Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Disraeli's Disciple

Disraeli's Disciple: The Scandalous Life of George Smythe

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 440
  • Book Info
    Disraeli's Disciple
    Book Description:

    One of the most intriguing relationships in Victorian history is that between George Smythe (1818-1857), handsome aristocrat and iconoclast, and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), society novelist, Jewish outsider, and future British prime minister. While Smythe's friendship was central to Disraeli's rise to political power in the 1840s and 1850s, little has been written about Smythe's life beyond a few paragraphs in biographies and histories of the period.

    Mary S. Millar redresses this omission withDisraeli's Disciple, the first ever biography of Smythe. Drawing from extensive original research, Millar details the full extent of Smythe's early brilliance as a writer and politician with the Young England splinter group that fostered Disraeli's political rise. Millar's research reveals how heavily Disraeli relied on Smythe and how closely Disraeli's fictional characters were based on him: his looks and idealism inConingsby(1844), his duplicity inTancred(1847), and his charm inEndymion(1880). Millar identifies Smythe's incisive journalism for the first time, illustrating his fine grasp of European politics and the venom of his personal attacks. She also documents Smythe's numerous and often disreputable love affairs with remarkable partners: the French countess thirty years his senior, the Anglican priest who wrote him passionate poetry, the circus equestrienne he groomed for marriage to an Earl, and the Scottish heiress he married as he lay dying of tuberculosis.

    In addition to the portrait it paints of a fascinating man whose public life was as earnest and idealistic as his private life was shocking and titillating,Disraeli's Disciplealso provides new insights into the politics of this formative stage in British history. It is a captivating and enthralling biography that will change the way we view Victorian England.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7397-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Chronology 1818-75
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-2)
  6. Prologue: The Wild Ass’s Skin
    (pp. 3-4)

    On 9 November 1857, at Bradgate Park, Leicestershire, an emaciated young man was helped from the bed where he had lain for the last week and, although it was a Monday, went to church. He still had his startling blue eyes, but his good looks were gone and both face and body were wasted away to the bones. George Smythe, 7th Viscount Strangford, was thirty-nine, he was dying of consumption, and he was about to get married.

    He had known since he was eight years old what his end would be. He had even forecast approximately when - quoting Napoleon’s...

  7. 1 A Splendid Failure?
    (pp. 5-13)

    One of the most intriguing relationships in Victorian history is that between George Smythe, aristocrat, iconoclast, and riveting speaker, and Benjamin Disraeli, Jewish outsider, novelist, and future prime minister. A complex and often hidden one, it is central to Disraeli’s rise to political power in the 1840s and 1850s, and yet, because the sources which allow examination of it have been so scattered, it has remained unplumbed beyond a few over-familiar paragraphs in biographies of Disraeli. In an intimacy that lasted nearly twenty years, surviving betrayals, insults, and estrangements before Smythe’s early death in 1857, the chemistry between them was...

  8. 2 1400–1817: The Strangford Inheritance
    (pp. 14-20)

    GSS was as ambivalent about family tradition as about everything else; his pedigree was both inspiration and burden. Except for the disease that killed him, it was the only legacy he would ever have, but the mocking tone he adopted for it betrayed divided feelings. He knew the history recorded in the vast family archive, and before his health broke down planned a book about it.¹ The ancestral roll-call included famous names from all political factions, royalists like Endymion Porter, gentleman of the bedchamber to James I and confidential agent to Charles I, and republicans like Oliver Cromwell. GSS’s namesake,...

  9. 3 1818-26: Cradled in Commotions
    (pp. 21-31)

    George’s early years were marked by highly unusual events which, along with his parents’ difficult personalities, are the key to his later character. Three foreign postings by the time he was eight made the family unit a particularly closed one in which the enforced intimacy of long voyages or embassies under virtual siege fostered a focus on themselves. In all five children, self-absorption coupled with high intelligence resulted in a sometimes destructive capacity for self-analysis remarkable in a family of their class and time. Given the pattern of these years, it is not surprising that George grew up rootless and...

