Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli – A Political Alliance and Enduring Romance

Join me this episode as writer and Associate Professor, Daisy Hay, and I explore the strange romance between Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli – a couple who themselves wrote their love story into being…

Holly: Hello darlings and welcome back to Past Loves – the history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to add a touch of romance to daily life. I’m Holly, your true romantic host, and as I am recording this now the sun is shining – it’s absolutely glorious and so I very much hope you are having as wonderful weather wherever you are listening now. And if not I hope this new podcast episode can be a little ray of sunshine in your day. That’s really cheesy. Oh well, this is a podcast about love stories so I’m not afraid of a little cheese every now and then.

Anyway, if you listened to last week’s episode then you will have heard there and then how the couple discussed intertwines with the family history behind the love story in that episode between Selina and Lawrence Kay-Shuttleworth. It was such a fun episode to record. I absolutely loved recording with Isobel and we were able explore so much new research from the depths of Gawthorpe Hall’s archives and, actually, today’s am I joined by author and Associate Professor in English Literature and Life Writing at the University of Exeter, Daisy Hay, who herself drew on extensive archival work in the Reading Room at the Bodleian Library to write her joint biography of Benjamin Disraeli and his wife Mary Anne Evans. 

Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance uses Mary Anne’s truly formidable personal archives to chronicle how her beloved Diz and she pursued their own path in life, cultivating a relationship which was rooted in deep love, respect and admiration and was often embellished by the pair with a little mythologizing of their own. I really loved reading Daisy’s book and actually fell myself for Mary Anne and Benjamin’s love story so it was so lovely to be able to discuss their relationship with Daisy. Their relationship being an unconventional marriage that the Disraelis crafted into an enduring love story…

Welcome, Daisy. And thank you so much for joining me today.

Daisy: Lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.

Holly: So I thought maybe we would start with Mary Anne. And how would you describe her first so we get a general idea of the kind of woman that she was?

Daisy: She was described early on in their relationship by Disraeli as “a pretty little woman, a flirt and a rattle” and I think that’s a kind of good place to start. Her contemporaries describe her as kind of flirtatious, vivacious, tiny, bird like creature, full of passion and enthusiasm, not necessarily particularly well educated. One of Disraeli’s many famous sayings about her, but one particularly famous one is, “my wife is a very clever woman, but she can never remember who came first, the Greeks or the Romans.” So a kind of effervescent character, but someone also with real determination and integrity and background. So a person of great strength too, despite this kind of persona, of someone who’s going to bring in with lace and feathers and bright colours. She loved bright clothes and frills and jewellery. But there is a kind of a core of seriousness and determination about her, which means that she is more than a match with Disraeli and shouldn’t be dismissed as a kind of frothy creature.

Daisy’s book – I thought Mary Anne would appreciate a large puff sleeve as my reading attire

Holly: Absolutely. And I found it really interesting that she kind of crafted her own narrative about her childhood. What were the stories that she actually told?

Daisy: Well, she came from a fairly modest background, but in later life she embroidered that modesty quite substantially. So she told one acquaintance that she walked to work barefoot as a factory girl, and that she met her first husband while walking barefoot to work. And she told another friend that she worked in a milliners shop and this is all nonsense. She was, in fact, the daughter of Eleanor Viney, who was a vicar’s daughter herself and her father, John Evans, was a naval sea captain, and she never knew him. He died when she was tiny at sea, but she was brought up on her grandparents farm outside Exeter. So it wasn’t a smart upbringing, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of penury that she described in later life.

Holly: Yeah. I think crafting narratives is something that will touch on quite a few times as we talk about their relationship.

Daisy: A part of her story is that she likes to embroider her story, to play up to what was to thought about her, that she was not of society in these kind of quite extravagant ways. And the point at which she does a lot of that storytelling is when in later life, she’s very secure. So a lot of the stories that she told about her childhood outside Exeter, she told when she was the guest of Stafford Northcote, who was the Lord Chancellor. So yeah, when she was very well established, that’s when she did some of the embroidery.

Holly: Yeah. So you mentioned that it was kind of suggested that she was very intelligent, perhaps not terribly well educated. Do we know much about the education she received when she was young?

