By 1858 Benjamin Disraeli, a popular novelist of Jewish descent, was leading Britain’s Conservative party but he was still not of them and knew he did not have their loyalty. He lived in a fine house in the Buckinghamshire countryside but he was still not quite of the country. His wife Mary Anne, a sailors daughter twelve years his senior, was a wealthy widow when the couple married in 1839. She worked tirelessly to transform the gardens of Hughenden but was constantly made fun of as she tried to win acceptance among political elites in the great country houses of England.
And yet nine years later, with the passage of the Reform Act of 1867 which, however imperfect, effectively enfranchised all male householders, Disraeli was finally seen as a hero to his own party and confirmed as Prime Minister in waiting, heir to Tory grandee, Lord Derby.
At the end of the April night on which the bill was passed, Disraeli was cheered by his own MPs and Tory gentleman who had always looked on him with hostility and suspicion, writes Daisy Hay in this fine study of a marriage of two outsiders and how they triumphed together, their loyalty to each other growing over time. Disraeli had long since won the admiration of Queen Victoria and in 1868, in lieu of an honour for him, he asked that his wife should instead be created Viscountess of Beaconsfield in her own right. Disraeli, at time of writing (2015) the only British Prime Minister of Jewish birth, was thus able to remain in the House of Commons but the gesture was a noble one. He did not enter the Lords until 1876 as Earl of Beaconsfield.
Daisy Hay, examining the voluminous correspondence from Mary Anne to her beloved Dizzy as well as others, paints a touching portrait of a childless marriage of extraordinary devotion and loyalty, remarkable (as she points out) even in an uxorious age. Mary Annes wealth may have been important at the outset but as the partnership developed it became the foundation of his happiness as well as his success. In 1867 Disraeli toasted her as the best wife in England and when he told her she was more like a mistress than a wife, she took the remark as a high compliment. At her funeral in 1872 Disraeli allowed himself to be seen in in public with grey hair; it was Mary Anne who had ensured his hair was always dyed black.
Loyalty not just to his eccentric wife but also to his Jewish friends, especially the Rothschilds, is at the heart of this story. Constance de Rothschild, who visited as a child, remembered how Disraeli tried to act up to the character he had imposed upon himself, that of the country gentleman! For dressed in his velveteen coat, his leather leggings, his soft felt hat, and carrying his little hatchet Mr Disraeli was the Squire of the Hughenden estate, the farmers friend and their representative in Parliament.
When Disraeli became leader in 1868 the Times commented that he had achieved distinction in spite of every disadvantage of birth, of education and of position. Cherchez la femme.
Anne Sebba is writing Les Parisiennes: How women lived, loved and died in Paris in 1939-49 to be published by Orion in 2016