The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), which Robert Blake considers ‘perhaps the most unreadable of his romances’ (106), is a novel permeated with alternate history or historical fantasy modelled on Sir Walter Scott’s fiction. However, the novel is much more than an ‘Oriental fantasia’ (Brantlinger in Richmond and Smith 98); since it anticipated Disraeli’s subsequent political novels and can also be read as an allegory for Victorian England’s imperial idea. Set in the twelfth-century, it recounts a quasi-legendary story of a false Jewish messiah, Alroy, who after conquering some minor Muslim provinces, founds a global empire based in Baghdad before he is destroyed.
Of all Disraeli’s early novels only Alroy has a distinctive Hebrew subject. As Monypenny noted: ‘In this esoteric sense Alroy is saturated with the language and spirit of the Old Testament; and more than any of Disraeli’s works, more even than Tancred, it reveals the Hebraic aspect of his many-sided nature’ (201). In the Preface to The Revolutionary Epic (1834), Disraeli wrote that the purpose of Alroy was ‘the celebration of a gorgeous incident in the annals of that sacred and romantic people from whom I derive my blood and name’ (Richmond and Smith 49). However, apart from the fact that in Alroy Disraeli, a baptised Jew and practising Anglican, showed pride of his Jewish origins, the novel — more than the other early novels — touches upon the imperial idea, to which Disraeli became later committed as a prime minister. Alroy, written in quite a peculiar style, which combines prose with poetry, deserves a particular attention of a student of Disraeli and the imperial idea.
The historical David Alroy (Menahem ben-Solomon), who claimed to be a new Messiah and the future king of the Jews, was born at Amadyia in Kurdistan and lived about the year 1160. Leading an uprising against Seljuk Sultan Muktafi, Alroy called upon the oppressed Jewish community to follow him to Jerusalem, where he would be their king and set them free. Alroy, who managed to gather a large armed force in the mountains of Khazaria, intended to march to Jerusalem. He dispatched messengers to many Jewish communities to prepare the ground for military action. In Baghdad, a story was spread that Jews should wait on their rooftops on an appointed day and Alroy would fly them to Israel. When the miracle did not occur, the Jews were ridiculed, and Alroy’s reputation suffered. Eventually, the historical Alroy was murdered either by the Moslem authorities or by his father-in-law who had been bribed (Comay 24).
Why did Disraeli publish a novel with a Jewish hero at the time when he tried to start a political career in a xenophobic English Parliament? This riddle can be explained by the fact that not only the novel’s eponymous hero, Alroy, embodies the author’s romantic dream as a potential leader in a foreign country, but also symbolises a strong visionary who is determined to restore faith in national identity. The story of a Jew who became the most powerful man in a foreign country undoubtedly inspired Disraeli, who at age 29 had not yet formulated his literary or political goals and, like Alroy, was torn between personal ambition and a duty to serve his country. Alroy is not only the author’s alter ego, but also embodies Disraeli’s belief that a nation needs a strong visionary leader to revive traditional customs and morals. In his novel Disraeli appears in the guise of his alter ego, who wishes to pursue the imperial idea. As Daniel S. Schwartz has remarked:
Alroy is Disraeli’s ultimate heroic fantasy. He uses the figure of the twelfth-century Jewish prince Alroy as the basis for a tale of Jewish conquest and empire. Disraeli found the medieval world in which Alroy lived an apt model for some of his own values. He saw in that world an emphasis on imagination, emotion and tradition; respect for political and social hierarchies; and a vital spiritual life. Alroy anticipates Disraeli’s attraction for the Middle Ages in Young England. Writing of the flowering of medieval Jewry under Alroy enabled him to express his opposition to rationalism and utilitarianism. [Richmond and Smith 1998: 48].
