For the conservative Benjamin Disraeli, the answers to the political problems of the present lie in the restoration of the ideals of the past. Restoration is not an attempt to reject the present and escape or return to an earlier state of a society; it is rather a creative, imaginative effort to infuse the present with what should never have been lost.
Benjamin Disraeli holds the unique distinction, often begrudgingly bestowed, of being the only British prime minister to write novels both before and after his service. His first novel, Vivian Grey, was published in 1826, more than a decade before he was first elected to Parliament in 1837, and he followed up each of his two terms as prime minister by writing a novel. He was working on a novel when he died in 1881. Although Disraeli is remembered today as an eminent Victorian, he had already written eight of his thirteen novels when Queen Victoria came to the throne. Born in 1804, just six years after the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798, he has as much in common with the Romantic poets as he does with the major Victorian writers. His mind and artistic sensibility, as well as his political temperament, were shaped by the major poets of the Romantic Movement, especially Byron. The Victorian with whom he has the most in common, Thomas Carlyle, born in the same year as John Keats, was also a late Romantic. His Sartor Resartus, first serialized in Fraser’s Magazine in 1833-34, is as much a Romantic work as a Victorian one. Like Carlyle, Disraeli carried the legacy of Romanticism into the Victorian Age, and central to that legacy was the vital role of the imagination in both art and politics. “The value of imagination in politics,” insists T.A. Jenkins in Disraeli and Victorian Conservatism, “is a recurring theme in Disraeli’s thought.” As an adolescent, Disraeli was fascinated by Byron and avidly read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, even to the point of modeling the first part of his Eastern tour of 1830-31 on the itinerary of Byron’s tour in 1809. The English Romantics, wrote C.M. Bowra in The Romantic Imagination, “believed that the imagination stands in some essential relation to truth and reality, and they were at pains to make their poetry pay attention to them.” Disraeli shared that Romantic aspiration. A few years ago, Bradley J. Birzer wrote an essay for The Imaginative Conservative in which he posed the question, “Can a conservative embrace romanticism?” He answered the question as Disraeli would have: affirmatively.
I call attention to Disraeli’s Romantic roots in order to offer a perspective from which to view his particular brand of conservatism—I am working from the premise that conservatism is not a monolithic political philosophy—and from which to appreciate its relevance today, not just for conservatives but for anyone who seeks to understand what Disraelian conservatism can offer us at the present time, when around the world political parties that often call themselves ‘conservative’ have been infiltrated (and in some cases taken over) by nationalists, populists, isolationists, and even more regrettably by much less palatable ‘-ists.’ These ‘conservative’ parties would certainly not be recognized by Disraeli as conservative. Disraeli’s conservatism cannot, in my view, be understood, and its continuing relevance appreciated, unless we also understand the fundamental role that imagination plays in both his theory and practice of politics.
To gain that understanding we must read his novels and, secondarily, his other writings. As John Matthews, the senior editor at the Disraeli Project from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, rightly observes, “If one has the stamina to read all thirteen novels, the putative epic poem, verse dramas, historical, constitutional and biographical writings, and speeches, one may see in a new way that much better-known political career, which, because of its sheer implausibility, has tended to overawe all his other activities. We tend to think of him as a Prime Minister who wrote novels on the side, rather than, as he thought of himself, an author engaged in politics of a special kind.” The keynote of the special kind of politics he advocated and practiced was first struck in the diary that he kept between 1833 and 1837 (known to Disraeli scholars as the ‘Mutilated Diary’), in which we wrote: “The Utilitarians in Politics are like the Unitarians in Religion. Both omit Imagination in their systems, and Imagination governs Mankind.” Disraeli has often been attacked as a charlatan and an opportunistic adventurer who lacked principle and consistency. But he consistently affirmed his belief that mankind is governed primarily by imagination. There is, then, a fundamental continuity between Disraeli’s two careers—as novelist and as politician—and what they share is the vital importance of infusing imagination into public life. There are two ways in which the imagination can manifest itself in politics. One is to imagine a more nearly perfect society in which the faults and inequalities of the present have been eliminated by a break with the past. That is the utopian imagination. The other is to imagine how the past can provide inspiration for reform through restoration. That is the conservative imagination we find in Disraeli, who offered an alternative to the progressive ‘Whig interpretation’ of English history. For the conservative Disraeli, the answers to the problems of the present lie in the ideals of the past, not in an imaginary future. Disraeli’s conservative imagination is inseparable from the moral imagination. As Gertrude Himmelfarb observes in her book The Moral Imagination, which contains an excellent essay on Disraeli, “Moral imagination runs not incidentally but necessarily in tandem with a certain aspect of conservatism, what I think of as imaginative conservatism.”
