saac D’Israeli, was a voracious bibliophile and a prolific author of erudite essays on an array of literary and nonliterary subjects, romances and even poetry. His poems are rather poor and conventional. His fiction is not much better than poems, but his miscellaneous essays as well as literary and historical studies deserve attention. D’Israeli contributed significantly to the emergence of the discipline of literary history. His essays on the relationship between literature and history anticipated some of the tenets of New Historicism, particularly the alternative and complementary approach to literary studies. In 1809, D’Israeli helped the publisher John Murray to launch the Quarterly Review, a famous literary and political periodical.
A treasury of literary bric-a-brac
In 1791, Isaac D’Israeli published anonymously a small volume of trivia containing a cornucopia of anecdotes, stories, character sketches and notes on literary themes entitled Curiosities of Literature, which is regarded as his greatest literary achievement. This remarkable book testifies to his extraordinary erudition and broad interests. It enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the nineteenth century and is still occasionally reprinted in bibliophile publications. The book was a favourite reading of Lord Byron, who carried it with him during his various travels in Europe and read it with great pleasure. Two years later, D’Israeli published under his name a second volume, which was also enthusiastically received. In the next forty years, he produced altogether six volumes of Curiosities, which he constantly revised. Few books enjoyed a greater popularity and extensive sale in Victorian Britain and America than Curiosities.
The full title of the 1791 edition was: Curiosities of Literature: consisting of Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches and Observations Literary, Critical and Historical. The publication, constantly supplemented and improved, until it went through 14 editions in 1849, a year after D’Israeli’s death, contains 276 essays and deserves to be called a ‘library in miniature’. His son Benjamin edited and prefaced a more compact three-volume edition of Curiosities which appeared in 1849. The titles of some of the essays of the first edition illustrate the extent of the author’s extraordinary interests: ‘Libraries’, ‘The Bibliomania’, ‘Literary Journals’, ‘Recovery of Manuscripts’, ‘Poverty of the Learned’, ‘Amusements of the Learned’, ‘Destruction of Works’, ‘Poets, Philosophers, and Artists, Inequalities of Genius’, etc. Several others deal with English and foreign authors, including Milton, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Ben Jonson, Spenser, Shakespeare, Richardson, Saint-Evremond, La Rochefoucault, Bayle, Scarron, Madeleine and Georges de Scudéry, Corneille, Cervantes, Ariosto, Tasso, Dante, and the ancient authors — Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis), Seneca, Virgil, Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. As a bibliophile, D’Israeli devoted a few essays to paratextual devices in books, e.g.: ‘Titles of Books’, ‘Dedications’,” ‘Prefaces’, ‘Errata’, ‘Patrons’ ‘Quotations’, ‘Indexes’, and ‘Errata’. Curiosities of Literature is an impressive repository of miscellaneous learning and an extraordinary erudition of the author, containing also such playful essays as ‘The Custom of Saluting After Sneezing’, ‘Literary Follies’ and ‘The History of Gloves’.
In 1793, D’Israeli published another delightful little book entitled A Dissertation on Anecdotes, in which he exhibited his interest in anecdotal historiography. He wrote about the origin and the nature of anecdotes and argued that they are not only an amusing part of literature, but also provide certain truths about people and their times. ‘Anecdotes — he wrote — are the most agreeable parts of History’ (Literary Miscellanies 6). D’Israeli revealed his bewildering erudition by quoting numerous anecdotes from two thousand years of European history and literature. It seems that he anticipated the postmodern theoretical studies on anecdote initiated by Joel Fineman, April London and Jane Gallop. In the next years, D’Israeli published Calamities of Authors (1812-13) and Quarrels of Authors (1814), which also provide a plethora of anecdotal and miscellaneous topics, but above all they are interesting as reflections on the social history of professional authors, the process of book writing and distribution, as well as the gradual expansion of readership. In Calamities, D’Israeli describes the sufferings of authors from various causes: neglect, poverty, fastidious egotism and vanity (concerning Horace Walpole), or disappointed hope for fame and reputation. Quarrels of Authors is a continuation of Calamities of Authors and was jointly republished by D’Israeli’s son, Benjamin, in 1870.
An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character
In 1795, D’Israeli published a more ambitious study in the sociology of genius: An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character. Although he did not lay foundations for this area of study, because Joseph Addison had earlier dealt with the question of genius in his Spectator in an essay ‘What is properly a great genius?’ D’Israeli focused on the eccentricities and strange habits of men of genius. An overview of chapter titles shows the extent of D’Israeli’s analysis: ‘Of Literary Men’, ‘Of Authors’, ‘Of Men of Letters’, ‘On some Characteristics of a Youth of Genius’, Of the Domestic Life of a Man of Genius’, ‘Of Literary Solitude’, On the Meditations and Conversations of Men of Genius’, ‘Men of Genius limited in their Art’, ‘Some Observations respecting the Infirmities and Defects of Men of Genius’, ‘Of Literary Friendships and Enmities’, ‘The Characters of Writers not discoverable in their Writings, ‘Of Some Private Advantages Which Induce Men of Letters to become Authors’, Of the Utility of Authors to Individuals’, Of the political Influence of Authors’, ‘On an Academy of Polite Literature’, ‘Pensions, and Prizes’. Two decades later, he revised this study with the help of Lord Byron’s annotations and published its second edition as The Literary Character, Illustrated by the History of Men of Genius(1818).
