On Valentine's Day: How To Be A Romantic
Updated: Feb 17
“My nature demands that my life should be perpetual love.” - Benjamin Disraeli
Throughout history, there have been many great love affairs, Anthony and Cleopatra ... Burton and Taylor ... Justin and Hailey ... you get the picture, though one that is perhaps less well known but equally intriguing is between the 19th century Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli and his wife Mary Anne Lewis.
Disraeli was a 'Romantic' - which in the early 19th Century was a bit like being a hipster - it was certainly about the hair. The Romantic movement was a philosophy, a way of being and a rejection of rationalism which had dominated ways of thinking since the 17th Century. For the Romantic - the search was for the sublime - in art, human nature and the landscape. Passion was seen as the cause and symptom of the romantics' tempestuousness. According to the writer Adam Foulds, 'in the nineteenth century world of decorously occluded desires, it is frequently with disease and disorder - hysteria, syphilis and consumption - that sex erupts.' But of course the hair looked great in a raging storm on a dramatic mountain side, whilst dying of consumption.
Mary Anne was a Romantic too. She was also 12 years Disraeli's senior and according to Queen Victoria, 'vulgar' - in other words - great fun.
On the night of 12 April 1867, Disraeli pulled off his greatest political triumph, the passing of the 1867 Reform Act. As his supporters celebrated, Disraeli slipped away to a house on the edge of Hyde Park where Mary Anne was waiting for him with a late supper, consisting of a Fortnum & Mason pie and champagne. “He ate half the pie and drank all the champagne,” Mary Anne reported. “Then he said, ‘why, my dear, you are more like a mistress than a wife.’’’
There was nothing 'ordinary' or 'modest' about the Disraelis, rather they cultivated an image of relationship that was showy and demonstrative. 'Love conquered all' was the Disraelis motto. Mary Anne told Queen Victoria that she always slept with her arms around Disraeli’s neck, and she scandalised prudish aristocratic hostesses by discussing the beauty of ‘her Dizzy’ – as she called him – in his bath.
However, behind the scenes this romance was no fairytale - at times it could be sulky and controlling. Some friends and political colleagues doubted the authenticity of the love match - rumours circulated that it was about financial gain for him and status for her. And by the 1850s - a far more staid time - the Disraelis' grand, extravagant protestations of love seemed indulgent and unfashionable.
Daisy Hay has written the definitive book about the Disraelis' relationship - Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance - in which she uncovered an extensive archive of letters, blackmail threats, suicide notes, account books and valentine cards.
The Disraelis' dream was to create a 'grand design' together, which eventually they did - their very own romantic love nest - Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire. It not only cost a small fortune, it ended up consuming their lives. Stuck in the countryside away from Westminster, the relationship became a pressure cooker of resentment - divorce was even talked about - though at that time unthinkable. Eventually they found their peace with each other and I suspect they would like to be remembered by this quote from Mary Anne: “We exemplify life’s finest tale – to eat – to drink – to sleep – love & be loved.”
On this Valentine’s day, Mary Anne and Benjamin Disraeli have had me thinking about romance - and in particular what it means to be 'a Romantic'. With its history of Greek philosophers, medieval courtly love, Shakespeare, Blake, Bryon and the Brontes, it’s a theoretical and philosophical concept which even today has implications on how we experience love, commitment and connection - because of course, the romantic wants and expects all of that.
In his novel, The Course of Love, Alain de Botton writes, ‘romanticism is a philosophy of intuitive agreement ... there is no need tiresomely to articulate or spell things out. When two people belong together, there is simply - at long last - a wondrous reciprocal feeling that both parties see the world in precisely the same way.’
It's a lovely - romantic - idea but in reality, that is quite a lot of pressure. And what if one party does not always see the world in a particular way, or has different needs? How will the other party react? As the Disraelis found out, this type of relationship can become controlling.
According to de Botton, 'romanticism' is about accepting the other - allowing them to be and not wanting to change them' but the possibility of adultery remains ‘the one seismic transgression’. For a Romantic, the archaic fear of abandonment hangs over the relationship at all times, challenging trust and safety and slowly chipping away at all those ‘wondrous reciprocal feelings’. Perhaps the Romantic needs to feel this pain and potential for loss? Perhaps this heightened sense of drama is at the heart of what it means to be romantic?
The Romantic is always the hero in their own story - but as de Botton’s protagonist finds out - spoiler alert - in the end he is just an ‘ordinary’ man trying to be strong enough for whatever life demands.
So on this Valentine’s day, whether you are a romantic or a realist, confused, cynical or curious, loved-up or broken-hearted, take some time out to think about love. And I leave it to Meg John Barker - a highly-recommended observer of 21st Century relationships - to remind us that:
Love is seeing and being seen: meeting each other in all that we are.
Love is being willing to extend ourselves to nurture our own, and each other's growth.
Love is valuing each other's freedom and supporting each other's projects.
Love is wanting what's best for someone, even when it isn't being with us.