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Endymion, published a few months before his
death, the hero, starting from small beginnings,
ends by becoming prime minister : this is the
crown of his career, the noblest triumph an
Englishman can achieve. It might have been
thought that one who had been through it all,
who had realised the dreams of his boyhood, who
had every opportunity of learning w^hat power
and fame come to, would have liked to set forth
some other conception of the end of human life,
or would not have told the world so naively of his

3 2 Biographical Studies

self-content at having attained the aim he had
worked for. With most men the flower they have
plucked withers. It might have been expected
that one who was in other things an ironical cynic
would at least have sought to seem disillusionised.
To say that Disraeli's heart was somewhat
cold is by no means to say that he was heartless.
He was one of those strong natures who permit
neither persons nor principles to stand in their
way. His doctrine was that politics had nothing
to do with sentiment ; so those who appealed to
him on grounds of humanity appealed in vain.
No act of his life ever so much offended English
opinion as the airy fashion in which he tossed aside
the news of the Bulgarian massacre of 1876. It
incensed sections who were strong enough, when
thoroughly roused, to bring about his fall. But
he was far from being unkindly. He knew how
to attach men to him by friendly deeds as well as
friendly words. He seldom missed an oppor-
tunity of saying something pleasant and cheering
to a debutant in Parliament, whether of his own
party or the opposite. He was not selfish in
little things ; was always ready to consider the
comfort and convenience of those who surrounded
him. Age and success, so far from making him
morose or supercilious, softened the asperities of
his character and developed the affectionate side
of it. His last novel, published a few months
before his death, contains more human kindliness,

Lord Beaconsfield 33

a fuller recognition of the worth of friendship and
the beauty of sisterly and conjugal love, than do
the writings of his earlier manhood. What it
wants in intellectual power it makes up for in a
mellower and more tender tone. Of loyalty to
his political friends he was a model, and nothing
did more to secure his command of the party
than its sense that his professional honour, so to
speak, could be implicitly relied upon. To his
wife, a warm-hearted woman older than himself,
and inferior to him in education, he was uni-
formly affectionate and indeed devoted. The
first use he made of his power as Prime
Minister was to procure for her the title of
viscountess. Being once asked point blank by a
lady what he thought of his life-long opponent,
Mr. Gladstone answered that two things had
always struck him as very admirable in Lord
Beaconsfield's character his perfect loyalty to
his wife, and his perfect loyalty to his own race.
A story used to be told how, in Disraeli's earlier
days, when his political position was still far from
assured, he and his wife happened to be the
guests of the chief of the party, and that chief so
far forgot good manners as to quiz Mrs. Disraeli
at the dinner- table. Next morning Disraeli,
whose visit was to have lasted for some days
longer, announced that he must leave immediately.
The host besought him to stay, and made all
possible apologies. But Disraeli was inexorable,

34 Biographical Studies

and carried off his wife forthwith. To Hterary
men, whatever their opinions, he was ready to
give a helping hand, representing himseU' as one
of their profession. In paying compliments he
was singularly expert, and few used the art so well
to win friends and disarm enemies. He knew how
to please Englishmen, and especially the young,
by showing interest in their tastes and pleasures,
and, without being what would be called genial,
was never wanting in bonhomie. In society he
was a perfect man of the world told his anec-
dote apropos, wound up a discussion by some
epigrammatic phrase, talked to the guest next
him, if he thought that guest's position made him
worth talking to, as he would to an old acquaint-
ance. But he had few intimates ; nor did his
apparent frankness unveil his real thoughts.

