The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)

Nothing is purposed but mirth. (Preface to The Shoemaker’s Holiday)

This is a city comedy. City comedy was a sub-genre of comic plays which developed right at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (died 1603) and flourished into the first decade of the reign of her successor, James I.

City comedy rejects all the magical and supernatural elements which characterise many of Shakespeare’s bourgeois comedies, most of which are set abroad, and instead portrays the gritty realities of contemporary London life, with large casts of rascals and fools who are often portrayed with quite harsh satire.

During Elizabeth’s reign London had boomed, becoming the chief port of northern Europe, and its population had exploded from an estimated 50,000 in 1530 to about 225,000 in 1605. In its over-populated, filthy streets, crime and vice, crooks and con-men of every kind flourished, and these were the kinds of people city comedies set out to depict.

Two caveats: One, after emphasising that The Shoemaker’s Holiday is a city comedy, it has to be pointed out that it’s also something of a history play, since the Lord Mayor who is the central character, Simon Eyres, was a real historical figure who was appointed Sheriff in 1434 and Lord Mayor in 1445 in the reign of Henry VI.

Two, the editor of the Mermaid edition of the play, D.J. Palmer, makes the simple but important point that plays like this should not be taken as documentary evidence of London life, far from it. Palmer explains how Dekker used narratives and characters from several printed sources, and cast them into a parallel series of fairly stereotyped storylines in order to create this ‘genial and light-hearted comedy’.

The plot

Three plotlines are interwoven:

  1. Lacy loves Rose
  2. Simon Eyre becomes Lord Mayor
  3. Hammon tries to seduce Jane

The current Lord Mayor of London, Sir Roger Oatley, dispatches troops raised in London to the wars in France. The Earl of Lincoln, by his side, discusses his nephew, Rowland Lacy, who disgraced himself by burning through his inheritance and learned the shoemaker’s craft in Wittenberg, before returning to England. Now he is meant to be going off to the wars with everyone else. But both men know that Lacy is madly in love with the Lord Mayor’s daughter, Rose. Lincoln disapproves of this because his nephew is an aristocrat and the Lord Mayor is simply a puffed-up greengrocer; the Lord Mayor disapproves of Lacy because he is a wastrel, and so has dispatched Rose to an out-of-the-way house out in Bow where she is being minded by Sybil, a maid.

Enter the dominating figure of the play, Simon Eyres – a ‘madcap fellow’ with a light heart – a master shoemaker with a phenomenally bombastic way with language, his much-put-upon wife Margery, and his entourage of journeymen – Hodge, Firk and Ralph. The backchat among this crew is wonderfully colourful, stuffed with Elizabethan slang, double entendres, technical terms of the shoemaker’s trade,

Where be these boys, these girls, these drabs, these scoundrels? They wallow in the fat brewiss of my bounty, and lick up the crumbs of my table, yet will not rise to see my walks cleansed. Come out, you powder-beef queans! What, Nan! what, Madge Mumble-crust. Come out, you fat midriff-swag-belly-whores, and sweep me these kennels that the noisome stench offend not the noses of my neighbours.

Where ‘brewiss’ means ‘broth’, ‘queans’ means ‘prostitutes’, ‘kennels’ means ‘gutters’. It is great fun to sit back and listen to him and his employees swap great hunks of exuberant vituperation. They are all lamenting because young Ralph, one of his shoemakers, has been conscripted for the wars, lamenting most is his brand-new wife Jane, amid much bawdy humour about pricking of honour etc.

One fine morning a Dutch itinerant shoemaker turns up at their shop and asks for work. Simon is for turning him away but Hodge and Firk say they need an extra pair of hands and so the man, who says he’s named Hans Meulter, is hired. But Hans is in fact none other than Rowland Lacy, who’s skived off his army unit and taken on a disguise in order to find out where his beloved Rose is, to find and woo and wed her.

Meanwhile Rose and Sybil are out walking when some aristocrats ride up in pursuit of an escaping deer. One of them, Hammon, falls in love with Rose in the process of a flirtatious dialogue. The Lord Mayor (Rose’s father) rides up and welcomes the two hunters to his nearby lodge, and then soliloquises to the audience that this Hammon would make a fine husband for his daughter.

Hans/Lacy fixes up a deal with a Dutch skipper for Simon to buy a cargo of exotic goods at a bargain price, using the money Lincoln gave him to go to the wars. The deal makes Simon very wealthy.

The Earl of Lincoln had sent a spy, Dodger, to keep tabs on Lacy at the wars. Now Dodger returns and tells Lincoln of a famous battle with the French but that Lacy was not there. His place was taken by his cousin Askew while Lacy snuck back to England. Lincoln immediately realises Lacy has bunked off the war in order to marry the ‘puling girl’ Rose, the Lord Mayor’s daughter. Well, he’ll put an end to that if it’s the last thing he does.

The Lord Mayor comes to supervise Hammon and Rose’s betrothal but she rejects him, saying her heart is given to another. Irritated, Hammon says he’ll go look up an old girlfriend at the Exchange. The Lord Mayor dismisses his daughter at which point Dodger arrives with a message from Lincoln that Lacy never went to France but is in hiding or disguise somewhere in London. Simon has arrived to see the Lord Mayor who says he will make Simon a Lord Sheriff.

Cut to Margery and the journeymen i.e. Firk, Hodge and Hans-in-disguise. Enter Ralph from the French wars. He is in terrible shape. He was obviously wounded, his legs are permanently damaged and he is walking on crutches. Once he’s been welcomed by his friends he is distraught to learn that, soon after he left, Jane left the household and they don’t know where she is.

