Endymion (1880), which Disraeli published with Longmans a year before his death, reads like a nostalgic memory of his youth. Robert Blake described it as ‘one of the most mellow, delightful, and engagingly improbable romances to issue from his pen' (723), and Hesketh Pearson similarly noted that ‘Endymion is the last view of Dizzy’s dreamland’ (294). Adam Kirsch contended that in his last novel Disraeli 'wrote elegiacally about the career he was leaving behind' (238). William Kuhn asserted that the novel 'is the most authentic memoir Disraeli ever wrote. It summarizes and epitomizes a lifetime of love and politics. It provides a key to what he most valued in political life' (335).
Disraeli, who was then a retired politician and a recognised author, received from the publisher advance of £10,000 for Endymion (about £700,000 today), which was the largest fee ever paid for a work of fiction in the nineteenth century (Braun 142). He started Endymion in the early 1870s but suspended writing it when he took office as Prime Minister in 1874, and he resumed it only after his defeat in the national election in 1880. He not only wanted to draw upon his early experiences as a rising statesman but he also needed extra money to pay the lease of his house at 19 Curzon Street in London after retiring from Downing Street.
Endymion had a better reception that Lothair (Blake 726) and attracted the attention of a wider readership not only because of its romantic plot, but above all due to the fact that it was written by one of the most famous European statesmen. However, not all his readers found the novel pleasing. For example, Archibald Campbell Tait (1811-1882), the most powerful Archbishop of Canterbury since the seventeenth century, wrote regretfully in his diary: 'I have finished Endymion with a painful feeling that the writer considers all political life as mere play and gambling' (Buckle VI, 568).
A mellow political romance with portraits of prominent politicians
Like most of Disraeli’s novels, Endymion is a romance with autobiographical underpinnings and retrospective commentary on past political life in England. Although this novel is less political than Coningsby and Sybil, like them it touches upon a vast array of political issues and revives the memory of an impressive gallery of historical figures whom Disraeli had known. Endymion returns to the climate of his early novels, such as Vivian Grey, the Young Duke, and Contarini Fleming, but it contains less extravagant and much more mature observations of English social and political life. The political action of the novel begins with the throes of the Reform movement at the time when George Canning is on his death-bed and the ‘Iron Duke’ (Duke of Wellington) is the best hope of Tories to win the election. It ends with the fall of Aberdeen's ministry. The novel deals fascinatingly with Cabinet making and Cabinet breaking during the long period of Whig dominationin politics. Disraeli mentions Bedchamber Crisis of 1839, the social crisis of the Hungry Forties, food riots in Scotland, the proceedings of the Anti-Corn-Law League, the Catholic Emancipation of 1829, the Irish Potato Famine, Chartism, Tractarians, and the effects of the humiliating disaster in Afghanistan in 1842.
Disraeli depicts a significant number of prominent political figures of the period under fictional names. Sidney Wilton impersonates Sidney Herbert 1810-1861), a Peelite, whose wife Elizabeth was a friend of Disraeli’s. Lord Roehampton similarly stands in for Palmerston and Lord Montfort for Lord Melbourne while Prince Bismarck appears as Count of Ferrol, Baron Lionel Rothschild as Baron Neuchatel, Cardinal Manning as Nigel Penruddock, and Job Thornberry as Richard Cobden, a rich manufacturer and a Radical Liberal statesman, associated with the Anti-Corn Law League. George Smythe, one of the Young England Tory splinter group in Parliament appears as Mr. Waldershare, and Metternich as Baron Sergius. Henry George Poole (1847-76), a famous London tailor, who used to dress poor but promising young men for nothing, trusting that when they had made their fortunes, they would pay their bill, appears as Vigo.
