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NPR Arts & Life

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

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.

Daisy Hay used voluminous letters and diaries kept by the Disraelis and their circle to write the new biography <em>Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance</em>.
Steven Haywood / Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Daisy Hay used voluminous letters and diaries kept by the Disraelis and their circle to write the new biography <em>Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance</em>.

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."

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