Daisy: It seems to be pretty patchy. There’s a reference in one letter from her to her mother; she says “our school is broke up.” But it seems to me what she’s talking about then is probably a kind of shared governance with family friends rather than any kind of formal schooling. She’s born in 1792. This is not an era where young women, particularly young women of modest means, get sent to school. There aren’t really schools. So it seems to me that the education she had was probably a pretty patchy governess education, always second priority to the business of being a young lady, I guess.

Holly: Yes and then becoming a wife because she married Wyndham Lewis, who was he? What was their marriage like?

Daisy: So she met Wyndham Lewis, who was over 20 years her senior…

Holly: Wow

Daisy:..at a ball in Bristol and he was clearly captivated by her. And in her papers, there’s some of the kind of letters that he wrote to her that showed he was a serious man. He was much older, but he was sort of entranced by her. But for her, this was a good match. He had a substantial house outside Cardiff. He had a large income and you can tell in her letters and in her family’s letters that this was a real success. He was a catch financially. He offered her uh extremely comfortable home, no financial insecurity. He took her away from what was quite peripatetic existence, live with her mother and her stepfather. So it wasn’t a great romance, but it absolutely elevated her into a more secure way of living.

Holly: And then he became involved in politics. What was her role within his political campaigning?

Daisy: Well, they were married in 1815 and during the first years of their marriage, something happened, which was an absence, which is they have no children. You can sort of tell in her letters in her letters, and in his letters too to a lesser extent, that this was a sadness. The loss was never mentioned explicitly, but there are moments when it appears they are both watching her diet with unusual caution or watching her levels of energy with unusual caution. But, nevertheless, there were no babies came. And by five years into marriage, really, Mary Anne was a little bit bored. She wasn’t particularly compatible with Wyndham Lewis. The life they were living at his house outside Cardiff was fairly limited. So she persuaded him to stand as the Conservative candidate for Cardiff and really, this seems to have given her outlook for her energies. She turned out to be terribly good at political campaigning and was really a central figure in his campaign, in a pattern that she’d later repeat was Disraeli’s campaign. She would sort of woo voters with ribbons and cakes and kisses. She understood the need in political campaigning very early to sort of present yourself as someone within the voters might be able to identify or as kind of almost, not of their friend, but someone who’s life they could understand. And it worked. So with her kind of injection of energy, it worked and he was elected as a Conservative candidate for Cardiff, which allowed them to move to London and for them to buy a house at Grosvenor Gate, which became really central to her life.

93 Park Lane, originally No. 1 Grosvenor Gate | Credit: Historic England

Holly: So you mentioned Disraeli, Benjamin Disraeli, do we know how or when or where they first met?

Daisy: They were introduced by great mutual friends. So Mary Anne’s best friend was someone called Rosina Bulwer Lytton – her name changed later, but that’s how she’s known – and her husband, Bulwer was Disraeli’s greatest friend. The Bulwer Lytton marriage was incredibly tempestuous, that’s subject to a separate podcast. But nevertheless, they were introduced by the Bulwer Lyttons, and they met at their house around about 1833. And it’s clear that it was an acquaintance which was sort of cool and not particularly close in the early years. But they quickly became friends, all during the period of Mary Anne’s first husband was still alive. It was not a romance in those early years, but a friendship.

Holly: What do you think may have attracted them to each other as friends in those beginning years?

Daisy: Disraeli was clearly was attracted to Mary Anne’s energy, her zest for life, also by the fact that she’s married to a wealthy Tory MP at this point when he was looking for political patronage, trying to make his own way in the world. He presents himself in London in the 1830s as this alluring, slightly mystical figure and she clearly responded to that. He was the author of some novels that she read. She loved his novel, Vivian Grey, which was a kind of scandalous silver fork novel. So she was definitely interested in his air of slight distinctiveness. But I think there’s something about the fact that they both, for different reasons, were slight outsiders in the world of the London social scene. Both born into families which made their participation in London society very slightly contingent and I think there’s something in that that drew them together, too.

Holly: And so, if I’m right in thinking, their lives became more intertwined when it came to the 1837 election. Is that right?

