Moonbeams on Her Brow

Daisy Hay, Mr & Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance

Chatto & Windus, 308pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780701189129

reviewed by Polly Bull

In 1868, Mary Anne Disraeli was awarded a peerage by Queen Victoria. With the new title of Viscountess Beaconsfield, she became a darling of the English public. Newspapers sang her praises, calling her the ‘First Rose of England’ and claiming that the Queen had never done ‘a more popular act’. Mary Anne was seen as the ideal wife of a great man: the outgoing Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. The new title not only recognised her own virtue, but that of a husband who had asked the Queen for the elevation of his wife. But though the Disraelis were considered an exemplary couple, the success of their partnership was far from inevitable. The first two decades of their relationship had been complicated by jealousy, financial pressures and professional ambition.

Daisy Hay’s A Strange Romance is a double biography covering the full lives of Mary Anne and Benjamin Disraeli. Both had relatively humble beginnings. Mary Anne was born in 1792 in the small farming village of Brampford Speke in Devon. Her parents were a naval seaman and a vicar’s daughter. Benjamin, 12 years her junior, was born in London. His father was a scholar and literary historian, and Benjamin identified with an ancient Jewish lineage as grand as the English aristocracy. However, no genealogical line could be established beyond his great-grandfather, whose son moved to England from Italy in 1748.

Mary Anne married her first husband, the Tory MP Wyndham Lewis, in 1815. She championed Wyndham’s career and worked hard on his election campaigns. Meanwhile, an ambitious young Disraeli was devoting himself to writing and politics. He did not fare particularly well in either area: his early novels received a mixed response, and his attempts to gain office were challenged by his class and religion.

Things improved when Lewis chose Disraeli to run alongside him for office in Maidstone in July 1837, and the two were successful. Even so, Disraeli’s parliamentary career started on shaky ground. His maiden speech, which he delivered in December 1837, was shouted down. He ended with the prophetic line, ‘I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.’ He would eventually become Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister, first in 1868 and again in 1874.

Disraeli had struck up a firm friendship with both the Lewises during the 1837 election. When Wyndham died from a heart attack the following year, Mary Anne and Benjamin began a sometimes-loving, sometimes-fraught courtship that ended in marriage after about a year and a half. The letters that the two exchanged during this period were poetic and fantastic. Disraeli’s approach to romance reflected his idolisation of Byron and Shelley. He rejoiced in the sight of moonbeams on Mary Anne’s brow and complained that in her absence ‘the charm is broken, the magic has fled!’ Even considering contemporary norms of emotional language, the style of these letters is flamboyant and the content full of angst. Each tried to make the other jealous, dropping hints of romantic competitors. Some of these competitors were inventions.

The courtship was further complicated by practical matters. Disraeli’s debts were immense, while Mary Anne had inherited a sizeable fortune from Wyndham. Marrying her would keep Disraeli out of debtor’s prison and further his political career. Despite his protestations of devotion, Mary Anne questioned his motives. Hay reads this period in their lives as characterised by two narratives, the romantic and the mercenary, with the truth lying somewhere in between.

Once they were married, Disraeli’s financial situation settled. Under the terms of Wyndham’s will Mary Anne’s fortune remained hers alone, but she used it to further Disraeli’s career and his political prospects quickly improved. In time, the couple’s relationship also became more settled, now that there was no longer the threat of romantic rivals. They relaxed into a pattern of mutual emotional dependence, teaming up against professional and domestic challenges. When they acquired the country estate of Hughenden in Buckinghamshire, the homestead became the embodiment of their increasingly solid relationship. Both were happiest when in residence at the manor, and both were eventually buried in the village churchyard.

The analysis of gender in A Strange Romance is one of the book’s most compelling aspects. Hay sets Mary Anne’s social stability against brief descriptions of women whose life stories intersected hers, but had much less fortunate endings. The chapter on Sarah Disraeli, Benjamin’s sister, is particularly intriguing. Sarah’s fiancé died when she was 29 years old and she never married, spending much of the remainder of her life looking after family members. She was Benjamin’s most important source of emotional support during the first half of his life, and she cared for her father when he went blind. She intervened in family disputes, forever trying to mediate disagreements between Benjamin and his two brothers, Ralph and James. Hay characterises Sarah’s identity as one subsumed into the lives of others, akin to a contemporary fairytale character, ‘Princess Nobody’. In contrast, Mary Anne appears as a figure of agency and autonomy. We see her careful management of financial matters, her courtship of political players and the electorate, and her refusal to be daunted by personal attacks on her appearance or character (her clothing was considered overblown and her manner unusually vivacious).

But Mary Anne was not as different from Sarah, or from the other unfortunate women in A Strange Romance, as Hay suggests. Whereas her portrayal of Mary Anne is full of nuance, she can seem too eager to confine these other women to the private domain, and to lives of passive subservience. Sarah did sometimes assert her autonomy, at one point purposefully separating herself from family strife by renting a house on a hill outside Hastings overlooking the sea. And Mary Anne, like Sarah, had to negotiate familial discord, repeatedly bailing out her brother and tempering Wyndham’s disapproval with diplomacy. When she received her peerage in 1868, and again after her death in 1872, the press cast her as a ‘ministering angel’, an invisible personal assistant who laboured tirelessly on Disraeli’s behalf. But the relationship between the two was always one of partnership rather than hierarchy, and Hay points out that the press’s depiction of Mary Anne may have been a backlash against women’s progress in the latter part of the century. (Women’s colleges opened in Cambridge in 1869 and 1871 and Parliament passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870).

A Strange Romance is a great achievement. It puts the relationship between a well-known statesman and his wife centre-stage, while placing both figures in relation to the political changes of 19th-century Britain and to the key debates of gender history. (Hay also deals sensitively with masculinity and relationships between men, specifically those between Disraeli and his colleagues and friends: a less-studied, but no less important, element in the field.) At its heart, however, this dual biography is an investigation of the concept of romance. Hay plays with ideas of fairytale and myth-making, questioning the degree to which these represent ‘real life’. Perhaps there is a parallel between the idealised romance enacted by the Disraelis’ early letters and the image that the press was so keen to attach to Mary Anne – two imagined notions with only loose ties to the truth. As readers we are also prompted to consider the history of emotions and how we glean romantic feeling from personal letters written centuries before our own.

The book ends with a description of Disraeli finding the thousands of letters that Mary Anne had kept over the course of her life, not just from him, but from the friends, relatives, colleagues and rivals who had populated both their lives. Here was documentation of the story of Mr and Mrs Disraeli. As we witness the scene of a grieving widower poring over a lifetime’s correspondence, we are left questioning where the mythologies end and the records begin. The complexities of feeling, survival and ambition characterise the story of the Disraelis and, as in any real romance, the facts and fictions are sometimes indistinguishable.
Polly Bull lives in London and has a PhD in the history of gender and reading from the University of London. She currently works in publishing while pursuing freelance writing projects.