After the loss of money spent on the shares of South American mines the young Disraeli tried his luck as a writer and publisher. He persuaded his father’s friend John Murray, a doyen of publishing in the first half of the nineteenth century, to establish a new daily conservative newspaper, the Representative, which was to rival the Times. Murray supported the idea and allocated £26,000 for this project. Disraeli quickly found editors and correspondents, rented an office in an exclusive area of the West End, but after half a year the newspaper went bankrupt, leaving him with a heavy debt which he had to pay off for the next thirty years. Frustrated and depressed, Disraeli did not know how he should shape his career. Help came from Sara Austen, the wife of a lawyer and a friend of his father’s. Feeling sympathy for the handsome, precocious boy with pale complexion and glossy raven hair, she advised young Disraeli to write a book about his unfortunate adventures. Benjamin followed the advice because, as he said, he was brought up in the library and knew all the contemporary fashionable novels. Eagerly, he got down to work and at the age of only twenty-one he wrote his first novel, which electrified the reading public.

The art of puffery

Sara Austen became not only Disraeli’s patroness but also his literary agent. She read the manuscript, edited and copied it in her own hand in order not to disclose the identity of the anonymous author, and finally helped him to have the book published. She sent the manuscript to Henry Colburn, who had already published Henry Plumer Ward’s Tremaine, or the Man of Refinement (1825), the first silver-fork novel, which she had also recommended. Colburn, who sensed that the novel would become a bestseller, promoted it as “a sort of Don Juan in prose” (Jerman 59). Cyrus Redding (1785-1870), a journalist and a famed wine writer, mentions in his Recollections that Colburn spoke to him animatedly of his plan to publish a new book about fashionable life: “I have a capital book out — Vivian Grey. The authorship is a great secret — a man of high fashion — very high — keeps the first society. I can assure you it is a most piquant a spirited work, quite sparkling” (322).

In the 1820s, Henry Colburn, a successful publisher of light fiction, including silver-fork novels, invented the art of puffery as his promotional strategy. The reviews in his magazines, such as the New Monthly and the Literary Gazette, often contained an exaggerated praise of his book publications, and as a result, he acquired the nickname “Prince of Puffers” (Hall 102). Blake insists that Colburn did not “puff” Vivian Grey more than any other of his silver-fork novels, and there is no evidence that Disraeli personally took part in the publicity campaign (34).

An autobiography of a dandy

Vivian Grey (1826-27) describes the development of a precocious young dandy, the son of a well-known man of letters with a huge private library. The novel contains an epigraph from William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which tells us much about Disraeli’s impudent early ambitions: “Why, then the world’s mine oyster / Which with my sword I’ll open.” The eponymous hero (Disraeli’s alter ego), a young dandy without a fortune and ancient name, is filled with a fierce desire to make his way in the world of high society and politics. Vivian, who has an extraordinary personal charm, is “a dandy of intellectual type,” “a Byronic superior man among men” (Lutz 73). Earlier, in school, run by a Reverend Everard Dallas, Vivian is popular with some of his classmates, but one well-born pupil, who dislikes him, calls him a “cursed puppy” (I, 15). The school usher, Mr Mallett, warns the aristocratic boys that word “stranger” means, of course, Jew, and by using it, Disraeli alludes to the anti-Semitic prejudices in English society that haunted him for the rest of his life. As Adam Kirsch has shown, Disraeli was often the object of anti-Semitic insults (60). Eventually, Vivian is expelled from school for misconduct and continues study at home under the guidance of his father, as did Disraeli himself. He then decides on a career in politics after which he becomes a protégé of the Marquess of Carabas, a vain politician who is a friend of his father. Vivian organises a new political party that will promote this mediocre aristocrat to become a prime minister. Attracted by the scheme, the Marquess invites Vivian to his country house, Chateau Desir, where he surrounds himself with a group of narrow-minded, landed-gentry, who form the “Carabas party.” However, the Marquess’s stupidity eventually leads to the failure of the project, and he breaks off relations with his young protégé, calling him “an adventurer, a swindler, a scoundrel, a liar, a base, deluding, flattering, fawning villain” (II, 201). Disappointed by his failure to enter the political scene, Vivian leaves England for Germany to study at Heidelberg, but first kills his political rival, Cleveland, in a duel. Part Two of Vivian Grey, is set in Germany, where Vivian meets a number of influential men and has an unfortunate love affair with Violet Fane, a woman of delicate health and great purity, who dies in his arms as they kiss for the first time. In the finale, Vivian is thrown off from his horse and lies senseless on the ground.

