Venetia or the Poet's Daughter was published in May 1837, in the year of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne and Disraeli’s first election to Parliament. As Daniel S. Schwartz has remarked, ‘Disraeli was in desperate financial straits when he wrote Venetia, in part because Henrietta Temple, although his most successful novel since Vivian Grey, did not produce anything like the revenue he required to pay his debts’ (58). At first glance, it seems that Venetia does not contain any political themes or hidden autobiographical details, except for reverence for Lord Byron, but when one takes a closer look at the plot and the authorial commentary, it appears that Disraeli still writes in a veiled way about himself and his changing political loyalties. Venetia is the last of Disraeli’s exalted early novels and marks symbolically his rejection of Byron’s Whiggish radicalism and his sexual ambivalence.

In the early 1830s, Disraeli stood in several parliamentary elections as an independent Radical, but was each time defeated. During the Wycombe campaigns, the young Benjamin imitated Byron’s dandyish appearance and behaviour without any avail. In 1837, he perceived the incongruity of Byronic political radicalism and decided to become a progressive Tory in order to enter Parliament. Although Byron exerted influence on young Disraeli’s extravagant conduct and his early fiction, particularly on The Rise of Iskander, in Venetia the would-be MP began to distance himself from his great Romantic idol. In his ninth novel, Disraeli used for the last time the silver-fork genre in order to present an odd reconstruction of the lives of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who appear in the novel as exiled poets, Lord Cadurcis and Marmion Herbert. Disraeli may have been inspired to write about Byron’s and Shelley's lives after reading two contemporary books: Thomas Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (1830) and Leigh Hunt’s Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828).

The story of Venetia begins with an exquisite description of the Herberts’ family mansion at Cherbury, where the eponymous heroine is brought up by her mother in an idyllic surrounding, far away from the memories of her father.

Some ten years before the revolt of our American colonies, there was situate in one of our midland counties, on the borders of an extensive forest, an ancient hall that belonged to the Herberts, but which, though ever well preserved, had not until that period been visited by any member of the family, since the exile of the Stuarts. It was an edifice of considerable size, built of grey stone, much covered with ivy, and placed upon the last gentle elevation of a long ridge of hills, in the centre of a crescent of woods, that far overtopped its clusters of tall chimneys and turreted gables. Although the principal chambers were on the first story, you could nevertheless step forth from their windows on a broad terrace, whence you descended into the gardens by a double flight of stone steps, exactly in the middle of its length. These gardens were of some extent, and filled with evergreen shrubberies of remarkable overgrowth, while occasionally turfy vistas, cut in the distant woods, came sloping down to the south, as if they opened to receive the sunbeam that greeted the genial aspect of the mansion, The ground-floor was principally occupied by the hall itself, which was of great dimensions, hung round with many a family portrait and rural picture, furnished with long oaken seats covered with scarlet cushions, and ornamented with a parti-coloured floor of alternate diamonds of black and white marble. From the centre of the roof of the mansion, which was always covered with pigeons, rose the clock-tower of the chapel, surmounted by a vane; and before the mansion itself was a large plot of grass, with a fountain in the centre, surrounded by a hedge of honeysuckle.

Such a powerful description of the setting, just like that of Pemberley in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, testifies to Disraeli’s attachment to English stately houses, which exemplified in his view traditional English values. In Venetia Disraeli blends the biographies of the two Romantic poets and moves them from their own time back to the late eighteenth century. As William Flavelle Monypenny wrote:

The division of parts between the two poets is very curious and complex. The genius and personality of Byron are assigned to Cadurcis; but the external circumstances of Byron's life are apportioned almost equally between Cadurcis and Herbert. To Cadurcis are given the wilful childhood, the foolish mother, the sudden poetic success, the relations to Lady Caroline Lamb, who appears in the book as Lady Monteagle, and the outburst of popular hostility which closed Byron's career in England; but his unhappy marriage and subsequent relations to his wife and 'Ada, sole daughter of my house and heart,' are transferred to Herbert, who has the genius and personality of Shelley. Both poets are involved in a common end — the end, in fact, of Shelley. [367]

Lord Plantagenet Cadurcis resembles Byron from his childhood to the time of his (Byron’s) marriage, and Marmion Herbert, who is much older than Byron and Shelley, combines biographical traces of both poets. Plantagenet Cadurcis lives in the neighbouring estate with his excitable mother Lady Cadurcis, who resembles Byron’s mother Catherine. The boy, who is soon orphaned by his mother, is shown as an innocent, charming child, full of tenderness, sensibility and docility. He grows up together with Venetia, who treats him with an almost sisterly affection. Plantagenet admires her angelic beauty and modest demeanour with idolatrous devotion. Accidentally, Venetia discovers the portrait of her father in a locked room and finds out that he is alive. A family friend, the Reverend Dr Masham, tells her that she should not inquire about the whereabouts of her father who does not deserve her love.

