Victorian Romance Meets 'House Of Cards' In 'Mr. And Mrs. Disraeli' | KERA News

Victorian Romance Meets 'House Of Cards' In 'Mr. And Mrs. Disraeli'

Feb 23, 2015
Originally published on February 23, 2015 4:11 pm

A climb "to the top of a greasy pole" are the immortal words coined by 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to describe his rise to political power. Disraeli was two-time prime minister under Queen Victoria, as well as a novelist and famous wit whose way with a catchy phrase was rivaled in the 19th century only by his younger admirer, Oscar Wilde. But when he entered politics in the 1830s, Disraeli was burdened by debt and, even more seriously, by his Jewish parentage. Anti-Semitism was a constant throughout Disraeli's life; the Irish leader Daniel O'Connell, for instance, once attacked him in a newspaper diatribe saying, "Disraeli's name shows that he is of Jewish origin ... [and] He has just the qualities of the impenitent thief on the Cross."

If Disraeli's climb to the top of that "greasy pole" was especially difficult, he largely owed his success to his gentile wife, Mary Anne, who boosted him up with her charisma and her fortune every slippery inch of the way. Their unusual marriage — think the shrewdness of the Underwoods from House of Cards interlaced with the genuine passion of a Napoleon and Josephine — is the subject of Daisy Hay's erudite and lively new biography called Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance. Hay offers an intimate look at their relationship, thanks to the voluminous letters and diaries kept by the Disraelis and their circle; she also tells a larger story here, about how the expectations for marriage itself changed during the Victorian era, transforming from a chiefly economic transaction to a union in which compatibility and even romantic love were considered essentials.

Despite Benjamin Disraeli's historical prominence, Mary Anne steals the spotlight in this marital biography. Flirtatious and flashy, a lover of diamonds, lace and gossip, Mary Anne was born even lower down the 19th century pecking order than Disraeli. Her father was a mere sailor, and so Mary Anne first got a leg up the old-fashioned way — through an early marriage to a staid older man whose most appealing feature was that he owned an ironworks. She first forged her skills as a political spouse with this husband, who ran for a seat in Parliament. When he won, Mary Anne threw a Liberace-worthy dinner party at their home in London: On the dining table, Hay tells us, "she contrived a show-stopping table decoration: a windmill, complete with turning sails, perched above a stream in which swam gold and silver fish."

After husband No. 1 died, leaving Mary Anne a 47-year-old wealthy widow, she married Disraeli, then a debt-ridden dandy of 35. Among other rumors swirling about him in London society, it was said that Disraeli indulged in the pleasures of "Eastern love" (that is, homosexuality) with, among others, fellow novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the man who gave us literature's most melodramatic opening line: "It was a dark and stormy night." But what may have started out as a marriage of convenience for Disraeli soon morphed into romance, as evidenced by some excruciating, dopey love poems. In one, a besotted Disraeli wrote to Mary Anne that he wished he "were the flea / That is biting your knee."