These lamentations are interrupted by the startling news that Simon has been elected Sheriff of London and makes a grand entrance. He swaggers and swells over his wife and the apprentices, then says they’re all invited to the Lord Mayor’s house out in Bow.

Cut to the Lord Mayor’s house in Bow where the Lord Mayor welcomes Simon, wife and journeyman, introduces them to Rose and laments that she wouldn’t marry a fine aristocratic suitor. At this moment Simon’s crew arrive dressed as morris men and dance. Rose notices how like Lacy ‘Hans’ looks. Lacy is desperate to talk to her but has to stay in character. The Lord Mayor gives the dancers money and says he has to return to London

Rose admits to Sybil that Hans is none other than her love, Lacy. Sybil says she’ll help Rose get into London and elope with him.

Act 4 Meanwhile Hammon approaches the Exchange in disguise and his old girlfriend turns out to be none other than Jane, Ralph’s new wife who absconded from Simon’s household. Hammon puts in a sustained barrage of wooing, refusing to take no for an answer and as his masterstroke, when he learns Jane is married to one Ralph Damport, he pulls out a report of the recent wars and shows that Ralph’s name is on the list of the dead. Jane is distraught, Hammon keeps on trying to take advantage of the fact she is free to hammer her into marrying him.

Act 4 scene 2 Cut to Simon’s workshop with Firk, Hodge, Ralph and Hans all singing and working. Enter Sybil who, after some bawdy chat, tells them her mistress Rose requires Hans to come and fit her shoes.

Act 4 scene 3 In a separate scene a servant arrives at the shop and finds Ralph answering and gives him an order: his master requires a pair of new shoes like the ones he hands over, for a wedding first thing the next morning of a woman to his master, Hammon. Ralph is astonished because this is the very shoe he gave his wife Jane before he set off to the wars! Exit the servant and enter Firk, who Ralph tells the amazing story. Firk is dismissive, but Ralph says he’ll assemble a crew of shoemakers to attend this wedding and find out whether the bride really is his wife.

Act 4 scene 4 Lacy and Rose are together, and tell each other their love. Lacy casually lets slip that, because of the abrupt death of several aldermen, Simon has been voted Mayor. He tells her to meet him at Simon’s house and they’ll be married. Enter the Lord Mayor (Rose’s father) and Lacy just remembers to pretend to be Hans fitting a shoe. The Lord Mayor approves then calls Rose away because the Earl of Lincoln has arrived. Lacy’s uncle!? What the devil does he want here? Panicking, Rose suggests they flee immediately.

Act 4 scene 5 Lincoln apologises to the Lord Mayor saying he thought perhaps he was deliberately harbouring the fugitive Lacy. Why of course not, replies the LM, my respect for your honour would forbid. At that moment Sybil comes running in to announce that Rose has just run off out of the house with a shoemaker!

Lord Mayor Oatley is just cursing and ranting that he will disinherit her for marrying a commoner, when Firk enters bearing shows as if for Rose. Firk is a sarcastic tricky customer. His role here are to 1. spin an elaborate yarn and delay the two men from chasing after the couple 2. mislead them into thinking the couple are planning to get married at St Faith’s church tomorrow morning. In fact it is Hammon and Jane who are planning to get married at St Faith’s – and Ralph is organising a posse of shoemakers to interrupt them – while Lacy and Rose are planning to marry at the faraway Savoy chapel.

If it wasn’t obvious before this is the scene which really brings out the so-called ‘class war’ of the play i.e. in which the ‘knave’ Firk thoroughly enjoys tricking and deceiving two higher-ranking men who had, at his first arrival, dismissed him as a lowly servant.

Act 5 scene 1 At Simon Eyre’s house. He is lording it as Lord Mayor. Lacy has revealed he is not Hans but Rowland Lacy. Eyre is, typically, amused by the disguise and fully approves of Lacy and Rose getting married, not least because he owes to Lacy-Hans the deal with the Dutch skipper that made him a fortune and paid for the fine clothes he is wearing! He promises to arrange everything, and in addition give a grand feast to all shoemakers in the city since it is Shrove Tuesday.

Act 5 scene 2 The journeymen are assembled, Hodge, Firk, Ralph and others. Only that morning Ralph fitted the new shoe he’d been commissioned onto Jane’s feet but he was so changed by the wars that she didn’t recognise him, and he didn’t want to make himself known in a stranger’s house.

Now Hammon enters with Jane and his entourage. The shoemakers intervene, take hold of Jane – at which Hammon defies them and his entourage threaten to fight – but when they present her with Ralph, admittedly sunburnt and lame, nonetheless he is her true love and she declares he is her real husband and contemptuously asks Hammon why he lied about Ralph’s death.

She does, of course, prefer humble honesty to dressed-up deceit. Some critics spin this out into ‘class war’ but in fact it’s a conceit which goes back to ancient times, that true love is worth more than wealth.

JANE. Whom should I choose? Whom should my thoughts affect
But him whom Heaven hath made to be my love?
Thou art my husband, and these humble weeds
Make thee more beautiful than all his wealth.

Still it is not over, though, because Hammon – egged on by his supporters – now offers to buy Jane from Ralph for twenty pounds in gold. Hodge and Firk cry Fie Fie and, indeed, good Ralph spurns the offer with contempt. Utterly beaten (again – remember his attempt to woo Rose on Bow), Hammon gives them the money anyway and withdraws with his entourage.