In 1841, almost totally blind, D’Israeli completed with the help of his daughter his last scholarly work, the three-volume Amenities Of Literature composed of essays on medieval and sixteenth-century literature, which were to be part of his projected history of English literature. The characteristic title connected it with two preceding volumes, Curiosities of Literature and Miscellanies of Literature. The first volume consists of thirty-eight chapters on subjects connected with early English life and literature, including ‘The Druidical Institution’ ‘Britain and the Britons’, ‘Cadmon’ and ‘Milton’, ‘Dialects’, ‘Early Libraries’, ‘Chaucer’, ‘Skelton’ and ‘Roger Ascham’, among other topics. The second volume contains thirty-two chapters on more miscellaneous subjects, such as ‘Rhyming Dictionaries’, ‘Allegories’, ‘The First Jesuits in England’, and ‘The War Against Books’. There are also chapters on Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Rawleigh (Raleigh), Bacon, and Drayton. All these books of essays, eruditely researched and richly footnoted, are important contributions to the formation of literary history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Isaac D’Israeli also tried his hand at writing fiction, but was much less successful than his son Benjamin. In 1797, he published Mejnoun and Leila, the Arabian Petrarch and Laura, which is the earliest Oriental romance in the English language. The distinguished Orientalist, Sir William Ouseley, seems to have drawn his attention to the Persian poem from which he derived the plot of his romance. The history of Mejnoun and Leila was as popular in the East as the loves of Abelard and Eloisa, or those of Petrarch and Laura, in the West. With two others (‘Love and Humility’ and ‘The Lovers’), and ‘A Poetical Essay on Romance’, the Oriental love story was republished in 1799, and a fourth tale (‘The Daughter’) was added to the second edition of the collection in 1801. D’Israeli’s romance was translated into German (Leipzig, 1804), and in England it was turned in 1808 into an opera by John and Isaac Brandon under the title Kais or, Love in the Deserts.
In the same year (1797), D’Israeli published an anti-Jacobin novel in two volumes entitled Vaurien: or, Sketches of the Times Exhibiting Views of the Philosophies, Religions, Politics, Literature and the Manners of the Age. The title character is an agent provocateur who attempts to stir an anti-monarchist revolutionary fervour in London. The novel, written in the convention of a roman a clef, attacks, amongst others, Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809), a dramatist, miscellanist and translator, sympathetic to the ideas of the French Revolution, and William Godwin, a proponent of anarchism, for advocating an abstract and metaphysical system of perfectibility that invites a revolutionary politics of radical and complete change (Gaston 20).
In 1805, D’Israeli published a comic novel, Rabelaisian in style, entitled Flim-Flams!, Or the Life and Errors of My Uncle and the Amours of My Aunt, but it attracted little attention of readers although it contained humorous illustrations by Richard Dagley. D’Israeli’s last novel, Despotism, or the Fall of the Jesuits, appeared in 1811. It focuses on secret history, which the author calls ‘a treasure under ground’ (II, 317). Its plot concerns events which led to the banishment of Jesuits from Portugal in 1759. Unlike his antiquarian and bibliophile writings, D’Israeli’s novels and romances, in spite of their sensational titles, are rather tedious and boring to read.
Bibliography of secondary Materials
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.
D’Israeli, Isaac. Curiosities of Literature. London: John Murray, 1791.
Disraeli, Benjamin. ‘On the Life and Writings of Mr. Disraeli’, Curiosities of Literature, 14th ed., 3 vols. London: Edward Moxon, 1849.
Endelman, Todd M. ‘Disraeli’s Jewishness Reconsidered’, Modern Judaism 5(2), Gershom Scholem Memorial Issue (May, 1985) 109-123.
Ferris, Ina. ‘Antiquarian Authorship: D’Israeli’s Miscellany of Literary Curiosity and the Question of Secondary Genres’, Studies in Romanticism 45. 4 (2006): 523-42.
Fineman, Joel. ‘The History of the Anecdote: Fiction and Fiction’ in H. Aram Veeser, ed., The New Historicism. New York: Routledge, 1989; 49-76.
Gaston, Sean. ‘Isaac D’Israeli and the Invention of the Literary Character’, Textual Practice 27(5) 2013, 783-803.
Hibbert, Christopher. Disraeli: The Victorian Dandy Who Became Prime Minister. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.
London, April. ‘Isaac D’Israeli and Literary History: Opinion, Anecdote, and Secret History in the Early Nineteenth Century’, Poetics Today, 26 (2005): 351-86.
Matthew H.C.G.,(ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; reference ‘D’Israeli, Isaac, 1766-1848’.
Ogden, James. Isaac D’Israeli. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
Pomare, Carla. Byron and the Discourses of History. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.
Schmidt, James. ‘Introduction’ to Moses Mendelssohn, The First English Translations and Biography. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2002, v-xxi.
Spector, Sheila A. Byron and the Jews. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010.
Spevack, Marvin. Curiosities Revisited: The Writings of Isaac D’Israeli. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2007.
Spevack, Marvin, ed. Isaac D’Israeli on Books: Pre-Victorian Essays on the History of Literature. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004.
Last modified 1 December 2016