Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Henry Fleming and Disraeli

I am becoming convinced that someone should do a thesis about Henry Fleming. Perhaps they already have.

So far he is a footnote, literally, in the papers of a number of prominent people. In his role as a trusted gossip, he seems to have been an important part of the communication channels of his day, from the 1840s until his death in 1876.

As I've mentioned before, his social life and his work for the Poor Law Board were in one way quite incongruous: champagne and gruel. On the other hand, in a paternalistic society, so notoriously class-stratified as 19th century England was, it's not surprising that the fates of the poorest were in the hands of people who had no direct personal experience of poverty.

In these two cuttings from letters of then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Fleming is mentioned. It seems from these two notes that Fleming had the opportunity to chat with Disraeli if they should meet; that he was a familiar, more than a nodding acquaintance.

I will let those who understand the history of the British Parliament in the 1870s explain further, in the many books and papers published about this period. Even to try and give a sketchy background is a bit of a daunting task.

In late January 1876, when the first letter was written, Parliament was about to resume sitting. Some of the contentious matters of the day involved the Suez Canal and Bosnia, names familiar in the news of our own time.

I quickly and the opposite of thoroughly checked Hansard for a debate where Gladstone and Lowe took a particularly active role, but I didn't locate one.

I did find this lovely picture and a connection to W. S. Gilbert.

File:The Happy Land - Illustrated London News, March 22, 1873.PNG
(Copied from Wikipedia. Original credited to the Illustrated London News of March 22, 1873.)
"The Happy Land" was a musical by W. S. Gilbert and Gilbert Arthur à Beckett. It broke the rules about portraying public characters: here, as shown is a parody of then Prime Minster Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer Lowe, and First Commissioner of Works, Ayrton.

More from Disraeli's letters, under the heading "DISSENSIONS IN THE CABINET".

I'm assuming that this is the same Fleming, Henry Fleming "The Flea", as there are no other Flemings appearing in these letters. It would be in character for Henry to fill Disraeli in on the goings-on at the Easter Sunday church service.

Or, as Disraeli put it, "Fleming having, of course, prepared a rich discourse for my edification." Sounds like him.

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