January 16, 2011

Disraeli's Ideal?

This peer was a noble Crœsus, acquainted with all the gradations of life; a voluptuary who could be a Spartan; clear-sighted, unprejudiced, sagacious; the best judge in the world of a horse or a man; he was the universal referee; a quarrel about a bet or a mistress was solved by him in a moment, and in a manner which satisfied both parties. He patronised and appreciated the fine arts, though a jockey; respected literary men, though he only read French novels; and without any affectation of tastes which he did not possess, was looked upon by every singer and dancer in Europe as their natural champion. The secret of his strong character and great influence was his self-composure, which an earthquake or a Reform Bill could not disturb, and which in him was the result of temperament and experience (Disraeli, Coningsby).
Who anymore straddles high culture and low, cockpit and opera box, gin house and gallery, like the old Tories of the late Regency Fancy? A rum bunch, they bridged the chasm between the Rake and the rich, the gambler and the gamboller. Only the extravagantly wealthy could maintain a civil reputation whilst slumming it with the depraved, for commoner and Lord were of a piece, if their own traditionalist rhetoric was anything to go by. They were united by a common bond of being freeborn and a love of pluck, derring-do and deep play. The horses the one owned, the other trained; the arts the one patronised, the other performed; and the money won by one would be lost by the other. These self-described Great Men knew a thing or two about courage, having handled dozens of cocks in the heat of battle, spurring them on to pluck victory from the jaws of certain death. For self-composure read self-assurance. Never was there a more conceited coterie of self-congratulators. Doubtless they grew rich and fat and saw their names into the history books (gout excluded). Regency nobs could visit the gutter without becoming of the gutter.

The ultimate fancy story, Pierce Egan's Life in London, 1821

I doubt we can entertain such luxury, or buy such a pass through society’s dark enchantments, without being marked by the journey. We must regard the noble Fancy as an historical fact, but as historical nonetheless. Our lines of life, be they blue-blooded or otherwise, are narrower but not necessarily less rich. For although the Fancy aristocrat of Disraeli’s experience consorted with company high and low, his nature was ultimately low. Racing and horses, loose women and political skulduggery he knew through and through. Regarding high culture he was a dilettante, or a pedantic, not a connoisseur. Now, the vagaries of the democracy we enjoy being what they are, none of us is excluded from this once most exclusive of possibilities. Of course, one must be properly raised, exposed, educated. But the appreciation and understanding of the beautiful is, as never before, available. How interesting it is to observe that so few take the opportunity. What was once an aristocracy by birth, with all the possibilities for the failure of the blood, is now an aristocracy of choice. Surely that is a safer bet than Disraeli’s ideal?


  1. Doctor, it has seemed to me in the course of my life that we live in rather comic times, however much humor is lacking. But you seem to think beauty is overthick, growing around us to suffocation, becoming noxious even. Well, maybe that accounts for the enervation of the spirit and for rampant pacifism. Not to mention the chasing after the pleasures. How must these new men laugh at the quaint old Lord Beaconsfield...

  2. Excellent! I shall continue to strive for truth, goodness and beauty.

  3. Oh, I don't know about that Kravien. The superfluity of ugliness makes it easier to discern.

  4. Would you be in a position to recommend a biography of Disraeli, Mr. VB?

  5. I have not read one, although his novels are perhaps the best way to gain an insight. Coningsby is usually rated the highest, but you'll need a good handle on the context. Sybil is daft, but eminently readable. William Kuhn's 'Politics of Pleasure' sounds like easy-going stuff. The rest are no-doubt dry and dusty tomes.


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