At this moment the Lord Mayor and Earl of Lincoln enter. They address Firk and accuse him of deceiving them when he told them that Lacy and Rose would be married at St Faith’s church. Now Jane had, before her wedding, been wearing a mask or visor. At the two men’s approach Firk had told her to put it back on. Firk is thoroughly enjoying himself and now tells the men that here are Lacy and Jane in disguise, Lacy pretending to be a lame shoemaker, Jane wearing a mask (it is only at this moment that we learn from the text that Ralph has all this time been using a crutch, maybe a pair of crutches, as he now threatens to hit anyone who touches his wife with it).

When Jane takes off her mask and Ralph really continues hobbling Oatley and Lincoln realise they have been thoroughly conned and turn on Firk, calling him a ‘base crafty varlet’. But here, as throughout the play, Firk begs to differ, calling himself a member of the Gentle Craft – and by the stage in the play, we have heard references to the Gentle Craft so often that it has acquired a real sense of class solidarity or the camaraderie of the craft.

FIRK: O eternal credit to us of the gentle craft! March fair, my hearts! Oh rare!

At this point the spy Dodger appears to inform Lincoln and Oatley that their children have got married at the Savoy Chapel and that the new Lord Mayor – Simon – vows to stand in their defence. Lincoln says they’ll go petition the king about this.

Our crew are planning to go to feast with the new Lord Mayor when the pancake bell rings and Firk delivers a long paean of praise to all the fine food they’re going to eat.

FIRK: O musical bell, still! O Hodge, O my brethren! There’s cheer for the heavens: venison-pasties walk up and down piping hot, like sergeants; beef and brewess comes marching in dry-vats, fritters and pancakes comes trowling in in wheel-barrows; hens and oranges hopping in porters’—baskets, collops and eggs in scuttles, 11 and tarts and custards comes quavering in in malt-shovels.

Other prentices rush out of their buildings and tell them the new Lord Mayor has invited all the city’s apprentices to a grand feast. Hooray! Hooray!

Act 5 scene 3 A brief scene in which advisers tell the king the new Lord Mayor – Eyres – is a madcap. The king says he wants to see this eccentric.

Act 5 scene 4 Eyres is in a heightened mood even for him, as he commands some four hundred prentices to be fed! When he is told the king is on his way, he becomes even more faluting. When his wife Margaret warns him to mind his language with the king, this is his response:

EYRE. Away, you Islington whitepot!  hence, you barley-pudding, full of maggots! you broiled carbonado! avaunt, avaunt, avoid, Mephistophiles! Shall Sim Eyre learn to speak of you, Lady Madgy? Vanish, Mother Miniver-cap; vanish go, trip and go; meddle with your partlets and your pishery-pashery, your flewes and your whirligigs; go, rub, out of mine alley! Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here, and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign? No, come, my Lady Madgy! Follow me, Hans! About your business, my frolic freebooters! Firk, frisk about, and about, and about, for the honour of mad Simon Eyre, lord mayor of London.

Act 5 scene 5 The king forgives Lacy for going absent without leave to pursue his love and is thoroughly amused by Eyres’ mad way of talking. Then Otley and Lincoln arrive who first of all claim Lacy is a traitor – having abandoned the king’s army – only to be told the king has pardoned him. And then beg to prevent the pair marrying. But it is too late, they are wed. But she is so beneath him, wails Lincoln, at which the king reads him one of the first rules of romantic comedy:

KING: Lincoln, no more.
Dost thou not know that love respects no blood,
Cares not for difference of birth or state?
The maid is young, well born, fair, virtuous,
A worthy bride for any gentleman.
Besides, your nephew for her sake did stoop
To bare necessity, and, as I hear,
Forgetting honours and all courtly pleasures,
To gain her love, became a shoemaker.
As for the honour which he lost in France,
Thus I redeem it: Lacy, kneel thee down!—
Arise, Sir Rowland Lacy! Tell me now,
Tell me in earnest, Oateley, canst thou chide,
Seeing thy Rose a lady and a bride?

He is a fairy tale king. The actual king the real Simon Eyres served as Lord Mayor under was Henry VI but Dekker is careful not to name him, thus making the play feel contemporary, but – with its repeated mention of wars against the French – invoking the presence of Henry V.

The shoemakers all shout their loyalty. The king declares the new hall built near the Exchange shall be called Leadenhall because they discovered the lead in the foundations which they will use to roof it. Eyres kneels and begs the shoemakers may have the honour to sell leather there two days a week which the king agrees. And then one boon more, he invites the king to join them at their feast. Which the king agrees. In fact the very last lines of the play are suddenly and a bit surprisingly belligerent, for the king declares he’ll feast this day, but then continue with his plans to war with France.

KING: Eyre, I will taste of thy banquet, and will say,
I have not met more pleasure on a day.
Friends of the gentle craft, thanks to you all,
Thanks, my kind lady mayoress, for our cheer.—
Come, lords, a while let’s revel it at home!
When all our sports and banquetings are done,
Wars must right wrongs which Frenchmen have begun.

But maybe the idea is to really emphasise the loyalty and the readiness to fight of the loyal company of shoemakers.

Commentary

The Shoemakers’ Holiday has no very great intellectual themes, its passages of poetry are pretty run-of-the-mill, the most vibrant sections come whenever Simon Eyres appears on stage with his hyper-charged language and, to a lesser extent, the jolly roistering prose of his journeymen, Hodges and, especially, Firk. And yet I found it hugely enjoyable.

In his introduction, D.J. Palmer makes a distinction between two types of comedy. The first is the high-minded, moralising comedy described by Sir Philip Sidney in his Apologie for Poetry (1595):

an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he [the poet] represents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.

