John Vincent. Disraeli. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1990. 67-70.
- Most modem critics, writes Lord Blake, would attribute
no merit whatever to The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833),
‘which is written in a deplorable sort of prose-poetry and
is perhaps the most unreadable of his romances’ (Disraeli,
108). Schwarz calls Alroy ‘Disraeli’s ultimate heroic
fantasy’ (42; rpt. pp. 415-27); important for the author,
though less so for his readers, because the book was not
as unsuccessful as its predecessor Contarini Fleming,
earning Disraeli £300 against Fleming’s £18. It proved,
however, that Disraeli was never likely to be a popular
success again so long as he said what he thought or wrote
in the way he wanted. The public did not want Disraeli neat;
Alroy was a landmark in the retreat towards the conventional
story-telling of Henrietta Temple and Venetia.
- At first sight, Alroy is poor man’s Sir Walter
Scott, with a touch of poor man’s Byron. It is a historical
novel, in full period costume. David Alroy, a medieval prince
of the Jewish captivity, overthrows his Muslim masters and
sets up a Jewish empire of Asia, based on Baghdad, before
he is then overthrown. He dies a Jewish martyr, preferring
death to apostasy. Its stage effects require no comment.
There is much cleaving of skulls, flashing of scimitars,
and use of magic talismans. The din of battles resounds.
If tales of adventure are unreadable, then Alroy
is unreadable. The psychology is equally predictable. Alroy
is the standard Byronic hero, ‘a mind to whose supreme volition
the fortunes of the world would bow like fate’ (Pt8Ch1).
Subjectively, he has a troubled mind: ‘I know not what I
feel, yet what I feel is madness’ (p. 51). He cannot sleep,
yet seeks ‘glory, eternal glory’, and finds the necessary
therapy for his mal du siècle in action. ‘Say what
they like, man is made for action,’ is his doctrine (Pt7Ch14)—and
perhaps the author’s too, for Disraeli later wrote that
Alroy represented his ‘ideal ambition.’ The connection between
mental disturbance, even weakness, and human greatness is
just beneath the surface.
- Alroy is important because of its Jewishness.
Of Disraeli’s first seventeen or so titles (those before
Coningsby, with its Jewish sage Sidonia), it is the
only one with significant Jewish content. To Disraeli its
merit lay in its being ‘the celebration of a gorgeous incident
in the annals of that sacred and romantic people from whom
I derive my blood.’ He conveyed a true sense of Jewish lowliness:
‘in Jerusalem, our people speak only in a whisper’ (Pt6Ch2).
Do not blame Muslim oppression, he adds; Christian (or Jewish)
intolerance, Disraeli makes clear, would have been worse:
‘A Turk is a brute, but a Christian is a demon’ (Pt6Ch2).
There was nothing anti-Muslim in Disraeli’s revivalism.
- Hope unfulfilled is at the heart of Disraeli's Judaism,
as it was also of his personal affairs when, as a young
man at a loose end, he produced Alroy. When he wrote:
‘if thou were greeted only with the cuff and the curse;
if thou didst rise each morning only to feel existence to
be dishonour, and to find thyself marked out among surrounding
men as something foul and fatal; if it were thy lot . .
. at best to drag on a mean and dull career, hopeless and
aimless . . . and this all too with a keen sense of thy
intrinsic worth, and a deep conviction of superior race’
(Pt5Ch4), Disraeli could be speaking either of his youthful
débâcles or of the lot of the Jew everywhere. The two experiences,
psychological and social, merge.
- Disraeli’s Jews are ‘a proud and stiff-necked race, ever
prone to rebellion’ (Pt7Ch4). They are warlike. They scoff
at long rabbinical treatises. Disraeli’s ideal of Jewish
regeneration is decidedly military and is assisted by ‘agents
in every court, and camp, and cabinet’ (Pt7Ch11). (Would
Disraeli have been so drawn to Jewishness had he not seen
it as a vehicle for his beloved talent for conspiracy?)
The drama of Alroy lies in the struggle of Jew against
Jew. The victorious Alroy is a multiculturalist, as it were.
He wishes to found a powerful Middle Eastern state in which
Arab and Jew can live at ease with each other. To this end,
he marries a Muslim princess, swears four Muslim nobles
into his Council, and generally sets himself up as a liberal
figure. ‘Universal empire’, he declares, ‘must not be founded
on sectarian prejudices and exclusive rights’ (Pt8Ch1).
- Such rationalism, however magnanimous, hardly pleases
the Jewish fundamentalists. Alroy wishes ‘Baghdad to be
my Sion’; he sneers at the thought of being ‘the decent
patriarch of a pastoral horde’ (Pt8Ch1) in impoverished
Palestine. Theocracy in Israel, or empire in Baghdad; the
rebuilding of the Temple, or military rejuvenation—these
were not difficult alternatives on which to decide.
- But Alroy fails, because he is no fanatic. He represents
power unsupported by imagination. Against Alroy’s imperial
dream, his opponent the High Priest urges: ‘You ask me what
I wish: my answer is, a national existence’ (Pt8Ch6). Alroy
is Disraeli’s anti-imperialist novel.
- Which side was Disraeli on? It is hard to know, perhaps
because he changed his mind half-way through. At first there
seems no doubt. Alroy’s secular realism is good; the High
Priest’s brooding intensity is sinister. Alroy is a boyish
hero, a knight in shining armour. Yet by the end of the
book the dying Alroy speaks in traditionalist, not latitudinarian,
terms of Jewish destiny: ‘My people stand apart from other
nations, and ever will’ (Pt10Ch22). Here, surely, it is
Alroy, the liberal figure, who has come round to the High
Priest’s unshakeable belief: ‘We cannot mingle with them
and yet be true to Him. We must exist alone. To preserve
that loneliness, is the great end and essence of our law’
(Pt8Ch6). Besides struggle and spiritual purity, Disraeli
offered, not without approval, a third form of Jewish redemption:
upward social mobility based on uncompromising accommodation
with existing power: ‘Take my experience, child, and save
yourself much sorrow . . . Freedom and honour are mine,
but I was my own messiah’ (Pt5Ch4). So says the apostate
court physician, confidant of the mighty, a calmly wise
forerunner of Sidonia. Apostasy can be more than a Jewish
vocation; it can itself be Messianic.
- In Alroy Disraeli stated three predicaments: that
of an oppressed race; that of a frustrated ambitious young
man; and that of Jewish exclusiveness and the accommodation
of Arabs (or indeed, political reality of any kind). All
such questions are still with us. Disraeli had no solutions;
but to find the West Bank in a light romance of 1833 is
- Disraeli's prose poetry does not work, they say. Be that
as it may, Disraeli wrote Alroy as a modernist in
revolt against literary convention, and in the belief that
he was a literary genius. His attempt to break the bounds
of the customary language of fiction was ahead of its time.
It would never do to forget that Disraeli was as ambitious
in literature as he was in politics.