Sexual ambiguity in the life of Disraeli.
But was Disraeli gay? And if so, did it matter then and does it now? Since Disraeli and Lincoln lived at roughly the same time, and since both were social outsiders who made it to the top of the political heap in their countries, it is interesting to find parallels between the two lives. Answering these questions about Disraeli might even shed some light on to the debate about Lincoln.
Disraeli's previous biographers have noticed that there were some romantic irregularities in his past: he preferred old ladies to young women; he married late; he had a passion for male friendship. The standard explanation for this is that in those pre-Freudian days there was a Romantic cult of friendship and that love between men was sexually "innocent" (the underlying assumption being that sexual contact is "guilty"). Some of his earliest biographers (such as W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle) explained away Disraeli's odd history of affectionate relationships by saying it was due to the "oriental" part of his nature. By this they meant that he was Jewish and thus partly "foreign" and un-English. They were also hinting at a Victorian prejudice that sexual license, including same-sex contact, was more common in "the East" or what we would call the Middle East. Lord Blake, whose 1966 biography is still authoritative, hinted that Disraeli was a lot like Oscar Wilde, and left it there. Two more recent biographers (Sarah Bradford and Jane Ridley) have been more comfortable referring explicitly to the homoerotic element in Disraeli's personality, but neither has regarded it as important enough to give it more than a page or two.
"Sodomy," the legal term for one variety of sexual activity between men, was still punishable by death in Britain up until 1861. Prominent Englishmen among Disraeli's contemporaries--such as William Beckford, author of the oriental novel Vathek, Lord Byron, and William Bankes, a collector of oriental antiquities--fled England to live abroad before they were charged when suspicions arose about their behavior. In such circumstances, the hypothesis is that, if Disraeli were gay, it would have profoundly affected his life. Furthermore, given his Jewishness and his middle-class origins, which already obstructed his political prospects, the fact that he became prime minister would be all the more surprising if he had in fact been gay.
The evidence for Disraeli's sexuality comes principally from his novels, as well as from biographical details that other writers have passed over in silence. He wrote eleven novels over the course of his life. (The editors of the Disraeli Letters recently discovered a twelfth, co-authored with his sister.) His first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), appeared before he was twenty-two. He completed the last one, Endymion (1880), in the year before he died. He frankly admitted that many of these novels were autobiographical, and he inserted verbatim letters he'd written to family members and other people in his life. In fact, these novels have served as the memoirs he never wrote, and their persistent themes indicate a man whose relationship with the world was colored by wanting to defend that which was forbidden.
A problem of terminology arises immediately. The word "gay" in our sense didn't exist, while the word "homosexual" wasn't coined until the late 19th century. In short, the notion of being defined by one's sexual orientation had not been invented. However, there were significant overlaps between the 19th-century use of "gay" and our own. They could use it to suggest sexual immorality; hence, when Lord Byron wrote about a young Spaniard's adultery with an older woman, he could with lighthearted irony refer to his epic poem Don Juan as "a moral tale, though gay." Byron was regarded in Disraeli's day as a sexual outlaw: he had an affair with his half-sister and wrote love poetry to adolescent boys. Disraeli adored Byron and went out of his way to imitate him, both in print and in life. He took Byron's "a moral tale, though gay," for the subtitle of an early novel, The Young Duke (1829), in which the hero is a beautiful young dandy, as Byron was in his London life. The young duke wears effeminate clothes and spends much of the day being dressed after his bath by a Greek page.
Disraeli was also a Byronic dandy; he too had adulterous affairs with women. He told one of his friends when his liaison with Henrietta Sykes broke up that he was feeling "savagely gay." He may have been putting a brave face on a broken heart, but he was also being defiant about living outside the rules. The assumption in this era was that even men who had a partiality for other men would marry and father children. Indeed a man acquired a certain license to pursue the former interest so long as he conformed to the social conventions of marriage and procreation.
Disraeli's contemporaries sometimes referred to same-sex attraction between men as "Greek love." Educated men were familiar with Greco-Roman literature that treated erotic relations between men as normal. References to this literature abound in Disraeli's fiction, whether to Antinous, who was the lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, or to Ganymede and Hyacinth, young men who were beloved by Zeus and Apollo in Greek mythology, or to Alcibiades, who aspired to be Socrates' lover in Plato's Symposium. Recent scholarship has suggested that reference to this literature was a way of communicating to those "in the know" about a type of relationship between two men of which others might disapprove.