Disraeli is routinely labeled as a political novelist, but this label has, unfortunately, carried with it the notion that his novels offer a political program, a practical solution to the political and social problems that came in the wake of the industrial revolution and the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill. The three novels he published in the mid-1840’s, known as the Young England trilogy, are widely taken to be the political manifesto of Young England, a movement of young Tory MPs with whom Disraeli was associated in the early 1840s. However, the permanent value of these novels is not in any specific political measures offered as a solution to the political and social problems that at the time went under the name the Condition-of-England Question. What the trilogy offers is not a political program, a manifesto, but rather a reflection (as in Burke’s Reflections) on the preconditions and assumptions on which a genuine solution must depend. And the primary assumption is the necessity for a restoration of the imagination to a central place in the theory and practice of politics. Without it, well-intentioned reforms, such as the New Poor Law, are doomed to failure.
The importance of the imagination in Disraeli’s thought is confirmed by the fact that, in the trilogy consisting of Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred, the word imagination occurs no less than 67 times. (I used the ‘find’ function on my browser to search the Project Gutenberg online edition of these novels). It occurs 30 times in Coningsby, the most overtly political of his novels. (It’s often considered the first political novel.) In the second chapter, Disraeli offers a description of an influential Conservative Party MP, Mr. Rigby, calling attention to his lack of imagination:
Mr. Rigby was a member [of Parliament] for one of Lord Monmouth’s boroughs [i.e., constituencies]. He was the manager of Lord Monmouth’s parliamentary influence…. The world took him at his word, for he was bold, acute, and voluble; with no thought, but a good deal of desultory information, and though destitute of imagination and noble sentiment, was blessed with a vigorous, mendacious fancy, fruitful in small expedients, and never happier than when devising shifts for great men’s scrapes. (emphasis added)
(Note the contrast between imagination and fancy, a distinction made by S.T. Coleridge.) Rigby is the representative in the novel of a whole class of politicians, including Lord Monmouth, Coningsby’s grandfather, who all lack imagination. For Disraeli, being “destitute of imagination and noble sentiment” is a serious deficiency in any politician, and especially in a political leader. In a letter to his fellow Young Englander John Manners in 1845, he singled out Sir Robert Peel’s greatest fault as his being “without imagination or any inspiring qualities.” “It is the personal that interests mankind, that fires their imagination, and wins their hearts,” he says in Coningsby. “A cause is a great abstraction, and fit only for students; embodied in a party, it stirs men to action; but placed at the head of that party a leader who can inspire enthusiasm, he commands the world. Divine faculty.” Blake called the imagination “The Divine Vision,” and Coleridge similarly viewed the imagination as the embodiment of the divine in humans: “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM.”
Coningsby is a coming-of-age novel that charts the progress of its eponymous hero from boyhood, to university student, to Member of Parliament. The plot focuses on his development as he acquires the attributes that will make him a political leader, and the most important attribute is imagination. The importance of imagination is explained to him by the enigmatic Jewish magus Sidonia, who explicitly contrasts the political imagination with the impoverished rationality of the Utilitarians:
In this country since the peace [the defeat of Napoleon in 1815] there has been an attempt to advocate a reconstruction of society on a purely rational basis. The principle of utility has been powerfully developed…. There has been an attempt to reconstruct society on a basis of material motives and calculation. It has failed…. How limited is human reason, the most profound enquirers are most conscious. We are not indebted to the reason of man for any of the great achievements which are the landmarks of human action and human progress…. Man is only truly great when he acts form the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination. Even Mormon counts more votaries than Bentham.
