The following is from an interview conducted for the filming of "Queen Victoria's Empire." It is an actual transcript of the interviewee speaking; hence, much of the text may seem informally constructed.
Q: Describe the young Disraeli before he enters politics.
A: Before he entered politics, Disraeli as a young man was an outrageous dandy. He dressed in clothes that amazed people, you know -- he wore wonderful colored outfits, he wore lots of jewelry, he wore sort of chains all over his waistcoat, rings outside his gloves and he had very tightly ringleted hair. He liked shocking people. But I think his first career really was to be a novelist, and he spent a lot of time writing novels. That's mainly what he did. And he also got into debt and got involved in scandals.
Q: How did Disraeli's Jewish ancestry impact his later political life?
A: Disraeli was born into a Jewish family, and he was initially as a small boy brought up as a Jew, and his father was a member of the synagogue. But when he was about 11, his father broke with the synagogue, and so Disraeli was baptized as a Christian, and that really was absolutely crucial to Disraeli's entering politics. Because in those days in Britain, you couldn't go to any of the established institutions unless you were a member of the Church of England. So it's complex, Disraeli's relationship with Judaism, I would say.
Q: How did he use his Jewish ancestry later in his political life?
A: Disraeli certainly used his Jewish ancestry to help his political career. What Disraeli did was to invent really for himself a wonderfully exotic, glamorous, marvellous Jewish ancestry and pedigree. A lot of it was actually fictional, but never mind -- Disraeli was a novelist, and he understood about fiction. And that meant that he was able to break into the very closed aristocratic world of Victorian Britain and say to all the Dukes, well look, my ancestry is really much older than yours, so accept me as your leader.
Q: How difficult was his entry into politics?
A: Disraeli's entry into politics was very difficult indeed. It took him five years to get elected to Parliament. He had to try five times. He fought several pretty dirty elections...He was constantly heckled for being a Jew. People would turn...with donkeys saying go back to Jerusalem. I mean he encountered a lot of very rough and rather nasty anti-Semitism. And yet...one of the great things about Disraeli, I think, was his determination. He was absolutely determined to get there and he made it in the end.
Q: The first time Queen Victoria meets Disraeli, she doesn't like him much? How does their relationship develop?
A: Queen Victoria initially didn't like the idea of Disraeli at all because Disraeli had destroyed the politician whom she thought in the 1840s was the best of the lot -- Robert Peel. But gradually, Disraeli manages to win her around, and it's really largely through flattery. I mean, Disraeli lays it on with a trowel, and Queen Victoria loves it.
Q: Can you give me an instance of how he would have done that?
A: Disraeli was a wonderful letter writer. He was one of the best letter writers amongst 19th century politicians, I think. And Disraeli would write these marvellous, flowery letters to the Queen, full of sort of protestations of affection and love and loyalty, really saying nothing at all. They were largely sugar, but Queen Victoria lapped it up. And also Disraeli was awfully good at just saying the tactful remark that Queen Victoria would enjoy. For example, one of the best was Disraeli saying to her, "We authors, ma'am," which was precisely what Victoria longed to hear, that they were both part of the same club of writers.
Q: Disraeli's main rival is Gladstone. What do you see as the main differences between their philosophies and ambitions?
A: Well, Disraeli had a much more direct commitment to the idea of Britain's national greatness than did Gladstone. Gladstone for much of his career was a little Englander, and not terribly enthusiastic about the idea of expanding the British Empire. Although in fact, during Gladstone's premiership -- actually, you know, Britain occupies Egypt in 1882 and a lot of expansionism goes on. This runs counter to Gladstone's philosophy, which was one of free trade and isolationism. Disraeli believed much more I think in the idea of an oriental empire for Britain. Disraeli was much more of a national politician. He was constantly saying that the Conservatives are the national party, that they are the party of England and the party of the Empire.
Q: How did the Queen react when Disraeli died?
A: Queen Victoria was very moved when Disraeli died. She was very upset. She found him far more sympathetic than Gladstone. She disliked Gladstone because he lectured like [at] a public meeting. Disraeli, she thought, was a real friend. And so when Disraeli was dying at Hewingdon, Queen Victoria kept on trying to come to see him. Disraeli didn't want this at all, so he did actually stop her from coming. But...[f]or Disraeli's funeral, Queen Victoria sent a bunch of flowers, a bunch of primroses with a little message inscribed, his favorite flower, which was very sort of touching. What nobody really knew though was whether Queen Victoria was referring to Disraeli or Albert when she put his favorite flower. But whatever -- the primrose becomes the emblem of the Conservative organization, the Primrose League, as a result of that.
Jane Ridley is a historian at Buckingham University. She is the author of The Young Disraeli (1995), and she has written a history of fox hunting. Her
biography of Edwin Lutyens will be published later this year.