- Disraeli: The Romance of Politics by Robert O’Kell
The perennially enigmatic Disraeli, who successfully (if somewhat improbably) combined the careers of novelist and politician, has provoked scores of biographers, historians, and literary scholars to try to solve the riddle of this most puzzling of Victorian sphinxes. Robert O’Kell, who [End Page 254] has been studying Disraeli since the early 1970s, is the latest, the most ambitious, and perhaps the best scholar to propose an answer to the question first posed by Disraeli himself in a early pamphlet entitled “Who Is He?”—a title designed to respond to the question that his political opponents and even some of his staunchest admirers (his loyal sister Sarah among them) repeatedly addressed to him.
What O’Kell has done more successfully than previous scholars is to interpret both the novels and the political career as essentially two sides of the same coin that constituted Disraeli’s mercurial personality. For O’Kell, Disraeli the novelist and Disraeli the politician were engaged in the same project. He argues that Disraeli’s earliest fictions, and the emerging shape of his political life are to a large extent a function of his fantasies, or imaginative constructions, about himself. Particular embodiments of his imaginative senses of his identity—the roles of the hero, both fictional and socio-political—serve the purpose of compensating for the disparity he felt between his potential and his actual situation (58).
In O’Kell’s view, “the central concern of both Disraeli’s fiction and his politics in the years after 1832 is to find ways in which to relate the themes of making success out of failure, claiming and demonstrating superiority, and of reconciling innocence and experience, purity and compromise” (59). Like the fiction, the political writings of the period are “an exercise on Disraeli’s part in redefinition of the self” (59).
It must be acknowledged that O’Kell’s thesis is most compelling and convincing when applied to the early fiction, which Disraeli himself acknowledged as covertly autobiographical, and thus the chapters on Vivian Grey (1826), The Young Duke (1830), Alroy (1833), and Contarini Fleming (1832) are the most persuasive. But the later (and better) novels are less amenable to this approach. The chapter on Sybil (1845), which—as O’Kell acknowledges—conforms the least to his thesis, is, oddly, the one most likely to have the strongest impact on future Disraeli criticism. As O’Kell points out, “Because of its prominence in the subgenre known as the social problem novel, Sybil has attracted more serious critical comment than the rest of Disraeli’s fiction” (256), but he convincingly argues that the standard reading of Sybil as an argument for the unification of the two nations of rich and poor symbolized by the marriage between the aristocratic hero and the representative of the people (who is revealed to be even more aristocratic than the hero) is a serious misreading. O’Kell demonstrates that the novel is less a political manifesto and more a religious allegory with political implications. His perceptive close reading reveals the pattern of religious motifs that help define Sybil’s role in the novel and enforce “Disraeli’s thematic assertion of the need for a religious [rather than a political] revival” in English society (262). This reading will, one hopes, force at least some critics to reassess—and then reject—the orthodox readings of Disraeli’s most famous novel as a manifesto of Young England or as the foremost example of the mid-Victorian social-problem novel. [End Page 255]
As O’Kell’s rereading of Sybil demonstrates, Disraeli’s fiction can be instructively read without the enabling assumption that its primary value lies in its revelation of its author’s fascinating psycho-drama. If this book has a weakness, it stems, in my view, from O’Kell’s commitment to approaching Disraeli’s novels as manifestations of their non-fictional content and not as novels. With a few notable exceptions, he reads the novels in the same...