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.