Nothing is so delightful . . . as sincere and genuine romance, and nothing so ignoble as the hollow, glittering compound which Mr. Disraeli gives us as a substitute. But we must take what we can get. — Henry James.

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ames opens his review with the observation that British reviewers, who never commented on the former prime minister’s novel itself, praised or blamed Lothair solely on the basis of party politics. Having cleared the ground for his own observations, James begins simply enough with a statement that “it is pleasant reading for a summer’s day.” In other words, Lothair is the Victorian equivalent of what today we call “an airplane read” — a bit of consumable fluff that can occupy a few hours when trapped in an airplane seat. Immediately after this bit of faint praise, he next offers another with the admission that “the author has great cleverness,” but he immediately retracts it with the restatement that Disraeli actually has only a “a great deal of small cleverness.” True cleverness, says James, demands not only an “element of honest wisdom” but also getting into difficulties (by which James means plot complications) and then getting out of them. Unfortunately, “out of his complications he never emerges, so that in the end his talent lies gloriously entombed and enshrined in a vast edifice of accumulated mistakes. The reader persists, however, like a decent chief mourner at a funeral, and patiently waits until the last sod has been thrown.”

A major problem with Lothair, according to James, appears in “the author’s thoroughly careless and superficial treatment of his material,” which appears most obviously in his main character: Lothair “never attains anything like the needful consistency of a hero. One can hardly say that he is weak, for to be weak one must at least begin by being. Throughout the book Lothair remains but a fine name.” In addition to obvious problems with characterization, such as this “provoking immateriality of Lothair,” Disraeli’s book remains a “decided failure” as a “novel of purpose,” because its supposed "ruling idea,” the “encroachments of the Romish church,” completely lacks “conviction.” 

The review closes with James repeatedly slipping in the dagger. First, he emphasizes how “jewels, castles, horses, riches of every kind are poured into the story without mercy” producing a novel that could “have emanated only from a mind throughly under the dominion of an almost awful sense of the value of dukes and ducal possessions. That his dukes seem to us very stupid, and his duchesses very silly, is of small importance beside the fact that he has expressed with such lavish generosity the ducal side of the question.” Given the novelist’s long experience in the brutal world of politics with all its “opportunities for disenchantment,” isn’t it odd, wonders James, that Disraeli should express “an almost infantine joy in being one of the initiated among the dukes” (863; emphasis added). James, who opens the review by pointing out the way that the political partisanship of English reviews omitted careful attention to the novel itself, ends by demonstrated that a careful critical reading reveals its vulgarity.

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James, Henry. “Lothair” in Literary Criticism. New York: The Library of America, 1984. 869-63. This essay originally appeared in the August 1870 Atlantic Monthly.

Last modified 12 April 2020