This is designed to embarrass and shame viewers by holding up exaggerated versions of the follies and vices we are all prone to. It is meant to be a corrective. This is the tough-minded theory embodied in the prefaces and plays of Ben Jonson.

To define the second type, Palmer quotes from a much earlier play, one of the earliest imitations in English of the Roman comic playwright, Plautus, Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roster Doister (c.1552). The prologue reads:

What Creature is in health, eyther yong or olde,
But som mirth with modestie wil be glad to vse
As we in thys Enterlude shall now vnfolde,
Wherin all scurilitie we vtterly refuse,
Auoiding such mirth wherin is abuse:

‘Avoiding such mirth wherein is abuse’, is a crystal clear indication that the play will avoid precisely what Sidney, and especially Jonson, thought plays should do which is cruelly mock the follies and vices of the age. Instead, Udall proposes a completely different idea of comedy based on this key word Mirth:

Knowing nothing more comendable for a mans recreation
Than Mirth which is vsed in an honest fashion:
For Myrth prolongeth lyfe, and causeth health.
Mirth recreates our spirites and voydeth pensiuenesse,
Mirth increaseth amitie, not hindring our wealth,
Mirth is to be vsed both of more and lesse,
Being mixed with vertue in decent comlynesse.

Mirth promotes good health, leads to long life, refreshes our spirits, drives off depression, increases friendship. Mirth has therapeutic properties and a social function.

At the end of a Jonson comedy the criminals are punished, often by a very severe judge. At the end of a mirth comedy, the king joins in the conviviality and merry-making. It is festive comedy, associated with popular festivals and, as in this play, with actual holidays, days on which workers cease work and join together in feasting and drinking and celebrating their solidarity.

If the shoemakers, on their festive day, kick over traditional restraint, so, in their ways, do other characters. Lacy and Rose defy parental authority and class barriers to insist on their love. Jane is liberated by the physical threat of the shoemakers from the hold Hammon has over her. The rise of Simon Eyres from master shoemaker, through sheriff to Lord Mayor symbolises this escape from class barriers, and his madcap prose is a deliberate contrast with the poised, blank verse of the snobs Oatley and Lincoln.

In a comparable way, Firk is the trickster of the play, but he operates not only on the level of action but of language, too. Not only are his lies and fibs (to Lincoln and Oatley) a key moment in the plot, but throughout the play Firk is addicted to turning everything almost anyone says into a bawdy double entendre. As Palmer points out, he liberates the secondary and tertiary meanings of words and phrases said in all seriousness which he reveals to have a bawdy and disreputable side. To continue the class war theme, Firk undermines the bourgeois respectability of language with his working class puns and dirty laugh.

All this ‘subversion’ and liberation may sound good, but if you started assessing the characters with the serious Morality of a Jonson, you would begin to get into trouble. Lacy may be the romantic hero but there is no doubt he is a deserter from the army, able to skip free in sharp contrast to poor Ralph who is pressed into the army with no escape and returns badly injured. Lacy then uses the money given him by Lincoln to raise and supply troops instead to pay for a dubious business deal with a Dutch skipper which makes Eyres rich.

What all this suggests to me is that the Jonsonian theory of comedy – that by putting egregious examples of folly and vice onstage you force the audience to confront it in themselves and so ‘reform’ them – is exactly wrong. Palmer doesn’t draw the conclusion but he provides plenty of the evidence to suggest that Mirth arises from release, release from the usual laws and regulations and restrictions we all live under.

Mirth does the audience good, it is liberating and mentally uplifting and creates a sense of social solidarity among an audience united by laughing at the scrapes and cons and scams of the rogues onstage. Thus I don’t think anyone ‘judges’ Lacy for deserting from the army because a) all his behaviour is justified by him being a stereotypical stage lover who will go to any lengths for his lady love, aaaah, and b) his scam of pretending to be a Dutchman is, quite simply, funny and life-affirming: in the many scenes where he appears with his fellow shoemakers he brings life and banter and humour, plus he buys everyone drinks!

In a phrase: festive celebration (love, food, beer and scams) trump narrow definitions of ‘morality’.

This, I think, is the downfall of Jonsonian comedy. In theory, the more outrageously characters like Volpone and Mosca behave, the more we should despise and condemn them. But the reality is that – although, admittedly, they are not exactly likeable – nonetheless, their cons and scams are thrilling, they have a tremendous verbal and theatrical energy which the audience, far from finding disgusting and repellent, finds energising and enlivening.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

  • The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (1597)
  • Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)
  • The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)
  • Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (1605)
  • Volpone by Ben Jonson (1606)
  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)
  • The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1607)
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman by Ben Jonson (1609)
  • The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)
  • A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)
  • Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Jacobean history

Restoration comedies

Disraeli or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (2014)

The  Conservative party

The British Conservative Party has traditionally lacked any real intellectual or ideological underpinning, thinking of itself as the party of British values and traditions, which applies reform only on an ad hoc basis, as required.

In Disraeli’s day the Tories were the party of the landed aristocracy and their subservient squires, extraordinarily snobbish toffs at the core of a network of landed gentry mainly interested in fox hunting and farms. Traditionally philistine and reactionary, the Tory party emphasised the values of Monarchy, Hierarchy and the Established Church – as opposed to the Whig party with its more urban traditions of religious toleration and individual freedom. The Tories opposed the Great Reform Bill of 1832 and opposed attempts at further reform in the 1850s and 60s. Their leader Lord Derby saw his role, in his son’s words, to block change, to keep things exactly as they were i.e. everything run by the landed aristocracy.

