Mary Anne was a liability to Benjamin Disraeli, but she was also—oddly—the making of him, as Daisy Hay’s accomplished new biography of the pair, Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, illustrates. Without his wife, Disraeli might well have failed at politics just as he had made a hash of all his previous endeavors. In Hay’s telling, “they themselves spun stories around their partnership, but they also made the tales they spun come true.” As an earlier biographer, the British historian Jane Ridley, aptly put it, Disraeli “was a genius, but he owed his success to Mary Anne.”
Few political unions today would earn such high marks. By now, the spectacle of connubial dysfunction in elected office has achieved its own sort of dreary protocol, the details changing but the composite firmly fixed. The cheating husbands and their jilted wives, the pallid denials and the unconvincing contrition, the trembly lips and pained expressions: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Newt and Marianne Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer and Silda Wall Spitzer, Mark and Jenny Sanford, Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin—and that’s just for starters. So unremarkable is the moral trespass that all the talk is of the practical consequences. Will she stand by her man? Will he be reelected? What price does a politician pay for personal disloyalty?
We’ve lost sight of a different question, at once novel and quaint, which in the United States will soon move to the foreground. What about a politician’s loyalty to his or her disreputable spouse? The Disraelis’ story demonstrates how a politician’s devotion, even to an apparently damaging partner, can be turned to advantage, especially if the politician stands accused of opportunism or treachery. In the case of Hillary Clinton, that Victorian story may be especially illuminating. To understand how a spurned first lady can metamorphose into a presidential front-runner, let us follow one mastermind into the thicket of 19th-century marriage and politics.
When Mary Anne Lewis met Benjamin Disraeli in 1832, there was nothing to signal his genius other than his own grandiosity. She was 39 and had married well, if not happily: her spouse was a businessman turned member of Parliament. Disraeli was 27 and had already tried his hand at lawyering, stock-market speculating, and the newspaper business before publishing a novel scrutinizing London society, which reviewers hated. Baptized as an Anglican at the age of 12 when his father broke with the family’s synagogue, Disraeli was an outsider. He cultivated self-consciously Byronic passions, styling his hair in black ringlets, donning purple trousers with scarlet waistcoats, and wearing his rings on top of white gloves. He had accumulated a mountain of debt.
Less than four decades later, Benjamin Disraeli was the prime minister of Britain. He had remade the Conservative Party in line with his own political philosophy, championing Britain’s traditions and the glory of its empire. He orchestrated a massive expansion of the franchise that nearly doubled the number of Britons eligible to vote, and he embarked upon a legendary feud with that other presiding genius of British politics, the Liberal William Gladstone. Disraeli also wheedled his way into the affections of Queen Victoria, who as a personal favor to the prime minister granted Mary Anne the title of viscountess in her own right.