'I have little to add,' said Dr. Masham, after a moment's thought; 'but this, however painful, it is necessary for you to know, that your father is unworthy of your mother, utterly; they are separated; they never can be reunited.' [I, 337]

Dr Masham’s words do not undermine Venetia’s natural curiosity about her absent father; she reads some of his poetry and is even more keen to find him.

The first part of the novel recounts a growing fondness between the beautiful Venetia and the young Lord Plantagenet Cadurcis. At eighteen Cadurcis falls in love with Venetia, but she rejects his proposal of marriage because she cherishes a growing devotion to her obscure father:

‘Plantagenet, you are rude, and unnecessarily so,' said Venetia. 'I repeat to you again, and for the last time, that all my heart is my father’s. It would be wicked in me to marry you, because I cannot love you as a husband should be loved. I can never love you as I love my father. However, it is useless to talk upon this subject. I have not even the power of marrying you if I wished, for I have dedicated myself to my father in the name of God; and I have offered a vow, to be registered in heaven, that thenceforth I would exist only for the purpose of being restored to his heart’. [II, 89-90]

Lady Annabel does not approve of the attachment between Plantagenet and her teenage daughter because she fears that the young lord may develop similar subversive ideas like her husband. Cadurcis, who later begins to emulate Herbert’s (Shelley’s) rebellious conduct and unfettering poetry, is dismayed by Venetia’s uncritical adoration of her father and lists a number of accusations against him.

'A genius and a poet!' exclaimed Lord Cadurcis, in a fury, stamping with passion; 'are these fit terms to use when speaking of the most abandoned profligate of his age? A man whose name is synonymous with infamy, and which no one dares to breathe in civilised life; whose very blood is pollution, as you will some day feel; who has violated every tie, and derided every principle, by which society is maintained; whose life is a living illustration of his own shameless doctrines; who is, at the same time, a traitor to his king and an apostate from his God!' [II, 91]

Shelley was criticised by conservative reviewers in a similar manner. The 1820 Blackwood’s affirmed that ‘his private life has been a disgrace to humanity, and his poetry a blot on the literature’ (Caine 199).

Marmion Herbert, like Shelley, studied in Oxford, where his tutors were appalled by his subversive views on politics, religion and morality. Like Shelley, he was a radical. He married Lady Annabel, but after the birth of their daughter Venetia, who reminds of Byron’s daughter Ada, he deserted her and his country and went to America to support the American Revolution. He was even promoted to the rank of general and sat in the US Congress. As a sign of recognition, his poetical works were reprinted in America and translated into French. His fame in England appealed particularly to Whigs, who advocated the supremacy of Parliament over monarchy.

The Whigs, who had become very factious, and nearly revolutionary, during the American war, suddenly became proud of their countryman, whom a new world hailed as a deliverer, and Paris declared to be a great poet and an illustrious philosopher. His writings became fashionable, especially among the young; numerous editions of them appeared, and in time it was discovered that Herbert was now not only openly read, and enthusiastically admired, but had founded a school. [II, 140 ]

Venetia’s refusal to marry Cadurcis prompts him to immerse himself in the world of poetry. Soon he becomes a famous rebellious poet admired uncritically, mostly by young women. This, however, involves him in a series of scandals and he has to leave England.

[H]e was the periodical victim, the scape-goat of English morality, sent into the wilderness with all the crimes and curses of the multitude on his head. Lord Cadurcis had certainly committed a great crime: not his intrigue with Lady Monteagle, for that surely was not an unprecedented offence; not his duel with her husband, for after all it was a duel in self-defence; and, at all events, divorces and duels, under any circumstances, would scarcely have excited or authorised the storm which was now about to burst over the late spoiled child of society. But Lord Cadurcis had been guilty of the offence which, of all offences, is punished most severely: Lord Cadurcis had been overpraised. [...] Cadurcis, in allusion to his sudden and singular success, had been in the habit of saying to his intimates, that he ‘woke one morning and found himself famous.’ He might now observe, ‘I woke one morning and found myself infamous.’ [II, 253-4]

Cadurcis’ affair with Lady Monteagle alludes, of course, to that of Byron with Lady Caroline Lamb. In Disraeli’s account, Cadurcis (Byron) leaves England not because of a sexual scandal but because of his notoriety as a rebellious poet.