The authors

The joint authors of this book come from from the very heart of the Conservative establishment and this book strongly reflects that bias or position, in a number of ways.

Douglas Hurd – or Baron Hurd of Westwell, CH, CBE, PC to give him his full title – is the son and grandson of Conservative MPs who himself became a Conservative MP. Hurd attended Eton College, before serving in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1995. He is most remembered as the Foreign Secretary who refused to authorise British aid to the Bosnian Muslims being massacred by Serbs during the Yugoslav civil wars in the 1990s, and also refused to allow Bosnian refugees from the war entry into Britain.

Edward Young is young. After getting a First at Cambridge he worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron – the man history and our children will hold responsible for calling the Brexit referendum and so turfing us out of Europe. Young also worked as Chief of Staff to the Conservative Party Chairman. He stood as the Conservative candidate for York Central in the 2017 General Election but he lost to the Labour candidate. Young is currently the Corporate Communications Director at Tesco PLC.

These two men, therefore, come from the core of the modern Conservative Party, understand its day to day working as well as its traditions. Once you get into it you realise that their book is not intended to be a straightforward biography of Disraeli – it is a systematic debunking of his reputation. But it also concludes with a surprising assessment of Disraeli’s relevance to our time and the modern politicians who have inherited his mantle.

For many modern Conservatives – and even politicians from other parties – Disraeli is the founder of modern Conservatism, the inventor of compassionate ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, a pioneer of reforming legislation and a dazzlingly successful Parliamentarian. This book is meant to debunk all these ‘myths’. It assumes that the reader is already fairly familiar with Disraeli’s life, career and reputation, and with the way his name and these ‘ideas’ have been invoked by Tory leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s (Harrow and Cambridge) or R.A. Butler in the 1950s (Marlborough and Cambridge), down to David Cameron (Eton and Oxford).

In many ways this book is really an extended pamphlet, a ‘think piece’ aimed at Conservative Party insiders and knowledgeable Parliamentarians.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

I bought this book when I visited Disraeli’s house, Hughenden, just north of High Wycombe and now a National Trust property. The ‘two lives’ of the title is just another way of restating the hoary old cliché about ‘the man and the myth’, a phrase that used to be tacked onto the title of almost every biography I read when I was a lad.

Briefly, the authors claim that Disraeli has come to be associated in the modern Conservative Party with a string of ideas and quotes which many Tories think are the basis of the modern party. But a closer examination shows that he never said half the things attributed to him, or was an active opponent of half the policies nowadays attached to his name.

All the way through there is a very characteristically Conservative absence of ideas or ideology, theory or intellectual activity. They leave no stone unturned to undermine Disraeli’s reputation, to show him up as a completely unprincipled social climber greedy for power, with a devastating turn of phrase, sarcasm and invective which has left us with scores of memorable quotes – but all too often the authors can themselves be accused of simply moving round empty rhetorical tokens without much meaning. You are continually reminded that Young was a speechwriter, a master of the ringing but utterly vacuous soundbite. Take the conclusion of their introduction:

We have called our book Disraeli, or The Two Lives because the life he lived was markedly different from the myths he left behind. These contradictions do not mean that he was phoney. At the heart of Disraeli’s beliefs lay the thought that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual and a nation. That conviction, rather than any particular Bill, book, speech, treaty or quotation, is the true legacy of Benjamin Disraeli. (p.xxvi)

So: what a politician – what a nation – needs, are imagination and courage! You can see why words like ‘trite’ and ‘platitudinous’ continually spring to the reader’s mind. These sentences could have been written a hundred years ago by any number of British imperialists. They are the opposite of thoughtful, intelligence or insightful. They lack any facts, data, statistics, any evidence or proof, any analysis or sustained line of reasoning, to back them up. They are all too reminiscent of much recent empty Conservative phrase-making.

Remember David Cameron and his call for ‘the Big Society’ – ‘the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto’? Or Theresa May’s catchphrase ‘strong and stable leadership’? As the book progresses Disraeli not only loses the credit for the fine-sounding policies often invoked in his name, but comes to look more and more like a pioneering example of the Conservative tradition for flashy phrase-making concealing a bankruptcy of ideas or policies (see below, the story of his first Cabinet).

Disraeli myths and refutations

Since the aim of the book is to undermine the myths about Disraeli, it might be useful to state what those myths are, along with their refutations.

One Nation Conservatism

Myth Disraeli pioneered the idea that the Conservatives are a compassionate party which represents the whole nation (not just the rich – which is the common accusation made against them).

Fact Disraeli in no way wanted a classless society. In his novels (Disraeli began his working life as a novelist and wrote novels throughout his life) he champions an absurdly antiquated vision of a medieval England where people know their place. In the early 1840s he was elected leader of ‘Young England’, a group of handsome young chaps from Eton (that is how the authors describe them) who thought the cure for a Britain undergoing the seismic upheavals of the industrial revolution was a return to medieval feudalism (p.95). Disraeli shared their belief that the cure for Britain’s ills was to restore its fine old aristocracy to its ancient duties of building almshouses and holding jousting tournaments.

Quite literally, a more stupid, ignorant and fatuous analysis of the technological, industrial and economic situation of Britain during the industrial revolution cannot be conceived.

It was Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or the Two Nations which popularised the idea that England was divided into two nations – the Rich and the Poor (not, perhaps, the most profound of analyses) and this phrase – ‘the two nations’ – was picked up by newspapers and commentators for some time afterwards. But at no point does this long text, or anywhere else in Disraeli’s speeches or articles, does he use the phrase for which he is nowadays mostly remembered, the phrase ‘One Nation‘, which has been recycled in our time into the idea of the ‘One Nation’ Conservativism.