To which Coningsby rhetorically asks: “And you think, then, that as imagination once subdued the state, imagination may now save it?”
The second novel in the trilogy, Sybil; or the Two Nations (1845), is Disraeli’s best-known novel, in part because the term the two nations has achieved permanent currency in British politics through its invocation by politicians of all political stripes. Sybil is widely regarded as a major example of a sub-species of mid-Victorian novel known, variously, as social-problem novels, condition-of-England novels, and industrial novels. By whatever name, these novels are usually read as interventions into the social, political, and economic problems that emerged in British society as a result of the industrial revolution, the event that was a major factor in creating the ‘two nations’ that the novel attempts to bring to the attention of the upper and middle classes, for whom the poor were as unknown as the inhabitants of a distant foreign nation.
Sybil, like Coningsby, tells the story of the political education of its hero, Charles Egremont, the brother of the Earl of Marney, whose estate descends from the ancestor who acquired the land on which Marney Abbey sat at the time of the dissolutions of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539. The ruins of the fictional Marney Abbey, likely inspired by the ruins of Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire, is the most important symbol in the novel and central to an understanding of the role that the imagination, historical and political, plays in it.
In the novel the medieval abbey represents a historical instantiation of the political ideals that any society must embody to ensure that the suffering, poverty, and conflict of contemporary industrial society can be at least ameliorated if not eliminated. The abbey represents two medieval ideals or principles, even if they were never fully realized in the past, that nineteenth-century England must restore: cultural and social continuity and improvement, and the institutionalization of society’s moral responsibility to alleviate poverty and provide security, especially the security of employment. The abbots, whom the father of Sybil calls the “ecclesiastical lords of Marney,” regarded themselves as participants in a tradition which both served the entire populace, including the poor, and ensured continuity between past, present, and future:
if the world but only knew what they had lost. I am sure that not the faintest idea is generally prevalent of the appearance of England before and since the dissolution [of the monasteries]…. You complain enough now of absentees [i.e., absentee landlords who don’t fulfill their responsibilities]. The monks were never non-resident. They expended their labour among those whose labour had produced it. These holy men, too, built and planted, as they did everything else, for posterity: their churches were cathedrals; their school colleges; their halls and libraries the muniment rooms of kingdoms; their woods and waters, their farms and gardens, were laid out and disposed on a scale and in a spirit that are now extinct; they made the country beautiful, and the people proud of their country.
The medieval abbey is also embodied continuity between past, present, and future:
The abbots loved to memorise their reigns by some public work, which should add to the beauty of their buildings or the convenience of their subjects; and the last of the ecclesiastical lords of Marney, and man of fine taste, and a skilful architect, was raising this new belfry for his brethren, when the stern decree [of dissolution] arrived that the bells should no more sound.
In building the new belfry the abbot was participating in a tradition that created continuity between generations. This continuity, which also includes improvement since the new is added to the old, is represented by the diverse architectural styles which combine to create the abbey’s changing history:
On each side of the Lady’s chapel rose a tower. One, which was of great antiquity, being of that style which is commonly called Norman, short, and thick, and square, did not mount much above the height of the western front; but the other tower was of a character very different. It was tall and light, and of a Gothic style most pure and graceful; the stone of which it was built, of a bright and even sparkling colour, and looking as if it were hewn but yesterday. At first, its turreted crest seemed injured; but the truth is, it was unfinished; the workmen were busied on this very tower the day that old Baldwin Graymount [the ancestor of the Earls of Marney] came as the king’s commissioner to enquire into the conduct of this religious house.
