In 1832, Disraeli published anonymously his third silver-fork novel, Contarini Fleming. A Psychological Autobiography (1832), which was an imitation of Johann Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796). Since Disraeli could not read German, he must have read Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, which appeared in the London Magazine in 1824. The historian Henry Milman recommended the publication of Disraeli’s novel to John Murray describing it as ‘a Childe Harold in prose’ (Sultana 22).
The novel is an interesting supplement to two earlier silver-fork novels, Vivian Grey and The Young Duke. It illustrates more accurately the aspirations and reveries of the young Disraeli and his plans for a career in politics while also revealing the internal struggle between the poetic temperament of the protagonist and his desire for action. Contarini Fleming is a novel about the formation of the eponymous hero, who, like Wilhelm Meister, undergoes a journey of self-realisation, from an introverted youth to a future political leader.
The novel provides a lot of autobiographical details from Disraeli’s early adult life, including a detailed description of his nervous breakdown in the years from 1826 to 1830 and his attempts to overcome a deep depression during his Grand Tour around the Mediterranean and the Near East. Like Disraeli, Contarini visits the same places which Disraeli had visited during his travel. Only in recent years, did scholars find out that Disraeli treated writing novels not only as a way to gain popularity or fame, but primarily as a therapy (Schwarz 41-42). The novel shows how a Byronic hero attempts to achieve recognition with no avail. In fact, it reveals more about Disraeli’s political ideas than his earlier veiled semi-autobiography, Vivian Grey. In his preface to the 1845 edition of Contarini Fleming, Disraeli explains his motifs to write this novel:
The author proposed to himself, in writing this work, a subject that has ever been held one of the most difficult and refined, and which is virgin in the imaginative literature of every country — namely, the development and formation of the poetic character. It has indeed been sometimes incidentally treated and partially illustrated by writers of the highest class, as for instance Göthe in his ‘Wilhelm Meister’ where are expounded, with so much felicity, the mysteries of predisposition and the same illustrious author has, in his capricious memoirs, favoured us with much of his individual experience of self-formation; in this resembling preceding poets, none more conspicuously than Count Alfieri. But an ideal and complete picture of the development of the poet had not been produced, nor had any one entirely grappled with the thorough formation of that mysterious character with which, though unlike all of us, we all of us so strangely sympathise.[v]
The novel recounts the growth of a young, alienated man of mixed Saxon and Venetian ancestry, who is ‘gifted with a highly poetic temperament’ (169). The protagonist’s first name, Contarini, is derived from his mother’s Venetian family surname, while Fleming is his father’s surname. As a result, the protagonist has a blood of two different cultures, northern and Mediterranean. Contarini, like Disraeli, has a tempestuous childhood and adolescence and becomes an affectionate dandy. He leaves college because he is not interested in learning only words. ‘I wish to learn ideas’ (101), Contarini says to his father. As in Vivian Grey, Disraeli sketches prophetically his future political career. Contarini’s father, who happens to be the prime minister of a Scandinavian country, tells him: ‘My son, you will be Prime Minister of ... perhaps something greater’ (177).
The novel is much more concerned with the development of a creative genius than of a poet. Contarini writes a novel, Manstein, which is like Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, and causes a similar public sensation. However, the publication of the novel damages his prospective diplomatic career. In order to trace his Venetian heritage, Contarini travels to Italy. He visits Venice, the hometown of his mother, where he is converted to Catholicism, falls in love and marries his young cousin, Alcesté, but loses her in childbirth. The sudden death of Contarini’s wife is reminiscent of the death of William Meredith, a travel companion of Disraeli’s in the Near East and his beloved sister’s fiancé, who died in Egypt from smallpox. In order to recover from his tragic loss, Contarini, like Disraeli, sets off on his Grand Tour. He visits Athens, Jerusalem and Constantinople. Gradually, the young man is drifted from poetry and fashionable society to politics, which he finds more suitable to his disposition. Earlier his father provides strong arguments to convince him to abandon poetry and try his luck in the world of politics.