The book of the season

Vivian Grey became a book of the season when it was first published in 1826 in three slim volumes. The novel made quite a stir among the reading public and was a chief topic of conversation of the beau monde because it was read as a roman à clef about fashionable and political life in the country. The author was believed to be a prominent member of London high society who mocked real people under the guise of fictitious characters. When readers realised that the anonymous author ridiculed not only Murray, the most powerful publisher in England at that time, but also other members of high society who were thinly disguised in the novel, they wanted to know his name. It soon became clear that the author did not belong to the upper class, as it was alleged by the publisher, but was a Jewish parvenu. As a result, Disraeli’s reputation was severely damaged. However, despite the scandal, the novel, thanks to its vivid style and allusions to fashionable life in England, was widely read and discussed. Disraeli was hailed as a brilliant young author by the reading public, but the reviews in literary periodicals were often scathingly critical. However, as James Anthony Froude wrote in his biography of Disraeli: “Vivian was the book of the season; everyone read it, everyone talked about it, and keys were published of the characters who were satirised. Disraeli, like Byron, went to sleep a nameless youth of twenty-one and woke to find himself famous” (23-24).

Robert Plumer Ward (1765-1846), the author of the first silver-fork novel, Tremaine, which influenced the style of Vivian Grey, informed Disraeli enthusiastically about the popularity of the novel.

All are talking of Vivian Grey. Its wit, raciness and boldness are admired everywhere. From Sir George and Lady Nugent’s accounts it is spreading in London, where it excited curiosity and also resentment. I observed this at Lord Maryborough’s dinner on Monday, where were many public men and some fine ladies who all admired but a little felt the satire. Vivian Grey himself is abused as a hypocrite. In short you have set everybody a-guessing. [Cruse 146]

In another letter Ward writes of a dinner at Lord Gifford’s where he met much of the beau monde, as well as bishops and judges, and here too the chief topic of conversation was also Vivian Grey. The book enjoyed broad readership among both high society and the middle class. In 1828, Lady Morgan, a celebrated Irish authoress, confided that she was reading Vivian Grey “at night and in bed in the morning.” Mrs Caroline Norton, a renowned beauty, fashionable salon hostess and a novelist, also read the novel, learned whole pages of it by heart, and admired it greatly, as also did Madame D’Arblay (Frances Burney), the famous novelist, diarist, and playwright. [146]

Key to Vivian Grey

Vivian Grey ‘Sent for!!!’. This editorial cartoon in the March 1867 Fun, which portrays Dizzy as a character in his own novel, is a wonderful case of life imitating art.

Most of the characters in Vivian Grey are thought to be modelled on well-known persons from high society. Some subsequent editions of Vivian Grey had even “keys” to identify the real protagonists. The first of these appeared on May 24, 1826, in a shortlived periodical the Star Chamber and, as Michael Flavin suggests, “It is likely that some if not all of these were written by Disraeli himself” (15).