Daisy: That’s right, yeah. So by this point Wyndham was MP for Maidstone in Kent and Maidstone always returned two MPs. So Wyndham needed a second body to stand on the Conservative ticket with him, and Mary Anne persuaded him that that second body should be Disraeli. Disraeli had attempted to get into Parliament on various occasions. He stood as an Independent and then as a Tory, but he never managed it. But in Wyndham Lewis and in Maidstone what he had was the funding – and so Wyndham provided the funding and Disraeli provided the kind of glamour. And so they stood together and they were returned and elected as MPs. and Mary Anne was enormously proud of this achievement. She talks about Disraeli being known as her parliamentary protégé. And just after the election, she wrote to her brother, in a way that she was clearly aware of the language she was using, she said, “I’ve been safely delivered of a pair of twin members,” which gives you some idea of kind of letter writer she was too.

Holly: I’d like to pick up on the fact that you mentioned that Benjamin was a little bit of an outsider himself, and maybe we could talk about him and his upbringing a little bit more. How would you describe Benjamin?

Daisy: So he was the eldest son of Isaac D’Israeli, an eminent literary man. The D’Israeli family were Jewish, crucially, but in the 1810s, Isaac fell out with his synagogue for the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. And in 1817, his children were baptised as Anglican. And that’s absolutely the kind of crucial moment in Disraeli’s story because it wasn’t until 1858 that Jews were allowed to sit in Parliament. 

Holly: Which I had no idea of. 

Daisy: Yeah, it’s really really late that the Oath of Allegiance or the parliamentary oath was changed to allow Jewish members. So had that baptism not taking place in 1817, none of Disraeli’s subsequent career would have been possible. So that’s really really important. But as a young man, Disraeli sort of drifted. He embarked on various, fairly disastrous speculations, a mining speculation. He tried to find a Journal. He was able to convince some fairly big hitters in the London literary world to back him at various points, including his father’s friend, publisher John Murray. But, nevertheless, there were kind of disasters along the way. So by 1830, he’d run up an unbelievable amount of debt, I mean, just for debt, kind of mind boggling amount of debt. He’d written a novel which was lampooned society figures in a way that had got him semi-ostracised. He’s travelled Europe as a kind of latter day Byron, and he’d arrived in London again. So he’s had a tempestuous time of it. But he hasn’t gone to university, he hasn’t gone to one of the kind of great public schools. So when I talk about him as an outsider, part of it has to do with the kind of decisions he made and the choices he affected around dress and around how he positioned himself. But part of it is also because the nature of his birth meant that he was never fully accepted and in 1837, when he stood as an MP, the degree of antisemitic abuse that was held at him on the hustings, both words, but also pork chops were thrown at him. I mean, it’s pretty vile actually. So there’s a real strain of antisemitism which follows him wherever he goes.

Holly: So why did he choose to go into politics?

Daisy: I think because in the 1830s, politics was the place where ambitious young men went – difficult to think of in our own moment possibly. But, if you wanted to be a big figure in the world, you wanted to be an MP. And Disraeli was determined to be a kind of big figure, to be a person of note and really the route for that was politics. So his friend Bulwer-Lytton got a seat and that was very much the route he wanted too. So less because of a kind of political ideology, as you might recognise it, but more because of a kind of sense of politics as the place where he could realise his ambition for greatness.

Holly: Yeah. And do you think it was anything to do with the fact that he couldn’t go to debtors prison?

Daisy: Well, that’s a part of it. So it’s absolutely the case that MPs were protected by parliamentary privilege from being arrested for debt. And there are absolutely moments when it becomes crucial to Disraeli that Parliament shouldn’t be dissolved. I don’t think he went into it thinking this will keep me safe. It was always too precarious than that, but certainly it became a powerful attraction. And after 1837, when it looked like Melbourne’s government was going to fail, for Disraeli the prospect of Parliament being dissolved and him having to re-stand as an MP really offered the prospect of ruin, of bailiffs at the door, of having to flee into exile, as other friends, like for example, Count D’Orsay had done. So, at the point at which he [and] Mary Anne[‘s] relationship evolved, that threat of the kind of end of the life he worked for in England because of his debt was really becoming quite real.

Holly: I mean, the pressure.

Daisy: And also the pressure about things which you can do nothing about. He has no power about whether Melbourne’s government would fall. It almost did. So you’re constantly kind of being buffeted by forces outside your control.

Benjamin Disraeli c. 1870

Holly: And so Wyndham, Mary Anne’s first husband, died in 1838. What happened then?

