Alroy as Disraeli’s “Ideal Ambition”
Identified by Cecil Roth “as one of the earliest, and perhaps indeed the earliest, of Jewish historical novels,” Benjamin Disraeli’s The Wondrous Tale of Alroy has been criticized for its historical inaccuracies.1 Based on the failed messianic movement led by David Alroy in the twelfth century,2 the novel traces the archetypal cycle prevalent in Jewish culture of the rise and fall of an anointed king whose personal shortcomings, coupled with external exigencies, prevent his restoring the Jewish people to their homeland, where they are to rebuild the Temple and reestablish the ancient biblical cult.3 Instead, the novel ends where it began, with the Jews in their Eastern diaspora, paying tribute to their Muslim oppressors. In creating what he called a “dramatic romance,” Disraeli exercised a great deal of poetic license, some acknowledged, some not.4 He altered historical events, anachronistically relocated real individuals from their own epochs, and introduced not necessarily accurate portrayals of Jewish rites and ceremonies, including an elaborate overlay of kabbalistic machinery that, despite his assertion to the contrary, does not particularly reflect the mystical practices of the Jews, thus provoking the critical response to his only Jewish novel. Yet, to measure what the author would eventually call his “ideal ambition” against the standard of factual accuracy distorts the larger implications of the novel, limiting its fictional relevance to a narrowly defined Jewish context.
KeywordsJewish Community Twelfth Century Jewish People Jewish History Divine Revelation
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- 1.Cecil Roth, Benjamin Disraeli (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952), 61. Published in 1833, The Wondrous Tale of Alroy, as it was originally entitled, was intended primarily for a Christian audience, its anti-theocratic, anti-utilitarian theme anticipating the contemporary debate about dis-establishing the constitutional relationship between the Church of England and Great Britain. By the twentieth century, however, the focus had shifted, the Jewish content of the novel having taken precedence over its Christian theme. In “A Masterpiece for the Week: Disraeli’s ‘Alroy,’ ” (The Jewish World, No. 3005 [11 Tamuz 5673/16 July 1913], 9–10), Israel Abrahams explicitly associates Alroy with the Anglo-Jewish community, and now, as can be seen from John Vincent’s assertion that “Alroy is important because of its Jewishness” (Disraeli [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 68), the Christian significance has been effectively erased. Parenthetical references in this paper are to the standard 1871 Longmans edition of Alroy, itself based on the revised version of 1846, and the last overseen by Disraeli. The title of this chapter derives from a passage quoted in Disraeli’s earliest biography: “In Vivian Grey I have portrayed my active and real ambition; in Alroy my ideal ambition” (William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield, 6 vols. [London: Murray, 1910–20], 1:185). As will be seen from this chapter, the word ideal can be subject to much interpretation.Google Scholar
- 5.Daniel R. Schwarz believes that “Alroy represents Disraeli’s own dreams of personal heroism and political power in the alien British culture” (Disraeli’s Fiction [New York: Macmillan, 1979], 42–51). The six-volume Monypenny—Buckle biography has been superseded by Robert Blake’s Disraeli (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967). Roth’s Benjamin Disraeli, the first to deal with the Jewish heritage, has been superseded by Stanley Weintraub’s Disraeli: A Biography (New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton, 1993).Google Scholar
- 7.The standard, if somewhat Yeard, source for Anglo-Jewish history is Roth’s A History of the Jews in England, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). Todd M. Endelman’s The Jews of Georgian England, 1714–1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979; reprint, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), deals with the period leading up to the publication of Alroy. On Isaac D’Israeli, see James Ogden’s Isaac D’Israeli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), especially the tenth chapter, “D’Israeli and Judaism” (192–206), and Stuart Peterfreund’s “Not for ‘Antiquaries,’ but for ‘Philosophers’: Isaac D’Israeli’s Talmudic Critique and His Talmudical Way with Literature,” in this volume.Google Scholar
- 8.See Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), especially the first two chapters, “Adapting Judaism to the Modern World” (10–60), and “Ideological Ferment” (62–99).Google Scholar
- 9.On the emancipation of English Jews, in contrast to other European communities, see David Vital, A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), especially 177–83. On the Jew Bill in particular, see Alan H. Singer, “Great Britain or Judea Nova? National Identity, Property, and the Jewish Naturalization Controversy of 1753,” in this volume.Google Scholar