Punch, XLVII (December 10, 1864): 239

Depicting Disraeli "Dressing for an Oxford Bal Masque"

ublished in the December 10, 1864 issue of Punch, this cartoon is a response to Benjamin Disraeli's November 25 "Oxford Speech" in which he posited the question, "...is man an ape or an angel?" and responded "Now, I am on the side of the angels." Though this speech was supposedly followed by cheers, Punch cartoonist Sir John Tenniel's pictorial representation of Disraeli is mocking in tone as opposed to supportive or celebratory. Presumably spoken in the context of the ongoing debate surrounding Darwin's1859 publication of the Origin of Species, Disraeli's "siding" with the angels represents his political and personal commitment to the Anglican Church. Important in light of Disraeli's Jewish background (though he was an Anglican his father was a Jew who had converted to the Church of England), this public stance emphasized Disraeli's conservatism and his loyalty to the English nation. Throughout Punch's many cartoons representing Disraeli there exists a suspicion as regards the legitimacy of his Englishness and even masculinity. This cartoon is a case in point. Though wearing the wings of an angel and standing statuesquely, Disraeli, in the mere fact that he is dressing for a masque, is not what he appears to be. Furthermore, Tenniel draws him in profile, emphasizing and exaggerating his Jewish features. In fact, according to L. P. Curtis in his study Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature, Punch consistently portrayed Disraeli as having a facial angle of seventy-four degrees as opposed to the more civilized facial angles of other Englishmen like Gladstone (at eighty-five to eighty-seven degrees) and Lord John Russell (at eighty-seven degrees). As Curtis observes, the smaller the facial angles the more ape-like or lesser evolved the character depicted. The verse on the opposite page describing Disraeli's Oxford speech hints even more overtly at his racial inferiority: Yet scarce the best mimes can from Nature escape, And what's Simious to Saintly brooks change ill: Have a care lest thou then shouldst be most of the Ape, When most bent on enacting the Angel. (Punch, 238) Again the concern that Disraeli is going against Nature in claiming allegiance to the angels--that he is masking his real face, racially and politically--reveals itself in this stanza. Though "bent on enacting the Angel," Disraeli is in constant danger of regressing into the apish aspect of himself. We should also keep in mind that both the cartoonist and the versifier turn Disraeli's dichotomy--ape versus angel--back onto him; in insisting Disraeli is either ape or angel, these contributors to Punch reaffirm his alien status. Suggesting Disraeli has constructed himself, politically and racially, Tenniel draws him here as a potential ape in angelic garb. Allied with the notion of Disraeli-as-angelic is Disraeli-as-female. Disraeli's self-absorbed admiration of himself in a mirror, presumably primping before the ball, feminizes him. The garland of roses in his flowing hair further adds to his pseudo-angelic, as well as feminine, aspect. In glancing at this cartoon, Victorian readers come away with an image of Disraeli as an inferior Englishman and somewhat of a political and racial aberration.

[Victorian initial "P" by Harlan Wallach ©copyright 1994.]

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