A number of Mr Miliband's supporters tried to pooh-pooh Disraeli's claims to being the first (and, so far, the only) Jewish Prime Minister of Britain by pointing out that he had been baptized at the age of 12 and was, in fact, a practising Anglican later in life. That is so but then Ed Miliband is a practising socialist atheist and it is highly unlikely that he has ever participated in Jewish religious ceremonies unless he thought he could get some kind of a political advantage from such participation. In that respect that would be no different from him participating in, as it were, Sikh religious ceremonies, or Hindu or Muslim.
So, it is down to race and ethnicity, according to which Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield was most definitely Jewish. Indeed, as he rose in the political sphere, he became the target of numerous attacks that now we would call anti-Semitic though the expression itself was first used after his death. Some of those attacks came from Liberal politicians, journalists and historians, including Mr Gladstone himself.
Did Disraeli perceive himself as a Jew? Was he at all interested in the Jewish question? Was his policies influenced by his race as many of the accusations proclaimed? David Cesarani asks these questions in the latest biography of Disraeli. (Alas, he died at the very early age of 58 and did not see the book's publication.)
The book is part of a series published by Yale University Press, Jewish Lives, and the author begins by asking "Does Benjamin Disraeli deserve a place in a series of books called Jewish Lives?" He comes to the conclusion that he does for various reasons not just because he was born a Jew and rose higher than any other in British politics. His analysis follows Disraeli's life and looks at his books, novels and his biography of Lord George Bentinck, his colleague in the destruction of Sir Robert Peel and, let us be honest, the Tory Party.
Cesarani looks at Disraeli's family, his early life, his cavalier attitude to other people's money and the distrust felt for him by many in British politics and society. The distrust, he concludes, had more to do with Disraeli's rackety life, his debts and his various affairs. He was seen as foreign and exotic but, thinks Professor Cesarani, his Jewishness was largely subsumed in that. The first attack on him as a Jew came from Daniel O'Connell during the Taunton by-election of 1835. The attack wounded but many commentators felt that O'Connell had overstepped the marks of decency.
It was not till later in Disraeli's career that the various slurs became stronger, culminating in the ferocious attacks during the whole of the crisis of 1876 - 78 from which he emerged as the man who had won a great victory for Britain without firing a single shot or endangering a single life. That he is emerged as such for most people and, certainly, for the Conservative Party but not for all. Gladstone continued to fulminate; other Liberal writers pronounced that Disraeli's policy was not in Britain's interest but in the interest of the vaguely describe international Jewish conspiracy who naturally sided with the Turk.
In fact, Disraeli's policy, be that the purchase of the Khedive's shares in the Suez canal (on a loan from the Rothschilds, which was seen as particularly sinister, but no one else would have been able to come up with the money and the interest they received was no higher than usual) or the tortuous effort to prevent Russia from acquiring too much influence in the Balkans, let alone get to the Straits and Constantinople, was motivated by his desire to protect and aggrandize the British Empire. He could not understand why other people, for instance Gladstone, could not see this. How could the Liberal leader not realize that Russia was not in the slightest interested in the welfare of the Christians in the Ottoman Balkans but wanted to use them to push forward to the Straits and Constantinople? (One cannot help recognizing certain themes in the debates about Russia that have continued to be argued over ferociously to the present day.)
When it came to Jewish affairs Disraeli tended to drag his feet. He rarely intervened for Jews in other countries and was little more than a lukewarm fighter for their political rights in this one. He did support, more or less, Lionel de Rothschild in his struggle to be allowed to take his oath in the House of Commons without using the words "as a Christian" but the Rothschilds considered him unreliable despite their eventual close friendship and their support after Mary-Anne's death.
When one looks at Disraeli's writings a somewhat puzzling picture emerges on the subject of his attitude to Jews and Judaism. He was, in some ways, fascinated by it all but without showing the slightest interest in the history or politics. The early novels do not even refer to Jews. Later Jewish characters appeared, usually elderly wise men who "understood" the reality of the world in a way nobody else did. Sometimes there were plot lines that involved ideas of a Jewish revival in the East but these never came to anything.
If one were to try to summarize Disraeli's rather convoluted and, let us be frank, mushy attitude to the Jewish Question, one would have to list these points. Jews ought to have the same rights as Christians because it is clear that, Christianity starting as a Jewish sect, the two were inseparable and it is wrong to try to do so. This rather conveniently by-passed the liberal argument for Jewish emancipation, as that was based on questions of equality and individual rights, concepts Disraeli loathed.
