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"The Past is a Dream:" The Neo-Feudalism of Disraeli Shannon L· Rogers The past is one of the elements of our power. —Benjamin Disraeli On August 28, 1839, as future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was celebrating his marriage to Mary Anne Lewis in London, the cream of the British aristocracy was gathered at Eglinton Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, for one of the most grandiose displays of medieval fervour in the nineteenth century. The three-day event included a procession of more than one-hundred and fifty knights with their retinues, the crowning of a Queen of Beauty, jousting, tilting, a staged battle, "medieval" entertainments, and finally a costume ball and banquet (Banham and Harris 72). Like a scene from Ivanhoe, the banquet featured a boar's head (Weintraub 629) and the Tournament itself was based on Scott's descriptions of Ashby-de-la-Zouche. Eglinton, however, was set in the closing centuries of the Middle Ages, ironically making it more historically accurate than Ivanhoe in at least this one aspect. By the fourteenth century, chivalry had attained the ceremonial character that the Eglinton Tournament embodied. Despite this one feature, the Tournament's rendition of history was superficial, although many participants did their best to procure "authentic" fifteenth-century armour, sometimes piecing it together from several suits (Banham and Harris 73). Newspapers of the time described the lavish costumes of guests in breathless detail. Lady Londonderry's dress, for instance, was hailed as " 'heraldic, of the most dazzling yet correct style.' " The " 'golden gauntlets of the Vanes on a blue field, quarterly with the "ruddy lion" of the Stewarts' " Victorian Review (2002)65 S. Rogers give the rather comic impression, however, that Lady Londonderry had wrapped herself in a banner rather than a noble lady's dress of the Middle Ages. However, the very naivete of the claims to historical accuracy demonstrates a lack of real popular knowledge of how people actually lived in the Middle Ages.1 Heraldic symbols, and the status they conveyed, were what appealed to modern sensibilities and so the general educated person of 1830s and 1840s England assumed that the medieval aristocracy proudly displayed their lineage wherever possible. Thus, the attendees of the Eglinton tournament bedecked themselves in a dazzling array of rampant lions, couchant leopards, and other fatuous "historic" symbols of nobility and power. Unfortunately for the Eglinton participants, Nature conspired to literally dampen the enthusiasm of the Victorian lords and ladies out to "re-enact" the medieval time of splendour. Torrential rains rendered the £40,000 spectacle a washout. The jousting had to be stopped for safety's sake, as the horses slipped dangerously in the mud puddles. The sight of medievally attired knights in armour wading through the muddy field under modern umbrellas became an object of ridicule in the press. Although the medieval revival would carry on in a similar vein for years afterward, nothing on such a grand scale was attempted again. Enthusiasts would confine themselves to being painted while wearing medieval garb, or to strictly indoor activities, such as costume balls. Queen Victoria, for instance, had herself and Prince Albert painted as Edward III and his queen, Philippa of Hanault, in 1842. So entranced was the notably bourgeois royal couple by this romantic play-acting that they dressed up once again as these chivalric monarchs of the past at their Bal Costumé later that same year. Eventually, however, the desire for the chivalric life became watered down and would manifest itself in practical ways, in politics and philanthropic schemes. The rain had brought home the impracticality of attempting to literally recreate a former age in the present. While the lustre of living in the Age of Chivalry waned, the romantic attraction of indulging in intellectual fantasies of the past did survive for a while, particularly in literature. By the 1 880s, when Disraeli's Endymion was published, even the Eglinton Tournament had taken on 66volume 28 number 2 The Neo-Feudalism of Disraeli the rosy glow of nostalgia. The world had moved beyond it, but it was pleasant to think of, if only in a fuzzily idealised fashion. And idealisation is precisely what Disraeli achieved in this final novel...


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