Disraeli: A Picture of the Victorian Age

A Blessed Companion Is a Book

by Andr Maurois, translated by Hamish Miles. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1928. 8vo. xvi+363 pp. Illus. $3.00.
MECHANICAL biography accumulates materials. The biographer of this sort gathers, often with patience and immense industry, facts and documents from everywhere, piles them together in loose chronological arrangement, and then leaves the subject to emerge from the mass by the grace of God and the sympathetic intelligence of the reader.
The supreme art of the biographer is to create character, as it is the art of the novelist or the dramatist. The artist has to use the material of his mechanical fellow: there is no other. But the artist selects, discriminates, arranges, pulls out of the shapeless collection the letter, the passage, the touch, that informs and vivifies, and throws the useless remainder into his wastebasket to be forgotten. If he is creating Disraeli, he takes from the huge volumes of Monypenny and Buckle the thousandth part that is significant and leaves the rest where it lies.
There is the question of background. A character, however great, does not live by himself, perhaps the less so, the greater he is. With Disraeli there are hundreds of minor figures, each of whom must live, yet each must give his own life to the protagonist, instead of drawing from him. And we have Gladstone in magnificent contrast, and we have Peel, and we have Derby, and above all we have her whom Disraeli inimitably called ‘ The Faery,’that minute, insufferable mite of grandeur, whose chubby mortality has been immortalized by Mr. Strachcy. Or we have accessories, great or trifling ones. What would Disraeli be without the country estate that made him an English gentleman? Even the peacocks set him off as they would in a Whistler picture.
And the artist biographer will seize the great, distinguishing traits and, without overemphasizing them, will make them stand out in lasting relief and fit proportion. Disraeli was a Jew. He never forgot it. M. Maurois does not, and we do not. It was the supreme triumph of the Jew to make the English aristocracy eat out of his hand. Disraeli loved women, and gave his heart and his life to them. How charmingly does he unveil his soul, or just what he chooses of it, to his wife, to Lady Chesterfield, to Lady Bradford. And deeper than even Judaism and sentimentalism was ambition, the undying determination to be great, in spite of all weakness and all failure and all difficulty. Was there ever a more characteristic phrase than Disraeli’s answer, when asked, ‘What is the most desirable life?' ‘A continued grand procession from manhood to the I tomb.
But as I read this story of the self-absorbed, successful artist I am reminded of an even greater character who played an almost contemporary rôle. M. Maurois tells us that the. biographer should write only of those with whom he is in sympathy and in whom he finds something of himself. I wonder what he would do with Abraham Lincoln. How all Disraeli’s subterfuges, his subtle sleights and conjurer’s tricks and insinuating graces, shrivel and fade away before that gaunt, meagre, rugged, solitary figure, who had to deal with one of the great crises of the world, and dealt with it, the figure who was beaten and torn and battered by the storms and the turbulence of life, yet sadly, serenely, eternally triumphed over all of them.