Daisy: He had a heart attack. They were in his study one morning and he had a heart attack and she was there and then he was gone and she was sincerely and deeply upset and it left her with a kind of mountain of worry and obligation. She inherited quite a lot of his estate, but not all of it. There was quite torturous negotiations with his brother. She was left a lifetime interest in her house at Grosvenor Gate, which is a very elegant house on Park Lane, and she was left an income of £5000 a year. So she was left a wealthy woman, but she didn’t have unlimited resources either. And because she was wealthy widow quite quickly, a number of very dubious suitors started to kind of circle around her. But it became clear that really, out of this group who Disraeli called the demireps, that he was the one who had caught her eye the most. But he did not have an easy time of it, and their relationship evolved but many people thought that he was a fortune hunter and that she was a fool. And there were elements of truth to the fortune hunting thing. He desperately needed her money to avoid ruin. But it was much more complicated than that too.

Holly: Yeah. I think something that I found really interesting in your book was trying to unpick the fact from the fiction in their letters in those early times when he is wooing her as much as physically possible. How did you decipher those letters and work out exactly what was happening between them?

Daisy: Well, deciphering is the right word because she certainly had terrible, terrible handwriting and hard work to read. I think what I try to do is tune into their voices. There’s a real asymmetry in that far more of his letters survive than hers do because she kept everything he wrote and the same wasn’t quite true of the kind of care with which her letters were curated. But I tried to tune into the kind of rhythms of their correspondence and to, I guess, not worry too much about what was true and what wasn’t, but to look at the kind of ways in which they were playing with ideas of romance, with kind of metaphors or images of romance. So they would describe, for example, tempestuous dreams. They will both use the weather to evoke kind of emotion, to think about a kind of pathetic fallacy. A storm tossed night outside the house in Grosvenor Gate would lead into her letters. They use signs and symbols to kind of try and write to each other of their love. So he would say, ‘if you love me when you next come to his parents house Bradenham in Buckinghamshire have your hand un-gloved.’ There was this kind of strange sign in it which looks like a kind of letter O or a kind of heart or a kind of turnip. It’s a very odd sign, which it seems to kind of stand in the letters for things which are unsayable. So these letter between them are fairly histrionic. But what you can also see them doing is kind of writing their romance into being.

Holly: Yeah. I mean, it’s fascinating because then they did decide to get married, but they also wrote a marriage settlement.

Daisy: Yeah, that was written partly for them because it was partly the conditions of Wyndham’s will that Mary Anne, should she remarry, was to be designated as what’s called femme soul, which is a fairly rare – it wasn’t rare for wealthy women, but in the context of all women and a rare legal status for a woman getting married – because usually what happens is, when a woman got married in the 19th Century, everything she owned automatically became her husband’s. But in the case of Wyndham’s will stipulated that Mary Anne’s property should be protected to her in the event of her remarriage and what that meant is that, although when to freely marry Mary Anne, he had access to her house and, of course, anything she chose to give him, her income and her possessions legally remained hers. And so one of things that happened is that everything in her house was itemised right down to the salt cellars. 

Holly: So useful for historians. 

Daisy: Really great for historians. It was three pages on her jewellery. It’s kind of amazing. 

Holly: Wow. 

Daisy: But the point was to designate that as her property. So he in effect became the kind of tenant for life, rent free in her house. And as I say, because she was free to give him whatever she pleased or spend her money however she pleased, he of course did financially very well out of it. But he couldn’t take her income, for example, and behind her back pay off his debtors. So his kind of immediate financial crisis eased, but it didn’t allow him to kind of free himself from that burden of debt and there was a great deal of secrecy between them. I mean, she had no idea of the kind of extent of his liabilities when they got married, and it would become a huge source of friction between them.

Holly: Such an interesting dynamic to be set up from the very beginning.

Daisy: Yes and not an easy one either. Lots of secrets on either side. They both have siblings who are hugely attached. She had a brother who was a kind of complete, in many ways a waste of space, but to whom she was very attached. And Disraeli had a very close and affectionate relationship with her sister Sarah. And for years after he got married, he maintained a kind of clandestine correspondence with Sarah via his club, the Carlton Club. So she would write to him there. And when she writes to him at Grosvenor Gate, she always writes ‘My dear Diz’. But when she writes to him at the Carlton Club, it’s always ‘my dearest.’ So there’s a kind of clear areas of each of their lives which remains off limits to the other.

Holly: So what were those first few months of their marriage like together?

