeli was intensely proud of the result.

In the 1860s Mary Anne developed cancer and she did not live to see the years of Disraeli’s real power in his second Ministry from 1874 to 1880. But she did partake of the triumph of his passing the second Reform Act in 1867 and his becoming Prime Minister for the first time in 1868. The brilliant reception they held at the magnificent new Foreign Office to mark the occasion was the grandest social affair of their lives. The hundreds of guests included the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Prince and Princess Christian, the Duke of Cambridge, and all the members of the social and political elite. Hay makes a good case for this latter phase of their marriage being the most rewarding. Mary Anne’s devotion to her Dizzy was unceasing and it was reciprocated by his loving recognition of how much he owed to her support. Even Disraeli’s arch-nemesis, William Gladstone, set his hostilities aside, when she was ill at the time of the Reform debate, to pay tribute to Mary Anne and sympathize with his rival facing the terrible anxiety of her illness. At the time of Disraeli’s resignation after the Conservative’s defeat in the general election in November 1868, Queen Victoria offered him the usual honour of an earldom. But he was not yet ready to go to the Elysian Fields, as he once termed the House of Lords, and wanted to stay in the House of Commons; so he asked the Queen to bestow the honour of an aristocratic title on his wife. So it was that Mary Anne, a sailor’s daughter, became in her own right the Countess of Beaconsfield. There were those who thought the idea quixotic, but, as Hay has demonstrated in a most engaging way, for Mr. & Mrs. Disraeli it was the perfect conclusion to the “strange romance” they had created.

Robert O’Kell is Professor of English, and Dean Emeritus of Faculty of Arts, at the University of Manitoba. This is his first Open Letters review.