This month’s Friday funny, delivered to you by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, tells the story of Queen Victoria and a supposed death-bed message from Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, and takes a closer look at the truth behind the tale.
The Liberals won the 1880 general election and Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, First Earl of Beaconsfield, left Downing Street, leasing a house at 19 Curzon Street. He continued to lead the opposition from the House of Lords, but made his last major speech there in March 1881. Later the same month he caught a chill which turned into severe bronchitis. He took to his bed, growing continually weaker.
The doctors were concerned for him, and he obviously realised that the end was near, because when he was told that Queen Victoria wanted to pay him a visit, he replied: “No it is better not. She would only ask me to take a message to Albert.”
We can’t be certain that Disraeli (1804-1881) actually said this, but most authorities, including the Dictionary of National Biography, are pleased to quote it because it’s entirely characteristic. Disraeli was one of the most intelligent and quotable figures ever to lead the Conservative Party. It’s Bismarck who said “politics is the art of the possible” but it’s a sentiment that Disraeli would have agreed with entirely. Pragmatic and often even cynical, it was Disraeli who described Conservative governments as “organised hypocrisy.”
He notches up so many entries in dictionaries of quotations because in addition to his speeches, he left us several novels as well. In Vivian Grey (1826), for instance, he wrote: “Grief is the agony of an instant. The indulgence of grief the blunder of a life.” He could almost have been talking about Queen Victoria in the long years after the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert in 1861. Disraeli assiduously cultivated the Queen’s support and Victoria was happy to reciprocate. He supposedly told Matthew Arnold: “I am a flatterer. I have found it useful. Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.”
Whether the message to Albert quote is true or not, it seems likely that he knew he was near death. At around the same time, he was correcting Hansard proofs of that final speech in the Lords, saying “I will not go down to posterity talking bad grammar.”