Daisy: Well, they seem to have been by and large life pretty successful. I mean, a lot of society talk about the fact that Disraeli has sort of won the rich widow, a lot of speculation about the fact that this was a marriage of convenience. Early on in that marriage, Mary Anne made a remarkable list of their kind of competing characteristics in which she presents them as a pair made by contrast, but also who kind of unites to make a hole. So she writes: ‘he is a genius, she is a dunce.’ ‘He has no self conceit. She has much self conceit,’ and it’s a kind of playful thing, but it’s interesting to see her thinking about two halves of the story again, and the questions about fact and fiction and about how you construe yourself and how you construe your partnership in a world which is thick with writing in periodicals and novels. Romances are being kind of written every day. I find really interesting. But those tensions didn’t go away and there were kind of terrible moments of crisis where she suspected that he was being false to her and kind of to broke open all the locks and the drawers in Grosvenor Gate and he had to spend a night in the hotel. And she was campaigning in Shrewsbury and came across posters, put up by his opponents, which outlined the extent of his debts. The first time she really became aware of them so terrible moments of crisis along the way too.

Holly: Oh my gosh that’s quite the way to find out, to be honest. So you mentioned that she was campaigning. How did their political union function?

Daisy: Well, I think it evolved over time. She remained a very active participant in his campaigns and one of the things that she had presence on the campaign trail allowed Disraeli to do was to present himself as a kind of every man. So when he made speeches on the Hustings in Shrewsbury, he would talk about the fact to his constituents that he and Mary Anne were parted on that wedding anniversary. And he said ‘the women shed tears which I could myself barely stop.’ So he’s one of the first politicians to realise that you have to give yourself a backstory, that you have to give yourself a kind of narrative with which people can identify and she really, really helped with that. Her warmth and her vivacity and her ability to kind of connect with voters became a serious political asset. And that’s something that he recognises from the off. In terms of London society, hostessing as he was trying to make his way in the Conservative Party, which was a pretty torturous path for him – he wasn’t in Robert Peel’s inner circle. He split famously from Peel over the issue of the Corn Laws. She did the solid work of hosting parties, of enabling him to have political allies to dinner, of maintaining networks with the political hostesses across London. She was an important ally, but she wasn’t someone who would ever have discussed the minutiae of politics with.

Holly: How did people view Mary Anne?

Daisy: I think with some scepticism. And I think, you know, particularly when as the Disraeli’s career progressed and they would go to grand country houses, she would have really quite difficult time of it. And he would be quite quick to react if she was slighted. So there are all sorts of stories of her saying things which are kind of vaguely improper in grand country houses. So she didn’t quite fit in. She didn’t fit into that kind of world of country house visiting. But nevertheless, people did warm to her and she had around her group of close and loyal friends, some of whom recognised her absurdities. One of her great friends was Charlotte De Rothschild, who writes really movingly about her, actually, but who nevertheless saw her goodness, saw her kind of capacity for warmth, saw her loyalty, and could kind of see past the peripheries I guess.

Holly: So you wrote the book in kind of acts of their marriage. And so if we move into the second act which you talk about, is the ‘pas content’ act of their marriage, why did you describe it like that?

Daisy: It’s a phrase that she uses in her commonplace books and in her diary. She began to write, it begins to creep in, ‘Dizzy out, no company at dinner, pas content’, ‘a dull day, pas content.’ It coincides with the moment when suddenly the dinner parties at Grosvenor Gate fade away and it becomes clear that essentially they are leading increasingly separate lives, that she is no longer at his side, that the secrets and the lies have become a kind of block to communication between them. It’s quite hard to hear her voice during quite a lot of that period. It’s his predominant that survives. This is a period where locks get broken and he has to spend nights in hotels. But that sense that she has this kind of code for things being awry between them came through really profoundly in her papers.

Holly: So how did they progress from there?

