Monday, June 18, 2007

Books about prime ministers' marriages

Also in today's blog

Shrewder than her ditsy manner suggested
Article in The Spectator
Mrs Blair's £895 bag

It was my husband who, long ago before we were married, sparked my interest in British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

At the time Mr Bookworm was serving in Combined Ops in Devon, spending his free time wildfowling and his evenings reading, while I was reporting for the Eastern Evening News in Norwich and longing for his next leave.


It was Disraeli the novelist, and his marriage to Mary Anne Evans, which interested me more than his political career.

"Before his entrance into parliament Disraeli was involved with several different women, most notably Lady Henrietta Sykes (the wife of Sir Francis Sykes, Bt), who served as the model for Henrietta Temple. His relationship with Henrietta would eventually cause him serious trouble beyond the usual problems associated with a torrid affair… As Lord Blake observed: "The true relationship between the three cannot be determined with certainty…there can be no doubt that the affair [figurative usage] damaged Disraeli and that it made its contribution, along with many other episodes, to the understandable aura of distrust which hung around his name for so many years."

Shrewder than her ditsy manner suggested


"Disraeli had thought Mary Anne silly when he first met her, but he came to understand that she was shrewder than her ditsy manner and non-sequiturs had led him to believe, and she was a great help to him in editing the books he wrote. He joked that he had married her for her money but would do it again for love, but the truth is that she was not really wealthy. She was some twelve years older than her husband, and he may not have known her true age, because she lied to him about it, but their romance continued until the day she died."

"Before and during his political career, Disraeli was well-known as a literary and social figure, although his novels are not generally regarded as belonging to the first rank of Victorian literature. He mainly wrote romances, of which Sybil and Vivian Grey are perhaps the best-known today. He was and is unusual among British Prime Ministers for having gained equal social and political renown."

A biography of another eminent Victorian politician, written by a politician of our day, was hardbacked by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £25 on June 14 and I'm looking forward to reading the copy ordered by my public library.



This is how the book is described at Amazon UK.

Book Description
Life of one of the greatest British Prime Ministers - by an author who knows the scene from his years as a senior Minister in Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet.

Synopsis
Robert Peel, as much as any man in the nineteenth century, transformed Great Britain into a modern nation. He invented our police force, which became a model for the world. He steered through the Bill which allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament. He reorganised the criminal justice system. He put Britain back on the gold standard; he invented the Conservative Party which we know today. He sent his constituents at Tamworth the first modern election manifesto. He settled Canada's border with the United States. Above all he tackled poverty by repealing the Corn Laws. Thanks to Peel the most powerful trading nation chose free trade and opened the door for our globalised world of today. Peel was not all politics. He built two great houses, filled them with famous pictures and was devoted to a beautiful wife. Yet he was a stiff, not easy to know. 'Such a cold odd man' wrote Queen Victoria - who later became a keen admirer - and Disraeli attacked him for dishonesty. Many followers never forgave him for splitting his Party. But when in 1850 he was carried home after a fall from his horse crowds gathered outside, mainly of working people, to read the medical bulletins. When he died a few days later, factories closed, flags flew at half mast and thousands contributed small sums to memorials in his honour. He was the man who provided cheap bread and sacrificed his career for the welfare of ordinary people. Douglas Hurd, like Peel, was Home Secretary and argued for Peel's One Nation philosophy. He too lived through a time of conflict in the Conservative Party and has watched its defeat and rebirth. In this biography, with one eye on the present, he charts Peel's life and work through the dramas of nineteenth-century politics.

Article in The Spectator


Douglas Hurd's promo piece for his book, published in The Spectator earlier this month, is well worth reading.

Extracts –

"The balance between style and substance varies sharply with each Prime Minister. In a few weeks, we will see yet another swing of the pendulum. But never has the contrast been greater than in Queen Victoria’s reign.
Disraeli was the man for style — an exception rather than a model, for his combination of gifts could not be copied. The sallow, expressionless face, matched with a substantial wit and a novelist’s imagination, enabled him to destroy Peel and keep Gladstone at bay. His fame stays evergreen. Each Conservative leader sends a research assistant bustling to the dictionary or internet to find some shining phrase of Disraeli to decorate his or her own speeches."

"When Peel fell from his horse in 1850 and died in agony four days later, the political establishment was amazed at the outpouring of public grief. Crowds gathered outside his house, factories closed, bells tolled, pennies and sixpences poured in for memorial statues and reading rooms. This stiff awkward man, never a demagogue or even a democrat, had without really knowing it reached out to ordinary people. There had been no need for a revolution in Britain when thrones tottered across Europe in 1848. Peel had shown, at great cost to himself, that change could be achieved here without violence.
Disraeli, the phrasemaker, had written of Britain as two nations; it was Peel who kept them as one. The task has to be renewed in each generation."

Oh dear, I have more than doubled my intended limit of 500 words a day. But it's hard not to share things which interest one. Peel's marriage sounds as interesting as Disraeli's.

Re PMs' wives, I was appalled to see Mrs Blair using a bag said to have cost £895. Surely no sensible woman would spend so much on a bag?

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