History in Review
Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli
A Strange Romance
By Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Reviewed by Simone Bonim - February 16, 2015
Mary Anne Disraeli was an influential woman who had a profound, although indirect, impact upon British politics during the Victorian era. Many just saw her a flighty woman who married a man many years her junior. Others saw her as a woman driven by ambition who attached herself to anyone who might help her achieve her goals. While still others saw her as a shrewd intellectual, who was instrumental in launching and maintaining her second husband's political career. In Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance Daisy Hay strips away the myths and gossip which have come to surround Mary Anne's life and gives us a deeply personal view of the woman and the forces that shaped her life.
Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli is a riveting book, in part due to Hay's eloquent writing style, and because the Disraeli's were such a fascinating couple. In writing this biography, Hay has done a great deal of original research, as well as consulting existing works on the Disraeli's. Throughout she has incorporated excerpts of letters, newspaper articles, and other source material on the couple, into the narrative. This biography not only looks at Mary Anne's life as the wife of Disraeli, but also her earlier life, her birth and education, her odd relationship with her brother John, and her marriage to the politician and member of parliament, Wyndham Lewis, and of course, her introduction to Disraeli. The book also gives a brief glimpse into what happed after Mary Anne died, both to Disraeli, and the country as a whole.
When Mary Anne first met Benjamin Disraeli, she was already married to Wyndham Lewis. Disraeli was not overly impressed Mary Anne, and he thought she was a bit silly. For his part, Disraeli did not have much going for himself at the time, not the least of all because he was in debt. By any measure, Disraeli was not much of a catch by Victorian standards. He was a Jew, albeit one who had converted to Anglicanism when he was twelve, and he was a decidedly unwealthy author. Had he been wealthy, his religion of birth might have been overlooked, but as a struggling author, these impediments (notably being Jewish and in debt) were detriments to his marital prospects.
Despite not being overly impressed with each other at their first meeting, over time Mary Ann and Disraeli developed a deeply affectionate and mutually supportive relationship. Mary Anne was widowed in 1838, and she quickly married Disraeli the next year. While many say that he only married her for her money, their union has always come across as a love match, a fact that Hay reinforces in this biography. From the moment of their marriage, and even before, Mary Ann worked to advance Disraeli's political career, and his social standing. Their interdependence and care for each other makes this a remarkable love story, especially in an age where marriage-for-status was the norm.
I first 'met' Mary Anne Disraeli in the BBC television series, Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic. The series portrayed the wife of Benjamin Disraeli as a strong-willed woman who, although she had her share of 'silly' moments, was a pivotal figure in Disraeli's political career. Yet, other than a few references in books on Disraeli, I was never able to learn much about Mary Anne. So I was thrilled when I learned that Daisy Hay had written a biography on this remarkable woman. I had to wait a long time to discover the 'real' Mary Anne, and Hay has done an excellent job of satiating my curiosity. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in women's issues, English history and politics, Jewish history, fans of biographies, and anyone who is simply looking for an enjoyable and well-written book to read.
While well suited for reading by the general public, Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli is also suited for use in academic settings. It will serve well as a supplemental text in any number of history and social science courses, and it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the life of Benjamin Disraeli. Hay's research is authoritative, and she has included an excellent, concise, bibliography on available works on the couple.
Daisy Hay is also the author of the Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation. (Please note, this title has also been published as: Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives.
The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-Person Accounts by Beggars, Thieves and Prostitutes, by Henry Mayhew and Others.
This book consists of the unabridged text of Prostitution in London by Bracebridge Hemyng, Thieves and Swindlers by John Binny, and Beggars by Andrew Halliday. Combined they present a detailed look at life in London's slums during the Victorian period, and at a variety of illegal jobs pursued by the poorest of the poor.
Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy, by David Lindley.
This is a popular biography that provides a compelling overview of William Thomson's life and works, and which introduces a new generation to this nearly forgotten, but still vitally important scientific hero who is known to us today as Lord Kelvin.
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