He came up with the wildest theories about Semitic, Germanic and Anglo races but was convinced and repeated this at every possible opportunity that the world is divided according to some racial theory and this gave the Jews and the Anglos a great advantage. This was a particularly unfortunate as many of those who attacked him used his own so-called theories against him. Indeed, both Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the creator of modern racial theory, and Hitler quoted Disraeli to support their own sayings. When one adds to that Disraeli's propensity to explain that there is a cabal behind all world events, run largely by Jews, one can see that his influence was oddly harmful to Jews in the twentieth century.
David Cesarani comes close to saying that it was largely Disraeli's fault that the modern lethal anti-Semitism was born and grew with such rapidity at the end of the nineteenth century. That is, surely, somewhat unfair. The likelihood is that it would have existed and battened on other historic events without Disraeli's melodramatic novels and peculiar biography of his friend. The tracing of Disraeli's attitude to Jews and other people's attitude to him as a Jew is, on the other hand, an important part of the story both Disraeli's and that of modern British politics.
Certainly Benjamin Disraeli deserves to be in this series of biographies as long as nobody thinks that this is all that matters about him. Cesarani's book ends on a rather tragic note with Disraeli losing his grip on politics and dying while under constant anti-Semitic attacks. But by this time he was seen as the creator of the modern Conservative Party and a statesman of world-wide fame. A year after his death he was honoured beyond any other Prime Minister through Primrose Day and, subsequently, the Primrose League. He remains the one against whom party leaders, mostly but not exclusively Conservative, measure themselves. He is also the one about whom biographies pour out every year. This is a fine contribution to the genre, fascinating, knowledgeable and lightly written, but there will be many more.
David Cesarani: Disraeli
The Novel Politician
2016 Yale University Press
I have decided to shift the exercise to this blog (though there will be a link from Your Freedom and Ours) as there have been numerous references to and postings on Miss Sayers before - she was after all, a conservative thinker and writer.
My first blog is about Miss Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey and capital punishment. (I am afraid there will be spoilers.) Though I have read essays and letters by DLS I have no clear idea whether she was in favour of capital punishment but I am assuming, unless proven otherwise, that she was. Famously, Lord Peter though eager and willing to hunt down criminals, especially murderers, loses self-control and comes close to break-downs when he is successful. It is important to note that, unlike Josephine Tey' Inspector Grant who has near-break-downs because he finds himself pursuing, hounding and almost driving to suicide the wrong men, Lord Peter's neurosis appears when he gets the right man.
For all of that, he does not ever think of letting criminals go - there is not a single case of "justified murder" in any of the Wimsey novels or short stories. In Busman's Honeymoon he replies to Harriet's unreasonable question as to why it should be his hands who deliver someone to justice with the comment: "These are hangman's hands." Then he explains that he had been allowed to watch an execution once as he thought he should see it all for himself but it did not cure him from meddling. Later on in the book Harriet remembers that if it had not been for his meddling she would probably have been wrongly convicted and probably hanged. As it is, the real murderer was.
Not all Wimsey novels end with the assumption of execution but, curiously, all but one that involve Harriet do. The one exception is Gaudy Night, where there is no death only some time in the past, let alone murder. In another novel, Nine Tailors there is violent death but it is not really murder though the person responsible dies in turn - a good death, trying to save the village from flooding and another man from drowning. In yet another one, the supposed murder turns out to be suicide so, once again, Wimsey does not have a problem, especially as he also saves his brother from being hanged.
That leaves ten Wimsey novels with murder at the centre and of these one, Five Red Herrings, is really self-defence. The others are definitely murder and Wimsey finds the killers and brings them to justice, at least after a fashion. We see him going through a nasty nervous break-down in the first one, Whose Body? and the last one, Busman's Honeymoon. We also know for certain that the murderers in those books suffer the highest penalty as Freeman Wills Crofts often said at the end of his novels. The first one does not have Harriet in it but the last one most certainly does.
Strong Poison and Have His Carcase see murderers being sent to the gallows as we learn from subsequent references, especially in Gaudy Night.
Three end in suicide - in Unnatural Death the killer manages to do it in prison and Wimsey comes close to breaking down. The interesting ones are Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and Murder Must Advertise. Wimsey confronts the killer in one and has the killer seeking him out in the other. In both cases his decision is odd for a sensitive man with highly strung nerves: acting as prosecutor, jury and judge he condemns the murderers in those two novels to death by suicide instead of death by hanging. Indeed, in Murder Must Advertise he even pronounces the words as he watches the condemned man walk away: And may God have mercy on your soul.
That this should happen twice is extraordinary and it does make one wonder about Miss Sayers's attitude to capital punishment.
Other blogs on the subject are appearing. Kate Jackson is writing in Crossexamining Crime about Gaudy Night, the novel that divides readers. As befits the subject, it is a very careful analysis.