The studious father of the eponymous hero, Horace Grey, “a man of distinguished literary abilities,” (I, 6), is undoubtedly sketched from Isaac d’Israeli, the writer’s father. Mrs. Felix Lorraine, a clever intriguing woman, who abhors Vivian Grey, is modelled on Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828), a novelist best known for her romance with Lord Byron. Disraeli deliberately shifted plot details from his failed attempt to create a new conservative newspaper, the Representative to the realm of politics. In a barely veiled and ironical way the young author recounts his dealings with the wealthy publisher, John Murray II (1778-1843), the main target of his satire, who appears in the novel as the blunt Marquess of Carabas. After the publication of the novel Murray broke off his relations with the Disraeli family. Disraeli borrowed the name of the Marquess of Carabas from Charles Perrault’s (1628–1703) famous fairy tale, Puss in Boots, where the false Marquess is the master of the ingenious cat. Interestingly, Carabas may also have a second source: Goldwin Smith (1823-1910), a liberal politician and Disraeli’s opponent, suggests in his Reminiscences that the Marquess of Carabas was not modelled specifically on Murray, but on Ulick John de Burgh, 1st Marquess of Clanricarde (1802-1874), a Whig politician (255).

Other prominent representatives of London’s high society depicted in Vivian Grey include John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854), a Scottish barrister, editor and littérateur, who is hidden behind the name Cleveland. Henry Brougham (1778-1868), a Whig politician and a founder of the Edinburgh Review, is ridiculed as Mr Foaming Fudge. George Canning (1770-1827), a Tory politician and Prime Minister, appears in the novel as Mr Charlatan Gas. Lord Eldon (1751-1838), who held the longest tenure of the office of Lord Chancellor between 1807 and 1838, is Lord Past Century, and the Duke of Waterloo is, of course, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). Mrs Harriot Coutts, the mistress and subsequently the wife of the banker Thomas Coutts, one of the wealthiest women in England, is depicted as Mrs Million. Mary Berry (1763-1852) and her sister Agnes (1764-1852), the two intellectual lady friends of Horace Walpole, are the Misses Otrantos. Lord William Lennox (1799-1881), a writer and a keen enthusiast of private theatricals, is called Lord Primadonna. Theodore Hook (1788-1841), a widely read humourist and producer of practical jokes, is given the name Stanislaus Hoax. Prince Leopold (the future king of Belgians), appears as Prince Little Lilliput. Horace Twiss (1787-1849), a noted writer and politician, is Vivacity Dull. Disraeli also mocked some contemporary journals and newspapers. For example, the Praise of All Review alludes to the Edinburgh Review, a Whig periodical that was published from 1802 until 1929, and the Attack-all Review refers to the Quarterly Review, a literary and political periodical founded in March 1809 by John Murray (Hitchman 30-32).

An idealised self-portrait

Although the novel does not have a sustained plot, its main subject is the development of a talented youth who cannot overcome the corrupting influence of his time. The first part of Vivian Grey, which offers a valuable insight into its young author’s complex personality, portrays the mind of a dandy who wants to become an influential politician. The method which Vivian Grey adopted to accomplish his ambition is not much different from that used later by Disraeli himself, who was in fact more fortunate than his fictitious hero. In writing Vivian Grey Disraeli wanted to draw attention of the reading public to an unacknowledged, young genius as he considered himself. As B.R. Jerman wrote in his biography:

Young Disraeli’s purpose in writing Vivian Grey, then, surely was to open the hearts of society to misbegotten lads like Vivian, not to harden them. Society, he guessed, would agree with him, pat him on the back, and not only restore Vivian to fame and fortune, but also acclaim him, Ben, the new Byron. [50]

In his novel, the young Disraeli’s alter ego (Vivian) attempts unsuccessfully, due to his inexperience, to become a prominent figure in political and fashionable life of the country. In this respect, Vivian Grey is a fictional account of Disraeli’s own political hopes and longings. In Vivian Grey — Disraeli admitted — “I have portrayed my active and real ambition” (Blake 38). It took Disraeli quite a long time to reshape his public image of a dandy to a respectable politician.