In the General Preface to the 1870 edition of the novels, published a few years before his second term as prime minister, Disraeli stated the aim of the trilogy of novels written in the mid-1840s:
To change back the oligarchy into a generous aristocracy round a real throne; to infuse life and vigor into the Church, as the trainer of the nation… to establish a commercial code… to elevate the physical as well as the moral condition of the people, by establishing that labour required regulation [i.e., protection, such as the Factory Acts] as much as property; and all this by the use of ancient forms and the restoration of the past rather than by political revolution founded on abstract ideas.
The model for this program comes not from abstract reasoning but from the concrete examples in the past of an ideal society. This is what Disraeli means by “restoration.” Restoration is not about returning to the past, turning the clock back. It is not reactionary. It is an imaginative act of restoration. To recognize what we have lost and must regain requires an act of imagination.
It is easy to attack such a program as reactionary, as has often been done, and to argue that Disraeli misrepresents the medieval past that he wants “restored,” a romanticized past that never in fact existed. The historian Robert Blake, for example, wrote in his biography of Disraeli that he “had no real historical sense; he wrote propaganda, not history; and projected the circumstances of his own time onto the past.”
For Disraeli, however, restoration is not a reactionary return to the past but rather a restoration of the values, principles, and ideals that have been lost in order that the physical and moral condition of the people be elevated. For the conservative Disraeli, the solution to contemporary problems requires an act of the moral and historical imagination, Moreover, the inspiration for addressing the present condition of England is to be found not in the abstract ideas of the Utilitarians and certainly not in political revolution, which would necessarily entail a complete break with the past, but rather in the ideals of England’s pre-Reformation past, even if those ideals were not always fully realized (as was far too often the case, given the fallen, imperfect nature of humankind). For Disraeli, the ultimate origins of England’s present discontents lie in the wrong course that English history took at the time of the Henrician revolution, which amounted to a break with the past. Restoration, it is worth noting, means “a restoring to an unimpaired or improved condition” (Merriam-Webster). Restoration, then, is not an attempt to reject the present and escape or return to an earlier state of a society; it is rather a creative, imaginative effort to infuse the present with what should never have been lost, for that loss has damaged or impaired the present. That is, it’s an act of the imagination.
The symbol of that past in Sybil is the ruins of Marney Abbey, where the hero of the novel, Charles Egremont, first hears the heroine, Sybil Gerard, singing in the chapel of the ruined abbey and also listens to a lesson in English history from her father, Walter Gerard. That history lesson is the first step in Egremont’s political education, an education that can happen only because he possesses the imagination that can absorb and then act upon Gerard’s history lesson. The prerequisite for that lesson is that Egremont possesses an imagination that will enable him to imagine the corrective alternative to the abstract Benthamite political philosophy of his brother, the Earl of Marney. Before Egremont meets Gerard amid the ruins of Marney Abbey, Disraeli presents us with an account of how Egremont’s imagination has been cultivated since his youth by being raised in the environs of the ruined Abbey. It’s a scene that is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s return to the banks of the River Wye, a few miles from Tintern Abbey. The Romantic continuity between Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” and this scene in Disraeli’s Sybil half a century later is unmistakable:
As for Egremont, he had been almost born amid the ruins of Marney Abbey; its solemn relics were associated with his first and freshest fancies; every footstep was familiar to him as it could have been to one of the old monks; yet never without emotion could he behold these unrivalled remains of one of the greatest of the great religious houses of the North. (emphasis added)
Egremont has an almost Wordsworthian relationship with the ruins of Marney Abbey and the landscape surrounding it, both of which have exerted a benevolent influence on the formation of his character, especially the prominent role that feeling and imagination must play in it if he is to become a political leader. It is Egremont’s return visit to Marney Abbey (a re-enactment of all those romantic poems whose speakers return to a familiar scene, like Wordsworth returning to the landscape around the ruins of Tintern Abbey) that stimulates his imagination and helps to create and shape his thoughts about the present condition of England. Without such an act of the imagination, his reflections on the present, reflections stimulated by the ruins of the past, could not take place. This key scene in the novel is a kind of prose Romantic lyric, which opens with a description of the setting and then moves to the thoughts provoked by it as Egremont ponders how England has arrived at its present discontents:
A silence so profound amid these solemn ruins, offered the perfection of solitude, and there was that stirring in the mind of Egremont which rendered him far from indisposed for this loneliness.… Why was England not the same land as in the days of his light-hearted youth? Why were there hard times for the poor? He stood among the ruins that… had seen many changes: changes of creeds, of dynasties, of laws, of manners. New orders of men had arisen in the country, new sources of wealth had opened, new dispositions of power to which that wealth had necessarily led. His own house, his own order, had established themselves on the ruins of that great body, the emblems of whose ancient magnificence and strength surrounded him.