Noah Stewart writes about the various editions of Dorothy L. Sayers's books, with illustrations. The one I must find is The Recipe Book of the Mustard Club. According to Noah, most of the recipes were contributed by Mac Fleming, Sayers's husband who was a gourmet cook.
Moira Redmond casts a caustic eye over the first four Wimsey novels and points out an inconsistency or two.
Bev Hankins writes about one of the secondary characters, the Dowager Duchess, Honoria Lucasta, not one of my favourites as I tend to be allergic to charm but reading this posting I thought I might have been unfair to the old girl.
Lucy Fisher picks up some very odd "corrections" that make nonsense of the original and also some quite infuriating wrongly placed emphases.
Most readers of this blog would have heard by now of the death of Cecil Parkinson, one of the big beasts of Thatcherite politics in the eighties. He was one of several ex-future-Prime Ministers; at times it seemed that anyone who was seen as a successor to Thatcher was cursed, in Parkinson's case by his inability to run his private affairs in some kind of a seemly fashion.
In some ways his career is a modern morality play though, I think, the writer who could have done justice to him was not English but French: this son of a railway worker, grammar school boy, successful athlete and scholar at Cambridge, businessman, politician, probably the best Chairman of the Conservative Party in the late twentieth century, whose career was set back considerably by his behaviour towards his mistress and her child (and, ironically, the fact that he decided to stay with his wife) is really a fit subject of Balzac.
What could be more fitting than a picture of him and the Prime Minister (by some accounts the only woman he was really loyal to) at the moment of his greatest triumph - the sweeping 1983 victory - when they both already knew that the storm clouds were gathering.
The Telegraph, as you would expect, has produced a highly informative and objective obituary. There is a more personal memoir from Iain Dale who thinks that Parkinson remained a dissatisfied man, not having achieved what he really wanted and was capable of. Probably true but the fault lay not in his stars but in himself.
William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister at the age of 24 and died, on January 23, 1806, at the age of 46, exhausted by work and, let us not mince our words, the amount of port he put away every day of his life. How much more might he have achieved if not for the interminable French wars.
One of my favourite films is Carol Reed's The Young Mr Pitt, a very fine propaganda film made in 1942 with the great Robert Donat playing both the Elder and the Younger Pitt. Here is a scene between him and Talleyrand, played by Albert Lieven.
It is hard to agree with that judgement: it underestimates Christie whose work was a great deal more interesting than just a series of mechanical plots and puts Tey into a category she does not belong to, that is the tough guy Chandleresque thriller writer. To be fair to Ms Henderson, she is not the first to voice that opinion but it is wrong, whoever says it. There can be no possible parallel between Inspector Alan Grant or any other of Tey's detectives and, say, Philip Marlowe, though it is true that Tey's books are more concerned with characters than plots, some of which are a little weak.
It has been an accepted theory for some time that Elizabeth Mackintosh who wrote as Gordon Daviot and as Josephine Tey was a particularly mysterious and private personality about whom virtually nothing was known. There had been books about her work and a collection of essays about her in general but Jennifer Morag Henderson's Josephine Tey - A Life is the first full-length biography and many revelations were promised. (Catherine Aird, herself a leading detective novelist, has been promising her own biography of Tey for some years but it has not appeared so far though there have been articles and essays by her and Ms Henderson has relied on them to a considerable degree.)
The new biography is fascinating, not least in that it destroys the myth of the very private Josephine Tey. In a way, the myth was always just that. After all, how many times can people insist that readers of Tey's better known books have no idea that she was also Gordon Daviot, a highly successful playwright and moderately successful novelist between the wars and during World War II when every single edition of, say The Franchise Affair or The Daughter of Time (the two most popular ones) mentions this fact? In The Daughter of Time there is even a reference to Daviot's best known play, Richard of Bordeaux.
It turns out that Beth Mackintosh who, according to her great friend Caroline Ramsden, used the different names with different friends, had a number of them and kept in touch with such people as Dodie Smith, John Gielgud, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, James Bridie as well as her sisters and at least one friend from Anstey College where she had trained to be a PE teacher. The letters are available in various collections as are notes Beth Mckintosh made and correspondence between her and her publishers and agents. Ms Henderson seems to have tracked down every piece of evidence about her subject wherever it happens to have been, collated it all and made a fascinating story out of it. Anyone who is interested in Josephine Tey, in life in Scotland in the thirties and forties and the world of English and Scottish theatre should read this book. They will not regret it - there is so much material there.