He was not of those who complicate political
opposition with private hatreds. Looking on
politics as a game, he liked, when he took off
his armour, to feel himself on friendly terms with
his antagonists, and often seemed surprised to
find that they remembered as personal affronts
the blows which lie had dealt in the tournament.
Two or three years before his death, a friend
asked him whether there was in London any one
with whom he would not shake hands. Reflect-
ing for a moment, he answered, " Only one," and
named Robert Lowe, who had said hard things of
him, and to whom, when Lowe was on one occasion

Lord Beaconsfield 35

in his power, he had behaved with cruelty. Yet
his resentments could smoulder long. In Lothair
he attacked, under a thin disguise, a distinguished
man of letters who had criticised his conduct years
before. In Endyniiou he gratified what was evi-
dently an ancient grudge by a spiteful presentation
of Thackeray, as he had indulged his more bitter
dislike of John Wilson Croker by portraying
that politician in Coningsby under the name of
Nicholas Rigby. For the greatest of his ad-
versaries he felt, there is reason to believe,
genuine admiration, mingled with inability to
comprehend a nature so unlike his own. No
passage in the striking speech which that ad-
versary pronounced, one might almost say, over
Lord Beaconsfield's grave a speech which may
possibly go down to posterity w^ith its subject-
was more impressive than the sentence in which
he declared that he had the best reason to believe
that, in their constant warfare. Lord Beaconsfield
had not been actuated by any personal hostility.
Brave men, if they can respect, seldom dislike, a
formidable antaofonist.

His mental powers were singularly well suited
to the rest of his character were, so to speak,
all of a piece with it. One sometimes sees in-
tellects which are out of keeping with the active
or emotional parts of the man. One sees persons
whose thought is vigorous, clear, comprehensive,
while their conduct is timid ; or a comparatively

36 Biographical Studies

narrow intelligence joined to an enterprising
spirit ; or a sober, reflective, sceptical turn of mind
yoked to an ardent and impulsive temperament.
What we call the follies of the wise often spring
from some such source. Not so with him. His
intelligence had the same boldness, intensity, con-
centration, directness, which we discover in the
rest of the man. It was just the right instru-
ment, not perhaps for the normal career of a
normal Englishman seeking political success, but
for the particular kind of work Disraeli had
planned to do ; and this inner harmony was one
of the chief causes of his success, as the want of it
has caused the failure of so many gifted natures.

The range of his mind was not wide. All its
products were like one another. No one of them
gives the impression that Disraeli could, had he so
wished, have succeeded in a wholly diverse line.
It was a peculiar mind : there is even more variety
in minds than in faces. It was not logical or dis-
cursive, liking to mass and arrange stores of know-
ledge, and draw inferences from them, nor was it
judicial, with a turn for weighing reasons and
reaching a decision which recognises all the facts
and is not confused by their seeming contradic-
tions. Neither was it analytically subtle. It
reached its conclusions by a process of intuition
or divination in which there was an imaginative
as well as a reflective element. It might almost
have been called an artist's mind, capable of deep

Lord Beaconsfield 37

meditation, but meditating in an imaginative way,
not so much on facts as on its own views of
facts, on the pictures which its own creative
faculty had called up. The meditation became
dreamy, but the dreaminess was corrected by an
exceedingly keen and quick power of observation,
not the scientific observation of the philosopher,
but rather the enjoying observation of the artist
who sees how he can use the characteristic
details which he notes, or the observation of
the forensic advocate (an artist, too, in his way)
who perceives how they can be fitted into the pre-
sentation of his case. There are, of course, other
qualities in Disraeli's work. As a statesman he
was obliged to learn how to state facts, to argue,
to dissect an opponent's arguments. But the
characteristic note, both of his speeches and of
his writings, is the combination of a few large
ideas, clear, perhaps, to himself, but generally
expressed with grandiose vagueness, and often
quite out of relation to the facts as other people
saw them, with a turn for acutely fastening
upon small incidents or personal traits. In his
speeches he used his command of sonorous
phrases and lively illustrations, sometimes to
support the views he was advancing, but more
frequently to conceal the weakness of those
views ; that is, to make up for the absence of
such solid arguments as were likely to move his
hearers. Everybody is now and then conscious

