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Benjamin Disraeli

Nils Clausson

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online May 2014 | | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0135
Benjamin Disraeli

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Benjamin Disraeli (b. 1804–d. 1881) is unique among Victorian novelists in that, outside of specialists in Victorian literature, he is much better known as a politician and statesman (he was leader of the Conservative Party, and twice prime minister) than as a novelist. Historians are as interested in him as are literary critics, if not more so, and consequently his novels have long been mined for information about Disraeli the historical figure rather than approached as works of literature and studied in relation to literary history in the 19th century. His novels have been read with two principal goals in mind: (1) to better understand the mind of the enigmatic man who wrote them, and (2) as historical documents that will shed light on Disraeli’s political career and the policies he advocated. The first of these approaches has tended to produce biographical readings of the novels, even in a time when biographical approaches to literature are no longer fashionable. The goal of historians and literary critics alike has been to peep behind the mask and uncover the real Disraeli. The second approach, reflecting the turn to history and politics in literary studies, has produced historical readings that tend to see the novels as more or less reliable reflections of ideas existing outside the text, either in history or in politics. Viewing the novels as containers of political ideas, or as reflections of dominant Victorian ideologies, is particularly prevalent in criticism of Disraeli’s major novels—the Young England trilogy consisting of Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847)—which are widely read either as the manifesto of Young England, a rather loose political grouping of Tory MPs that Disraeli was widely taken to be the leader of, or as examples of a sub-genre of the Victorian novel known, variously, as the “condition-of-England” novel, the social-problem novel, or the industrial novel. When reading criticism of the novels, then, one needs to be aware that much critical commentary on them is not written by literary critics—and thus, strictly speaking, is not literary criticism at all—and is often motivated by non-literary purposes. Nevertheless, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries there has been a reevaluation of Disraeli by historians and, to a lesser extent, by literary scholars, focusing on “the role played in Disraeli’s conception of life and politics by his Jewishness and his romanticism” (Smith 1996, cited under Biographies). A major new focus of recent criticism of the novels has been the vexing question of Disraeli’s Jewishness and, to a lesser extent, Orientalism in his novels. Particularly after the publication of Edward Said’s influential Orientalism in 1978, there was a renewed interest in the representation of the East in Disraeli’s fiction, with critics divided over whether (as Said claimed) Disraeli contributed to the construction of the Orient as “Other,” or whether he admired Oriental culture and saw his mission as one of reuniting the West with its Eastern origins.

Article.  10760 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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