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Benjamin Disraeli
by [?]

When Ben was sent to the Unitarian school at Walthamstow, aged fifteen, it was his first taste of school life. Up to this time his father had been his tutor. Now he found himself cast into that den of wild animals–an English school for boys. His Jewish name and features and his dandy ways and attire made him the instant butt of the playground. Ben very patiently surveyed his tormentors, waited to pick his man, and then challenged the biggest boy in the school to single combat. The exasperating way in which he coolly went about the business set his adversary’s teeth chattering before the call of “time.” The result of the fight was that, even if “Dizzy” was not thoroughly respected from that day forth, no one ever called, “Old clo’! Old clo’!” within his hearing. Of course it was not generally advertised that the lad had been taking boxing lessons from “Coster Joe” for three years, with the villainies of a boys’ school in view. In fact, boxing was this young man’s diversion, and the Coster on several occasions expressed great regret that writing and politics had robbed the ring of one who showed promise of being the cleverest welter-weight of his time.

The main facts in both “Vivian Gray” and “Contarini Fleming” are autobiographical. Like Byron, upon whom Disraeli fed, the author never got far away from himself.

It was not long before the intense personality of young Disraeli made itself felt throughout the Walthamstow school. The young man smiled at the pedant’s idolatry of facts, and seized the vital point in every lesson. He felt himself the superior of every one in the establishment, master included–and he was.

Before a year he split the school into two factions–those who favored Ben Disraeli, and those who were opposed to him. The master cast his vote with the latter class, and the result was that Ben withdrew, thus saving the authorities the trouble of expelling him. His leave-taking was made melodramatic with a speech to the boys, wherein impertinent allusions were made concerning all schoolmasters, and the master of Walthamstow in particular.

And thus ended the school life of Benjamin Disraeli, the year at Walthamstow being his first and last experience.

However, Ben was not indifferent to study; he felt sure that there was a great career before him, and he knew that knowledge was necessary to success. With his father’s help he laid out a course of work that kept him at his tasks ten hours a day. His father was a literary man of acknowledged worth, and mingled in the best artistic society of London. Into this society Benjamin was introduced, meeting all his father’s acquaintances on an absolute equality. The young man at eighteen was totally unabashed in any company; he gave his opinion unasked, criticized his elders, flashed his wit upon the guests and was looked upon with fear, amusement or admiration, as the case might be.

Froude says of him, “The stripling was the same person as the statesman at seventy, with this difference only, that the affectation which was natural in the boy was itself affected in the matured politician, whom it served well for a mask, or as a suit of impenetrable armor.”

* * * * *

That literature is the child of parents is true. That is to say, it takes two to produce a book. Of course there are imitation books, sort o’ wax figures that look like books, made through habit by those that have been many years upon the turf, and who work automatically; but every real, live, throbbing, pulsing book was written by a man with a woman at his elbow, or vice versa.

When twenty-one years of age Benjamin Disraeli produced “Vivian Gray.” The woman in the case was Mrs. Austen, wife of a prosperous London solicitor. This lady was handsome, a brilliant talker, a fine musician and an amateur artist of no mean ability. She was much older than Disraeli–she must have been in order to comprehend that the young man’s frivolity was pretense, and his foppery affectation. A girl of his own age, whose heart-depths had not been sounded by experience, would have fallen in love with the foppery (or else despised it–which is often the same thing); but Mrs. Austen, mature in years, with a decade of London “seasons” behind her, having met every possible kind of man Europe had to offer, discovered that the world did not know Ben Disraeli at all. She saw that the youth did not reveal his true self, and that instead of courting society for its own sake he had a supreme contempt for it. She intuitively knew that he was seething in discontent, and with prophetic vision she knew that his restless power and his ambition would yet make him a marked figure in the world of letters or politics, or both.