Benjamin Disraeli

By: Joshua Flores

It is just settled: you have it, Madam. . . .Four millions sterling! And almost immediately. There was only one firm that could do that - Rothschilds.

- Benjamin Disraeli to Queen Victoria after receiving the money to buy interest in the Suez Canal


In the second half of the nineteenth century, Benjamin Disraeli, the leader of the conservative party, greatly influenced British politics. He, along with longtime rival William Gladstone, leader of the liberal party, instituted policies that would direct British affairs for decades after their own time in service had passed. The four-part miniseries, released in 1979 and starring Ian McShane as Disraeli, attempts to display not only the political career of Lord Beaconsfield, but also the private life of this most public of figures. It is well suited for those who are familiar with the history of Disraeli's life and career, as well as for those who are just beginning the study of this period in history.

Episode three begins in the 1850's with Disraeli defending his friend Lionel Rothschild, member of the famous banking family, who has refused the opportunity to take his elected seat in Parliament because he is a member of the Jewish faith. Rothschild was elected several times to Parliament, but was never allowed to enter Parliament until the law requiring members to take an oath to Christianity was changed in 1858. Though this scene deals with affairs of Parliament, it is also important because it displays the deep friendship and loyalty between Disraeli and Rothschild. They were frequent dinner companions, often discussing the events of the day, as well as public policy. This relationship would prove fortuitous when Disraeli pursued the purchase of shares in the Suez Canal in 1875.

Disraeli's relationship with Gladstone is also examined in a curious dinner scene, which in all probability never took place. In the scene, which is largely set up by the wives of the two political rivals, the qualities of each man are discussed; Gladstone's intelligence and Disraeli's charisma are described as qualities that each man desired to possess. The two leaders are also shown in a closed-door meeting, trying to reach an agreement on their philosophical differences. This, in the film, never occurs; nor did it in reality. Their rivalry would become political legend, the men opposing each other at nearly every possible juncture. In Robert Blake's Disraeli, the author attributes the beginning of the rivalry, which was filled with personal and public animosity, to the Parliamentary debates in December of 1852. Disraeli, who at this time held the position of Chancellor of Exchequer, presented his budget, which was considered controversial by some, to Parliament for consideration. After Disraeli finished speaking, Gladstone spoke out strongly against the proposed budget, helping to ensure its eventual defeat. They had never been close associates, but this public affront was largely the catalyst for the rivalry that would become increasingly vocal and publicly acrimonious as the years passed.

Disraeli's relationship with Queen Victoria is presented in the last two episodes of the series. It was a fortuitous connection, both socially and politically. Disraeli was known for his charm, particularly when it came to his dealings with royalty. He would comment on his penchant for flattery concerning the Queen, saying that, "With other women I employ a camel's hair brush, with the Queen I lay it on with a towel." Regardless of the political advantage resulting from his relationship. Disraeli and Victoria felt a genuine fondness for one another. In the film, during some of the initial scenes involving Disraeli and Queen Victoria, he is shown standing when in her presence. Later, Queen Victoria offers Disraeli a seat while they discuss matters of the state, which he refuses out of respect for the crown; however, as the Prime Minister ages, he accepts the Queen's future invitations to speak in comfort. Interestingly in these scenes, upon concluding his discussions with the Queen, he rearranges the chairs so no one will suspect that he did not follow the proper protocol while in the presence of Victoria. He refers to this as, "removing the evidence." Two things of importance are displayed in this scene; first, the relaxed nature of the relationship between Disraeli and Victoria and secondly, the respect and apparent need to maintain appearances in relation to the crown. In direct contrast, Queen Victoria held absolutely no affinity for Gladstone, whom she detested and consequently would not allow to sit in her presence.

In terms of governmental policy, particular attention is given to Disraeli's pursuit of interest in the Suez Canal. In 1875, the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, who had accumulated a great deal of debt at the expense of his own government, was forced to sell 177,000 shares of stock in the Suez Canal. Disraeli, realizing the significance of the opportunity, committed the British government, without the approval of Parliament, to the purchase of the shares for the price of four million pounds. the scenes dealing with the purchase are faithful to historical accounts, including the popular story of how Lionel Rothschild agreed to provide the necessary funds to complete the transaction with the Egyptian government. However, the controversy in Parliament, thought it was limited but boisterous, is not depicted. Since this was led by Gladstone, its presentation in the film would have contributed to a more complete account of the political climate of nineteenth century Britain, as well as further examining the ill-natured relationship between Disraeli and Gladstone.

In his performance, McShane is very believable as Disraeli, capturing the nature and eloquence of the man. Furthermore, as this series covers several decades, the effects of aging on Disraeli, who suffered from various illnesses during his life, are shown convincingly through McShane's performance and effective use of make-up. The production is unique and covers many of the important events of Disraeli's life and career; however, there are so many that are of interest and historical significance that it does seem to jump haphazardly form subject to subject. In all likelihood, given the constraints on time, this strategy allowed for the best representation of Disraeli. While everyone can enjoy this series, there is little doubt that those who are familiar with Disraeli, Gladstone, and nineteenth century politics, will have a greater appreciation.