38 Biographical Studies

of holding with assured conviction theories which
he would find it hard to prove to a given
audience, partly because it is too much trouble
to trace out the process by which they were
reached, partly because uninstructed listeners
could not be made to feel the full cogency of
the considerations on which his own mind
relies, Disraeli was usually in this condition
with regard to his political and social doctrines.
He believed them, but as he had not reached
them by logic, he was not prepared to use
logic to establish them ; so he picked up some
plausible illustration, or attacked the opposite
doctrine and its supporters with a fire of raillery
or invective. This non-ratiocinative quality of
his thinking was a source both of strength and
of weakness of weakness, because he could
not prove his propositions ; of strength, because,
stated as he stated them, it was not less hard
to disprove them. That mark of a superior
mind, that it must have a theory, was never
wanting. Some one said of him that he was
"the ruins of a thinker." He could not rest
content, like many among his followers, with a
prejudice, a dogma delivered by tradition, a stolid
suspicion unamenable to argument. He would
not acquiesce in negation. He must have a
theory, a positive theory, to show not only that
his antagonist's view was erroneous, but that he
had himself a more excellent way. These theories

Lord Beaconsfield 39

generally had in them a measure of truth and
value for any one who could analyse them ; but
as this was exactly what the rank and file of the
party could not do, they got into sad confusion
when they tried to talk his language.

He could hardly be called a well-read man,
nor were his intellectual interests numerous. His
education had consisted mainly in promiscuous
reading during boyhood and early youth. There
are worse kinds of education for an active in-
telligence than to let it have the run of a large
library. The wild browsings of youth, when
curiosity is strong as hunger, stir the mind and
give the memory some of the best food it ever
gets. The weak point of such a method is that it
does not teach accuracy nor the art of systematic
study. In middle life natural indolence and his
political occupations had kept Disraeli from filling
up the gaps in his knowledge, while, in conversa-
tion, what he liked best was persiflage. He
was, however, tolerably familiar with the ancient
classics, and with modern English and French
literature; enjoyed Quintilian and Lucian, preferred
Sophocles to /Eschylus and (apparently) Horace
to Virgil, despised Browning, considered Tenny-
son the best of contemporary poets, but " not a
poet of a high order." ^ Physical science seems
never to have attracted him. Political economy

^ See Sir S. Northcote"s refiort of a conversation with Disraeli in his
last years {Life of Sir Statford A'orthcote, vol. ii.).

40 Biographical Studies

he hated and mocked at almost as heartily as
did Carlyle. People have measured his know-
ledge of history and geography by observing
that he placed the Crucifixion in the lifetime
of Augustus, and thought, down till 1878, when
he had to make a speech about Afghanistan, that
the Andes were the highest mountains in the
world. But geography is a subject which a man
of affairs does not think of reading up in later
life : he is content if he can get information
when he needs it. There are some bits of meta-
physics and some historical allusions scattered
over his novels, but these are mostly slight or
superficial. He amused himself and the public
by now and then propounding doctrines on agri-
cultural matters, but would not appear to have
mastered either husbandry or any other economi-
cal or commercial subject. Such things were not
in his way. He had been so little in office as
not to have been forced to apply himself to them,
while the tide of pure intellectual curiosity had
long since ebbed.

For so-called " sports " he had little taste. He
liked to go mooning in a meditative way round his
fields and copses, and he certainly enjoyed Nature ;
but there seems to be no solid evidence that the
primrose was his favourite flower. In his fond-
ness for particular words and phrases there
was a touch of his artistic quality, and a touch
also of the cynical view that words are the

Lord Beaconsfield 41

counters with which the wise play their game.
There is a passage in Contariiii Fleming (a story
into which he has put a good deal of himself)
where this is set out. Contarini tells his father
that he left college " because they taught me only
words, and I wished to learn ideas." His father
answers, " Few ideas are correct ones, and what
are correct, no one can ascertain ; but with words
we govern men."

He went on acting on this belief in the power
of words till he became the victim of his own
phrases, just as people who talk cynically for
effect grow sometimes into real cynics. When
he had invented a phrase which happily expressed
the aspect he wished his view, or some part of his
policy, to bear, he came to believe in the phrase,
and to think that the facts were altered by the
colour the phrase put upon them. During the
contest for the extension of the parliamentary
franchise, he declared himself " in favour of
popular privileges, but opposed to democratic
rights." When he was accused of having as-
sented, at the Congress of Berlin, to the dis-
memberment of the Turkish Empire, he said
that what had been done was "not dismember-
ment, but consolidation." No statesman of recent
times has given currency to so many quasi-epi-
grammatic expressions: "organised hyj^ocrisy,"
"England dislikes coalitions," "plundering and
blundering," "peace with honour," '^ iuipcriuni

