Marriage is what brings us together today.
In modern times, there has been no political marriage as shrouded in controversy, myth-making, and speculation as the union of Bill and Hillary Clinton. It has been dogged by his infidelity and snide asides about her lack of sex appeal. It has also withstood one of the greatest challenges to a marriage—time. While each Clinton would surely have had a sterling career on their own, there is little doubt that it was the combination of their personalities that propelled them to dizzying heights of power and wealth. Likewise, on television, viewers are obsessed with the fictional marriage and tireless machinations of House of Cards’ Francis and Claire Underwood. In both of those marriages, viewers have often found it unclear whether there are actual objectives beyond the pursuit of power. To the establishment—which for the Clintons would take the form of the Sally Quinn set and for the Underwoods, Heather Dunbar—their clambering up the greasy pole of high society is seen as vulgar.
In the 19th century, there was another political couple whose marriage was a source of endless speculation. He was part-Jewish, a wannabe Romantic with eye-popping debts; he faced rumors of his sexuality and suffered from an outsized ambition handicapped by piddling achievements. She was 12 years his senior, swimming in money left to her by her recently deceased elderly husband, but widely considered an eccentric social climber with little to say for her heritage. The couple in question was Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli.
As one of the most powerful and interesting politicians of the Victorian era, much has been written by Benjamin Disraeli. Less has been written about his relationship with his wife, who has largely been derided as his sugar momma. Their relationship is the subject of a fascinating new book by Daisy Hay, Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance. Hay does a remarkable job of spinning a story that is touching while simultaneously airing all of the Disraeli dirty laundry.
Born in 1804, Benjamin Disraeli was the son of the well-respected and incredibly well-connected literary family. His father, Isaac D’Israeli, was a literary historian about whom Lord Byron wrote, “I have great respect for Israeli and his talents, and have read his works over and over and over repeatedly … I don’t know a living man’s books I take up so often, or lay down more reluctantly, as Israeli’s.” Isaac had broken with his Jewish roots after a dispute with his synagogue over a fine, and baptized his children as Anglicans. The Disraeli family was well-off, but its circles were literary, not high society.
Benjamin was bullied in school, but would grow up to be an arrogant young man. When a friend of his father’s, the publisher John Murray, asked for his opinion on a play, 15-year-old Benjamin wrote back, “I cannot conceive these acts to be as effective on the stage as you seemed to expect.” He would spend most of his twenties accumulating staggering debts, running from debtors, writing novels of middling quality, and suffering severe swings of mood. However, the strength of his political pen and his unabashed ambition kept him on the radar in political circles. His big break came in the early 1830s when Lord Lyndhurst, the former Tory Lord Chancellor, made him his protégé. He would stand for Parliament multiple times and lose, and his desperation in part stemmed from the fact that MP’s were immune from arrest for debt.
Hay is also sympathetic to instances that point to Disraeli being gay, or at least engaging in homosexual activity. One of Mary Anne’s closest friends, Rosina Bulwer, accused Disraeli of a relationship with her husband that included acts of sodomy. Hay agrees with the historian William Kuhn, whose book The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli laid out the case for Disraeli’s sexuality. His schoolboy relationships as well as those later in life as an elder politician with male acolytes come under scrutiny—all of which, Hay argues, makes sense if one remembers that Byron was his hero.
Mary Anne was born in 1792 in Devon and was brought up in her grandparent’s home. She did not know her father, who died in the West Indies in 1794. Her parents’ marriage was a bit of an embarrassment, as her mother came from a well-respected old family, and as far as historians can tell, her father had no lineage of which to speak. Mary Anne would be uprooted in 1807 when her grandparents died and her mother had to move out. While in later years she would claim to have been a factory girl, her life may not have been glamorous but neither was it filled with wanting.
She was considered pretty, but it was her personality that apparently reeled in a number of suitors. In the end, she married Wyndham Lewis, who came from an old Welsh family and had a significant yearly income. He was 14 years her senior. Determined to get the most of the marriage, Mary Anne pushed Wyndham into politics. She was a major force on his campaign, and in London she turned their house at Grosvenor Gate into one of the more fashionable party destination. She made friendships that connected her and Wyndham to Robert Peel, who would end up Prime Minister. She also had what people seemed to find a peculiar way of talking—we might say she lacked a filter. She once told Louis Napoleon, the future Napoleon III, “You should not undertake things which you cannot accomplish—You are always sir, too adventurous,” when he rowed her onto a reed bank in the Thames.
Despite his wealth and lineage, or perhaps because of it, Wyndham did not have the drive to do anything beyond having a seat in Parliament. While Mary Anne was the subject of a significant amount of gossip about affairs with other men, Hay seems to think that she was incredibly attached to Wyndham.
In 1837, Wyndham nominated Disraeli as his second and largely funded his first successful campaign. Disraeli struggled in Parliament—his first speech was a disaster it gave birth to his famous “The time will come when you will hear me”—but then on March 14, 1838, Wyndham died of a heart attack.