  10. 4 1826-35: George Smythe’s Schooldays
    (pp. 32-49)

    When George returned to England in 1826, the change from the close family unit was extreme. He was enrolled at Tonbridge School in Kent, while the other children alternated between their father in London and their grandmother in Clifton, near Bristol.¹ Subsequently, he spent many vacations away from home - with the Stanhopes at Chevening in Kent, with relatives, the Darells at Colehill, or with his grandmother.² George was close to her and to his younger aunt, Louisa Eld, wife of a Staffordshire landowner. What stability he knew came from these four households. At Chevening he had the run of...

  11. 5 1836-7: Herstmonceux and Cambridge
    (pp. 50-62)

    When George left Eton for a tutor, he had no guarantee he would go on to university. InConingsbyHarry the paragon needs no more tutelage; he spends the vacation between Eton and Cambridge travelling and investigating the industrial Midlands. Most public schoolboys, however, had to fill the academic gaps their prestigious schools had ignored, and George’s friends had already scattered to tutors. Cochrane and Lyttelton were now at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Manners was entered there while he worked hard at a daunting reading list. George also set his heart on Trinity, and if he had finished Eton on...

  12. 6 1837-8: Faber
    (pp. 63-75)

    GSS had other things on his mind. His return to Strangford must have been as stressful as he feared, since he promptly fell ill with a fever that kept him in bed for his two weeks at home. He did not join the election campaign at Cambridge, though inConingsbyDisraeli makes it the occasion for the famous set piece in which Coningsby excoriates decadent English Conservatism and derides Whig supremacy as a ‘dynasty of deception’ on a level with a corrupt Venetian oligarchy.¹ By election day, 25 July, GSS had been packed off to the Lake District for a...

  13. 7 1838-9: Pearls and Swine
    (pp. 76-87)

    Desolation was only part of GSS’s emotional turmoil. The way the relationship had developed had roused homoerotic feelings absent from his friendships with Manners and Cochrane. The aggression with which he plunged into sexual adventures in the next few years was his way of rejecting these feelings and proving himself indubitably heterosexual. Nevertheless, Faber was still his intellectual mentor, and his equally fervid activity in political debate that autumn continued to reflect Faber’s ideas, extremism, High Church sympathies, and iconoclasm. In public and in private he showed a new arrogance and intolerance, intended to demonstrate conviction but covering inner insecurity....

  14. 8 1840: Lady Tankerville
    (pp. 88-104)

    When GSS quit Cambridge to make London his new centre, it was for a secret reason. Outwardly contrite, he told Whytehead, ‘I became sadly conscious, how weighed down - I was - by the burden of dross & dirt which I had imposed on myself.’¹ In actuality, life acquired an intensity in London that it had not had since the two summers in the Lakes with Faber. The January cold brought on another facial palsy, but he refused to be dispirited. He was nominally studying for his degree, while Manners read for the Bar - ‘algebra,’ Manners commented bitterly, ‘was...

  15. 9 1841: Heaven-Born Statesman or Devil-Born Orator
    (pp. 105-117)

    In the first week of 1841, it seemed a further strand was about to weave itself into the already tangled web. Lord Tankerville fell dangerously ill, presenting to Manners’s agitated imagination an appalling new scenario: ‘if he dies, what may not happen?’ Might the infatuated GSS commit social and political suicide by marrying the consolable widow? The thought also occurred to Strangford: ‘I don't think that,then,my chance of handing down my old Viscountcy to a tenth generation, will be worth much - the days of miraculous conception, and Joanna Southcote are past and gone.’¹ Both should have known...

  16. 10 1841: I Am a Very Zero
    (pp. 118-134)

    What was it like to be a newly elected MP in the spring of 1841? Rather (to adapt GSS’s nautical style) like launching a skiff into a rapid current, only to find round the next bend a stagnant pond. The House of Commons GSS entered had 658 seats, the same as before Reform, and was characterized as much by its tenacious hold on the old model of landed privilege as by alterations to its makeup. The very building suggested looking backward in a new age: the fabric was completely new, just rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1834, but its...

