How women made Benjamin Disraeli

Hero of the 19th-century Tory party, Benjamin Disraeli's many amorous conquests, and their many complications, illuminate the startling contradictions of the man who changed Victorian Britain for good.

Caricature of Benjamin Disraeli.
Caricature of Benjamin Disraeli. Credit: VM/BT / Alamy Stock Photo

On 27 March 1867, Benjamin Disraeli had cause to celebrate. For over two decades the Conservative Party had been restricted to three short periods of weak, minority government. That night Disraeli alone had managed to carry a major piece of reforming legislation through the House of Commons that would extend the vote to large numbers of previously disenfranchised working people, with the support of significant sections of the opposition. It would inaugurate the period of mass-participation politics that would come to define British political society.

It was a personal triumph as much as a political one. Disraeli had spent decades mired in scandal, evading bankruptcy, and in almost permanent opposition. He had now triumphed where his great rival William Gladstone had failed. This legislative victory would seal confirm his dominance of the Conservative Party: he was to become prime minister within the year. Following a triumphant celebration at the Carlton Club, Disraeli finally made it home to his wife, Mary-Anne. To his delight, he happened upon her waiting for him with a Fortnum & Mason pie and a bottle of champagne. ‘Why my dear’, he told her, ‘you are more like a mistress than a wife.’

Disraeli should know: mistresses had been crucial in satisfying his political ambitions. Disraeli’s life had been marked by a series of sexual and pecuniary scandals that revolved around a coterie of married women whom he leeched from  – financially and emotionally. When, within a year of the 1867 Second Reform Act, Disraeli was invited by his admirer Queen Victoria to be prime minister he reflected that he had finally ‘climbed to the top of the greasy pole’. It had been a long climb.

Unlike his great rival Gladstone – who had been educated at Eton, elected to Parliament soon after university, in government in his twenties and a happy patriarch to a family of ten, Disraeli’s life was not quite so charmed. While from a literary family he was not sent to one of the prestigious public schools – unlike his younger brothers – and was articled to a firm of solicitors aged 17.

Disraeli’s early career decisions were a disaster. Aged 20 he borrowed ruinous sums to invest with a consortium in South American stock. He lost heavily, accruing debts that would haunt him for decades, compounding in interest and misery. Seeking to rectify his financial and social standing the young Disraeli then involved himself in a project for a new Tory newspaper, behaving in such a self-aggrandising manner that he managed to alienate every one of his collaborators. This could have been a manageable situation, had he not immediately gone on to mock former partners so obviously in his first novel, Vivien Grey, published when he was just 21 in a desperate attempt to drum up some funds. This total alienation of his political peers – the few willing to work with this raffish and near-bankrupt Jew – created life-long tensions for him within key sections of the Tory establishment, hampering his efforts to acquire a seat for the next decade. Worse still, the novel was published anonymously as a ‘silver fork’ novel, and relied on the reader believing it to be an ‘inside scoop’ from a bored and slightly spiteful dandy. The numerous solecisms and gaffes instead revealed the author’s total lack of familiarity with the English upper classes. Disraeli’s authorship was outed, and he widely mocked in press and in society with a bad name for business, taste,  and a level of debt that would dog him for decades.

The nervous breakdown which followed lasted for three years.

Disraeli had only been able to produce Vivien Grey due to the encouragement and assistance of an older, married woman, Sara Austen. Mrs Austen had fallen for the young Disraeli, and encouraged her husband to act as Disraeli’s creditor. This arrangement marked the start of a long pattern for Disraeli of using older women for emotional comfort  –  and their husbands for financial support. The Austens remained part of Disraeli’s social circle while they were financing him, but in his later 20s and 30s – as he began leeching off other women, and the Austens called in their debt – he eventually cut them altogether, bored by the company of a couple with little left to offer him.

Disraeli’s next conquest brought even more complications. Another older, married woman, Clara Bolton, had become his next mistress, operating behind the scenes in London, attempting – and failing – to influence party managers to obtain a parliamentary seat for her younger paramour. The relationship quickly soured. Her husband was a doctor who had treated Disraeli for an illness that may well have been embarrassing in and of itself. Not content with the pay of a medical professional, Dr Bolton had set up a sideline in pimping out his wife. Disraeli was unlikely to have been paying for the services of Mrs Bolton – he preferred to extract money from his mistresses – but Dr Bolton’s sideline caused further complications for the political hopeful. The year after Disraeli’s affair began Dr Bolton  started renting his wife to a middle-aged Baronet, Sir Francis Sykes. This needn’t have caused any major rupture in Disraeli’s relationship with Clara Bolton, had it not been for the complicating factor that Disraeli was simultaneously carrying on an affair with Henrietta Sykes – Sir Francis‘s wife.