What were all those great poets of whom we now talk so much, what were they in their lifetime? The most miserable of their species. Depressed, doubtful, obscure, or involved in petty quarrels and petty persecutions; often unappreciated, utterly uninfluential, beggars, flatterers of men unworthy even of their recognition; what a train of disgustful incidents, what a record of degrading circumstances, is the life of a great poet! A man of great energies aspires that they should be felt in his lifetime, that his existence should be rendered more intensely vital by the constant consciousness of his multiplied and multiplying power. Is posthumous fame a substitute for all this?...Would you rather have been Homer or Julius Caesar, Shakespeare or Napoleon? No one doubts. 
After the death of his father, Contarini decides to settle in Italy and commit himself to the political reform of his motherland. At that time Venice was under Austrian rule, and Contarini thinks of restoring the former independence and grandeur of Venice, but when his political endeavours give no effect, he again returns to literature. In fact, Venice can be construed as a veiled allegory of Palestine and the young Disraeli may have dreamt of becoming a Jewish national leader (Kirsch online).
At the end of the novel, Contarini speaks in Disraeli’s voice about his commitment to national politics and the inevitable transition from feudalism to federalism. The novel concludes with Contarini retreating to his comfortable villa in the vicinity of Naples, from where he may watch the world of affairs and hope that he may one day appear in politics.
Here let me pass my life in the study and the creation of the beautiful. Such is my desire; but whether it will be my career is, I feel, doubtful. My interest in the happiness of my race is too keen to permit me for a moment to be blind to the storms that lour on the horizon of society. Perchance also the political regeneration of the country to which I am devoted may not be distant, and in that great work I am resolved to participate. Bitter jest, that the most civilised portion of the globe should be considered incapable of self-government! When I examine the state of European society with the an impassioned spirit which the philosopher can alone command, I perceive that it is in a state of transition — a state of transition from feudal to federal principles. This I conceive to be the sole and secret cause of all the convulsions that have occurred and are to occur. [372-3]
Contrary to Contarini, Disraeli did not withdraw from public life and although in the 1830s he made several unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament, in 1837 he eventually won a seat in the House of Commons from Maidstone. He realised his youthful reveries to become a politician, and in time, he proved to be a strong supporter of English nationalism and a prominent maker of the British Empire.
Has Disraeli developed as a novelist in his third silver-fork novel? The answer is complex and multifaceted. As a publishing venture Contarini Fleming was ‘a complete failure’ (Blake 105). The author and publisher’s shared profit amounted to only 18 pounds. Clearly, Contarini Fleming is inferior to The Young Duke as far as political and social issues are concerned. Disraeli avoids topical political commentaries and delves into what Elliot Engel and Margaret F. King call ‘Byronic malady’ (76). The young author concentrates on the protagonist’s Romantic ego and neglects the plot and character development. However, as Adam Kirsch has written, ‘Still, if Contarini Fleming is not a good novel, it is a vitally important document of Disraeli’s mind. Indeed, it is a classic bildungsroman, in which a sensitive young man discovers that he does not fit into ordinary society because he is a genius’ (104).
References and Further Reading
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.
Disraeli, Benjamin. Contarini Fleming: A Psychological Romance and The Rise of Iskander By the Earl of Beaconsfield, K.G. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1845.
Engel, Elliot and Margaret F. King. The Victorian Novel Before Victoria. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984.
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.
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.
Nickerson, Charles C. ‘Benjamin Disraeli’s Contarini Fleming and Alroy’, Journal of the Rutgers University Library 39 (1977): 72-97.
O’Kell, Robert. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
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.
Sultana, Donald. Benjamin Disraeli in Spain, Malta, and Albania 1830-32: A Monograph.. London: Tamesis Book Limited, 1976.
Schwarz, Daniel R. Disraeli’s Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1979.
Walton, John K. Disraeli. London: Routledge, 1990.
Last modified 8 April 2016