April 19 is Primrose Day, and marks the anniversary of the death of Benjamin Disraeli, twice Prime Minister of England and also a prolific novelist who said that when he wanted to read a novel, he wrote one! The primrose was his favourite flower: he liked them ‘so much better for for their being wild: they seem an offering from the fauns and dryads of the woods.’ Queen Victoria would send him bunches of primroses from Windsor and Osborne House, and sent a primrose wreath to his funeral with the message ‘His favourite flower’.
Aside from his primrose whimsy, Disraeli was acutely aware of the social injustice inherent in Victorian society and used both his novels to expose social inequalities, and also his powerful position as Prime Minister to legislate for social justice. Published in the 1840s, the trilogy of novels which includes ‘Coningsby‘ (1844) and ‘Sybil or The Two Nations‘ (1845) addresses similar themes to those raised by Elizabeth Gaskell in ‘Mary Barton’ which was published in 1848. Both of them provide some of the most vivid descriptions we have of life in a dislocated 19th century industrial society. I find it hard to believe that Gaskell had not read ‘Sybil’ and that she didn’t reflect on it as she was constructing ‘Mary Barton’, but I can find no record of it. Any information and pointers gratefully received!
But back to Disraeli… During his second term of office between 1874 and 1880, he passed a wide range of legislation to improve the living conditions and health of working people. 1875 alone saw the adoption of the Climbing Boys Act, prohibiting the employment of children to sweep chimneys; the Artisans Dwelling Act which allowed for the demolition of slum houses; and the Public Health Act which promoted improvements in sanitation including the provision of running water and the introduction of rubbish collection services. For Disraeli ‘The health of the people is really the foundation upon which all their happiness and all their power as a state depends.’ Elizabeth Gaskell shared his concern for social reform and would have applauded Disraeli’s championing of decent living and working conditions for all.
She would also have approved of his love of primroses as she herself loved them. Writing to William Gaskell’s sister Lizzie in May 1836 she describes sitting ‘in a shady corner of the field gay with bright spring flowers – daisies, primroses, wild anemones, and the ‘lesser celandine’ ‘…
The bank of primroses at the front of the House celebrates her love of the flower, and on Primrose Day, we can also remember Benjamin Disraeli and their shared determination to draw attention to and eradicate the waste of human potential and the social misery inherent in their socially fractured Victorian society.
Lesley – House volunteer