It is significant that even before Egremont meets Sybil’s father and his friend Stephen Morley amid the ruins of Marney Abbey, he has already posed the question: “Why were there hard times for the poor?” Moreover, it is precisely the feelings elicited by the ruins of the abbey, an institution which in the past ministered to the needs of the poor, that cause Egremont to pose this question and ponder the plight of the poor in the ‘hungry forties.’ The picturesque ruins stimulate his imagination, and it is only by such an act of the imagination that Egremont can compare the ideals of the past (even if they were not always realized) to the reality of the present and thus imagine what must be done to address the so-called condition-of-England question. His imagination responds to the destruction of a religious institution that once performed a social as well as a spiritual function for which there is no equivalent in the present. The New Poor Law and the modern poor house, inspired by the Benthamite utilitarianism advocated by Egremont’s brother, is a travesty of the medieval abbey.
In Sybil, the dissolution of the monasteries symbolizes a break in the social fabric of English society from which, in Disraeli’s Tory revisionist interpretation of English history, it has not recovered. What is needed to heal that break is a restoration of the principles and ideals that Marney Abbey once embodied. The theme of restoration, however, rests not on an argument based on an abstract idea of what an ideal society should be, but rather on an appeal to the reader’s imagination—something that a novel, as opposed to a political treatise, can effectively do. The novel invites the reader to respond to the poverty, suffering and political conflict of the present by imagining and recalling a society based on the set of radically different principles embodied in pre-Reformation England, and specifically in the medieval abbey.
In England, Labour politicians are just as likely as Conservative ones to admire Disraeli. Melvin Schut, writing in The American Conservative (June 1, 2010), quipped that “Disraeli may be every liberal’s favorite conservative.” Perhaps it’s time for Disraeli to become at least some conservatives’ favorite conservative.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Baumeister, Andrea T and John Horton, eds. Literature and the Political Imagination. London: Routledge, 1996.
Brann Eva, “Reflections on Imaginative Conservatism.” The Imaginative Conservative. May 21, 2019.
_____. “The Moral Imagination and Imaginative Conservatism.” The Imaginative Conservative. July 17, 2019.
Birzer, Bradley J. “Can a Conservative Embrace Romanticism?” The Imaginative Conservative. August 30, 2016.
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967.
Bottici, Chicra and Benoit Challand. The Politics of Imagination. London: Birbeck Law Press, 2012.
Bowra, C. M. The Romantic Imagination. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Moral Imagination: From Adam Smith to Lionel Trilling. 2nd Edition. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
Hindus, Milton. “Irving Babbit: Against Romanticism.” The Imaginative Conservative. August 28, 2015.
Jenkins, T. A. Disraeli and Victorian Conservatism. London: Macmillan 1996.
Matthews, John. “Literature and Politics: A Disraelian View.” English Studies in Canada 10.2 (June 1984): 172-87.
The featured image is a portrait photograph of Benjamin Disraeli (c. 1878) by W. & D. Downey and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.