The words ‘one nation’ had never appeared in Disraeli’s lexicon and certainly had never been developed as a meaningful political creed. (p.11)

He never said it. And he would never have agreed with it.

Parliamentary success

Myth Disraeli was one of the most successful Victorian politicians.

Fact Disraeli lost six of the general elections he fought as leader of the Conservative Party and won only one, in 1874. He was ridiculed for his long-winded maiden speech in Parliament and made a complete shambles of his first Budget as Chancellor, which was ripped apart by Gladstone.

Social reformer

Myth In his one and only administration, Disraeli presided over a range of important social reforms e.g. the 1875 Public Health Act, which later Conservatives have used to claim a reputation as the reforming and improving party. One of his many quotable quotes is ‘Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.’

Fact Disraeli wasn’t in the slightest interested in these reforms and fell asleep when they were discussed in Cabinet. More, this book is devastating in its indictment of Disraeli’s amorality. All he wanted was power. All he wanted was to climb to the top of ‘the greasy pole’. Once he had finally made it he had no plans, no policies and no ideas. The authors quote Richard Cross, an MP Disraeli barely knew who he appointed Home Secretary, who was amazed when he attended his first Cabinet meeting to discover that despite the power and conviction of Disraeli’s phrase-making and speechifying in the House and on the election stump around the country, his leader in fact had no policies or ideas at all. At the first Cabinet meeting he chaired, Disraeli sat asking his Cabinet members – many of them in power for the first time – if they had any ideas or suggestions about what to do next (p.240). From this and scores of other examples the reader is forced to agree with the radical MP John Bright, who Disraeli spent some time trying to butter up in the 1860s, that Disraeli was

‘an engaging charlatan who believed in nothing.’ (quoted page 199)

The non-Conservative reader might have no difficulty applying this damning description to numerous contemporary Conservatives – not least Theresa May, who just last week reached out to the opposition parties by asking if they had any ideas on what to do next.

Disraeli’s complete lack of ideas or policies was no secret, it was well-known at the time. A Punch cartoon captures it perfectly.

'Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.' Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: 'Eh? Oh - Ah - Yes - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.'

‘Deputation below, Sir, want to know the Conservative programme.’
Right Honourable Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Eh? Oh – Ah – Yes – Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people.’

1867 Reform Act

Myth Disraeli demonstrated that the Conservatives are on the side of the working man and ‘the people’ by passing the Second Reform Act (1867), which for the first time enfranchised some of the (male) working class, doubling the electorate from one to two million adult men (out of a total seven million adult males in England and Wales).

Fact Disraeli supported the Reform Act solely to steal the thunder of the ruling Liberal government and to help the Conservative Party’s electoral chances. A reform act of some kind had been in the air from some years, a draft version had been prepared by Gladstone’s Liberals, when Disraeli set out to steal their thunder. The best part of this 350-page-long book is where the authors give a fascinating, day-by-day, meeting-by-meeting account of how Disraeli a) cobbled together a patchwork of legislation which could be sold to his own (reluctant) party and b) laboured to assemble an alliance of radicals, dissident Whigs and cowering Tories to eventually pass the act and ‘dish the Whigs’.

This section (pp.191-214) gives a vivid insight into the nuts and bolts of Victorian politicking – I’d forgotten how utterly chaotic it was. Lacking the modern idea of well-drilled political parties, the House of Commons consisted of groups and factions which had to be laboriously assembled into voting majorities. Governments could easily be overthrown if a majority was cobbled together to vote against them, prompting the Prime Minister to resign. But quite commonly the leader of the opposition grouping would then himself struggle to create a working majority, sometimes managing to create an administration which rumbled on for a year or two, but sometimes failing altogether and forcing the Queen to offer the premiership back to the Prime Minster who had just resigned.

It makes for a very confusing picture and helps to explain why, even as Britain was becoming the most powerful country in the world, it’s quite hard to name any of the Prime Ministers of the Victorian era. At a pinch most educated people could probably name Gladstone and Disraeli solely because of their longevity and because they became famous for being famous – rather like Boris Johnson in our own day is a politician everyone’s heard of without, until recently, holding any significant position in government.

Anyway, after the immense labour and scheming which Disraeli put into ensuring it was the Tories who passed a reform act in 1867, it was – in strategic terms – a failure, because the Tories went on to lose the subsequent 1868 general election.

Imperialist

Myth Disraeli was a staunch supporter of the British Empire and this endeared him to the generation following his death (in 1881) as the British Empire reached its height accompanied by a crescendo of imperialist rhetoric and pageant.

Fact The authors show how on both occasions when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was positively anti-Empire, horrified at the cost of the Royal Navy which he tried to cut. He went so far as to suggest Britain abandon all its entrepots and territory on the African coast and dismantle the African Squadron of the Navy. This image of ‘imperial Disraeli’ is a product of his final years and of his one and only administration, during which he was able to make some typically flashy gestures thus concealing his basic lack of policy or strategy (see above).

Probably the most famous of these gestures was when Disraeli, soon after becoming Prime Minister, pushed through Parliament the Royal Titles Act 1876 which awarded Queen Victoria the title ‘Empress of India’. She loved it and the ‘people’ loved the elevation of their queen to an empire. Flashy and popular – but hollow. It was, after all Disraeli who said: ‘Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel’ and lay it on he did, inches thick. And it worked.

