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A self-portrait in fifteen novels

Disraeli: The Romance of Politics - Robert P. O'Kell

For all of their treatment as a species apart from humanity, politicians are no different than the rest of us in one respect: they harbor a passion to see their name on the front cover of a book. Many of them take advantage of their position to fulfill this ambition, with most of their efforts falling into the category of either political tract or memoir. Far more unusual is the elected official who fancies him- or herself a novelist, yet even there more than a few politicians (Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart, Jeffrey Archer, William Weld, Edwina Currie) have tried their hand at producing works that are self-admitted fiction. For most of them, writing fiction is a lark, and the overwhelming majority of them are wise not to quit their day jobs.


In a category by himself is the Benjamin Disraeli. One reason for this is that his career path was the reverse of many politician-authors, as he embarked upon a career as a novelist prior to winning election to office. Another factor is that, unlike those of his counterparts, his novels are much more highly regarded as works of fiction. Yet these differences have long posed a challenge for biographers of the nineteenth-century British prime minister, as many are uncertain as to how to deal with his books and their place in the broader context of his life. Some have dismissed them, while others have viewed it as representing part of a duality in Disraeli's life.


Robert O'Kell, however, takes a different approach in his study of Disraeli's literary and political career, seeing them not as two distinct parts of his life but as parts of a whole, with each part offering insight into the other. O'Kell uses the novels and other writings to delve into Disraeli's inner life, finding within many of the works' central characters a series of portrayals of Disraeli's self-image. Many of the issues that Disraeli faced, such as with his Jewish heritage and his social standing, are central to the plots of his novels, with the their resolutions serving to define his own beliefs. Once in Parliament his fiction took a more overtly political turn, with such works as Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred serving as manifestos with their portrayal of his political views in action. Even his later works, written between his periods in office, continued to reflect his ongoing quest for self-understanding, demonstrating a consistency with his early works in a number of key respects.


O'Kell's book offers an important reinterpretation of Disraeli's dual career, one that nobody interested in understanding his life can afford to ignore. Clearly written and persuasively argued, its analysis of Disraeli's works is likely to serve as the standard by which this key dynamic within his life is assessed. Through it readers can appreciate just how invaluable Disraeli's fictional writings are, not just as works of literature but for the understanding they offer of such an important figure. It is difficult to imagine the same could be said for the books by any of the others who aspire to the dual labels of novelist and politician.