A political and social satire

It should be noted that Disraeli’s first novel goes well beyond the framework of silver-fork convention and idealised autobiography. Vivian Grey is also a brilliant satire on the social and political life of post Regency England. Although Disraeli was an assimilated Jew and a self-made man, he admired the British aristocracy as a ruling class and dreamt of becoming their peer. Early in the novel the young author comments ironically on the ways of achieving a success in high society. “In England, personal distinction is the only passport to the society of the great. Whether this distinction arise from fortune, family, or talent, is immaterial; but certain it is, to enter into high society, a man must either have blood, a million, or a genius” (50). In Chapter VIII (Book One), Disraeli provides an ironic recipe how to establish a charismatic linkage between voters and politicians according to a populist rhetoric. Vivian, driven by an overwhelming ambition to become a politician, is very cynical about the game a politician must play.

Yes! we must mix with the herd, we must enter into their feelings; we must humour their weaknesses; we must sympathise with the sorrows that we do not feel; and share the merriment of fools. Oh, yes! to rule men we must be men, to prove that we are strong we must be weak; to prove that we are giants, we must be dwarfs, even as the Eastern Genie was hid in the charmed bottle. Our wisdom must be concealed under folly, and our constancy under our caprice. [I, 57]

Vivian’s Machiavellian approach to politics appears in Disraeli’s political career. He skilfully manipulated his opponents and party colleagues in order to win political advantage. His recent biographer, William Kuhn, has described him as “one of the greatest liars in British history.” Paradoxically, “in his lies Disraeli revealed something important about himself” (18). In fact, all Disraeli’s books are in great part nakedly autobiographical and reveal a lot about the personality and early political thinking of the future MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minister.

A sequel to Vivian Grey

Thanks to the great popularity of Vivian Grey, which had three editions within a year, Colburn, who published a majority of silver-fork novels in the 1820s and 1840s, was not offended by Disraeli’s deceit with intent to defraud the reading public and offered Disraeli £500 for a sequel to the novel, even though he paid him only £200 for the first part. However, the second part of Vivian Grey, written by Disraeli during a tour of northern Italy in the autumn of 1826 and published early next year, is much inferior to the first one. Disraeli’s biographers, William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, explain the ways that the two parts of the novel differ significantly.

No one reading Vivian Grey, especially if he read it in the original edition, can fail to be struck by the contrast between the first volume and the second. All the merit of the book lies in the first volume (...). The style is light and vivacious, full of sparkle and epigram; and, though faults of taste are numerous, this first volume on the whole is a most amusing blend of cleverness and impudence. Even the flippancy and cynicism are too obviously boyish affectations to cause real offence. If we remember that Vivian Grey is only a work of fiction, and a work of fiction with a large element of caricature and exaggeration, and if we make allowance also for that subtle Disraelian irony which pervades all the novels, we may fairly say that in the first volume the hero is Disraeli himself. [93-94].

The second part of the novel, which appeared in three volumes on February 23, 1827, is, according to B.R. Jerman, “astonishingly dull” (80). The reviews were not as favourable as those about the first part, although Ward wrote to Sara Austen in a commending tone that the second part of Vivian Grey was “far, far superior to the first” (Jerman 82). Subsequent editions included both parts.


After the disclosure of the identity of the author of Vivian Grey, Disraeli and his book became a topic of animated discussions in literary magazines. His portraits appeared in many illustrated magazines. He emerged in the literary world as a new, talented author. Vivian Grey was reviewed in the Literary Gazette by William Jerdan, who “balanced his assessment of the novel between praise and criticism” (Adburgham 68). The Star included Vivian Grey in the class of fashionable novels, like Tremaine. Christopher North in Blackwood’s Magazine criticised the puffery which accompanied the publication of the book and concluded that the author was “an obscure person, for whom nobody cares a straw” (66). The Literary Magnet called him “a swindler.” The young author was so upset by these attacks that he fell into temporary depression. In later years, Disraeli was a little embarrassed by his first novel, which he called his “juvenile indiscretions,” and modified significantly its content in subsequent editions (Monypenny and Buckle 88-89). In the 1853 edition, which was prepared by his sister Sarah, Disraeli claimed that the characters were not drawn from life.

