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Disraeli, the East and Religion: Tancred in Context

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Parry, JP 


Recently there has been much interest in Benjamin Disraeli’s writings, and particularly the importance to him of empire, race and Jewishness. His favourite among his own novels, Tancred (1847), set in the Near East, is now often said to advocate Asian imperialism and Jewish superiority and to mark a key stage in his ‘self-fashioning’ as a political leader. This article suggests that the problem with these interpretations, and with the older argument that Disraeli revelled in a lack of principle (which also draws on Tancred) is that they fail to put novel and author in the context of the time. By the 1840s, Disraeli’s books were not obsessed with his own identity; instead he used them to engage with important live issues. The Near Eastern themes which Tancred tackled included serious international questions and equally intense arguments about domestic Christianity, which were themselves heavily influenced by new perspectives on the East. The book discussed how the Church of England, weakened by sectarianism and materialism, could regain the leadership of national opinion. It attacked the liberal sectarian policy pursued by the Peel government in Syria and Lebanon, and European political, religious and economic intervention in the Ottoman Empire more broadly. Commentators have misunderstood what Disraeli meant by ‘empire’, and his (critical) remarks on modern Jews. They continue to present him as exotic, and have read Tancred accordingly, as a personal manifesto for unusual and one-sided causes. Once placed in the context of the time in which it was written, the book’s great theme is revealed as the opposite: the need to abandon partisanship for synthesis in Western and Eastern politics and religion, if a chaotic world is to be brought to order.



4303 Historical Studies, 43 History, Heritage and Archaeology

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English Historical Review

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Oxford University Press
Leverhulme Trust (MRF-2014-115)
Leverhulme Trust