- Benjamin Disraeli Letters: 1857-1859, Volume VII
While I was in graduate school, a fellow student meticulously collected all of his correspondence and notes, made numerous copies of each item, and then filed them according to recipient, topic, and chronology. Since we shared a tiny office, his fat accordion folders began to take up a bit more than his share of space, and I began to look askance at him as he copied grocery lists and asked friends to return his letters so he could file them. Finally, I questioned this madness, and he replied, "I want to document my life as if I were Disraeli." At the time, this did not hold much meaning for me, but after reading Benjamin Disraeli Letters: 1857-1859, I see what my fellow student had in mind. I don't think his grocery lists will ever document the life of a nation, but his heart was in the right place.
This most comprehensive book, volume VII in a series, edited by M. G. Wiebe, Mary S. Millar, Ann P. Robson, and Ellen L. Hawman, is exceptionally well documented and researched. The "Introduction" provides an overview of the political activity during the two years covered by the letters and points out critical junctures in Disraeli's relationships and political maneuvers. Disraeli's letters recount the "tactical tightrope" he had to walk in his efforts to consolidate the Conservative ranks, from the defeat of the Conservatives in June 1857, to their return to power the next year and his rise to the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then finally, as Disraeli writes in June 1859, "The second campaign . . . ended last night . . . in the defeat of our cause."
Although the book features Disraeli's correspondence, the editors' footnotes provide the ripostes, often delineating and providing the context for the recipients' reactions and comments. For example, during [End Page 84] the wrangling between Disraeli and the Earl of Derby over the Exchequer budget and whether or not a deficit existed that could be covered by existing funds, Disraeli outlined his position in a letter of 22 February 1857. In the footnote, Derby's response begins, "I am afraid I am right, & you are mistaken" and goes on to explain why. Without the copious footnotes, all conversations would be one-sided; the other voices provide depth to understanding the political push and pull of the day and the complexity of the political stage upon which Disraeli acted.
Although most of his letters–and nearly all the lengthy ones–deal with politics and issues of national import, there are personal letters; and the final letter in the book is about his sister's death. "You knew her goodness, intelligence, & charm. She was my first, & ever faithful, friend, & I am quite overwhelmed," he writes to the Reverend W. E. Partridge. And so we see the breadth of a man who was a commanding force on the national front during times of struggle and conflict in Great Britain, who was adept with metaphor and sarcasm and candor, but a man also of deep emotion and affection for his family and friends.
The book would be commendable for graduate study on Disraeli or the history his letters provide. Its appendices, footnotes, "letters newly found" from pre-1857, index, chronology, and usage guide are scholarly and informative. The flavor of the times and the import of Disraeli's words and his acts are highlighted by the editors' skillful handling of the materials and their sensitivity to preserving language, punctuation, and style.
Laurel Williamson is Vice President and Dean of Faculty at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington. She has published poetry, articles on educational change, and book reviews. Conference presentations include papers at Victorian Interdisciplinary Studies Association of the Western United States, and International Conference on the First Year Experience. She holds a doctorate degree in English from the University of South Florida...