Vivian Grey was mocked by William Hazlitt in his famous review “The Dandy School,” which appeared in the Examiner on November 18, 1827. Hazlitt criticised the silver fork novels, which emphasized descriptions of the habits and rituals of aristocratic life for a middle-class reading audience, offering intricately rendered descriptions of food table settings and ball gowns (Tucker in Kastan 179). Hazlitt argued that silver-fork novelists ignored all ranks of society except the fashionable and the highly placed. He mentioned Theodore Hooke, the editor of the Tory newspaper John Bull, and Benjamin Disraeli, the author of Vivian Grey, as the chief representatives of the Dandy School. Hazlitt, however, failed to point out that silver-fork novels, particularly that written by Disraeli, superbly depicted the manner of speech of the upper classes in the post Regency period.

Johann von Goethe was among the warmest admirers of Vivian Grey (Jerman 55). William Gladstone, four-times Liberal prime minister and Disraeli’s future arch enemy, described his novel succinctly in his diary: “Finished Vivian Grey. The first quarter extremely clever, the rest trash” (Monypenny and Buckle 116). It should also be remembered that Disraeli’s Vivian Grey provided Oscar Wilde with inspiration to write The Picture of Dorian Gray. Robert Blake noted in his biography of Disraeli that Wilde’s late-Victorian moral fable is a clear echo of Disraeli’s first novel. Wilde’s Sybil Vane bears some affinity to Disraeli’s Violet Fane. Both heroines die tragically before the end of the book. As a young boy Wilde read Disraeli’s early novels with great interest and was fascinated by his dandyish lifestyle.


Although Vivian Grey is hardly an outstanding novel, it is interesting to a student of Disraeli’s life because it reveals his emerging interest in politics and political career. Vivian is more than a silver-fork dandy who imitates Beau Brummell, the iconic arbiter of men’s fashion in Regency England. Apart from his personal charm and intelligence, Vivian is an unscrupulous social climber with great political ambitions whose main concern is how to master the art of political manipulation. The novel reveals Disraeli’s inner thoughts as well as his satirical wit and an extraordinary skill of rendering the Regency and post-Regency drawing room discourse. Vivian Grey also anticipates the genre of the political novel, the invention of which is attributed to Disraeli, and which was continued in the Victorian era by Anthony Trollope, George Meredith, George Eliot, and Mrs. Humphrey Ward.

Related material

References and Further Reading

Adburgham, Alison. Silver Fork Society: Fashionable Life and Literature from 1814 to 1840. London: Constable, 1983.

Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.

Bradford, Sarah. Disraeli. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982.

Copeland, Edward. The Silver Fork Novel: Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Cruse, Amy. The Englishman and His Books in the Early Nineteenth Century. New York: Thomas Y. Cowell Co, 1930.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Vivian Grey. Volumes I and II. London: Henry Colburn, 1826.

Flavin, Michael. Benjamin Disraeli: The Novel as Political Discourse. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.

Froude, James Anthony. The Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1890.

Hitchman, Francis. The Public Life of the Right Honourable the Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Chapman and Hall, 1879.

Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Kastan, David, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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.

Meynell, Wilfred. Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903.

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.

Pearson, Hesketh. Dizzy: The Life and Nature of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Methuen, 1952.

Redding, Cyrus. Fifty Years’ Recollections, Literary and Personal: With Observations on Men and Things. Volume 2. London: Charles J. Skeet, 1858.

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.

Rintoul, M.C. Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Smith, Goldwin. Reminiscences. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911.

Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Walton, John K. Disraeli. London: Routledge, 1990.

Last modified 24 April 2016