The long, happy and unlikely marriage of the great Conservative leader Disraeli and his wife Mary Anne, 12 years his senior, is analysed thoughtfully in Daisy Hay’s new book. Reading between the lines, it is possible to see the Disraelis as a Victorian power couple not unlike the Underwoods in Netflix’s remade House of Cards — he, high on his own oratory; she, a valuable campaign asset; together, a marriage that is child-free and (with his sexuality in question) built on blackberries at bedtime. Yet — here’s the twist — they truly loved one another.
The Underwoods are bound together in sinister ambition, but the Disraelis make an inspiring emblem of marriage as a virtuous circle. Benjamin’s extraordinary achievements in politics and literature were made possible by Mary Anne’s support, financial, emotional and practical. In return he dedicated his two nations novel, Sibyl, to ‘a perfect wife’ and saw to it that she was ennobled before he was — Viscountess Beaconsfield in her own right, as it reads on her tombstone.
And yet in her day, Mary Anne was something of a joke, always overdressed in feathers and diamonds, and famous for her off-colour remarks. ‘You should see my Dizzy in his bath!’ she once exclaimed during a conversation about pallid skin. Queen Victoria, on their first meeting, called her ‘very vulgar’. Hay never refutes these denigrations, but cleverly allows us gradually to see that they were in fact strengths. Mary Anne’s taste for costume meant that, out canvassing or at balls, she never went unnoticed (Disraeli himself with his white coat had a similar modus operandi) and her lack of airs made her popular with constituents, while her fast and witty conversation inspired the future Earl of Rosebery to take extensive notes.
Mary Anne has already been the subject of two biographies (in 1928 and 1972), but by sifting through the Disraeli archives, particularly the under-exploited 10,000 documents relating to Mary Anne, Hay has reclaimed her reputation with a light touch and much glorious detail. We see Mary Anne, late at night, writing passionately to Sir Robert Peel, pleading for her husband’s promotion (they probably decided together to make it look like she was writing without his knowledge: very House of Cards). We see her carefully playing the stock market, and forever getting up on stage at hustings, wearing politically-themed bonnets and throwing flowers into the crowd. When Disraeli’s debts threatened to overwhelm him, she put her entire estate — including all her possessions —in hock to a moneylender. Her character emerges here triumphantly.
When Disraeli was still a boy, Mary Anne was already out campaigning on behalf of her first husband. She came from impoverished respectability, and on the strength of her vivacity and good nature married the wealthy industrialist Wyndham Lewis, who clearly adored her. And — so the reader infers — it was mainly for his wife’s enjoyment that he fought a number of rotten boroughs, including Cardiff, where Mary Anne played to the gallery, canvassing in a Welsh mob cap and tall black hat. ‘They say I am so popular that I must canvass tomorrow, which I shall do,’ she wrote.
Their London home at Grosvenor Gate was chosen with political entertaining in mind, and despite Wyndham Lewis’s far from brilliant career (over 12 years in the House, he spoke eight times) their Tory circle eventually expanded to include Disraeli, whose first novel Vivian Grey Mary Anne had much admired, copying out long extracts from it into her commonplace book. In the 1837 election the Lewises and Disraeli canvassed together and Disraeli won a seat alongside Lewis, sharing the staunchly Conservative Maidstone. Mary Anne was jubilant: ‘They call him my parliamentary protégé.’ In a twist hammy enough for Netflix, a fatal heart attack carried off Wyndham Lewis, and the protégé turned husband. Mary Anne never told him her age.
Hay previously scored a hit with Young Romantics, a group biography of Byron, Shelley et al, and she brings a sensitive literary sensibility to this story. ‘To recover a semblance of the Disraelis’ emotional existence… we have to listen closely to the rhythms of their letters and throw-away remarks.’ She reveals how both Benjamin and Mary Anne used subterfuge to keep their marriage protected from their siblings, and she is heroically steeped in Disraeli’s novels — she has read Tancred, so you don’t have to. She puts their romance into a literary context, noting that the couple were not only devoted to one another but also ‘to the idea of being devoted’. In his novels, Disraeli conjured life as he wished it to be, while Mary Anne ‘curated’ their archive of letters. They both used words to spin their marriage into more than the sum of its parts; Hay calls them ‘middle-aged when the Victorian novel came to maturity’. Yes, indeed; but their marriage’s lifeblood was surely more straightforward — they were both political animals.
Modern politics was only just coming into being, and yet the glue in the Disraelis’ marriage, like the Underwoods’, was shared conviction, partisan zeal, daily drama and riveting gossip. Conviction, particularly, is missing in this book, leaving the central players merely politicking. And a literary approach, acute though it may be, can never quite capture the aphrodisiacal effect of politics on the political.