  17. 11 1842: Young England
    (pp. 135-148)

    For GSS it was always darkest before the dawn: 1842 would be the first year of his brief heyday. The atmosphere was right. Over the winter, after the fourth successive bad harvest, scores of requests for help flooded in to MPs from their constituents, while the papers ran daily reports of the evidence presented from manufacturing districts to the Committee for National Distress. Peel’s intention to modify the Corn Laws was an open secret long before it was announced at the opening of Parliament on 3 February and formally presented to the House on the 9th. Reduction of duty on...

  18. 12 1843: Worrying Peel - and Reading Casanova
    (pp. 149-165)

    Between political challenge and sexual adventure, 1843 typical pattern for GSS’s years in politics. Strategic visits to the Hope brothers, at Henry Hope's Surrey mansion, the Deepdene, and then Beresford Hope’s at Bedgebury, alternated with episodes in his deteriorating relationship with Corise. When she and GSS dined at Gore House the previous autumn, D’Orsay noticed she was anxious that no one mention de Bauffremont’s name, suggesting she had something to hide.¹ GSS too was beginning to look elsewhere. At one of Lady Blessington’s parties (also at Gore House), he met another Frenchwoman, twenty-eight- year-old Eugénie Mayer, stepdaughter of Wellington's aide-de-camp,...

  19. 13 1844: Coningsby and Historic Fancies
    (pp. 166-180)

    The year 1844 began badly. Like Disraeli’s Tancred, Bateson realized his dream of reaching Jerusalem, but in the New Year word came that he had died there of a fever. The Young England circle was profoundly shocked. ‘Of all our Cambridge set,’ Manners thought, ‘he was the most unspoilt by the world, the most true.’ To Cochrane, the death marked ‘the first blank in the happy circle ... the first touch of frost, which tells us that the summer is gone, and that there is a certain winter approaching.’ For GSS, the deaths of Bateson and Whytehead, his former tutor,...

  20. 14 1844: The Pursuit of Psyche
    (pp. 181-194)

    All the media and social attention had an unexpected side effect.Coningsby,Disraeli observed, was ‘wonderfully popular with the ladies,’ and GSS’s own book (thanks to those ‘pretty’ sonnets) further attracted women smitten with his fictional counterpart. InAngela Pisani,Averanche’s first book has a similar effect on the ‘butterflies and moths who flutter towards flash and ephemeral flames.’¹ Like Averanche, GSS received numerousbillets doux(which he used to light his cigars), but the fan mail suggested to Disraeli that Strangford's hopes for GSS’s marriage might be feasible after all. Obviously, GSS was no longer a ‘detrimental’ but a...

  21. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  22. 15 1845: The Double Game
    (pp. 195-205)

    The gap between GSS’s public and his private lives was widening. People knew about the scandals of Corise and Eugenie, but only Disraeli, Strangford, and possibly Londonderry knew about the courtship fiascos of 1844. During his latest illness, he went to ground in respectable Harley Street, under Strangford's heavy thumb but conveniently close to Mayfair and Disraeli at Grosvenor Gate. In the New Year Strangford implored Londonderry not to blab ‘Georges follies and freaks’ to Northumberland, who would have been furious at GSS’s dallying with Lovaine’s intended, Louisa Drummond.¹ No one but Disraeli and Cochrane knew that GSS, despite his...

  23. 16 1846: Falling Upstairs - and Down
    (pp. 206-219)

    Here was a familiar dilemma: personal loyalty or political expediency? Seven years ago, in the Cambridge Stewardship election, GSS had abandoned Lyttelton, his friend, for Lyndhurst, the political power. On the other hand, for four years he had resisted his father’s pressure to leave Young England. What would he do now? Should he stay loyal to Disraeli, his ‘Cid & Captain,’ or shift camps to the man who had been their joint target, Prime Minister Peel? More than he could possibly have known, his decision would affect his entire future.

    In 1846, hardly anyone would have predicted Disraeli’s subsequent political...

  24. 17 1847: With a Tongue and a Pen of His Own
    (pp. 220-230)

    Yet by spring GSS was back in London. As often happened, his health improved with rest, and defiance conquered despondency. He knew that this was a turning point. If he were willing to retreat into decent obscurity for a year or two until the scandal died down, he might resume a conventional political career, but he refused. Every bout of ill health reminded him that time was too short. As Waldershare puts it inEndymion:‘“One of my constituents sent me a homily this morning, the burthen of which was, I never thought of death. The idiot! I never think...