Hay makes the intriguing point that Disraeli was "among the first generation of politicians who needed to appeal to a middle-class electorate," and so he understood the attraction of "selling" the inside story of his unlikely-but-happy marriage to voters. If so, we have Disraeli to thank for the subsequent century and a half of campaign-trail narratives about normative wedded bliss, cute complaints about snoring and stinkiness in the bedroom, and non-stop Brady Bunch family ecstasy. Ironically, the vivacious Mary Anne would probably be considered too much of a loose cannon today: She loved to bedeck herself in bling, making her a favorite with the crowds, though the aristocracy, including Queen Victoria, thought her "vulgar." The other big takeaway from Hay's rich dual biography is less amusing: Victorian wives, no matter how seemingly secure their positions, were at the mercy of their husbands. The aforementioned Bulwer-Lytton arranged to have his troublesome wife abducted and committed to a madhouse, and Disraeli secretly made use of Mary Anne's money and property as collateral on his debts. No wonder when a rude acquaintance asked Disraeli what kept him with his much older wife, Disraeli reportedly replied, "Gratitude."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Biographer Daisy Hay first made a name for herself with her 2010 book "Young Romantics," about the tangled relationships among Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley and others in their circle. Hay's continuing fascination with the unconventional private lives of famous figures has inspired her latest book, a joint biography of 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his wife Mary Anne. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: (Reading) A climb to the top of a greasy pole. Those are the immortal words coined by Benjamin Disraeli to describe his rise to political power. Disraeli was two-time prime minister under Queen Victoria, as well as a novelist and famous wit, whose way with a catchy phrase was rivaled in the 19th century only by his younger admirer, Oscar Wilde. But when he entered politics in the 1830s, Disraeli was burdened by debt, and even more seriously by his Jewish parentage. Anti-Semitism was a constant throughout Disraeli's life. The Irish leader, Daniel O'Connell, for instance, once attacked him in a newspaper diatribe, saying, (reading) Disraeli's name shows that he is of Jewish origin, and he has just the qualities of the impenitent thief on the cross. If Disraeli's climb to the top of that greasy pole was especially difficult, he largely owed his success to his gentile wife, Mary Anne, who boosted him up with her charisma and her fortune every slippery inch of the way. Their unusual marriage - think the shrewdness of the Underwoods from "House of Cards" interlaced with the genuine passion of a Napoleon and Josephine - is the subject of Daisy Hay's erudite and lively new biography called "Mr. And Mrs. Disraeli." Hay offers an intimate look at their relationship thanks to the voluminous letters and diaries kept by the Disraelis and their circle. She also tells a larger story here about how the expectations for marriage itself change during the Victorian era, transforming from a chiefly economic transaction to a union in which compatibility and even romantic love were considered essentials. Despite Benjamin Disraeli's historical prominence, Mary Anne steals the spotlight in this marital biography. Flirtatious and flashy, a lover of diamonds, lace and gossip, Mary Anne was born even lower down the 19th-century pecking order than Disraeli. Her father was a mere sailor, and so Mary Anne first got a leg up the old-fashioned way: through an early marriage to a staid, older man, whose most appealing feature was that he owned an iron works. She first forged her skills as a political spouse with this husband, who ran for a seat in Parliament. When he won, Mary Anne threw a Liberace-worthy dinner party at their home in London. On the dining table, Hay tells us, she contrived a showstopping table decoration: a windmill complete with turning sails, perched above a stream in which swam gold and silver fish.

After husband number one died, leaving Mary Anne a 47-year-old wealthy widow, she married Disraeli, then a debt-ridden dandy of 35. Among other rumors swirling about him in London society, it was said that Disraeli indulged in the pleasures of Eastern love; that is, homosexuality with, among others, fellow novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the man who gave us literature's most melodramatic opening line: it was a dark and stormy night. But what may have started out as a marriage of convenience for Disraeli soon morphed into romance, as evidenced by some excruciatingly dopey love poems. In one, a besotted Disraeli wrote to Mary Anne that he wished he were the flea that is biting your knee. Hay makes the intriguing point that Disraeli was among the first generation of politicians who needed to appeal to a middle-class electorate. And so, he understood the attraction of selling the inside story of his unlikely but happy marriage to voters. If so, we have Disraeli to thank for the subsequent century and a half of campaign trail narratives about normative wedded bliss, cute complaints about snoring and stinkyness in the bedroom and non-stop "Brady Bunch" family ecstasy.

The other big takeaway from Hay's rich dual biography is less amusing. Victorian wives, no matter how seemingly secure their positions, were at the mercy of their husbands. The aforementioned Bulwer-Lytton arranged to have his troublesome wife abducted and committed to a madhouse. Disraeli secretly made use of Mary Anne's money and property as collateral on his debts. No wonder when a rude acquaintance asked Disraeli what kept him with his much older wife, Disraeli reportedly replied, gratitude.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Mr. And Mrs. Disraeli" by Daisy Hay. On tomorrow's show, I'll be speaking with writer Philip Connors, whose funny, poignant memoir tells the story of trying to understand his younger brother's suicide. When his brother killed himself, Connors couldn't forgive himself for not calling him the night before at his mother's urging.

PHILIP CONNORS: I wanted to believe that that might have saved him. I couldn't believe, in fact, that it wouldn't have saved him.

DAVIES: Connors' memoir is "All The Wrong Places." I hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.