Set between 1827 and 1855, the novel tells the story of a penniless young man of superb ancestry who climbs the greasy pole of politics becoming become Prime Minister at last. Endymion, the eponymous hero, and his twin sister Myra, are the children of a deceased Tory politician, William Pitt Ferrars. Their father, who had lived far beyond his means, was ruined and driven ultimately to suicide by the Reform Bill in 1832. In consequence, Endymion has to leave Eton and takes employment as a junior clerk in the Treasury. However, soon good fortune comes to both siblings. Thanks to Mr. Bertie Tremaine (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who introduced Disraeli to society), Endymion socialises with a group of young dandies and fashionable ladies. Unexpectedly, he receives a generous gift of £20,000 from an anonymous donor that opens a way for him to a brilliant political career on the side of the Whigs. Later, he learns that his benefactress is Myra’s close friend, Adrianna Neuchatel, the daughter of the wealthy Baron Neuchatel (Rothschild), who is secretly in love with Endymion but eventually marries his friend Waldershare (George Smythe). Myra, who treats marriage as a rite of passage to becoming a woman of influence, first marries the powerful Lord Roehampton (Palmerston), the Foreign Secretary, and after his death, King Florestan (Louis Napoleon III of France). Thanks to the help of his ambitious sister and other sympathetic and influential ladies, Endymion is elected to Parliament where he gives rousing speeches. Next he marries the widowed wife of Lord Montfort (Melbourne) and becomes Foreign Secretary, leader of the Whig party, and eventually, Prime Minister. Endymion is not a Tory, like Disraeli, but a Whig, because in the period in which the action takes place the Whig party was mostly in government. Nevertheless, Endymion resembles Disraeli in many ways. As Robert O’Kell has observed, ‘Endymion Ferrars both directly and indirectly reflects the emotional crises of Disraeli’s own rise to power’ (428). However, unlike Disraeli, he is shown as a ‘faint and vapid creature who evolves through the novel from a 12-year innocent and idealistic boy to a 40-year old innocent and idealistic man’ (Braun 144).
The influence of women on political fortunes
The central theme of the novel is the influence of wealthy and influential women as patrons to political and social climbers. Disraeli himself once said that he ‘owed all to women’ (Blake 725). It is Endymion’s sister, Myra, who predicts that all his good fortune will come to him through women. Myra, who is ambitious and resolute, might resemble Disraeli’s sister Sarah. Determined to help her brother rise from poverty and despondency to wealth and power, at the age of nineteen, she marries an elderly statesman (Lord Roehampton), ‘largely with the object of advancing her brother’s interests (Buckle VI, 556). She is also a projection of Disraeli’s own ambitions disguised in a woman’s dress. Myra once tells her brother: ‘Power, and power alone, should be your absorbing object, and all the accidents and incidents of life should only be considered with reference to that main result’ (Chapter LXXXII). Another influential woman is Lady Montfort, ‘the famous Berengaria, Queen of Society, and the genius of Whiggism’ (Chapter XXXVIII), who combines the physical and psychological features of Mrs. Caroline Norton, an intimate friend of Lord Melbourne, a renowned beauty and a fashionable salon hostess, a poet and novelist, as well as of Marchioness of Normanby, one of the ladies of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria, and finally, of Lady Palmerston, the leading political hostess in London, whose Saturday parties during the season were packed with 'everyone who was anyone'. It should be added that Disraeli knew and socialised with all of them. Lady Montfort persuades Endymion to stand for parliament, but he thinks he cannot do so because he has no money or position.
“I have no means of getting into parliament — no means of any kind.”
“Means must be found,” said Lady Montfort. “We cannot stop now to talk about means. That would be a mere waste of time. The thing must be done. I am now going to your sister, to consult with her. All you have got to do is to make up your mind that you will be in the next parliament, and you will succeed; for everything in this world depends upon will.”
“I think everything in this world depends upon woman,” said Endymion.
“It is the same thing,” said Berengaria. [Chapter LXV]
Disraeli had good reason for claiming that women have the power to make a man’s success in life. Without his patronesses, Mrs Austen, Lady Blessington, Mrs. Norton, and Mrs. Wyndham Lewis (ultimately his wife), he would have had less chance to make a political career. Lady Montfort, together with Myra, is very keen to help Endymion through his career.