  25. 18 1848-9: Very Like Assassination
    (pp. 231-243)

    Eighteen forty-eight became known as ‘the year of revolutions.’ From Sicily in January, they spread across Europe, to the German and Italian states, Poland, and other smaller principalities. The Austrian attaché in Paris, Comte Rodolphe Apponyi, predicted: ‘Europe appears to be on the eve of a general combustion. It can only end in disorder and pillage.’¹ For all his own forecast, GSS thought that France would escape: Guizot, he told Manners, was ‘stronger than ever, & the [royal] dynasty inexpugnable.’ He could see how critical affairs were - socialism was rousing an industrial class as exploited as that in the...

  26. 19 1850-2: Diplomatic Moves
    (pp. 244-255)

    In the early months of the new decade illness seemed all about GSS, and hyperactivity gave way to exhaustion and depression. The excitement of his frenetic new life, which had powered him for the last two years, was ebbing, and he was starting to sink into another trough. He was nearing a more serious phase of his disease, and his low spirits were not helped by the ailments of those closest to him. Older family members had recently died: his aunt Eliza Sullivan (Strangford’s sister) and his uncle Sir John Burke (his mother’s brother), In Constantinople, family history was repeating...

  27. 20 1852: Something about The Duke
    (pp. 256-267)

    There was still something to hope for in the political world. ‘Rather earlier than usual,’The Timeswearily reported on 21 February 1852, ‘the Ministry is out.’¹ In the seesaw of political power, once again Disraeli and his chief (now Lord Derby) defeated Russell’s government, and this time Derby rose to the challenge. By 11 pm on the 22nd, he and Disraeli had put together a cabinet, and on the 23rd Derby was prime minister and Disraeli chancellor of the Exchequer. GSS, who had been travelling in Normandy and Brittany, scented the news and made a point of being back...

  28. 21 1853-5: The Stage-Box of My Soul
    (pp. 268-283)

    There was no question that GSS’s health was deteriorating; all through 1853 it was ‘miserable.’¹ His doctor could prescribe little beyond seaside resorts - Torquay, Brighton, Eastbourne, the Isle of Wight. He had energy only to look out extracts of material for Dizzy to use in Parliament, mostly pieces that worked against Aberdeen, accusing him of inconsistency and duplicity. Disraeli, on the other hand, was brimming with energy, ready to attack the coalition, inappropriately nicknamed, after an earlier government, the ‘Ministry of all the Talents.’ ‘You,’ GSS told him, ‘are the One talent... and - like Canning in ‘27, you...

  29. 22 1856-7: Bed-Ridden Lovelace
    (pp. 284-296)

    Still the list of GSS’s affairs kept growing. Sometime in 1856 his promiscuity finally cost him Manners’s sympathy. Manners could just bring himself to overlook his friend’s philandering with single women, but not (as his attitude to the liaison with Corise shows) with married ones. This latest adventure concerned the wife of a mutual friend; the husband's name (possibly a nickname) is indecipherable in GSS’s atrocious hand-writing. GSS himself waxed righteously indignant when Manners - ‘that funereal Pharisee,’ - indicated his disapproval: ‘I flirted once with Sp[ossle]s wife,’ he snorted. ‘As if he (Sp.) had not as many flirtation‘s connived...

  30. Afterwards
    (pp. 297-304)

    The obituaries were few, brief, and non-committal. Almost uniformly they struck a note of pious regret: what a pity that GSS’s early promise had never been fulfilled. The longest - two-thirds of a column on theMorning Postsocial page - was also the least judgmental, a feat it accomplished by shifting its focus away from its subject at every opportunity. The few words on his work in politics and literature were eclipsed by as many more lines on his father’s achievements, while the details of his birth occupied less than a fifth of a sentence documenting his mother’s genealogy....

  31. Notes
    (pp. 305-344)
  32. Bibliography
    (pp. 345-356)
  33. Index
    (pp. 357-380)