Alroy describes the transformation of the protagonist who tried to move from the world of mystical imagination to the world of real politics. David Alroy is a descendant of the house of David, who seeks to resurrect the glory of Israel in the promised land. In Disraeli’s narrative, he emerges as a Messiah, poet, and hero who wants to realise his imperial dream. Alroy’s mission was to reawaken the national consciousness of Israelis in order to create a great Hebrew empire. In the novel, Alroy meets King Solomon’s ghost in the Tomb of the Kings in Jerusalem, where he is urged to restore independence for Jews and their ancient glory. He creates a Jewish army, which initially achieves some military successes but is eventually defeated. Disraeli introduced to the plot cabalistic lore and supernaturalism in order to overemphasise Alroy’s deeds. It should be pointed out that Alroy, like Disraeli the future Tory leader, advocated a peacefully governed empire free from religious and racial prejudices. As he explained, “Universal empire must not be founded on sectarian prejudices and exclusive rights.[..] We must conciliate. Something must be done to bind the conquered to our conquering fortunes” (153]).
Disraeli was a master of the political novel. In fact, he invented this genre, and his early novels are largely fictional creations of an ambitious yet frustrated young man who has not yet found his place in society and indulges in geopolitical fantasies. Patrick Brantlinger noted that ‘Alroy is the gorgeous daydream of imperial power of an extremely ambitious young man, as well as a highly idiosyncratic contribution to romantic medievalism’ (148). In the Victorian era Romantic medievalism took the form of a sentimental idealisation of the paternalistic Middle Ages in the style of Scott’s novels, which served to critique modern British society. Alroy reflects the author’s fantasies about his desire to gain political power and public recognition. The ideological layer of Alroy has much in common with Tancred or New Crusade (1847), the third part of the Young England trilogy, in which Disraeli develops some of his imperial ideals. But in Alroy he first planted the seed of his future idea of the British Empire as a flourishing commonwealth.
Alroy, a veiled story of Disraeli’s most secret feelings and aspirations, continues the spiritual autobiography contained in his earlier novels, Vivian Grey, The Young Duke and Contarini Fleming. In particular, by publishing Alroy, he emphasized that he had not broken completely with his Jewish heritage. In fact, Disraeli attempted to show that Jewish history provided a model of a way to restore England’s greatness: Just as Alroy reawakened the national consciousness of Jews living under Moslem rule, Disraeli wanted to empower and revitalise the Tory party by promulgating a brand of socially responsible Toryism that could restore the nation’s imperial greatness. Disraeli thought himself born to revive the glorious British past and maintain the Empire, and although the imperial ideal in Alroy, seems quixotic and far detached from the concerns of Britain at that time, it appears even more emphatically in the third volume of the New England trilogy, Tancred. More important, of course, the same ideas appear in Disraeli’s imperial policies during his second premiership.
References and Further Reading
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.
Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1990.
Comay, Joan. Who’s Who in Jewish History After the Period of Old Testament. New edition revised by Lavinia Cohn-Sherbok. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Disraeli, Benjamin. Alroy. A Romance. Leipzig: Bernh. Tauchnitz Jun., 1846.
Eldridge, C. C. England’s Mission: Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli, 1868-80. London and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1973.
Flavin, Michael. Benjamin Disraeli: The Novel as Political Discourse. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.
Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.
Kirsch, Adam. Disraeli. New York: Nextbook and Schocken, 2008.
Kuhn, William M. The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006.
Monypenny, William Flavelle, George Earle Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume: 1. Edition: Revised. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.
O’Kell, Robert. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
O’Kell, Robert. ‘The Autobiographical Nature of Disraeli’s Early Fiction’. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31 (1976) 260-66.
Richmond, Charles, Paul Smith, eds. The Self-fashioning of Disraeli, 1818-1851. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Ridley, Jane. Young Disraeli, 1804-1846. New York: Crown, 1995.
Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Spector, Sheila. “Alroy As Disraeli’s ‘Ideal Ambition’.”. British Romanticism and the Jews: History, Culture, Literature. Edited by Sheila A. Spector, 235-48. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2002.
Last modified 15 April 2016