On the other hand, one must admit that there are also problems with it. Firstly, the style is clunky and full of unnecessary modern jargon. Tey herself was a brilliant and witty stylist and it is a pity that her biographer cannot come even close to it. Secondly, there is a great deal of padding and repetition - trite comments about the First World War, repeated assurances that Tey was a complex personality and kept her family and her friends apart, pages on the growth of Scottish nationalism with which she had nothing to do - all this is unnecessary when the real story is so interesting.
Finally, those mysteries. Ms Henderson found out that Gordon Daviot was busy during the Second World War, writing short stories and short plays that were broadcast by the BBC, something, as she rightly and indignantly points out, the Corporation should not have lost track of. There is also the curious fact of the third nom-de-plume, F. Craigie Howie, used only once for a play, Cornelia, produced by the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre soon after the war. Apparently only two people knew the real identity of the author, Beth Mackintosh herself and James Bridie and neither revealed it so how it became known is not clear.
The link with Hollywood is spurious and consists of a single event when Gordon Daviot, a then successful dramatist, was asked to produce a script for a film. She did not go to Hollywood but wrote the script at home; it was then sent off and re-written several times by other authors as was the custom. She was not credited though the most recent list on IMDB does give the name of Josephine Tey as one of the contributors. By no stretch of the imagination can this be called experiencing Hollywood.
Finally, those young men she is supposed to have romances with and who are supposed to have a great influence on her. Some of this comes from Catherine Aird who relies on vague reminiscences by one Beth Mackintosh's sisters. Ms Henderson discusses the likelihood of some kind of an affair with a young Scottish officer, Gordon Barber, supposedly the source of the name in Gordon Daviot, who was killed at the Somme and who had kept a diary, which does not mention Beth, and comes to no conclusions. It might have been him she remembered and mourned, it might have been another young officer, Alfred Trevanion Powell or it might have been someone completely different. One cannot help wondering whether it might not have been merely an idealized young man.
The supposed brief post war affair with Hugh Patrick Fraser McIntosh who died of TB in 1927 is presented as a fact with no supporting evidence at all, beyond the fact that Josephine Tey used the name Patrick in several books and quoted one of McIntosh's poems in To Love and Be Wise. Well, maybe. The book is given to presenting a number of "would have beens" and "might have beens" and "probablys" as facts and that is irritating in the extreme.
There really is no need for any of that. The book is based on detailed and meticulous research and presents a fascinating portrait of a very good and many-faceted writer who will no longer be hidden by rather spurious mythology. For all of that we must thank Jennifer Morag Henderson.
Some years ago I wrote an article about Kipling for the Reputations section of the Salisbury Review but, at the moment, I cannot find it either on the internet or in hard copy, which I do have. As soon as I do so, I shall either link to it or quote from it. I do recall that I referred both to Orwell's and T. S. Eliot's essay on the man and his work. They are both interesting in that they were written at a time when Kipling was seen as something of an embarrassment to the literary establishment and the two critics, approaching the subject from different political perspectives, came to similar conclusions: a very good poet, often a good prose writer, difficult to accept politically but not quite as bad as people make him out.
Times have changed and our attitude to Kipling (give or take idiot students in Oxford, I imagine) has also changed. We still think of hims as a good and accessible poet. If was voted as the nation's favourite poem and I am not surprised. Recessional is not seen as a glorification of imperialism and racism, as it was for many years, by anyone who has actually read it but as a warning against hubris and arrogance. His later poems about the First World War are full of woe, not least because he lost his only son in it and felt guilty about pushing him towards enlistment, despite him being too young.
His children's books are a delight and his Indian stories continue to be popular. He was one of the few authors who understood children and could write about them as well as for them without making one cringe with embarrassment. He also understood and could write about people usually dismissed by the literary establishment, such as ordinary soldiers, the people of India who are between castes and races as well as the lower ranks of the Indian Service.
There are so many things to say about this man who is still underestimated by many but let me just add one highly admirable characteristic: he consistently refused state honours even when George V personally offered him a knighthood. He even declined the Poet Laureateship. A writer and a poet, he thought, should not be accepting such honours. He did accept honorary degrees and, eventually, the Nobel Prize for Literature. How many literary personalities who pretend to be far more radical jump at the chance of a gong, a handle or the ermine?
Meanwhile, here are some links to discussions about Kipling: an OUP blog about what he really wrote about the First World War, an interesting piece about Kipling's birthday being celebrated in India and an excellent piece by Christopher Howse in the Telegraph about Kipling "the misfit poet".
Having not managed to wish readers of this blog a merry Christmas and not put up any illustrations from Dickens, who, to my knowledge, describes festivities only in A Christmas Carol and in Pickwick Papers (by far preferable), I feel I must express a hope that everyone had a merry or jolly or peaceful Christmas according to their preferences. On to the last week of the year and then the new one.