Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sybil, or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli.

Benjamin Disrael
by Spy (1869).
'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 young 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 different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.'
'You speak of -' said Egremont, hesitatingly.
'Tʜᴇ Rɪᴄʜ ᴀɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ Pᴏᴏʀ.'
Sybil, or The Two Nations is a roman à thèse written by Benjamin Disraeli (1845), who twice served as a Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1868 and 1874-80). In the early 1840s he served as an MP for Shrewsbury (in the county of Shropshire) and was a loyal supporter of Robert Peel, Prime Minister of that time (Peel, incidentally, established the Metropolitan Police Force of Greater London, thus creating the modern Police Force, whilst acting as Home Secretary in 1829). Disraeli was also noted for his support of Chartism, a working class political movement, and in Sybil one of the characters, Gerard, is a leader of this movement.

The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848 by William Edward Kilburn.
For simplicity's sake, to explain Disraeli's motivation for writing this novel I'm going to jump forward a moment to the present time. In 2010 Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, said in an interview with the Telegraph,
I'm a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy, but you are not going to help people express that duty and satisfy it if you punish them fiscally so viciously that they leave this city and this country. I want London to be a competitive, dynamic place to come to work.
The "one-nation" refers to Sybil and you can read more of that on Egremont, the official blog of the Tory Reform Group which takes its title from a character from Sybil, Charles Egremont. The basic belief is that society is naturally hierarchical and it is the duty of those at the top to look after those at the bottom. In Sybil, Disraeli argues that industrialisation had effectively created two nations "between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy" (see the opening quote of this post) whereby the natural hierarchy was effectively disturbed. One-Nation Conservatism would remedy this and it's philosophy was put into practice by some subsequent Conservative Prime Ministers. It was deemed to be a failure by Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990), however the current Prime Minister David Cameron claims to have picked it back up, saying in 2009 (before coming into power), 
I am a one nation, relatively liberal Conservative... I am a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher and what she achieved, particularly given the terrible state of the country when she took over. But the Conservative Party should both revere her inheritance and what she did, and also move on and draw on some of the history of Conservatism, which is about society as well as the economy, and which does have this One Nation tradition of wanting to bring the country together at its heart. [source: BBC]
David Cameron speaking on the Andrew Marr Show,
BBC1, 2010
On the Andrew Marr Show in 2010, a few days before he came into office, Cameron invoked the One Nation spirit again, saying,
But what I want to explain to people is that in making these decisions, I want to, if I'm elected, take the whole country with me. I don't want to leave anyone behind. The test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society. And that test is even more important in difficult times, when difficult decisions have to be taken, than it is in better times. [source: BBC]
To give a hundred or so points as to why one might raise an eyebrow at this claim, or to share some thoughts on to what Disraeli himself would make of how Mr. Cameron's government has put this philosophy into practice is not for this post: those more politically minded would do a better job, I feel. So, returning to Sybil: there is the crux, the basic argument and motivation for writing the novel: it was, in short, politically motivated. 

So, at last, to begin at the beginning: Sybil is set in the very early period of Queen Victoria's reign, beginning with the death of William IV, at the time when the Chartists began their campaign for:
1. A vote for every man 21 years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
2. Secret ballots.
3. No property qualification for Members of Parliament.
4. Payment of MPs.
5. Equal size constituencies.
6. Annual parliaments. [source: Chartist Ancestors]
One leader of this movement is Gerard, the father of Sybil Gerard, the heroine of the book, who herself is portrayed as an angel of near impossible to attain standards. Charles Egremont, an MP, has travelled to the north of England (the heart, in those times, of industrialisation) to investigate the conditions of the working classes (the condition of the poor, or the 'Condition of England question' to quote Thomas Carlyle, author of Chartism, 1840). During his time in Mowbray, where the novel is largely set (I dare say this is in Leicester, but I could be wrong) he becomes interested in Gerard and his associate Morley's political philosophy and stays whilst Parliament is in recess to learn more. Whilst he learns more about the condition of the poor and Chartism he falls in love with Sybil. So too does Morley. The novel flies forth between Morley and Egremont's rivalry, and the change in Egremont from a naive young man fresh from Eton to a Tory MP. 

Ed Miliband, 2012.
Sybil was Disraeli's fourteenth novel, and it's one I've been trying to read since 2013. I don't think it's unfair to say that the plot isn't what is interesting about this novel - as I said early it's a roman à thèse ('a thesis novel'), and it reads more like a political tract, so much so that the plot seems weaker than it possibly is. I found it, I can't lie, exceptionally hard to read. It's fascinating and raises crucial questions, and Disraeli wrote so well at times on political matters it was exciting, but it was a very arduous and demanding read. But I've learned a lot and the plot and the characters had nothing at all to do with that - I'd say I read this novel in spite of the plot. But I recommend it nonetheless because it sheds a great deal of light on early Victorian England, and the politics of today and the previous few decades. As I said, Margaret Thatcher rejected One-Nation Toryism, which says a lot about her, and David Cameron claims to have picked it back up (which rather says a lot about him), and furthermore Ed Miliband, the Labour leader and Leader of the Opposition. has also picked up on the "One Nation" theme - in 2012 in a speech to the Labour Party Conference he argued that Britain could not go on
... as two nations, not one, the bankers and the rest of the country... We must have a one-nation banking system as part of a one-nation economy. [source: BBC]
He cited Disraeli as his inspiration.

So, then, like it or not, it is for this reason that Disraeli must be read in 2015, to learn about our own times as much as Victorian England. And as Victorian novels go, this isn't desperately long: my edition (Oxford University Press) was 422 pages. I'm happy I've finally read this very important novel.

Further Reading


  1. What an interesting and insightful review! I can't say I'm filled with enthusiasm to read such a demanding-sounding book just yet, but I appreciate what you say about it being important. I have to say, despite the criticism of the plot, you've almost sold me :P

    1. "Almost", I think, is the best I can manage! It is so good, but such a slog at the same time :)

  2. This must have been a hard review to write! And now I've learned something about British politics. My mother loved Disraeli but I can't exactly remember why. I believe she thought that he was very intelligent and astute. I also had the impression that he had his ideas and it would probably be difficult to sway him from them.

    I think I have this book somewhere on my shelves but I haven't yet had the desire (or time) to read it. Your review has certainly moved it up a few notches. I must say though ...... 422 pages is long to me! ;-)

    1. 422 pages is long to me as well, but I meant when compared to the Victorian chunksters :)

      I'll be interested to see what you make of it :)

  3. Interesting. Disraeli is an interesting character. I read about him and Gladstone in A.N,Wilson's history books of the period and beyond. I can't say you've made me want to read the book, but it definitely sounds a illuminating read.

    1. I haven't read much about Disraeli save what I read to write this post, but I do want to look more into it - I'll check out A. N. Wilson - I do have The Victorians, actually I think that is where I first read about Sybil.


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