In 1834, Benjamin Disraeli and his sister Sarah published in two volumes their novel A Year at Hartlebury, or The Election under the pseudonym Cherry and Fair Star, and in the Preface they passed themselves off as a married couple: ‘Our honeymoon being over, we have amused ourselves during the autumn by writing a novel. All we hope is that the public will deem our literary union as felicitous as we find our personal one’. Did they intend to make a literary hoax or introduce Sarah to the reading public? Today, it is difficult to speculate; probably Sarah never intended to become an author, she was only pleased to assist her brother in his literary ventures. Interestingly, although the book received favourable reviews, Disraeli never admitted co-authorship of the novel, which eventually fell into oblivion, and it was as late as 1979 that Professor John P. Matthews and Ellen Henderson, working on the Disraeli Project at Queens University, proved conclusively that A Year at Hartlebury is the collaborative work of both Sarah and Benjamin. The book was republished in 1983.
The direct inspiration to write a novel for the young Benjamin was his experience of two unsuccessful attempts to win a seat in Parliament, first from High Wycombe in 1832, and then from Marylebone in 1833. The siblings divided work between themselves in such a way that Sarah wrote the romantic plot and the unexpected dénouement while Benjamin most certainly authored the first nine chapters of the second volume which deal with the election campaign (Flavin 40). Although the novel is less autobiographical than most of his previous ones, it is saturated with the memories of Benjamin’s exotic Eastern travels and his attempts to enter English politics.
The first volume reads like a comedy of manners in the style of Jane Austen’s Emma. It is full of realistic scenes and vivid dialogues. In the idyllic village of Hartlebury lives beautiful Helen Molesworth, the daughter of a widowed landowner of ancient lineage. She is well-known in the area for her charity. The story begins when Aubrey Bohun (pronounced Boon), a fabulously rich aristocrat and heir to the ancient Gothic castle, returns from a mysterious trip to Greece and the Middle East. He restores his ancestral home, Bohun Castle. The handsome and Byronic Bohun is a new incarnation of the young Benjamin, or Dizzy, as he was fondly called by his family. He combines a great poetic temperament with a desire to act in public affairs. He has spent his youth abroad in search of vain pleasures, but now after the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, returns to England, and tries, like Disraeli, to win a seat in Parliament from the constituency of Fanchester on behalf of the party of Radicals, which arouses consternation among the Tories, but they eventually support him. After all, as a landed aristocrat, he is a Tory at heart. Eventually, Bohun wins the election by only one vote. His maiden speech was not only the most successful debut in the history of Parliament, but the most brilliant speech, which could be heard within its walls in recent years. Paradoxically, Disraeli’s maiden speech in Parliament on 7 December, 1837 was a total disaster. Bohun, like Disraeli, believes that ‘the Tory party is a true national party’ (Cesarani 50).
The second volume contains Disraeli’s vivid description of an election in the years just after the first Reform Bill. Imitating Jane Austen, the narrator skilfully makes use of free indirect speech criticising the traditionally-minded Tories, but above all, denigrating the Whigs, who — in Disraeli’s eyes — were an anti-national party trying to establish an oligarchic republic.
Mr. Bohun considered the Whigs as a party of political swindlers, who had obtained power by false pretences. They had been permitted to enter office on the pretence of making those changes which the spirit of the age required: instead of effecting this purpose, their only object had been to root up the power of their opponents, and to destroy that happy balance of parties in the state, which in an aristocratic country is indispensible to the freedom and felicity of the mass. Mr. Bohun was of opinion that with the present machinery of the constitution, it was almost impossible to dislodge the Whigs from office, and as they were pledged to pursue an anti-national policy, he consequently considered the country in imminent peril. He was desirous of seeing a new party formed, which while it granted those alterations in our domestic policy which the spirit of the age required, should maintain and prosecute the ancient external policy by which the empire had been founded, and of this party he wished to place himself at the head — a position which his high lineage — his splendid fortune — and his superior talents, justified him in contemplating. Deeming the dismemberment of the empire the necessary consequence of the Whigs long remaining in office, Mr. Bohun was of opinion that we should get rid of the Whigs at any price, and as he considered that result was impossible, according to the new constitution, he was the advocate of movement. Perceiving that the nomination of representatives, in the vast majority of the towns, was in the hands of the Sectarian low Whig Oligarchy, he thought that the only mode by which this barbarising power could be destroyed was to expand the Whig constituency. [vol. 2, 13-15]
Critique of the Whigs would be the dominant theme in Disraeli’s later novels and in his political speeches. As David Cesarani has pointed out, A Year at Hartlebury is ‘a pioneering political novel that offers and insider’s perception of parliamentary election conducted immediately after the Great Reform Act. It also dramatises Disraeli’s emerging political vision of an anti-Whig, popular national party that would reassert traditional values’ (51). At the outset, Bohun (Disraeli’s alter ego) is shown as a saviour, who is determined to purge the hypocritical Whigs from the borough of Fanchster (Flavin 41). Inexplicably, later in the novel, he is transformed from hero into villain, and is mysteriously murdered in a ditch by an undisclosed assailant. The melodramatic story and its tragic dénouement was written by Sarah. It seems that at some stage of writing the novel, Disraeli lost interest in it and allowed his sister to complete it the way she liked. However, the autobiographical value of the novel is worth analysis. Hartlebury Manor is a thinly disguised Bradenham, the Disraeli family residence, and Fanchester is High Wycombe, where Disraeli stood unsuccessfully twice as candidate to Parliament. The novel reveals allegorically the start of Disraeli’s political career and also shows how Sarah may have tried to foil her brother’s attempts in politics. Strangely enough, the novel reflects a curious disparity between the two co-authors with regard to their views of the main character, Aubrey Bohun. Sarah, it seems, disapproved of her brother’s opportunistic desire for political career. She also alluded to her brother’s cynical self-interest and his morally condemnable sexual exploits by denouncing Mr. Bohun’s mysterious past, which shows him as a charlatan, seducer and a bigamist planning to win the hand of the virtuous Helen, who impersonates Disraeli’s beloved sister Sarah.
Disraeli returned to the autobiographical and political themes of A Year at Hartlebury in his short story The Consul’s Daughter (1836) and his last published novel, Endymion (1880).
References and Further Reading
Cesarani, David. Disraeli: The Novel Politician. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.
Cherry and Fair Star. A Year at Hartlebury, or The Election. In two volumes. London: Saunders and Otley, 1834; reissued as Benjamin and Sarah Disraeli, A Year at Hartlebury; or The Election, with appendixes by Ellen Henderson and John P. Matthews. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1983; and also London: Murray, 1983.
Flavin, Michael. Benjamin Disraeli: The Novel as Political Discourse. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.
Kuhn, William M. The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006.
Last modified 30 August 2016