This attempt to reveal and conceal something simultaneously is a theme in the work of many gay authors. It has been a feature of writers in different historical eras, such as Byron himself and Tennessee Williams (as was pointed out recently in these pages: G & LR, Nov.-Dec. 2005). Disraeli went out of his way to place himself in a long trajectory of men who loved other men; in the terms of a modern debate, he was an "essentialist" rather than a "social constructionist" in that he appeared to believe that men loving men was a feature of many societies around the world and across historical eras.
In notes he made about the time of the composition of his most famous novel, Coningsby (1844), he made lists of men who were "eunuchs" or "heroes averse to women" or simply famous for romantic relations with other men. It is interesting that in the last of these lists he combined people from his own era like William Beckford, William Bankes, and Lord Byron, with Alexander the Great, the Emperor Hadrian, and William Shakespeare. Doubtless he was trying to justify his own identity--and to advance his own considerable ambition by referring to the greatness of others like himself, both past and present. He also went out of his way to put Beckford into one of his novels and to send this novel to Beckford himself as a way of gaining the older man's approval. This was at a time when Beckford's involvement in a sexual scandal with a young male friend was so notorious at all levels of society that even builders sometimes refused to work on his lavish houses.
Much in the novels themselves hints at Disraeli's attraction to other men. They often feature intense, late-adolescent, schoolboy friendships. For example, Disraeli's autobiographical character, Contarini Fleming, from the 1832 novel of the same name, falls in love with the boy Musaeus at a boarding school: "It seemed to me that I never beheld so lovely and so pensive a countenance. His face was quite oval, his eyes deep blue: his rich brown curls clustered in hyacinthine grace upon the delicate rose of his downy cheek, and shaded the light blue veins of his clear white forehead. I beheld him: I loved him. My friendship was a passion." Or there's the friendship between two young men, the Marquess of Montacute and the Lebanese emir Fakredeen, in Tancred (1847). One takes the other captive, falls in love with him, and takes him off to his mountain retreat, where at the close of one volume, meant to provide a cliff-hanger so the reader will go on to the next, the Marquess is being stripped for a bath.
Much of Tancred and another oriental novel, Alroy (1833), take place in the Middle East and are full of realistic details from Disraeli's own experience. He was depressed as a young man and traveled to the eastern Mediterranean as a cure for his melancholy when he was in his twenties. Lord Byron had also traveled in the Middle East and wrote back to his publisher in a letter--probably known to Disraeli--that he adored Turkish baths, which he described as temples of "sherbet and sodomy." Tributes to Turkish baths appear throughout Disraeli's fiction. When he returned to England after a stay of several months in Turkey and Egypt, Disraeli told his family that he would never marry.
Another theme of the fiction is effeminacy. The hero of his first novel, Vivian Grey, has his hair curled by his mother before he goes to school and worries this will make him look like a girl. Later he discovers that this is the center of his attractiveness, and he learns to curl his hair himself. Similarly, the hero of The Young Duke wears silk stockings, velvet shoes with pearl buckles, and such special white trousers that his "delicate extremities became in their character not merely feminine, but would have filled with envy the mistress of a Mandarin." Disraeli was famous in his own day for extravagant dress, and even as an older man he sometimes wore lavender gloves. One observer was startled to see him wearing his rings outside the gloves. Effeminacy is an interesting theme in Victorian history because it could mean so many things. Dandies were "effeminate" but they were sometimes thought of as men who loved women too much and thus exhausted their energy. Frenchmen were "effeminate" because they were Catholics, and Muslims were too because, so the stereotype went, they had many wives in harems.
Effeminacy in this era was also associated with men who loved other men. Nineteenth-century pubs where men dressed as women and slept with other men were called "Mollie houses." Two men, Boulton and Park, caught by the police dressing as women, were publicly tried for conspiracy to commit sodomy. The pair often used alternate spellings of the title of one of Disraeli's novels as their alias, for example either "Vivian Grey" or "Vivien Gray." Disraeli loved effeminate dress and defended male effeminacy: for him it was a way of getting attention, of being outrageously different from the norm, of saying that because some men were adept at being women too that they had special opportunities that other men did not have. The evidence from both his life and work suggests that he embraced a sort of doubleness, a conscious ambiguity, such that sexually and romantically he loved both men and women, just as his clothes and his language flirted with both masculine and feminine conventions.