42 Biographical Studies

et libertas,'' "a scientific frontier," "I am on
the side of the angels," are a few, not perhaps
the best, though the best remembered, of the
many which issued from his fertile mint. This
turn for epigram, not common in England,
sometimes led him into scrapes which would
have damaged a man of less imperturbable
coolness. No one else could have ventured to
say, when he had induced the Tories to pass
a Reform Bill stronger than the one they had
rejected from the Liberals in the preceding
year, that it had been his mission " to educate
his party." Some of his opponents professed
to be shocked by such audacity, and many
old Tories privily gnashed their teeth. But the
country received the dictum in the spirit in which
it was spoken. "It was Disraeli all over."

If his intellect was not of wide range, it was
within its range a weapon of the finest flexibility
and temper. It was ingenious, ready, incisive.
It detected in a moment the weak point, if not of
an argument, yet of an attitude or of a character.
Its imaginative quality made it often picturesque,
sometimes even impressive. Disraeli had the
artist's delight in a situation for its own sake, and
what people censured as insincerity or frivolity was
frequently only the zest which he felt in posing,
not so much because there was anything to be
gained, as because he realised his aptitude for
improvising a new part in the drama which he

Lord Beaconsfield 43

always felt himself to be playing. The humour of
the situation was too good to be wasted. Perhaps
this love of merry mischief may have had some-
thing to do with his tendency to confer honours
on those whom the world thouo^ht least deserving.
His books are not only a valuable revelation
of his mind, but have more literary merit than
critics have commonly allowed to them, perhaps
because we are apt, when a man excels in one
walk, to deem him to have failed in any other
wherein he does not reach the same level. The
novels foam over with cleverness ; indeed, Vivian
Grey, with all its youthful faults, gives as great
an impression of intellectual brilliance as does
anything Disraeli ever wrote or spoke. Their
easy fertility makes them seem to be only,
so to speak, a few sketches out of a large
portfolio. There is some variety in the sub-
jects Coniariiii Fleming and Tajicrcd are
more romantic than the others, Sybil and Con-
ingsby more political as well as in the merits
of the stories. The two latest, Lothair and
Bndy77iioii, works of his old age, are markedly
inferior in spirit and invention ; but the general
features are the same in all a lively fancy, a
knack of hitting characters off in a few lines and
of catching the superficial as[)ects of society, a
brisk narrative, a sprightly dialogue, a keen insight
into the selfishness of men and the vanities ot
women, with Hashes of wit lighting up the whole

44 Biographical Studies

stage. It Is always a stage. The brilliance
is never open-air sunshine. There is scarcely one
of the characters whom we feel we might have
met and known. Heroes and heroines are
theatrical figures ; their pathos rings false, their
love, though described as passionate, does not
spring from the inner recesses of the soul. The
studies of men of the world, and particularly of
heartless ones, are the most life-like ; yet, even
here, any one who wants to feel the difference
between the great painter and the clever sketcher
need only compare Thackeray's Marquis of
Steyne with Disraeli's Marquis of Monmouth,
both of them suggested by the same original.
There is little intensity, little dramatic power
in these stories, as also in his play of Alarcos ;
and if we read them with pleasure it is not
for the sake either of plot or of character,
but because they contain so many sparkling
witticisms and reflections, setting in a strong
light, yet not always an unkindly light, the seamy
side of politics and human nature. The slovenli-
ness of their style, which is often pompous, but
seldom pure, makes them appear to have been
written hastily. But Disraeli seems to have
taken the composition of them (except, perhaps,
the two latest) quite seriously. When he wrote
the earlier tales, he meant to achieve literary
greatness ; while the middle ones, especially
Coningsby and Sybil were designed as political

Lord Beaconsfleld 45

manifestoes. The less they have a purpose or
profess to be serious, the better they are ; and
the most vivacious of all are two classical bur-
lesques, written at a time when that kind of
composition had not yet become common
Ixion in Heaven and The Infernal Marriage
little pieces of funning worthy of Thackeray,
I had almost said of Voltaire. They recall,
perhaps they were suggested by, similar pieces
of Lucian's. Is Semitic genius specially rich in
this mocking vein ? Lucian was a Syrian from
Samosata, probably a Semite ; Heinrich Heine
was a Semite ; James Russell Lowell used to
insist, though he produced little evidence for his
belief, that Voltaire was a Semite.

