“It is a captivating and enthralling biography that will change the way we view Victorian England.” The second part of this jacket puff troubled me. Could a biography of a minor figure, even of “Disraeli’s disciple,” really accomplish so much?
George Augustus Frederick Percy Sydney Smythe, Viscount Strangford (1818–1857), called a “splendid failure” in one of his obituaries and reputedly the last man to fight a duel in England, unquestionably was a member of Disraeli’s “Young England” group and the inspiration for several of Disraeli’s fictional heroes. He was a promising member of Parliament, a first-class journalist, and the first aristocrat to become a member of the press—not to mention a handsome and dashing gentleman whose affairs are reminiscent of Byron’s Don Juan. Smythe certainly deserves a biography, one that finally does him proud, after his all-too-brief appearances in biographies and histories of the period.
But why elevate Smythe’s life beyond the precincts of biography? Why argue for his centrality? Mary S. Millar does so only by implication; indeed, her narrative is so modestly, if elegantly, presented that her publisher has to supply the fanfare. If reading Smythe’s life does change our view of Victorian England, it is because Smythe himself wanted to be Victorian and more. He was of his period, but he also stood outside it—and came to grief because he did so. In one sense, he was a modern man, chafing at Victorian restraint; in another, he was an aristocrat yearning for days of yore when the gentry set an example and practiced a benign feudalism. Call Smythe’s vision of the past fantasy, if you like, but it had a powerful impact on his contemporaries, especially Disraeli, whose career is shown in fascinating new perspective in this biography.
At a time when revolution was in the air—in 1848 a king was deposed in France while Smythe sat as MP for Canterbury and the Chartists were staging public protests—Smythe and his small cohort of MPs envisaged “class reconciliation.” Of course, the aristocrats would lead the way, enacting legislation regulating child labor and other abuses in factories and mills. Disraeli joined this band of believers in compassionate conservatism only after his hopes for office in Sir Robert Peel’s government were dashed.
Was Disraeli serious? Did he believe in Young England, or was it merely a tool to weaken Peel’s precarious government? Biographers differ in assessing Disraeli’s aims, and naturally so since he was such a complex amalgam of ambition and conviction. At first Smythe did not doubt Disraeli’s sincerity. Why should he? In Coningsby, which Ms. Millar deems the “first of its kind,” a novel that combined the social and political, Disraeli’s eponymous hero is Smythe at his best, the noble aristocratic hero focused on the public weal. In fact, for Smythe Coningsby was a dream come true. He had exhorted Disraeli:
I wish you would write something, which might serve as an avant courier to your party—something presuming a split in the ranks of Ministerialism—or a Swift-like description of the Cabinet—or its policy—a Peeliad? D—n—don’t let us be behind our ancestors in courage or wit!—Come, Dis—Genius of V. Grey & Contarini—arise—. There is only one walk in literature, in which you have as yet had no Triumph.—that of Anti-Jacobinism… . Essay it.
It is not too much to say that Smythe became Disraeli’s muse. Ms. Millar provides chapter and verse of the extraordinary affinity between these two men, explaining how, as a result of Coningsby, Smythe catapulted Disraeli into the front ranks.
Given Smythe’s own talents as a writer—he left behind an unfinished work of fiction, Angela Pisani, which Ms. Millar calls a “wide-ranging, curiously powerful novel”—why did he not do for himself what he advised for Disraeli? After all, Disraeli was a counter-jumper, a Jew who did not have his party’s trust and only rather late in the day fulfilled his ultimate ambition. Smythe, on the other hand, was elected to Parliament in his twenties and had the right pedigree and connections (his father was a distinguished diplomat).
However well endowed, Smythe suffered from self-doubt and self-pity. Like Disraeli’s, Smythe’s maiden speech in Parliament was a disaster, but unlike Disraeli, who vowed that one day the House would hear him (he had been shouted down), Smythe regarded his failure as his own doing. He suffered a failure of nerve. He was like his “wavering anti-hero,” Lionel Averanche, in Angela Pisani. Unable to maintain Disraeli’s front against Peel, Smythe became an under secretary in Peel’s government, occasioning Disraeli’s enmity and another Disraeli novel, Tancred, that included a “devastating portrait of GSS as the slippery Fakredeen,” writes Ms. Millar.
Disraeli’s disciple then became his nemesis, dogging Disraeli’s every step, raising questions about his probity, and perhaps even deliberately sabotaging him, Ms. Millar surmises, by supplying Disraeli with a plagiarized speech that undermined him.
Yet these two men forgave each other—more than once. Why? For all his reservations about Disraeli, Smythe could find no better exemplar of the Conservatism he wished to prevail, and Disraeli, Ms. Millar believes, could forgive what was done in the heat of political battle, never confusing the political with the personal. Perhaps so, but I have to wonder if Disraeli did not also feel enormous gratitude to Smythe, who provided him with so much material for fiction, including Endymion. As Ms. Millar notes: “n the character of Waldershare … Disraeli recreated the charm that brought him under GSS’s spell: ‘Waldershare was one of those vivid and brilliant organizations which exercise a peculiarly attractive influence on youth… . He was witty and fanciful, and though capricious and bad-tempered, could flatter and caress.’”
But why then did Smythe, with so much to recommend him, dwindle to a few paragraphs allotted him in Victorian histories and biographies? He was beset by a sense of his own mortality, rightly predicting he would die at thirty-nine. Several members of his family perished from tuberculosis, and from an early age he could see the same disease attacking his constitution. Deciding he would not pass up any enjoyment, and finding himself attractive to women, unmarried and married, he became a roué, taking up with the notorious Corisande, Countess of Tankerville, when he was twenty-one and she was fifty-eight. There were many other lovers, including Lady Dorothy Walpole, whose reputation he almost ruined and whose foolish family decided to make a public issue of the affair.
Smythe was uncompromising and unapologetic. He tried marrying for money but could not quite make himself behave in that conventional fashion. He was too earnest about both his love life and his politics to settle for anything like a commonplace existence.
Ms. Millar uses the word “earnest” more than once to describe Smythe, and that word alone is the key to regarding this biography as more than a gloss on the conventional view of Victorian England. In the end, in Endymion, Disraeli realized that Smythe was no cynic. He was sincere about his principles and sincere about all those women he loved. He believed in the importance of being earnest; that belief encompassed both his Victorian credo and his attack on Victorian cant and hypocrisy. That such a figure could thrive—whatever his setbacks—suggests a society more flexible and capacious than its own strictures would seem to support.
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, CUNY
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