Mr and Mrs Disraeli
Deep in the archives of the Bodleian Library lies a tattered scrap of paper with newlyweds’ scribbles on it. It is a table, listing the qualities of a couple. One column reads ‘Often says what he does not think’, ‘He does not show his feelings’, ‘He is a genius’; the other ‘Never says what she does not think’, ‘She shows her feelings’, ‘She is a dunce’. The writing is Mary Anne Disraeli’s: the qualities listed contrast her with her husband, Benjamin Disraeli, one of the foremost politicians of the Victorian age.
From the outset they made an unlikely couple. Mary Anne was the daughter of a sailor, 12 years Disraeli’s senior, and married to someone else when they met. She was also highly eccentric, liable to misbehave and (worse still) embarrasingly overdressed for grand society dinners. Her Diz was of Jewish descent, a mid-ranking novelist who was mired in debt. They made perfect targets for the vicious Victorian press and society gossips, who pounced on any and every foible. Yet their odd match appeared to make them impervious to such slings and arrows, as together they spun their unusual tale into a romance worthy of the novels they so loved.
Reading between the lines of a great cache of their letters and the anecdotes of others, Daisy Hay shows how the Disraelis rose to the top of the social and political pile. Along the way, we meet women of a similar station and situation whose endings were far unhappier than Mary Anne’s, acting as a counterpoint to her apparently fairy tale ending as the landed Angel of the Prime Minister’s House.
In an age where first ladies are under ever-increasing pressure to perform and conform, Mr and Mrs Disraeli offers a portrait of a couple who refused to do either, in a society which demanded they do both.