Whether Disraeli could ever have taken high
rank as a novelist if he had thrown himself com-
pletely into the profession may be doubted, for his
defects were such as pains and practice would hardly
have lessened. That he had still less the imagina-
tion needed by a poet, his Revohitionary Epick, con-
ceived on the plains of Troy, and meant to make
a fourth to the Iliad, the ^Eneid, and the Dii'iva
Comniedia, is enough to show. The literary
vocation he was best fitted for was that of a
journalist or pamphleteer ; and in this he might
have won unrivalled success. His dash, his
verve, his brilliancy of illustration, his scorching
satire, would have made the fortune of any news-
paper, and carried dismay into the enemy's ranks.

46 Biographical Studies

In inquiring how far the gifts I have sought to
describe qualified Disraeli for practical statesman-
ship, it is well to distinguish the different kinds
of capacity which an English politician needs to
attain the highest place. They may be said to
be four. He must be a debater. He must be a
parliamentary tactician. He must understand the
country. He must understand Europe. This last
is, indeed, not always necessary ; there have been
moments when England, leaving Europe to itself,
may look to her own affairs only; but when the
sky grows stormy over Europe, the want of know-
ledge which English statesmen sometimes evince
may bode disaster.

An orator, in the highest sense of the word,
Disraeli never was. He lacked ease and fluency.
He had not Pitt's turn for the lucid exposition of
complicated facts, nor for the conduct of a close
argument. The sustained and fiery declamation of
Fox was equally beyond his range. And least of
all had he that truest index of eloquence, the power
of touching the emotions. He could not make his
hearers weep. But he could make them laugh ;
he could put them in good-humour with them-
selves ; he could dazzle them with rhetoric ;
he could pour upon an opponent streams of
ridicule more effective than the hottest indigna-
tion. When he sought to be profound or solemn,
he was usually heavy and laboured the sublimity
often false, the diction often stilted. For wealth

Lord Beaconsfield 47

of thought or splendour of language his speeches
will not bear to be compared I will not say with
those of Burke (on whom he sometimes tried to
model himself), but with those of three or four of
his own contemporaries. Even within his own
party, Lord Derby, Lord Ellenborough, and Lord
Cairns in their several ways surpassed him. There
is not one of his longer and more finished harangues
which can be read with interest from beofinnino- to
end. But there is hardly any among them which
does not contain some striking passage, some
image or epigram, or burst of sarcasm, which
must have been exceedingly effective when de-
livered. It is partly upon these isolated passages,
especially the sarcastic ones (though the witticisms
were sometimes borrowed), and still more upon
the aptness of the speech to the circumstances
under which it was made, that his parliamentary
fame rests. If he was not a great orator he was
a superb debater, who watched with the utmost
care the temper of the audience, and said just
what was needed at the moment to disconcert an
opponent or to put heart into his friends. His
repartees were often happy, and must sometimes
have been unpremeditated. As he had not the
ardent temperament of the born orator, so neither
had he the external advantages which count for
much before large assemblies. His voice was
not remarkable either for range or for quality.
His manner was somewhat stiff, his gestures few,

48 Biographical Studies

his countenance inexpressive. Yet his delivery
was not wanting in skill, and often added point,
by its cool unconcern, to a stinging epigram.

What he lacked in eloquence he made up
for by tactical adroitness. No more consum-
mate parliamentary strategist has been seen in
England. He had studied the House of Commons
till he knew it as a player knows his instrument
studied it collectively, for it has a collective
character, and studied the men who compose
it : their worse rather than their better side,
their prejudices, their foibles, their vanities,
their ambitions, their jealousies, above all, that
curious corporate pride which they have, and
which makes them resent any approach to dicta-
tion. He could play on every one of these
strings, and yet so as to conceal his skill ; and he
so economised himself as to make them always

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 3 of 29)