Moreover, Disraeli used his effeminate dandyism to create an oratorical style that won the ear of both election audiences and the House of Commons. When he was a young man, journalists frequently commented on his velvet jackets with strings of ornamental chains. When he was in the House of Commons, they noticed his "nonchalant" tone and the way his hand "flirted" with an elaborate white handkerchief as he spoke. He also used innuendo, sarcasm, and wit much more than did his contemporaries, so that he was described as having the speaking manner of "a ballroom exquisite" rather than a statesman. But this also won him attention and applause. Other members of Parliament raced into the chamber to hear him speak.
Allied to this distinctive oratorical style was a political attitude that contrasted with that of his Liberal opponents. It is hard to label this as a Tory or Conservative style; nor is it a "gay" style, but it was conservative with a small "c" and was connected to his identity as a dandy. His most famous Liberal rival, William Ewart Gladstone, employed an evangelical Christian style adapted from pulpit oratory. He promised a future improved by political reform and made possible by a life of continence and self-denial in the present. Disraeli, on the other hand, both in fiction and in political oratory, dwelt on the magnificence of life in the here-and-now and enjoyment of the moment. The hedonistic pleasures of food and wine and friendship, like the glory of the British Empire, were all more prominent in Disraeli's ideology than a millennial or providential future fueled by self-abnegation. Nor was his vision of empire driven by the profit motive or a desire to improve the lives of conquered non-Christian or nonwhite peoples. Rather, he thought England had much to learn from the East. For example, he thought English schoolboys should read fewer Greek classics and more Persian literature. If the empire was worth having, it was for its ability to inspire and to stimulate the national imagination.
Disraeli's decision to play the dandy had its risks. The wife of one of his good friends and colleagues, Rosina Bulwer, wrote a letter to Queen Victoria saying that Disraeli and her husband were both guilty of sodomy. Her husband promptly had her locked up. Likewise, Gladstone told a friend that he hated Disraeli because he had "demoralized public opinion, bargained with diseased appetites, stimulated passions, prejudices, and selfish desires, that they might maintain his influence." Gladstone also said his rival was "the worst and most immoral Minister since Castlereagh," a politician of the Napoleonic era who had told the King that he was about to be accused of sodomy before committing suicide. The frequency of words like "diseased appetite," "passion," and "desire" in Gladstone's attack suggests that he wished to implicate Disraeli in the same crime.
On the other hand, Disraeli won recognition for the bravery and courage he exhibited in facing down the political forces ranged against him. He took his party from the wilderness back to the center of power. British Tories today still regard him as one of their founders. In his own day, he won great respect from the Queen, who also became a personal friend. His closest male friendship in later life was with Montagu Corry, his secretary, a position he said in his last novel had to be understood as nearly that of a man's wife. The Queen went out of her way to invite Corry to Osborne, her island retreat, whenever Disraeli came to stay. She even granted them the spousal privilege of inviting Corry to sleep in Disraeli's dressing room, a convention often followed by upper-class husbands and wives in that era--this at a time when Disraeli was a widower. In doing so she seems to have acknowledged that the two men were more than just friends.
There's a way in which the absence of a homosexual identity in Disraeli's time--and the disinclination of the general public to talk about such things--made it possible for men to love each other under the radar screen. Of course, the more severe penalties and consequences of being caught in that time cannot be forgotten. Disraeli, however, was able to flaunt his approval of Greco-Roman sexuality, demonstrate his knowledge of Turkish baths, celebrate effeminacy, and dwell upon romance between men in his fiction--even as he experienced huge success in the world of politics and literature. Thus we can no longer regard the Victorian era as a uniformly dark age for men who loved other men. Disraeli not only got away with all this; he gloried in it.
William Kuhn's book on Disraeli, The Politics of Pleasure (Free Press), will be published later this year in the U.K. He teaches history at Carthage College.