In August of the same year Queen Victoria awarded Disraeli the title of Earl of Beaconsfield. The absurdity of these leaders awarding each other titles was not lost on contemporaries. The contemporary humorous magazine, Punch, satirised it as ‘one good turn deserves another’.

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria - who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India - awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield

Punch cartoon showing Queen Victoria – who Disraeli had recently awarded the title Empress of India – awarding Disraeli the title Earl of Beaconsfield, in August 1876

Foreign affairs supremo

Myth At the Congress of Berlin, Dizzy plucked diplomatic success from a convoluted situation like a magician plucking a rabbit from a hat, and surprised the world by gaining Cyprus for the British Empire and winning ‘peace with honour’.

Fact In 1877 the Russians invaded the neighbouring territory of the Balkans, under the control of the Ottoman Empire – and advanced towards the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. In the second of the two really detailed analyses in the book, the authors give a fascinating account of how the crisis unravelled week by week.

Initially British sentiment was against the Turks because they had massacred Orthodox Christian Bulgarians who had risen seeking independence from the Ottomans. But Russia’s relentless advance into the Balkans (after the Russian declaration of war in April 1877) eventually swung public sentiment round behind the Turks (exactly as it had 33 years earlier, at the start of the Crimean War).

Hurd and Young’s account brings out just how irresponsible Disraeli’s attitude was: bored to death of the nitty-gritty of domestic policy, he thought foreign affairs was the last great arena for a man of imagination and style and so, like so many rulers addicted to words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ and ‘prestige’, Disraeli repeatedly threatened to send the fleet through the Dardanelles to attack the Russians and start another Crimean War (he is quoted as claiming that, although it might last three years, it would be ‘a glorious and successful war for England’, p.283).

The British diplomats on the ground and Dizzy’s own Foreign Secretary were horrified at the lightness and rashness of his intentions:

I dissented but said little; being in truth disgusted by his reckless way of talking. (Lord Derby, quoted on page 283)

Once again hundreds of thousands of men might have died in misery because of the idiocy of their leaders, specifically this preening peacock of a run-of-the-mill romantic novelist. Luckily Disraeli’s own cabinet repeatedly blocked his war-mongering intentions until, before he could attack anyone, the Russians made peace with the Turks by themselves. It was only when the Russians consolidated their gains in the Caucasus theatre of the war that the British, feeling threatened in India, sent army forces into Turkey. At this point the Russians agreed to a Great Power peace conference at Berlin (in deference to the new arbiter of the Balance of Europe, the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck).

The authors show how the ageing Disraeli adored the Congress of Berlin, mainly because it involved hob-nobbing with the royalty of Europe, with Russian princes, and European emperors and ambassadors, pashas and doges and counts and innumerable lords and ladies.

As to the actual work, Disraeli had no diplomatic experience, had only a shaky grasp of the map of Europe, spoke no foreign language, and had only once been abroad. When it came to the detail of the negotiations about Ottoman territory he was completely at sea. He was a romantic novelist who thought in terms of the worst literary clichés. This is not my view – it is the authors’.

Disraeli, the novelist turned politician, believed in a world of empires, sustained and manipulated by the skill of bankers, priests, beautiful women and secret societies. (p.252)

Disraeli proved almost comically inept at diplomacy. He never grasped the details of the discussions, showing ‘a perfect disregard for the facts’. He had never even seen a map of Asia Minor so had no idea what was being negotiated. His own Foreign Secretary noted that Disraeli

has only the dimmest idea of what is going on – understands everything crossways – and imagines a perpetual conspiracy. (p.287).

Luckily, Lord Salisbury negotiated an effective if complicated set of treaties. All that mattered to Dizzy was that Britain come out of it with some showy gestures. Thus he supported the separate convention by which Britain took permanent control of Cyprus from the Ottomans. And once peace was secured, Disraeli could claim – however duplicitously – to have been the moving force behind it. In his speeches he spoke about ‘peace with honour’ which the newspapers gleefully picked up and repeated.

Thus Disraeli found himself a hero and was greeted by adoring crowds back in London when he arrived as Charing Cross station to find it decked out with flowers in his honour. The crowds cheered him back to Downing Street, where he read out a telegram of congratulations from Her Majesty. Dizzy was given the freedom of the City of London and Victoria offered him a dukedom.

Once again bravado, a sense of the dramatic and a gift for phrase-making gave the appearance then, and in the decades after his death, that Disraeli had brought off some kind of diplomatic coup. But, as the authors emphasise, the peace had already been made; if she lost some territory in the Balkans, Russia was left with all her acquisitions in the Caucasus; and Cyprus was a useful way station for the Royal Navy but hardly ‘the key to the Middle East’ as Disraeli flamboyantly claimed. The Eastern Question was far from solved and would rumble on for forty more years before providing the spark for the First World War.

What really emerges from Hurd & Young’s account is how close Britain came to going to war with Russia and how, once again (just as in the Crimean War) tens of thousands of men would have died to justify Disraeli’s reckless addiction to glamour and prestige and power. His opponents in Cabinet who blocked his wish for war were the true wise ones. But history, alas, forgets quiet wisdom and remembers flashy showmanship.

The Disraeli reality

The book makes clear that Disraeli was consumed with ambition and would do almost anything, betray any mentor (as he shafted his mentor Robert Peel in the 1840s), change any position, say almost anything, in order to succeed. This is why the pompous High Anglican Liberal leader, William Gladstone, didn’t just dislike him, but detested him, seeing in Disraeli the embodiment of all the money-seeking, amoral, flashy, superficial, irreligious chicanery which was bad about Victorian society.