Daisy: Well I think key to it, although by no means the solution, was that finally in 1846, they were able to buy a house, the country house at Hughenden in Buckinghamshire – the purchase enabled by loans from Tory grandees who wanted Disraeli to have a country seat of his own. He could be the leader of the country party, but also because of the death of Disraeli’s father, Isaac. Certainly it was a big moment in their story, the purchase of this country estate and this house, which they both flung themselves into the work of kind of remaking with great enthusiasm. Certainly the early years at Hughenden were not easy for them. Disraeli would often want to escape to London. Mary Anne would throw herself into gardening. Because without the distractions of London, it was a place where the differences between them became almost more apparent and more difficult. But it nevertheless was a kind of project on which they were both embarked. And gradually, as they got older, things just became easier and as Disraeli began to kind of realise the enormity of the gifts Mary Anne had brought him, and they became closer together. And I guess the turning point is when they both got ill in 1867 and they had to be in separate bedrooms There are notes where they write each other from their bedrooms and, somehow in that moment of illness, they kind of revow how much they mean to each other. And also Mary Anne sees for the first time – she’s more seriously ill – how much she means to the country too. How she is loved by Kings and Queens who write to ask of her, but also by servants and newspapers and ordinary people and also by her husband. And it’s that moment that she starts to say to friends, her famous phrase which is: “Dizzy married me for my money. But if he had the chance again he would marry me for love.” And that kind of sets up a third act where this romance they’ve spun into being through words and images and determination sort of becomes real.

Hughenden | Credit: Hans A. Rosbach

Holly: Yeah. And am I right in thinking that this is the same time that Disraeli’s political star is rising quite substantially?

Daisy: That’s absolutely right. Yes. He becomes Chancellor in Lord Derby’s government, and then in 1868, he becomes Prime Minister briefly. He’s only in the office for a few months, but nevertheless, he is (in his phrase) ‘at the top of the greasy pole.’ So, yes, it kind of coincides with the moment when finally his kind of political ambitions are realised.

Holly: There’s a really sweet anecdote of when he comes home after the passing of the 1867 Reform Act. Will you tell that? I just think it’s really lovely.

Daisy: This is a moment of great kind of triumph for Disraeli, for the Conservative Party to get the Reform Act through and he has swept off to the Carlton Club by supporters. But he slips away because Mary Anne is at home waiting for him with a bottle of champagne and a raised pie from Fortnum and Mason. And this is when he says very famously to her, ‘My dear, you are more like a mistress than a wife.’ And he says to the friend who reports to phrase to ‘I could see that she took it as a compliment.’

Holly: Yes, I think we’ll have to take that as a compliment. So we move into this third act. How would you characterise those last years of their marriage?

Daisy: They’re years in which they become much closer together again. They have the great triumph that is Hughenden. Mary Anne is possibly more accepted. Although not universally accepted, there are still areas where her life is made quite difficult by social expectations. Disraeli has political success. Friends treat them both with affection and admire their love for each other and their love for their house. But there are also years in which Mary Anne is increasingly unwell. It seems pretty clear from her symptoms that she has some form of stomach cancer and in her last years of her life, she’s clearly in a great deal of pain and is eating less and less. And so a new pattern begins to emerge of short notes between them sent in the day when she’s at home, of him sliding off home during parliamentary business to see whether she’s eaten anything. Because the post is so good at this moment, notes can be passed between them four or five times a day. So there’s this familiarity and closeness towards the end of her life, which really is new in that you can kind of see it on paper too.

Holly: Yeah. I mean, his life must have changed substantially by forming a government in 1868.

Daisy: It certainly gave him a kind of sense of that’s the kind of political pinnacle. It doesn’t last very long. It’s a minority government. It’s because Derby, who is the Premier before him retires. So it is before his great Premiership in the which comes after her death. So lots of the political things that we associate with Disraeli – the era of what’s called by political historians as Beaconsfieldism because he becomes Viscount Beaconsfield – you know, imperial policy that all comes later. But, nevertheless, that first taste of power, of having achieved universal social acceptance, of going to Balmoral to stay with the Queen, definitely it’s a real moment in his life.

Holly: Yeah. So when Mary Anne did die in 1872, how did he commemorate her?

Daisy: She’s buried at Hughenden as she wanted to be in the churchyard and there was an outpouring of affection for her in the newspapers and obituaries. Disraeli has to get rid of the house at Grosvenor Gate. It’s claimed by Wyndham Lewis’s family. He has to move out quite quickly, so he retreats to Hughenden where he finds that, unbeknownst to him, she has kept every letter he’s ever written of which she was aware. Every letter written to him of which she was aware. She’s kept the trimmings from all the haircuts she gave him over the years and he describes the kind of extraordinary sensation of seeing his own life unfold again before him during this kind of lonely summer where he describes himself as like the man in the iron mask. He says he has parks and gardens, but companionship is wanting, and he will go on to build his Premiership again, to  become the great confidant of the Queen. But he certainly to see his life laid out before him, to see her care not just for his person, but for his story and his papers is a moment of great emotion for him, definitely.