Disraeli’s three-year affair with Henrietta seems to have generated genuine and sincere feeling of love – or at least limerence – on Disraeli’s part. It continued for years, and proved fruitful to him both politically and financially. It provided the material for another novel, Henrietta Temple, which helped him manage some of his more egregious debts. It was also the means for his political advancement, as he was sharing Henrietta Sykes not merely with her husband, but also with the former Tory Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst. A well-known rake, Lyndhurst bonded with Disraeli over their association with Henrietta, and proved to be his most important early patron. Under Lyndhurst’s influence, Disraeli was finally able to secure a seat in Parliament aged 32. Although his early career in Parliament was a disaster, it did provide one relief: while in session, MPs could not be arrested for debt. Financial ruin was not the only danger Disraeli ran in those days. In 1836 he made the gross error of introducing Henrietta Sykes to his family in their country seat, forgetting that the moral expectations of Bradenham were very different from those of London. The outrage this caused amongst his neighbours clung to him, like debt, for decades. It was not merely that she was a married woman, but that she was simultaneously the mistress of Lord Lyndhurst, the man who had contrived to obtain Disraeli a seat in consequence of the association.

In the 19th century, most constituencies sent two MPs to Parliament. Disraeli’s Tory colleague was Wyndham Lewis, whose wife Disraeli had charmed in order to secured his chances of being the secondary candidate. Within a year of the election Lewis had died, and Disraeli immediately moved to seduce the rich widow. The courtship was a success, and they were married a year later.

At the age of 34, with a wife 12 years older, Disraeli found himself financially stable for the first time in his life. But he still wasn’t comfortable. During his courtship, it became apparent that the terms of Mary-Anne’s estate were not what he had originally envisaged. Whereas Disraeli initially thought he would acquire her entire property, it transpired prior to the marriage that she merely had a life interest in her late husband’s fortune. For the first time in his life, Disraeli would subordinate avarice to love. Imploring her to marry him, he was frank about his original intentions: ‘I avow, when I first made my advances to you, I was influenced by no romantic feelings.’ She accepted. The marriage appears to have been happy and faithful – if not as profitable as Disraeli had hoped. Even ten years into his marriage, as leader of the Conservative party in the House of Commons, Disraeli would still find himself the victim of (successful) blackmail attempts from former creditors. When Disraeli was offered a peerage in 1868, as is customary for former prime ministers, he refused it for himself, but requested that his wife be made a peer in her own right: the new Viscountess Beaconsfield was often the subject of gentle mockery in society for her numerous gaffes, but no-one ever mocked her in Disraeli’s presence. He was devastated when she died after 33 years of marriage.

Although faithful, Disraeli’s ability to attract the affection of older women – and monetise this affection – had not disappeared during his marriage. Mrs Brydges Willyams, an elderly Jewish widow, struck up a correspondence and friendship with Disraeli around 12 years into his marriage. She appears to have been particularly attracted to him on account of his Jewish heritage. Disraeli became a frequent correspondent, and his letters to her – inevitably addressed to ‘My dearest’ – provide much information about his political and social life. He and his wife would make an annual pilgrimage to her home in Torquay, and her death 12 years after the correspondence began – by which time she was well into her nineties – provided Disraeli with a significant financial legacy, permitting him to pay off many of the debts which had dogged his adult life. She requested, and was permitted, to be buried in Hughenden Manor, Disraeli’s country seat.

The death of Disraeli’s wife left no such legacy. Her estate passed to her first husband’s family, and Disraeli lost the financial security he had enjoyed since his marriage. He recovered some of his financial position by returning to novels – with much greater success than his earlier literary endeavours. He recovered his emotional position and soon found himself in another quasi-maternal devotion by immediately falling for a grandmother in her fifties by the name of Lady Bradford.

Like every woman Disraeli had fallen for, she was already married. Although this had not proved an obstacle in his youth, he was now approaching 70, and although his correspondence with the married Lady was constant and affectionate, she does not appear to have been seduced by the elderly statesman. Disraeli remained true to form by proposing to her sister in an attempt to be closer to her. The offer was politely refused.

When Disraeli died in 1881, his last will and testament refused the state funeral that had been offered to him. Gladstone was dismissive: ‘as he lived, so he died’, believing it to be an exercise in sham humility. In respect to Disraeli and his women, Gladstone was closer than he realised. Both the loving and the mercenary attitude to the fairer sex were represented in his burial in the vault at the Churchyard of Hughenden. On the one side of Disraeli lay the wife he had loved for 33 years. On the other lay the remains of Mrs Brydges Willyams, the elderly woman he had encouraged for an inheritance. Disraeli, as ever, was torn between that which he was devoted to, and that which furthered his self-interest.


David Coates