Sybil or The Two Nations – Benjamin Disraeli

DisraeliSybil Disraeli was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Ministers. He was a consummate politician & a world-class flatterer, fond of calling Her Majesty his Faerie Queen & referring to “we authors, Ma’am” when discussing the Queen’s published Journals. Disraeli wrote several novels, mostly when he was a hard-up young man. Sybil is probably the most famous because it is one of a group of novels known as the Condition of England novels. Mostly written in the 1840s, these novels explored the effects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain & included Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, Dickens’s Hard Times & Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton & North and South. Sybil is also famous for this quote, which seemed to encapsulate the situation in Britain at the time. Charles Egremont, brother of the Earl of Marney, is speaking to a stranger whom he has met wandering in the ruins of Marney Abbey on his family’s estate.

‘Well, society may be in its infancy,’ said Egremont, slightly smiling; ‘but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.’

‘Which nation?’ asked the younger stranger, ‘for she reigns over two.’

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.

‘Yes,’ resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. ‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’

‘You speak of – ‘ said Egremont, hesitatingly.

‘THE RICH AND THE POOR.’

One of these strangers is Walter Gerard, a factory worker who is passionate about the rights of the workers. He is a leading light in the Chartist movement, along with his friend, Stephen Morley. The Chartists wanted political reform, including an expansion of the qualifications for suffrage. Gerard’s beautiful daughter, Sybil, has been educated in a convent & plans to become a nun. Sybil is completely convinced of the merit of her father’s beliefs & has come to live with her father for a time before entering the convent.

Charles Egremont has just entered Parliament in the Tory interest. He has quarrelled with his brother, Lord Marney, over the payment of his election expenses & is at a loose end, trying to avoid his debts & reluctant to fall in with his brother’s plans for him which include marriage to a rich heiress. Egremont is instantly smitten with Sybil but, knowing of her father’s political beliefs, disguises himself as a journalist, & takes lodgings near their cottage, supposedly gathering material for an article. Stephen Morley is jealous of Egremont’s growing friendship with Sybil &, when his true identity is exposed, Egremont goes up to London to take up his seat. His ideas about the workers have been changed by his friendship with Gerard as well as his love for Sybil. Gerard goes to London as part of a National Convention of Chartists to present a petition to Parliament. When the petition is rejected, Gerard becomes involved in planning civil disobedience, leading to danger for himself & his daughter.

I can’t say that Sybil is an entirely successful novel. Compared to Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, the characterization of the working class characters is hampered by Disraeli’s lack of knowledge of working people. He researched the novel by reading statistics & government reports. Gaskell researched her novels by living in Manchester & meeting the people. Disraeli’s strengths are the portrayal of Parliament & Society. These chapters are wonderful, although I found the political machinations hard to follow & often long-winded. These chapters are written from the inside. Lord Marney is a wonderful portrait of an obtuse aristocrat, dismissive of the claims of his workers & priding himself on paying what he calls a good wage to his agricultural workers which is actually just above starvation level. Marney & Egremont’s mother, Lady Deloraine, is a lively, politically active Society woman who, with her friend & rival, Lady St Juliens, have considerable influence behind the scenes. Charles Egremont is a typical younger son but he does change as the novel progresses through his contact with the Gerards which forces him out of his complacency & makes him face the callous arrogance of his brother & his class. There are also some exciting set pieces during the strike action & the scenes of the mob approaching Mowbray Castle.

Unfortunately, Sybil & her father are completely unrealistic characters. This description of Sybil is typical,

The form of Sybil Gerard was stamped upon his (Egremont’s) brain. It blended with all his thoughts; it haunted every object. Who was this girl, unlike all women whom he had yet encountered, who spoke with such sweet seriousness of things of such vast import, but which had never crossed his mind, and with a kind of mournful majesty bewailed the degradation of her race? The daughter of the lowly, yet proud of her birth. Not a noble lady of the land who could boast a mien more complete, and none of them thus gifted, who possessed withal the fascinating simplicity that pervaded every gesture and accent of the daughter of Gerard.

Gerard works in a factory (although we never see him there) for a kind employer who has educated Sybil & placed her in the convent. Sybil is like a young Lady Bountiful, visiting the poor on behalf of the nuns, speaking perfect English, beautiful, ethereal & pure. Gerard even has an ancient claim to the de Mowbray estate (the de Mowbrays are friends of the Marneys) which he has never quite abandoned. Sybil’s innate purity impresses everyone she meets, from cab drivers to jailers. Her feelings for Egremont confuse her because of her strong political beliefs but she does soften her stance through knowing him. Most of the working class characters are drawn to illustrate a point or a type & none of them came alive for me. For all my reservations though, I did keep reading because I wanted to know what would happen. I wanted to know if Lord Marney would get his comeuppance; if scornful Lady Joan Fitz-Warene (Egremont’s intended bride) would marry Alfred Mountchesney; what exactly Mr Baptist Hatton, an expert in heraldry & genealogy, knows about the true ownership of the de Mowbray estate & if Egremont & Sybil would live happily ever after.

5 thoughts on “Sybil or The Two Nations – Benjamin Disraeli

  1. this is one of those cases in which the inadequacies of a writer, for me anyhow, work in their favor… i like Disraeli a lot and have read most of his books; his pov is somehow endearing, when you consider that he was an intellectual and a Jew in a strongly prejudiced and insular society in which practically no one who was not a member of the elite could ever be admitted into the upper echelons of power… true, he had Beau Nashian tendencies, married an older lady, and was a bit fawning in his approach, but his whole-hearted struggles on the side of justice and his life long efforts to improve the world he lived in deserve, imo, a lot of admiration… anyway, i liked this book a lot and should reread it… tx for the post…

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    • I’ve always been a fan of Disraeli (probably influenced by Ian McShane in the TV series) but this is the first of his novels I’ve read. I did enjoy it & would like to read another, which one would you recommend?

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  2. they;re all enjoyable, i think… Contarini Fleming and Lothair were class conscious efforts and pleasant reads… “Vivian Grey” was the first one he wrote and it is quite a ride, with a very bizarre ending…

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