Disraeli emerges from these pages as a splendiferous writer – of superficial and overwrought ‘silver fork’ novels, of passionate love letters to his numerous mistresses, sucking-up letters to Queen Victoria, and chatty epistles to the many ageing spinsters he cultivated in the hope of being named in their wills – of vast speeches in the House, and of any number of dinner table bons mots. But he also emerges as easily the most untrustworthy, slippery and amoral leader this country has ever had.

Having demolished almost all of the Disraeli myth, do the authors leave anything, does he have claim to any ‘ideas’? Yes, but they were preposterous. Disraeli thought that Britain needed a stronger aristocracy, recalled to fulfil its ancient duties by the rebirth of a vague and undefined national ‘faith’. And that what mattered to Britain internationally was to maintain its ‘prestige’, its ‘reputation’, its ‘honour’ – without any  concrete plan for administering, reforming or expanding the empire, without any knowledge of its myriad farflung territories, which he never visited or made any effort to understand.

An unintended insight from this book is it makes you sympathise with what the imperialist soldiers, administrators and merchants on the ground in Africa, India or China when you see the sheer empty-headed, unprincipled, ignorant and knee-jerk political culture back in London which they had to put up with. It makes the scorn and contempt for politicians of a writer like Kipling a lot easier to understand and sympathise with.

Contemporary relevance

In the introduction the authors say their book will be an investigation of how Disraeli became ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’. Well, it’s true that immediately following his death a thing called the Primrose League was founded to preserve his memory, and that it grew astonishingly until by 1910 it had some 2 million members (p.xxii). The Primrose League venerated this man of flash and rhetoric, the image Disraeli created through his style and extravagant gestures. Disraeli has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other British politicians. He was always ready with the quotable quip and the memorable phrase.

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
  • Never complain; never explain.

But today, in 2017, would you say he is ‘the subject of such an extravagant posthumous mythology’? The only group of people who have reliably heard of him are members of the Conservative Party and maybe other Parliamentarians who have taken the trouble to study their history. Neither of my children (19 and 16) had heard of Disraeli.

The fact is the authors need to erect an image of a dominating and significant Disraeli in order to knock him down – their claims for his important and contemporary relevance are simply the straw man they need to erect in order to knock it down, the scaffold they require to justify their long biography – it doesn’t really reflect any reality around me. It is pre-eminently a book for political insiders. A lot of names are lined up on the cover giving the book fulsome praise, but who are these enthusiastic reviewers?

  • Dominic Sandbook (Malvern and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Matthew Paris (Clare College, Cambridge and Conservative MP)
  • Sam Leith (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Lady Antonia Fraser (the Dragon School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Conservative MP and now Environment Secretary)
  • Jesse Norman (Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution)
  • Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, Conservative MP and Foreign Secretary)

Once I started looking them up I was shocked by the narrowness of their backgrounds. If the quotes on the cover are any indication, its true target audience is Conservative MPs and public schoolmen.

(And – incidentally – confirmation, if any was needed, that London’s book world – like its politics – is run by a tiny interconnected metropolitan elite.)

Boris Johnson

In the last few pages, the authors declare that Disraeli’s final, ultimate, enduringly great achievement was to make politics interesting; he emitted memorable phrases, scathing put-downs, he was entertaining, he made politics lively, colourful and so made it accessible to a very wide popular audience. Hence the cheering crowds at Charing Cross.

Alas, laments Baron Hurd, politicians nowadays are a grey lot reduced to spouting pre-agreed party lines in tedious television interviews. That, the authors suggest, is why politicians are held in such low public regard.

In the final pages they ask whether there is there any political figure of our time who compares with Disraeli for dash and brio? Astonishingly, the authors say Yes – Boris Johnson. Similarly rash, colourful and undisciplined but immensely entertaining, a man who has survived countless scandals which would have sunk a lesser man, and is probably one of the few politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

(This is the same Boris Johnson who is quoted on the book’s cover describing it as ‘superb and sometimes hilarious’, who went to Baron Hurd of Westwell’s old school, and now follows in the Baron’s footsteps as this country’s Foreign Secretary. It’s a small incestuous place, the Conservative world.)

But I venture to suggest that the authors are wrong. The reason most of us plebs despise politicians is not because they are grey and boring; it is because they are lying incompetents. Tony Blair came to power promising a moral foreign policy then sent British troops into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gordon Brown claimed to have abolished boom-and-bust economics on the eve of the greatest financial crash in world history. The LibDems promised to abolish tuition fees and then, once in power, trebled them to £9,000 a year (the single broken promise which sums up all ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ for my teenage children: for them ‘politician’ simply means faithless liar).

And the Brexiteers, led by that very same Boris Johnson and his creature, Michael Gove (both of them quoted praising this book on the cover) campaigned to leave the EU and then turned out to have no plan, no plan at all, for how to manage the process. They still don’t.

And then Theresa May came along promising ‘strong and stable’ leadership and called the most unnecessary general election in modern history.

Looking back at the past twenty years of Britain’s political life do the authors really believe that the issue has been that British politicians are grey and boring? No. It is that they are inept, incompetent, lying wankers. What the British people are crying out for is basic competence. The notion that what British politics needs is more politicians with Imagination and Courage, and that the solution to this problem is Boris Johnson, tells you everything you need to know about the modern Conservative Party, dominated by men from elite public schools who have never had proper jobs outside politics, and – as this book amply demonstrates – whose best ideas and quotes derive from a 19th century charlatan.


Credit

Disraeli or The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

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