Monday, February 22, 2010

"He himself always remained a man of the eighteenth century," or, Powell weighs in on D'Israeli

{Portrait of Isaac D'Israeli, by Daniel Maclise, circa 1832.}

I can't believe I've been writing about Isaac D'Israeli for more than a week without checking in with my old friend Anthony Powell! Who, after all, is more likely to appreciate D'Israeli's towering piles of anecdote and gossip and oddity than that inveterate collector of same? Powell's love of pattern and recurrence, as well as his appreciation of self-willed complexity, is enough to have landed him in Robert Burton's melancholy camp rather than D'Israeli's cheerier one, but these are less warring armies than different regiments in the same, working together--if in styles as different as the cavalry and the infantry--to demonstrate the centrality of literature to the inner life of man.

Powell wrote about D'Israeli only once, in a review for the Daily Telegraph in 1969 of a biography by James Ogden, but even that brief account offers some new angles, as well as a pleasant dose of Powell's own preoccupations, such as D'Israeli's relatively scant references to John Aubrey.

From Benjamin Disraeli's introduction to his father's Curiosities of Literature, I knew that Isaac's father (also named Benjamin) had been a successful businessman, but from Powell I learned that he was one of the founders of the London Stock Exchange, his legacy substantial enough to keep his son in books and leisure despite his preferring the library over work. As Powell puts it,
Isaac seems to be a classic case of a young man given every opportunity for making a successful business career who for no particular reason decided he wanted to "write."
In the face of that--as I wrote on Sunday for the Constant Conversation, the new blog of the Quarterly Conversation--his father sent him away to Europe, which was of no use: Dizzy, as Powell calls him, was not destined to be any sort of businessman.

Powell also informs us that D'Israeli, as will not be surprising to anyone who's noted his skepticism about religion, was far from an observant Jew:
D'Israelie contributed liberally to synagogue funds and had certainly caused Benjamin to be given instruction in the Jewish faith, but he was not ardent in his religious observances. Accordingly the governors of the synagogue, as a call to order and much to his own annoyance, elected him as Warden; when he refused, they tried to fine him £40. This appears to be why Benjamin Disraeli was baptized at the age of twelve.
Which, given that Benjamin became Prime Minister of England, is quite a revenge.

Sadly, Powell also passes on a judgment that I'd rather not have heard:
There are indications that D'Israeli was regarded at times as a bore in his ceaseless asking of questions at dinner-parties.
Much as I'd have preferred to learn that D'Israeli was sparkling company, however, I'm selfish enough to be glad that he bored his contemporaries in order to entertain us, rather than vice-versa. To his dinner companions, I raise a grateful glass.

1 comment:

  1. Love it!

    What about the Powell/Robert E. Howard connection?

    Say wha?

    (James Purefoy as Solomon Kane!)