“I repeat to you, that you need give yourself no anxiety about the seat,” said Lady Montfort. “It will not cost you a shilling. I and your sister have arranged all that. As she very wisely said, ‘It must be done,’ and it is done. All you have to do is to write an address, and make plenty of speeches, and you are M.P. for life, or as long as you like.”[LXVI]
There is one more attractive and influential political hostess, who appears only in the early chapters of the novel: Zenobia, 'the queen of London, of fashion, and of the Tory party' (Chapter II), the patroness of Endymion’s unsuccessful father. She has the acquaintance of everyone of importance in political, social, and diplomatic circles. Of the good old Tory type, like Disraeli, she believes in the power of the Monarchy, the Church and the land, and has no sympathy for public opinion. She was drawn from Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1785-1867), also an old friend of Disraeli’s. Lady Jersey was one of the patronesses of Almack’s, the most exclusive social club on London’s King Street, and a leader of the ton (high society) during the late Regency.
A caricature of Thackeray and Dickens
Apart from portraits of politicians, Disraeli presents a caricature of two contemporary writers, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, who were much greater novelists than he was. Thackeray is satirised as the obnoxious snob and disgusting journalist, St Barbe, who, struggling for recognition, envies the popularity of Gushy (Dickens), a naive and sentimental novelist. He calls him ‘a penny-a-liner drunk with ginger beer’ (Chapter XXIV). In ridiculing Thackeray, who had been dead for seventeen years, Disraeli took a belated revenge for the former’s burlesque, Codlingsby, which he had published in Punch in 1847. Thackeray’s parody savagely mocked Disraeli’s silver-fork style of writing and his Jewish heritage.
The eponymous character
Why did Disraeli choose the name Endymion for his title character? In Greek mythology, Endymion is a beautiful young man, the son of Aethlius the king of Elis, beloved by Selene, goddess of the moon, with whom he had fifty daughters. His tomb is located in Olympia. Another story made him a shepherd or a hunter on Mount Latmos in Anatolia. Zeus gave him eternal youth and eternal life in the form of uninterrupted sleep. Selene descended from the sky every night to visit him in his grotto. The English Romantic poet, John Keats, wrote one of the greatest poems in English literature entitled 'Endymion' (1817). Disraeli claimed that Endymion was initially modelled on Charles Dilke (1843-1911), a Liberal politician, who destroyed his career after a scandalous divorce case. In fact, the title hero possesses almost nothing of Dilke, but has many features of Disraeli himself in spite of the fact that he is described as a Whig. The choice of the name Endymion for the title of this semi-autobiographical novel may have been Disraeli’s cryptic message to Selina Countess of Bradford (1819–1894), to whom he wrote over one thousand letters, the majority of them after the death of his wife Mary Ann. Feeling lonely, Disraeli looked for consolation from Lady Bradford.
Endymion is one of the most witty and readable of Disraeli’s novels although it cannot be called a masterpiece of prose. It is, as Buckle says, a 'curious blend of history and fiction' (VI, 558) with a lot of entertaining social and political commentary. Disraeli knew that novels about the rich and famous sell well, and therefore he returned to his favourite silver-fork themes. Endymion seems to be a mature Vivian Grey, who finally achieves a success in politics and social life, like Disraeli. Lord Beaconsfield’s last finished novel, full of double meanings and aphorisms, is an invaluable document of his time. It can be best read as fictionalised political and social history and the author's enunciation of his political and life philosophy. It celebrates Disraeli’s myth of success.
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Braun, Thom. Disraeli the Novelist. Abington and New York: Routledge, 2016.
Buckle, George. In succession to W.F. Monypenny.The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume VI. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1920.
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Merritt, James D.. ‘The Novelist St. Barbe in Disraeli’s Endymion: Revenge on Whom?’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 23 (1968): 85-88.
Pearson, Hesketh. Dizzy: The Life & Personality of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield. New York: Harper, 1951.
Last modified 12 February 2018