Published online by Cambridge University Press: 19 March 2010
When every allowance is made for the good fortune Disraeli enjoyed, and the assets he possessed during his climb up the ‘greasy pole’, it remains one of the most remarkable phenomena of the nineteenth century that a Jewish, middle-class, literary parvenu became prime minister of Britain at the height of its imperial power. This was the achievement of a powerful man – Lytton Strachey called him ‘formidable – one of the most formidable men who ever lived’. Disraeli was a consummate politician; a superb debater, unrivalled as a manager of men; and even his enemy Gladstone recognized his ‘strength of will; his long-sighted consistency of purpose … his remarkable power of self-government; and … his great parliamentary courage’. But he was also debilitated by a nervous illness between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-seven, which has received scant consideration from his eighty or so biographers. In this chapter, we hazard the first inter-disciplinary explanation.
Disraeli's illness is comprehensible in the context of his complex, narcissistic personality. He aspired to greatness from an early age; and the foundations of his dreams of glory and grandiose aspirations can be traced to his childhood. His relations with his mother were apparently disturbed. The relative absence of her name from his private papers, correspondence and memoirs indicates, as Robert Blake puts it, that he almost ‘wished to obliterate her memory’. His sister noticed the omission from the essay on their father which Disraeli prefixed to the collected edition of the latter's works, and protested: ‘I do wish that one felicitous stroke, one tender word had brought our dear Mother into the picture.’
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