Living in rural France it’s relatively difficult for me to get my hands on English books. Therefore, I have been working my way through the freebie on the Kindle. My last read was The Call of the Wild by Jack London, and this week I begun Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845).
So, it was from the inside of a dog’s mind in the wintery heart of Canada to the tail end of the British industrial revolution. Sybil is set over a period of seven or so years from 1837 to 1844 and features a varied cast of characters who can be difficult to keep track of. The central figures included the beautiful and deeply spiritual Sybil, daughter of working-class radical Walter Gerard, and Charles, the Earl of Egremont who is awakened to the plight of the working classes of England by Sybil and her father. Disraeli’s novel deals with the gulf between the Rich and the Poor and its political ramifications at this point in history.
The romance which develops between Egremont and Sybil takes place alongside Disraeli’s depiction of the Chartist movement as provoked by the terrible conditions of the working classes in the expanding industrial towns and in the abandoned countryside of mid-nineteenth century England.
There is more serfdom in England now than anytime since the Conquest…those who labour can as little choose or change their master now, as when they were born thralls.
This book attempts to be a political thesis, a romantic novel, and social commentary all at once and sometimes this doesn’t quite work. I should admit that it took me a while to get into this book. This is partially because of the disjointedness between the narrative the more political sections at the beginning of the work. For example, Disreali gives an extremely detailed account of Egremont’s family history, covering several centuries in order to show how they came by their titles. I was reading the book on a Kindle, which never helps, but I was about 33% of the way in before I started to enjoy it!
Others have been critical of Disraeli’s literary abilities, saying that his novels would not have lasted if he had not become Prime Minister. However, I thought that, at times, his descriptive skills were impressive in that he could effectively conjure up vivid pictures of the people and places of the novel. Here we get our first description of Wodgate, a ‘land without an owner’ and dedicated to labour.
As you advanced, leaving behind you long lines of little dingy tenements, with infants lying about the road, you expected every moment to emerge into some streets and encounter buildings bearing some correspondence in their size and comfort to the considerable population…Nothing of the kind. There were no public buildings of any sort; no churches, chapels, town-hall, institute, theatre; and the principal streets in the heart of the town in which were situate the coarse and grimy shops, though formed by houses of a greater elevation than the preceding, were equally narrow and if possible more dirty…Here during the days of business, the sound of the hammer and the file never ceased, amid gutters of abomination and piles of foulness and stagnant pools of filth; reservoirs of leprosy and plague, whose exhalations were sufficient to taint the atmosphere of the whole kingdom and fill the country with fever and pestilence.
This quotation shows both the good and the bad in Disraeli’s writing as it can read a like a report, rather than a literary description. It is necessary to consider, however, that revealing the ‘Condition of the People’ was a very real aim for Disraeli.
I ended up being hooked by the plot and wanting to know how things resolved themselves. I also found this book interesting from a historical point of view as it covers a fascinating period of history.
The negatives of the work are occasionally clunky writing and poor female characters. Though Disraeli’s male characters were convincing, varied, and interesting along with their personal and political motivations (for example, Baptist Hatton and Stephen Morley).However, I found Sybil irritating in general. I didn’t think she was a very realistic character. This description come from Egremont’s first sighting of Sybil.
The blush of deep emotion lingered on a countenance, which though extremely young, was impressed with a character of almost divine majesty…the brightness of her complexion and the luxuriance of her radiant locks, combined to produce a beauty as rare as it is choice; and so strange, that Egremont might for a moment have been pardoned for believing her a seraph, that had lighted on this sphere, or the fair phantom of some saint haunting the sacred ruins of her desecrated fane.
It’s over the top and treatment of Sybil continues to be so throughout the novel. She is always overcome with emotion and is totally idealised.
I let some of the political parts go over my head a little bit when it felt like I was reading an essay – I was reading in the sunshine with a diet coke in hand, not in a library making notes! Disraeli does satirise the workings of Government
I’m not sure whether the satisfactory conclusion of the romantic plot-line – Sybil and Egremont marry and live happily-ever-after in wealth after he saves her from a bunch of drunken rioters – doesn’t undermine the hard-hitting message. Yet, this isn’t as simple as poor=good, rich=bad. The novel doesn’t argue for equality, as I understood it, it wasn’t saying that the rich and the poor should be the same. Instead, it’s about a restoration of order that sees the wealthy recognise their responsibility towards the poor. It’s about, parliamentary reforms to protect the labourers made vulnerable by England’s economic success, and a criticism of those involved in politics who have their eyes closed to the sufferings of the people.
Would I recommend this book? If you can put up with the political thesis-y sections (or if you enjoy that kind of thing) I would give it a go. I got hooked, despite the political argument it puts forward, Disraeli effectively builds tension and excitement – although maybe that is just because I had a quiet week! In comparison to other famous authors of the period, such as Charles Dickens or George Eliot, his characters are a bit 2-d but not every writer can be a Dickens. It doesn’t mean its not worth reading!
I’ll finish with the last words of the novel which are as true now as they every were.
We live in an age when to be young and to be indifferent can be no longer synonymous…the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity.