Regina Akel - Benjamin Disraeli and John Murray: The Politician, the Publisher, and the Representative. Reviewed by Robert O'Kell

Thursday, April 6, 2017 - 14:43

Akel, Emily, Benjamin Disraeli and John Murray: The Politician, the Publisher, and the Representative (Liverpool University Press, 2016). xiv + 206 pp. (Hdbk., £85.00).

Robert O’Kell

University of Manitoba

The subject of this book, the publisher John Murray’s attempt in 1825–26 to start a newspaper that would rival The Times, is a fascinating story of great ambitions, plots and counterplots, mysteries, betrayals, calamitous failure, and slanderous disclosures. No wonder that it has been taken up many times. Samuel Smiles in A Publisher and His Friends: Memoir of John Murray (1891), Andrew Lang in The Life and Letters of John Gibson Lockhart (1897), and W. F. Monypenny in Volume I of The Life of Benjamin Disraeli (6 vols., with George Earle Buckle, 1910–20) all discussed the attempt to found The Representative at some length. And more recently, Disraeli’s other biographers—B. R. Jerman (1960), Robert Blake (1966), Sarah Bradford (1982), Stanley Weintraub (1993), Jane Ridley (1995), and Robert O’Kell (2013)—have all provided succinct analyses of the matter. 

Regina Akel’s account is fuller and rounder than any of those listed above by virtue of the fact that she tries to incorporate the perspectives and primary sources of many of them into her own discussion. But for several reasons, this book is more likely to satisfy general readers than it is scholarly ones for it falls short of the expectations for a scholarly work in format, structure, and execution.  

General readers will no doubt benefit from the alphabetical list of the “Dramatis Personae” (the “Main Players” and “Secondary Players”) and the Appendices dealing with tangential information about two of the main players, John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson Croker. They are also more likely to find helpful and interesting the chapter entitled “Portrait of a Newspaper,” which is mostly a reprinting of items from the paper that have little directly to do with its failure. In that regard, Akel’s discussion doesn’t really get beyond what other historians and biographers have said. There isn’t much mystery about why the paper failed: it was launched prematurely, the printing arrangements were awkward, there was never a fully-committed editor in charge, the first few leading articles were bland and dull, the political posture presented in its pages was inconsistent, sufficient advertising failed to materialize, and the circulation soon dropped off. 

Nor is there much mystery about why, after being at the center of things for several months, the young Benjamin Disraeli was suddenly no longer involved in the project. Once Lockhart had moved to London and his relationship with Murray became established and defined by his being not the editor of the newspaper but rather the editor of the Quarterly Review (also owned and published by Murray), Disraeli’s exaggerations, intrigues, and duplicity came to light. In his conversations and correspondence with Murray and Lockhart, he had overestimated his own power and played off against one another the publisher, the potential editor, and the regular contributors to the Quarterly. As the melodramatic scene in Vivian Grey, in which the Marquess of Carabas banishes Vivian (Book IV, ch. 4), attests, Disraeli could at least imagine the nature and extent of Murray’s grievance once he saw the consequences of his protégé’s presumptions and betrayals. 

Akel enters new scholarly territory when she claims that Murray was backed in his new venture by a secret “cabal” of Ultra-Tories led by the Duke of York and the Marquess of Hertford, both of whom were eager to exploit the split in the Tory Party over the question of Catholic Emancipation. “The Representative [sic]was,” she says, “conceived as a bulwark against [Foreign] Secretary George Canning and his progressive stance regarding slavery, protectionism, and universal suffrage” (9–10). Akel’s support for this claim is an undated, anonymous note (in a feminine hand) that was sent to Canning in the summer of 1825 which comments on the proposed newspaper’s hostility to him and lists those involved, including Lockhart as the editor-to-be. She takes this note, which is included in Stapleton’s 1887 edition Some Official Correspondence of George Canning (I, 377–78), as proof of the Ultra-Tory plot (25). Lord Hertford was a known enemy of Canning, and he may well have conspired with friends to damage the latter’s policies and ambitions. But Akel’s claim that the Ultra-Tories influenced Murray’s plans is mostly supported by speculative language rather than specific evidence, and the list she gives of those in the Hertford-York “cabal” doesn’t make much sense. One of them, John Wilson Croker, though a friend of Lord Hertford, opposed the project once he learned about it because of his own failure with The Guardian just two years earlier. And the proposed editor, Lockhart, didn’t know anything about the plans for the paper until, in mid-September, he received a letter from William Wright, Murray’s lawyer, and Disraeli showed up on his doorstep to elaborate on them.  

But other evidence (not properly considered by Akel) suggests that, at least initially, Murray envisioned a newspaper that would strongly support Canning.  The publisher’s original financial partners in the establishment of the paper, John Diston Powles and Disraeli (who, it was agreed, were each to contribute one-quarter of the costs), were both pursuing speculative investments in Mexican and South American mining companies. The pamphlets that Disraeli wrote, puffing their stocks, had been written at the request of Powles and published by Murray (who also bought some shares), and these interests aligned perfectly with Canning’s foreign policy, which was strongly in favor of British recognition of and investment in the new South American republics. Wright’s first, cautionary letter to Lockhart (12 September 1825) mentions Canning, which suggests that the Foreign Secretary’s name had come up in the discussion that Murray, Disraeli, and Wright had just previous to the letter being sent (27). Akel reads Wright’s phrase, “Murray and his friends,” as evidence of the Ultra-Tory cabal, but it more likely refers to Disraeli, Powles, and the influential M.P., Charles Ellis. This is supported by Disraeli’s long, confidential letter to Murray from Scotland about his negotiations with Lockhart and his father-in-law, Sir Walter Scott, in which he (Disraeli) refers to Canning in code as “+” and to Ellis (Canning’s closest friend, later Lord Seaford) as “+’s and our friend.” The context is the idea of arranging a seat in parliament for Lockhart, which Disraeli said was essential to persuading Lockhart to move to London unless Murray can think of an alternative (Benjamin Disraeli Letters, I, #28, Wednesday, [21] September 1825, 39—erroneously dated 25 September by Smiles and Akel).

Akel does not investigate whether Canning took any action upon receiving the anonymous warning. Scott’s and Lockhart’s letters reveal, however, that, just three weeks before Murray sent Disraeli off to Scotland in mid-September 1825 to try to persuade Lockhart to be the supervising editor of the as yet unnamed newspaper, Scott and Lockhart had met Canning at Storrs, the estate of Colonel John Bolton, M.P., on the shore of Lake Windermere where there was a large summer gathering of political and socially prominent guests.

 Canning had, indeed, written to Scott (who was in Ireland) on the 24th of July, asking Sir Walter to join him and Ellis at Storrs—knowing, of course, that Scott was travelling with Lockhart (his son-in-law) and two other family members. Scott, Ellis, and Canning had long been friends, and Scott had previously invited Canning to pay him a visit in Scotland, though an “indisposition” had prevented it (J. G. Lockhart, Memoirs of Sir Walter Scott, IV, 296). During the various conversations of their two days together at Storrs in late August, Scott noticed that Canning was trying to ascertain Lockhart’s views on a number of issues, though nothing was said to him or to Scott about Murray’s plans (Scott, Journal, 27 November 1825, 14). It would thus not be far-fetched to conclude that one of Canning’s motives in writing to Scott as he did may have been to create the opportunity of vetting Lockhart’s suitability for the position Murray had in mind. In any case, in one of his letters to his wife, Lockhart did comment that Scott had “taken the command of the Secretary without much scruple,” a phrase that suggests a special interest (Scott, Familiar Letters, II, 339).  

It is also worth noting that, in Murray’s first letter to Lockhart (actually a reply, dated 25 September 1825), Canning is a significant point of reference, for, with regard to the editing of the newspaper, which Lockhart had declined as not the sort of thing a gentleman would do, Murray said: “I do solemnly assure you that I never should have thought of communicating with you upon any undertaking which I did not verily believe to be every [way] worthy of Mr. Canning himself” (Scott, Familiar Letters, II, Appendix III, 406). When Murray, then, did offer an alternative, the editorship of the Quarterly Review, Lockhart quickly accepted. It was only at this point that a “cabal” of the Quarterly’s old guard of contributors (Croker, John Barrow, and Robert Southey, none of whom had been consulted) mounted some concerted opposition to Lockhart’s appointment, based mostly on his reputation for nastiness in Blackwood’s Magazine.

It was in this context that Scott denied that he had had any foreknowledge of Murray’s intentions or any role in what he called “the plot” (Scott, Familiar Letters, II, “To Southey,” 22 and 28 November 1825, 371, 377), and he said in his Journal that he thought Canning and Ellis had been the “prime movers” behind the publisher’s offers (29 November 1825, 18).  As Lockhart prepared to move to London as editor of the Quarterly and a contributor to The Representative, Scott wrote to him: “I conclude that you will see Ellis, as you proposed, and be made acquainted with the interior machinery proposed to carry on their grand engine” (Scott, Familiar Letters, II, 25 October 1825, 357). And after Lockhart had settled in London, Scott told two correspondents that, in taking up the Quarterly, his son-in-law had the good support of Canning and Ellis, first among a long list of others (Scott, Journal, 29 November 1825, 17; Cf. Familiar Letters, II, “To Southey,” 371; “To His Son Walter,” 382).

The evidence for which way the political wind was blowing at 50 Albemarle Street in the fall of 1825 thus seems contradictory. Other than general comments about the correspondence and many meetings among the Ultras, Akel does not produce specific, substantive evidence that Lord Hertford and his Ultra-Tory friends had any direct influence on Murray’s plans for the newspaper. Nor does she provide any evidence that they put any money into it. Indeed, the notion of a “cabal” at work as early as the summer of 1825 may reflect Akel’s confusion of politics and publishing. Her discussion of the anonymous, undated note in Canning’s papers as evidence of Ultra-Tory backing of Murray’s plans for a newspaper, in that case incongruously named The Representative, needs a fuller context and a more thorough analysis to be entirely persuasive (Cf. Blake, 23–50, and Bradford, 40, 41). Twice for example (35 and 57, n. 32), Akel quotes Canning’s comment in February 1827 that Lockhart had been hired to attack him as evidence that he was part of Lord Hertford’s “cabal.” But in the postscript to a letter to Croker (25 April 1827, The Croker Papers, I, 1884, 320), Scott said that his son-in-law was completely innocent of that charge, which he characterized as a “blunder” on Canning’s part, and Canning had admitted his mistake (Lang, II, 9).

The most likely explanation for why The Representative turned out to be more in line with the agenda of the Ultra-Tories than with that of George Canning is that the strongest supporters of Canning in Murray’s planning circle, Powles and Disraeli, were both ruined in the stock-market crash of December 1825 and neither had much to do with the daily direction and production of the paper after the first few numbers. The impetus to have the newspaper support Canning, it seems, was lost by default. 

As is all too often the case at present, this study appears to have been published without the benefit of a good copy-editing. There are some careless errors in it. Some are minor: e.g., seven instances of “Crocker” (16, 63, 162, 163) for “Croker,” and nonsensical plurals such as “Keateses,” and “Shellys” (186); and some are matters of fact: Disraeli did not, as claimed, win a by-election in 1834 (179); Lockhart could not have been born in 1794 and be just 19 in 1815 (182) and then two pages later be 23 in 1817 (184); and the incorrect “Mr. Ellice” (35) referred to in Wright’s letter to Lockhart (3 October 1825) is not recognized as Charles Ellis. The citations of some sources are also unnecessarily indirect (passim); for example, there are a great many quotations from Disraeli’s letters of 1825–26, but some are cited unhelpfully from “Smiles,” “Nickerson,” and “Monypenny” instead of from the definitive edition of the Benjamin Disraeli Letters. One such letter is cited at double remove as “Jane Ridley, Young Disraeli, quoted in Chancellor, 104” (13). In similar fashion, although Akel has had access to the Murray Archives, a letter from Murray to Lockhart is cited as coming from page 72 of William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle’s Vol. I of the Life of Benjamin Disraeli, which, in turn, gives as its source Scott’s [Familiar] Letters II, [Appendix III], 414 (62). Such citing of sources to suit the author’s convenience is a disservice to the scholarly reader, and on occasion it can lead, as it does here, to error and inaccuracy. The reputation of the Liverpool University Press has not been enhanced by such editorial neglect of best practice.