Benjamin Disraeli: Novelist and British Statesman

Though a Perennial Outsider, Disraeli Rose to the Top of the British Government

Engraved portrait of Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli. Hutton Archive/Getty Images

Benjamin Disraeli was a British statesman who served as prime minister yet always remained something of an outsider and an upstart in British society. He actually first gained fame as a writer of novels.

Despite his middle-class roots, Disraeli aspired to become the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, which was dominated by wealthy landowners.

Disraeli described his ascent in British politics memorably.

After becoming prime minister for the first time in 1868 he remarked, "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole."

Early Life of Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli was born on December 21, 1804 to a Jewish family with roots in Italy and the Middle East. When he was 12, Disraeli was baptized into the Church of England.

Disraeli's family lived in a fashionable section of London and he attended good schools. On his father's advice, he took steps to begin a career in the law but became fascinated by the idea of being a writer.

After trying and failing to launch a newspaper, Disraeli gained a literary reputation with his first novel, Vivian Grey, in 1826. The book was the tale of a young man who aspires to succeed in society but encounters misery.

As a young man, Disraeli attracted notice for his flamboyant dress and manners, and he was something of a character on the London social scene.

Disraeli Entered Politics in the 1830s

After three unsuccessful attempts to win election to Parliament, Disraeli finally succeeded in 1837.

Disraeli gravitated toward the Conservative Party, which was dominated by the wealthy land-owning class.

Despite his reputation as a wit and a writer, Disraeli's first speech in the House of Commons was a disaster.

A dispatch carried across the Atlantic by packet ship and published in American newspapers in January 1838 mentioned the "novelist made his debut in the House and a most dreadful failure it was by all accounts.

He rambled from subject to subject, talked an immortal deal of nonsense, and kept the House in a roar of laughter, not with him but at him."

In his own political party, Disraeli was an outsider and was often looked down upon as he had a reputation for being ambitious and eccentric. He was also criticized for having an affair with a married woman, and for having debts from bad business investments.

In 1838 Disraeli married a wealthy widow and purchased a country estate. He was, of course, criticized for marrying into money, and with his typical wit he made a joke, remarking, "I may commit many follies in my life, but I never intend to marry for love."

Career in Parliament

When the Conservative Party took power in 1841 and its leader, Robert Peel, became Prime Minister, Disraeli hoped to receive a cabinet position. He was passed over but learned to maneuver successfully in British politics. And he eventually came to mock Peel while raising his own political profile.

In the mid-1840s, Disraeli surprised his conservative brethren when he published a novel, Sybil, which expressed sympathy for workers who were being exploited in British factories.

In 1851 Disraeli gained his coveted cabinet post when he was named chancellor of the Exchequer, the British government's top financial post.

Disraeli Served as British Prime Minister

In early 1868 Disraeli became prime minister, ascending to the top of the British government when the prime minister, Lord Derby, became too ill to hold office. Disraeli's term was brief as a new election voted out the Conservative Party at the end of the year.

Disraeli and the Conservatives were in opposition while William Ewart Gladstone served as prime minister in the early 1870s. In the election of 1874 Disraeli and the Conservative regained power, and Disraeli served as prime minister until 1880, when Gladstone's party prevailed and Gladstone again became prime minister.

Disraeli and Gladstone were at times bitter rivals, and it is remarkable to note how the position of prime minister was held by one or the other for roughly two decades:

  • Disraeli: February 1868 - December 1868
  • Gladstone: December 1868 - February 1874
  • Disraeli: February 1874 - April 1880
  • Gladstone: April 1880 - June 1885

Friendly Relationship With Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria took a liking to Disraeli, and Disraeli, for his part, knew how to flatter and accommodate the queen. Their relationship was generally very friendly, a sharp contrast to Victoria's relationship with Gladstone, whom she detested.

Disraeli developed the habit of writing letters to Victoria describing political events in novelistic terms. The queen greatly appreciated the letters, telling someone she had "never had such letters in her life."

Victoria had published a book, Leaves From a Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, and Disraeli wrote to compliment it. He would later flatter the queen by occasionally prefacing remarks with, "We authors, Ma'am..."

Disraeli's Administration Made Its Mark in Foreign Affairs

During his second term as prime minister, Disraeli seized the chance to buy a controlling interest in the Suez Canal. And he generally stood for an expansive and imperial foreign policy, which tended to be popular at home.

Disraeli also convinced Parliament to bestow the title "Empress of India" upon Queen Victoria, which pleased the queen greatly, as she was fascinated by The Raj.

In 1876, Victoria bestowed upon the Disraeli the title of Lord Beaconsfield, which meant he could move from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. Disraeli continued to serve as prime minister until 1880, when an election returned the Liberal Party, and its leader, Gladstone, to power.

Depressed and disheartened by the electoral defeat, Disraeli took ill and died April 19, 1881. Queen Victoria, it was reported, was "heartbroken" at the news.