Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, by Daisy Hay

At the end of her Preface to her joint biography of Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli, focused on their marriage, Daisy Hay sums up their mutal story this way:

[Their] marriage was as surprising, eccentric and important as its hero and heroine. The Disraelis’ story is about luck, and the path not taken, and the transformative effects of a good match for a man and woman of modest means in nineteenth-century Britain. It . . . charts a marriage that wrote itself into happiness. It relates the history of people who remake themselves through their reading and writing. . . . And it is a story about what happens after the wedding, when the marriage plot is over.

That description is pretty apt, and I found Hay’s account, which draws on the vast archive of letters and other documents Mary Anne saved, fascinating.

When Benjamin Disraeli married Mary Anne Lewis, she was a widow in her forties and he was 12 years younger. It was largely a marriage of convenience, although he also wooed her with romantic letters. Disraeli was deeply in debt and couldn’t continue in Parliament without marrying money; Mary Anne had a life interest in her late husband’s estate worth about £5,000 a year–not enough to pay off his debts, but enough for him to stave off his creditors and borrow more. Mary Anne, the daughter of a sailor and a vicar’s daughter who had married beneath her, had made a respectable first marriage to an industrialist but was a little too vulgar for the polite society she longed to join. She was dogged by rumors of sexual indiscretion and married partly to salvage her reputation. This all could have been a recipe for misery and disaster, and Hay weaves in the stories of other marriages, like that of the Disraelis’ friends the Bulwer Lyttons, which did indeed end that way.

But the Disraelis’ marriage, despite some rocky patches, was a success. Mary Anne supported her “Dizzy” whole-heartedly. She campaigned for him, gave political dinner parties, bailed him our of financial trouble without (much) reproach, and celebrated his political and literary triumphs. In return, he praised her as a perfect wife and defended her against those who mocked her vulgarity. The end of their marriage, especially, was a peaceful time of real devotion.

One thing that fascinated me was the little notes they exchanged during the day, even when in the same house: “Hey, I’m going to write another two pages and then do you want to go for a walk?” (That’s a paraphrase, obvs.) How odd, I thought. And then I thought about the marital texts I exchange, in much the same vein. Lost to biographers forever, should my husband or I ever become Prime Minister.

As a literary scholar like Hay I appreciated her interest in casting both Disraelis as people who fashioned their identites and shaped their understanding of their own lives through the stories their letters told, the voices they adopted. At times this argument is persuasive, as when she describes the passionate, romantic pose Disraeli struck in his letters to Mary Anne before their marriage. (During an argument, he wrote more honestly that “when I first made my advances to you, I was influenced by no romantic feelings.” But, he explained, her fortune was so small that she ought to know his offer of marriage stemmed from genuine liking). At other points, I thought the “story-telling” argument was a stretch, and  some of the  vignettes of other relationships that open each chapter very loosely related to the Disraelis’ own.

Rich in detail, this in an absorbing portrait of a marriage that, while never ideal and in some ways highly unusual, especially to a modern reader, really worked. It was also a great pairing with my audio journey through Trollope’s Palliser novels, and often reminded me of his characters and their marriages.

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13 Responses to Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, by Daisy Hay

  1. KeiraSoleore says:

    I’ve put this book on my list for next year, right after your Anne Patchett recommendation. I’m fascinated by how others negotiate their marriages–the good ones, that is.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s a really interesting topic for me, too, and I like it as a complement to romance reading, with its focus on an often-idealized/fantasy version of courtship. I think non-fiction works best for me, because I am not so much into “marriage in trouble” drama as the very different ways people make marriage work. And how often that doesn’t look like our abstract (or contemporary) idea of a happy marriage. This is what I wanted from the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel and didn’t get, so it was a good follow-up!

  2. Barb in Maryland says:

    You may not be aware of the mini-series (vintage 1978) “Disraeli” starring Ian McShane. I saw it at the time it first aired, so I can’t vouch for how well it has aged. I do recall a very lovely treatment of his marriage.
    FYI, the Pallisers series came out in 1974. There must have been something in the air in the mid 70s that made tv studios want to do Victorian-era stories.

    Thanks for the review. I’ll add this to my ever-expanding ‘want to read’ list.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I have heard about it, but definitely never seen it–wonder if I can find it somewhere. That must have been before the Austenmania era! (Although there have been some good Dickens and Trollope adaptations a bit more recently).

      • Barb in Maryland says:

        According to World Cat, the 2007 DVDs are widely distributed. I suspect your local library either has it or can get their hands on it for you.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          They have multiple copies, in fact! Perhaps Christmas holiday viewing. AND they have the Pallisers–I never even thought to look there; these days I only think about streaming.

  3. This sounds absolutely marvelous! I’m going to have to look it up! thanks for sharing!

  4. P.S. I love your comment about the letters and the texts. . . reminds me of my own texts with my husband as we move through our day.

    Also, I don’t know if you meant obvs. in the same vein as whatevs. and the other abbrevations that seem to be the rage these days but I chortled on reading it!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      When I read books like this I think about what the biographers of the future are losing. All the ephemera that, for us, are digital, like little offhand notes, are so revealing! And ours will be lost–unless some future PM is downloading and printing out his marital texts just in case.

      I think I have to credit Book Riot for my discovery of this book. I often find gold on their various reading lists.

  5. Kaetrin says:

    In what ways was their marriage unusual Liz? I love happy marriage stories but I’m realistic enough to know I’ll likely never get around to reading this one (fascinating as it sounds).

    (also, yes to the little notes, emails, texts and phone chats – I have them with hubs most days as well!)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The age difference for one (and it pretty much guaranteed he would not have children). In a lot of ways they did not have much in common. Mary Anne’s previous husband had also been an MP but I don’t think she was interested in politics for its own sake. Most people saw her as not his intellectual equal. It is more that they MADE a life in common over time. They spent a fair amount of time apart (not always happily for her, but sometimes both content leading separate lives). I think it was less unusual for the 19th century than now.

  6. Janine Ballard says:

    This sounds good and I really enjoyed reading your description of it.

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