It would be easy to dismiss Benjamin and Mary Anne’s subsequent marriage as one of convenience. He needed a benefactor, and she managed to provide him with financial stability (not just for his debts but also to “buy” him a seat in incredibly corrupt elections), a stately home from which to entertain party leaders, and the social status that comes from a marriage. While financially secure, she faced life as a widow, which in Victorian England was far from pleasant. Peppered throughout the book are vignettes of women in Victorian England whose fare wretchedly when they are forced to survive on their own. Mary Anne also was driven by an unquenchable desire to be accepted by the highest echelons of society, and only politics provided someone of her station that option. “Their peers,” writes Hay, “understood their union as a marriage of convenience.”
But to write off their marriage as one of convenience, as much of the press and parts of society did during Disraeli’s rise, would be misguided. Mary Anne was not without other suitors, and Disraeli spent months wooing and essentially pleading with her to pick him. With his poetry and proclamations of adoration, “Disraeli offered her the chance to be wooed like the heroine of the silver-fork novels he wrote, and she responded in kind.” Disraeli, who saw himself as a Byron-esque Romantic, needed a woman to devote himself to, and to be devoted to him in return.
Of course the issue of money did not go unaddressed. Mary Anne not only offered Benjamin financial security but she also controlled the fate of his election debts to her dead husband. When she changed Wyndham’s watch chains to feature Disraeli’s seal, he wrote to her, “For the first time in public, I wore your chains. I hope you are not ashamed of your slave.” Disraeli did, however, write to his money agent essentially telling him to relax because he thought the marriage was a done deal. But even after they had been sleeping together, Mary Anne dragged out the courtship, refusing to marry him because she felt he might be using her.
Perhaps nobody can be more convincing than Disraeli, who came clean in a last-ditch effort to earn her trust. He wrote, “I avow when I first made my advances to you, I was influenced by no romantic feelings … I was not blind to worldly advantages in such an alliance” but in her he had found a person “gifted with no ordinary mind; one whom I could look upon with pride as the partner of my life, who could sympathise with all my projects and feelings, console me in the moments of depression.” It is a crystal-clear admission that their marriage was more than just romance, and more than just money, but it was also about finding a person who could understand and support emotionally a burning ambition such as his. It is eerily reminiscent of explanations given by the Underwoods on House of Cards, particularly that of Claire when she details the marriage proposal.
Together, through fits and starts, the Disraelis would reach unimaginable heights. He was snubbed numerous times in government, as was she on the party circuit. In the end, however, he would end up Prime Minister, twice, and she received a peerage and dined with the queen. They became celebrities, with every one of her eccentricities and her famous parties covered in endless detail in the press.
As they rose, their romance only seemed to grow. When attacked, “the Disraelis drew closer together,” Hay writes. When a “Conservative magnate” humiliated her at a dinner at Knowsley Hall, Disraeli “never returned, though frequently invited, and though he was working in the closest and most continuous manner with the politician in question.” In Mary Anne’s private letters and in pubic, she was indefatigable when it came to complimenting her husband—something many in high society found off-putting. The pair found themselves happiest when they escaped, just the two of them, to a spa in Belgium. When Disraeli passed the Reform Act of 1867, the apogee of his political career until that point, he snuck off from celebrations to return home to celebrate alone with Mary Anne, a bottle of champagne, and pie. And in 1867, when they both succumbed to illness, they passed the time scribbling notes back and forth like teenagers between their rooms.
Perhaps there is no stronger sign of his love for her as when he was offered peerage by Queen Victoria, and he asked instead—to her dismay—that it be bestowed solely on Mary Anne. At a speech in 1867, Disraeli would declare, “I do owe to that lady all, I think, I have ever accomplished because she has supported me by her counsels and consoled me by the sweetness of her disposition.” Or as Mary Anne herself put it when she was 75, “Dizzy married me for money, but if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.”
There is one major shortcoming of the book, and it may not be the fault of the author, but more due to the lack of information or relevance. It is not entirely clear how, if at all, Mary Anne influenced her husband, who is considered one of the most influential prime ministers in British history. However, there are hints in the book that Disraeli was more than happy to curry favor with the rich and powerful if it advanced his career and his wife’s status. While a direct line between that and his imperialism cannot necessarily be drawn, it leaves one unsurprised that the man who described his way of dealing with Queen Victoria—who had initially disapproved of him and shunned his wife—was by laying on flattery “with a trowel” would name her Empress of India. For instance, when protectionist aristocrats were the ones keeping his career going—and financing the purchase of his country home to the tune of £25,000—he was more than happy to continue his support of their policies.
Politics is all about compromises, made willingly or grudgingly. Perhaps the first compromise any power-hungry individual must make is at home—whether it be with a spouse or children. There is therefor something to be said for marriages that by their nature require no compromise internally, because they are fueled in their quest for power by mutual admiration, devotion, and oddly, love.