Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

The Magazine Of Queen's University

Search form

A flagship of humanities research

A flagship of humanities research

A team of diligent academics at Queen’s have spent nearly 40 years piecing together the gigantic puzzle that is the correspondence of the 19th-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli.  

As a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada assessor recently put it, “This is a superb scholarly edition of outstanding international importance, a flagship of humanities ­research.”

What the assessor was alluding to are the efforts of a team of diligent academics at Queen’s who have spent nearly 40 years cataloguing, editing, and publishing more than 13,000 letters written by the great 19th-century British statesman, prime minister, and novelist Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881).

[photo of Disraeli project staff]Disraeli Project staff Ellen Hawman, Artsci’86 (left), Ginger
Pharand (centre), and Michel Pharand. Photo by Celia Russell.

About 2,800 letters were known to exist when the Disraeli Project began in 1972 as a sabbatical collaboration by Professors Donald Schurman (History) and the late John Matthews (English), with Prof. J.A.W. Gunn (Political Science) signing on in 1975.

Since the arrival of Dr. Mel Wiebe, who joined the Project in 1979 and headed it from 1982 to 2009, scores more ­Disraeli letters have turned up in libraries and archives, in estates, and even on eBay. Just last year, research assistant Ginger Pharand came across a large, newly indexed collection at Rice University in Texas while she was doing a name search on its web site.

In their book-lined office on the ground floor of John Watson Hall, Pharand, her spouse, Project Director Michel Pharand, and research associate Ellen Hawman, Artsci’86, discuss their passion for detective work, analyzing, annotating, and publishing the letters of Disraeli, and for the importance of the long-lived project with which they have been entrusted.

“You have to be obsessive-compulsive to do this work,” says Hawman of the ­rigorous research they conduct.

With the November 2009 publication of Benjamin Disraeli Letters: Volume VIII, 1860-1864, researched by Wiebe, Dr. Mary S. Millar (a longtime Project co-editor), and Ellen Hawman, the team estimates that the work of the Project is nearing the midpoint – depending, of course, on how many more letters turn up. These missives speak volumes about ­Victorian society, British politics at the time, and even the emergence of Canada as a nation.

Disraeli’s personality shines through the letters he wrote to politicians, family members and others. As Great Britain’s only Jewish prime minister, his legacy is of particular interest to scholars.

Disraeli is also relevant to Canadian Studies, as he was a major political figure in 1867, when the British North America Act, which set out the rules of governance of the new nation of Canada, was enacted.

Although 13,000 letters may seem a prolific output, some of Disraeli’s contemporaries wrote as many or more. Yet Disraeli’s correspondence survives, thanks in large part to his meticulous wife, Mary Anne, who kept all of his letters to her and many to Disraeli from others. She also kept track of household finances. “We learn a lot from her – how many ­people they had over, [even] how many bottles of wine they drank,” says Ginger Pharand.

Mary Anne Disraeli’s notes are essential in that they help corroborate the letters, particularly the chronology, as she notes their comings and goings. “Mary Anne was a real partner,” says Ellen Hawman. “Without her, we would be missing a huge dimension of Disraeli’s life.”

In explaining the letters’ contents, the Project makes use of their large microfilm collection of the correspondence to Disraeli, the originals of which are housed at the Bodleian Library Oxford). Sometimes the annotations end up being three times longer than the letter.

Correspondence ranges from the straightforward (“Send me a pair of boots: mine are damp.”) to detailed commentaries on the political issues of the day.

Volume VIII includes letters that ­allowed the Project to find and identify a hitherto unknown Disraeli publication, The Progress of Jewish Emancipation Since 1829 (1848),which Mel Wiebe discovered in 2004.

Thanks to advances in technology in recent years, the Project’s detective work is much easier and faster. Key sources such as Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates and The Times (London) are now online. What used to take hours of combing through reference books now takes seconds, thanks to online keyword searching capabilities. The Project continues to thrive thanks to Wiebe, who remains ­actively involved in an advisory capacity and who in 2007 obtained a substantial funding grant from the Andrew W. ­Mellon Foundation of New York.

At MiniU '10, May 28-30, alumni and others will have a hands-on chance to decipher the meaning of some of Disraeli’s letters when the Project team presents a session entitled “Adventures in Dizzyland: Editing the Letters of Benjamin Disraeli.”

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]