Through the Glass Darkly

Curiosities of Literature: Isaac D’Israeli I

It must be more than 30 years ago since I first discovered one of the great portals opening on to the past, located right here in Galway, just behind Lynch’s Castle on Upper Abbeygate Street. Old Galwegians of a ‘bookish’ nature will know to what I refer: the overflow storage space of Kenny’s Bookshop.

Young people growing up in our networked world, where information on everything can be had at the touch of a key, have no idea of the magic of browsing in an old bookshop. I passed countless happy hours wandering along these dusty, cramped, and often chilly corridors, and it was on one of those rambles that I first came across a set of books called Curiosities of Literature, or, to give them their full dignity, Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches, and Observations; Literary, Critical, and Historical.

Opening a volume – there were six in total – at random, the contents read – ‘Of a History of Events Which Have not Happened, Of False Political Reports, Of Suppressors and Dilapidators of Manuscripts, On the Ridiculous Titles Assumed by the Italian Academies, Secret History of Authors who have Ruined their Booksellers, An Authentic Narrative of the Last Hours of Sir Walter Raleigh, Political Forgeries and Fictions, Expression of Suppressed Opinion, and The History of Writing-Masters.’

The author was Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848 ). His father and his son shared the same name, but it was Isaac’s son who was to make it a memorable one – Benjamin D’Israeli, one of the greatest British prime ministers of the 19th century.

Isaac D’Israeli’s father came to England in 1748 from Venice, where his Jewish family, driven out of Spain during the Inquisition, had settled towards the end of the 15th century. Isaac’s father became a very successful businessman, and was able to give his already bookish son an excellent education, in England and abroad, hoping he would take over the family business.

In a very perceptive memoir of his father, the future Prime Minister wrote of him: “My grandfather had only one child [Isaac] and nature had disqualified him, from his cradle, for the busy pursuits of men. A pale, pensive child, with large dark brown eyes, and flowing hair, had grown up beneath this roof of worldly energy and enjoyment, indicating even in his infancy that he was of a different order from those among whom he lived. Timid, susceptible, lost in reverie, fond of solitude, or seeking no better company than a book.”

The elder Benjamin displayed an unusual appreciation and tolerance for his shy and withdrawn child and, as there was no necessity for him to work, he placed no barrier in the way of Isaac’s ambition of becoming an author.

In fact, though naturally shy on a personal level, Isaac was fearless in his pursuit of a literary career. And he first established a reputation as a young man of 21 years when he became embroiled in a literary controversy.

In 1778, John Walcot (1738-1819 ), a doctor who did not practice and a clergyman with little taste for the life of a cleric, arrived in London and began contributing biting satirical poems and sketches to magazines and newspapers under the pseudonym of Peter Pindar.

His particular targets were the dusty pedants of the London Royal Academy of Art, and the scandal-prone family of King George III. In 1786 he published a mock-epic poem called The Lousiad, a play on Homer’s Iliad, which took its name from a legend that a louse had once appeared on the king's dinner plate. Like many satirists, his barbs, while very funny if they were not aimed at you, stung their subjects to the quick, especially as he had a knack for coining mocking phrases that hung on their victims like flashing neon lights. So he made many enemies and the hunt was on to discover his identity.

In 1790 a new satire was published anonymously with the title, On the Abuse of Satire, and it was aimed directly at Peter Pindar. This was something unexpected - the satirist satirised – and it was not appreciated by its target. Peter Pindar turned his wrath on William Hayley, a well known and admired poet whom he suspected was the author.

In fact, the author was Isaac D’Israeli and when the embarrassed satirist realised his mistake, which had made him look foolish, he was so impressed that a young man could write such an elegant and witty poem, that he wrote to him and the two men became good friends. With such a powerful patron, young Isaac’s career as an author looked set for the future.

Next week: The Making of an Antiquarian

Barnaby ffrench


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