restricted access Benjamin Disraeli Letters. Volume 7: 1857-1859 (review)
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Reviewed by
Benjamin Disraeli. Benjamin Disraeli Letters. Volume 7: 1857–1859. Edited by M.G Wiebe, Mary S. Millar, Ann P. Robson, and Ellen Hawman University of Toronto Press 2004. lxvi, 578. $185.00

The editors of volume 7 of the Benjamin Disraeli Letters have maintained the distinguished scholarly standards that have characterized every previous volume. Indeed, the depth of knowledge demonstrated in the editorial material, especially the annotations, has surpassed all other volumes in this series. As usual, they have provided a succinct, penetrating introduction and chronologies, both of Disraeli's political life during the period under scrutiny and of the number, dates, and recipients of his epistolary offerings. The letters reveal his capacity for terseness when dealing with national and local Conservative party issues, his capacity for businesslike prose when [End Page 457] informing Queen Victoria and Lord Derby of quotidian and forthcoming foreign and domestic problems, and his personal concerns for long-time correspondents and friends, notably Sarah Brygdes Willyams and Lady Londonderry. Moreover, the sheer range of his correspondence is astonishing, given that he had to deal with almost all questions of party patronage and electoral details, regular letters to the Queen, pleas to recalcitrant, often testy peers, such as Lord Stanley and Lord Lytton, and even lengthy, self-deprecating epistles to William Gladstone requesting that he renounce their long personal rivalry and, in the national interest, join Lord Derby's Cabinet. Indeed, the volume contains 670 letters of which 457 have never been published, in whole or in part. These letters will be invaluable, indeed essential, for all of Disraeli's future biographers. Current biographies, alas, are markedly deficient in dealing with these years of Disraeli's career. As the editors emphasize, this period as a whole has generally been 'neglected or dismissed as unimportant' by historians. Yet the dilemmas over electoral reform characterize these years while in the realm of imperial and foreign problems these were the years that witnessed the 1857 India Mutiny, the intervention of Emperor Napoleon iii in a war against Austria over the issue of Italian unification and yet another conflict with the decaying Chinese Empire. At home, British legislators and London residents confronted the 'Great Stink' of July 1858 when the smell of the polluted Thames caused Disraeli, Gladstone, and other mps to become ill in the House of Commons. Then on 6 June 1859 Whigs, Liberals, and Radicals met in Willis's Rooms to co-operate in what was to become the Victorian Liberal party, the emerging powerful adversary of the still quarrelsome, disunited Conservatives.

The editors are correct in arguing that these letters, whatever they reveal about Disraeli's political frustrations, demonstrate that during these years he was purposely preparing the Conservative party to attain power with clear domestic, imperial, and foreign directions. Disraeli's letters also indicate clearly his utilization of the changing technology of the day, notably his reliance on the telegraph, increasingly speedy train service, and even the transatlantic cable.

On some major issues of this time these letters demonstrate that Disraeli was farsighted, notably in his views on the India Mutiny. Writing to Mrs Willyams on 23 September 1857, he observed that the 'Indian news is most grave ... But of all the awful circumstances of this terrible affair, is the spirit of vengeance, wh: is preached – as if we were to take our enemies for our model. In a political, a military, a religious, point of view, nothing can be more unwise, or more heinous.' Later, to Lord Stanley in 1858, Disraeli demonstrated how he believed what had happened in India could be avoided in Britain. 'No Government can stand that is supposed to slight the religious feelings of the country. It is as important to touch the feelings & [End Page 458] sympathy of the religious classes in England as to conciliate the natives of India.' These letters convey concisely Disraeli's conservative beliefs.

Disraeli's views on the necessity for some vital version of reform pervade this volume. As the editors summed up 'the tone' of the letters in this Volume: 'We must accommodate the settlement of 1832 to the England of 1859' (to Lord Stanley, 10 February 1859...


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