Disraeli freely fictionalised the lives of Shelley and Byron, who were lionised by Whigs and despised by conservative circles. In Venetia Herbert and Cadurcis become involved in Whig political ideas, which Disraeli began to oppose vigorously from 1835, when he published one of his most important political texts, The Vindication of the English Constitution, addressed to Lord Lyndhurst (John Singleton Copley, 1772-1863), the former Tory Lord Chancellor and his future political protector.

Subsequently, the plot moves to Italy where Venetia goes with her mother to regain health after prolonged illness. Accidentally, she finds her missing father in a country inn and successfully reconciles her parents. The aged Marmion is so moved by the encounter and Venetia’s filial devotion that he yearns to reform himself as a father and husband. He abandons his Italian mistress, with whom he has lived in Petrarch’s house, and reunites with his wife. He even gives up his dedicated vegetarianism in order to please Lady Annabel.

You should have seen our Apennine breakfasts in the autumn, Lord Cadurcis,' said Herbert. 'Every fruit of nature seemed crowded before us. It was indeed a meal for a poet or a painter like Paul Veronese; our grapes, our figs, our peaches, our mountain strawberries, they made a glowing picture. For my part, I have an original prejudice against animal food which I have never quite overcome, and I believe it is only to please Lady Annabel that I have relapsed into the heresy of cutlets'. [III,190]

In Italy, Lord Cadurcis meets his former neighbour Marmion Herbert. Quickly they become devoted friends and the main focus of the plot revolves around their strong homosocial relationship and Herbert’s desire to give up his former radicalism and Romantic militancy. The reformed husband and father wants to return home to England and enjoy domestic bliss in the company of his forgiving wife and devoted daughter.

Herbert shook his hand very warmly. ‘I can assure you, Lord Cadurcis, you have not a more sincere admirer of your genius. I am happy in your society. For myself, I now aspire to be nothing better than an idler in life, turning over a page, and sometimes noting down a fancy. You have, it appears, known my family long and intimately, and you were, doubtless, surprised at finding me with them. I have returned to my hearth, and I am content. Once I sacrificed my happiness to my philosophy, and now I have sacrificed my philosophy to my happiness’. [III, 188]

Disraeli’s intention was, most likely, to domesticate the afterlives of two wayward Romantic geniuses, whose reputation did not fit the newly emerging Victorian standards. Venetia tactfully mitigates Byron’s and Shelley’s homo- and heteroerotic excesses and tones down their notoriety as radicals. Disraeli, who was fascinated by English aristocracy and its special role in society, emphasises that both Cadurcis (Byron) and Herbert (Shelley) are not only great poets, but also men of rank and property. He shows regret that they, as heirs of ancient families, did not fulfil their prime responsibility to become leaders of the nation. Instead, they continued their subversive and revolutionary politics overseas. When Cadurcis asks: ‘What is poetry but a lie, and what are poets but liars?’ Herbert replies: ‘You are wrong, Cadurcis’, [...] ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (III, 233). Interestingly, as Richard L. Stein has noted, Disraeli was familiar with the manuscript of Shelley’s still unpublished Defence of Poetry. Perhaps Disraeli strongly empathised with Shelley’s famous statement and may have even thought of himself that some day he — an imaginative writer — would transform into a legislator.

Although Cadurcis and Herbert eventually reject their former radicalism, they are not allowed to return home to England but are drowned in a boating accident when their boat capsises during a storm. By killing them both, Disraeli wanted to convey that there was no room for Romantic revolutionary idealism and homosocial relationships in the new political and social order. Finally, Venetia marries Lord Cadurcis’s cousin, George, a shrewd Tory politician, who lacks Plantagenet’s Romantic charisma and radicalism, but who has much common sense and fits perfectly into Disraeli’s pragmatic vision of politics. The novel closes with an adumbration of a new, reconciled one-nation. As Malcolm Kelsall has pointed out:

The domestic order of legitimate marriage is re-established, and the union of God and King and Law. Rather than class conflict, the division between the ‘two nations’ is healed by reconciliation, through love between individuals, and by the sexual intermixture of blood by legitimate generation. This is the Tory politics of sexuality. It is the conclusion of a writer, who, like his fictional man of the people, George Cadurcis, made the transgression between classes, and became not an ‘unacknowledged’ but a real legislator for mankind. [210]

In this interpretation George Cadurcis may stand for a new impersonation of Disraeli himself, who appeared in his earlier novels as Vivian Gray, the Young Duke, Contarini Fleming, Alroy, and Bohun. Disraeli’s odd fictionalisation of Byron’s and Shelley’s lives seems to have served at least two purposes. Firstly, Disraeli wanted to revive the memory of his Romantic wayward idols, especially Byron, who had already been dead for thirteen years, but he also wished to emphasise his break-off with political radicalism, Romantic dandyism and homosocial relationships with men like Edward Bulwer Lytton and Count D’Orsay. Disraeli aimed to become a shrewd politician and a respectable husband. Therefore, he married a rich widow, Mary-Anne Wyndham Lewis in 1839, and transformed himself from a pompous radical and effeminate dandy into a respectable heterosexual husband and one of the foremost statesmen of his age.

Although Venetia did not surpass the success of Henrietta Temple, it received quite favourable reviews. The Athenaeum hailed it for skilful composition: “This novel comes quickly upon the footsteps of Henrietta Temple. Though touched with some of the extravagance of that incoherent love story, the present is more temperately and carefully written, and exhibits much less of affectation and disordered ardour” (357). The Edinburgh Review found the first volume most interesting and well written but criticised Disraeli for his bad taste in introducing facts from the private lives of illustrious people who either died recently, or like Lord Melbourne (the husband of Lady Caroline Lamb) were still alive (69). Lady Teresa Guiccioli, Byron’s mistress, wrote a long review of Venetia in which she criticised Disraeli for mixing ‘truth and error, romance and history’, but complimented him for writing a deep, true and at time admirable study of the fine and so-ill judged character of Lord Byron’ (433). The twenty-first-century critic, Michael Flavin asserts that ‘Venetia 'remains an important text in Disraeli’s oeuvre as it traces the development of the romantic idealist into the social pragmatist’ (59). Venetia, he continues, “depicts a definite movement towards conformity, a journey which Disraeli himself was undertaking as he sought to renounce his own past as a dandy and gain respectability and influence in Parliament. Venetia is thus the final shedding of Disraeli’s own Byronic persona” (64).

Venetia, which occupies a unique place among semi-biographical studies of Byron and Shelley, can be read as Disraeli’s Byronic roman-à-clef and a nostalgic homage to the great Romantic rebel poets. Disraeli presents himself in the novel as a progressive Conservative who still retains his fascination with Byron and Shelley but realises that he must give up his former Romantic radicalism and eccentric behaviour in order to win the support of the Tories before his entry into politics.

References and Further Reading

Athenaeum, The. No. 499, Saturday, May 20, 1837.

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

Cronin, Richard. Romantic Victorians: English Literature, 1824-1840. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Disraeli, Benjamin, Venetia or the Poet's DaughterVivian Grey and Henrietta Temple in three volumes. London: Henry Colburn, 1837.

Edinburgh Review, The. October 1837, No CXXXIII.

Elfenbein, Andrew. Byron and the Victorians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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

Kelsall, Malcolm. ‘In Pious Times... A Tory Reading of Byron’s Don Juan’, in Aspects of Byron's Don Juan, ed. by Peter Cochran, Cambridge: Cambrige Scholars Publishing, 2014, 199-210.

Monypenny, William Flavelle and George Earle Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume: 1. Edition: Revised. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.

Caine, Hall T. Cobweb of Criticism. A Review of the First Reviewers of the ‘Lake’, ‘Satanic’ and ‘Cockney’ Schools. London: Elliot Stock, 1883.

Guiccioli, Teresa. ‘Reflections on Mr Disraeli’s Novel Venetia’, in: My Recollections of Lord Byron and Those Eye-Witnesses of His Life . Vol. Two. Translated by Hubert E.H. Jerninham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

O’Kell, Robert. “The Autobiographical Nature of Disraeli’s Early Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31 (1976), 260-66.

Richmond, Charles, Paul Smith, eds. The Self-fashioning of Disraeli, 1818-1851. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Schwartz, Daniel. Disraeli’s Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Last modified 2 April 2016