Holly: Yeah. And do you think it means that they did manage to effectively mythologise this love story between them?

Daisy: Well I think they did but also because the love story came true because of the myth. What I like about their story is it sort of happens in reverse. They build the fantasy, they build the myth, but then they sort of make it come true and that’s a wonderful thing to see laid out in papers. After his Premiership in 1868, the Queen wants to give him a peerage, but he doesn’t want to leave the House of Commons. So he asks that it should be given to Mary Anne instead. So she becomes at old age Viscountess Beaconsfield which she’s tremendously proud of. She has all the chairs at Hughenden redone with embroidered bees. She signs herself your devoted Beaconsfield. So it’s just kind of great gesture of romance towards her. And there are moments where you can see them together as a couple. So in her last summer before she died, she’s not well enough to leave London. So they go on carriage drives around London and they see how much it’s grown since they were young. So there are ways in which, both of them, they recognise that their story also has chartered the changing story of the country as well.

Holly: Yeah. And so Disraeli went on to change the country in his own way. What was his life like after she died?

Daisy: It was a busy, sociable life. As a Premier, because he was very elderly, he was more of a kind of executive than a person who was kind of deeply involved in every decision. So lots of the great political reforms that happened in his Premiership are things that he oversees rather than drives himself. His great confident is his secretary. There are other romances, possibly, but they never come anywhere close to the great romance of his life. He makes his nephew his heir. He can see himself as the great statesman. He writes more novels. He has the experience of seeing his novels have tremendous public success. It’s a full and busy life with lots of the culmination of professional achievements happen afterwards. But she certainly remains a hugely important figure and her portrait is above the fireplace at Hughenden. He mourns her truly and sincerely.

Holly: Yeah. What do you see as their legacy as a couple?

Daisy: Gosh, it’s a really interesting question. I think probably in terms of how they change the political story that our political leaders need to be people who we can identify with, which is something that is a change over the course of the 19th Century and one that’s probably emblematized very well by them. In terms of their legacy as a couple, I guess it’s a story they make together. That’s certainly my view as a biographer. It’s the papers. It’s a story. It’s a version of romance which is not necessarily ideal in its inception, but out of which something which is true and real and strong grows. It’s about what happens when the marriage plot is over. It slightly confounds the idea that romance only happens to be young. This is something Disraeli himself says in one of his novels ‘three score and ten is the age for romance.’ So I guess the way in which their story confounds a kind of traditional story about romance and marriage, that’s possibly one way of thinking about their legacy.

Holly: Is that how you would like them to be remembered?

Daisy: Yes, I think so. The story of romance, the story of marriage is never straightforward, but I guess there are riches to be found in unexpected places too.

Holly: Well, I think that’s the perfect place to end. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

Daisy: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Holly: And thank you for listening! I hope you enjoyed listening to the love story of Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli. I find them both absolutely fascinating, how they wove together these fact and fiction which later materialised into complete truth around their relationship is so so interesting to me. I love the quote the Daisy mentioned from Mary Anne when she said “Dizzy married me for my money. But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.” They really seemed to grow together, intertwining their lives and carving out this impressive career path for Disraeli and this home at Hughenden.

In her book, Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance, Daisy charts the intricacies of their marriage, delving into their personal correspondence to reveal their unique relationship, steeped in the romance that they wanted to present to the world and, personally, be absorbed by. Daisy really does an amazing job of fleshing out their lives – in fact there is more about their sibling relationships as well in the book that we just briefly mentioned in this episode which I found incredibly interesting – especially the story between Mary Anne and her brother. So you’re going to have to read the book. Honestly it is a really wonderful joint biography. Daisy’s other books include Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives, The Making of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and, most recently, Dinner with Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age

Daisy was a delight to talk to for what will be the penultimate episode of season 3, next time we will be moving from the world of politics into the world of science – so guesses of the season finale love story all welcome.

If you have enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now. I absolutely love hearing what you think and it helps other true romantics with a love of history to find the podcast.

And then, if Past Loves has become your current love, you can also follow me over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast where the conversation continues – until soon!

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