On Valentine's Day: How To Be A Romantic
Updated: Mar 15
“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 with philosophical aspirations, it was certainly about the hair.
The Romantic movement was an outcome of the British enlightenment, a way of life and challenge to the primacy of rationalism which had dominated ways of thinking since the early 17th Century. As David Hume wrote, 'we are generally men of untaught feelings.' For the Romantic, meaning was found through the search 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's 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.’’’
Theirs was an 'idealising relationship' a 'raptuous fusion' based on a hunger for the fantasy of merger; and they made sure everyone knew it. 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’ in his bath. Today, love can be defined as a 'genuine attention to the other, recognising their separateness from ourselves'; the Disraelis felt threatened by 'separateness', it challenged their sense of being 'soulmates'.
Despite their personal motto of 'Love Conquers All', some friends and political colleagues doubted the authenticity of the love match and rumours began to circulate that their marriage was about financial gain for him and status for her. By the 1850s, a far more staid time, the Disraelis' grand, extravagant protestations of love seemed indulgent and boarding on the immodest.
The truth was, behind the scenes this romance was no fairytale, in fact, at times it could be rageful and controlling.
The Disraelis' had dreamt of creating a 'grand design' together, an expression of their love for each other. Eventually, eventually they did, they built their very own romantic love nest, Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire. It not only cost a small fortune, it ended up consuming their lives.
A psychoanalytic interpretation would be that the house represented the need for intimacy, but rather than becoming a home, it became a cage from which neither of them could escape.
Stuck in the countryside away from Westminster, the relationship became a pressure cooker of resentment; divorce was talked about, suicide was threatened, the tantrums and the endless building work left them both depleted emotionally and financially. 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 is 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.’
However, 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.
Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance by Daisy Hay