Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981
Benjamin Disraeli had dual careers as a statesman and a novelist. He published several novels before entering Parliament, continued writing during his political career, and published one novel after completing his service as prime minister in 1880. Coningsby represents both the political and artistic interests of Disraeli. Politically, the novel is important because it documents the rise of Young England, a small group of young members of Parliament with which Disraeli was associated after the 1841 Tory victory. The novel provides a fictionalized account of the political climate the decade after the passage of the 1832 Reform Bill, which provided for somewhat wider voting privileges and for greater representation of the large manufacturing centers. Artistically, the novel is written as a traditional bildungsroman, a study of the maturation of the novel’s hero. Harry Coningsby develops from a fourteen-year-old who, overcome by emotion, cries in an early scene, to a twenty-three-year-old newly elected member of Parliament. Disraeli intertwines his political and personal themes by having his protagonist involved with the politics of his day. An adolescent when the Reform Bill passes, Coningsby grows from an unquestioned acceptance of the conservative politics of his grandfather Lord Monmouth to a state of independence in which he accepts neither the Whig nor Tory Party politics. Instead, becoming the leader of the Young England group, he searches for principles that he believes should be the basis of life in England. Coningsby and two later novels, Sybil (1845) and Tancred (1847), function as a trilogy documenting the political, social, and religious views of the Young England group. The Young England trilogy is often considered the best of Disraeli’s fiction.
Claiming to present impartially the various prevailing political views of the day, the narrator of Coningsby is intrusive. Through the narrator’s characterizations and political wit, the Young England group is most often favored, while the established politicians, both Whig and Tory, are satirized. The political events and some of the characters in the novel so closely follow history that keys have been devised equating characters with their historic counterparts. So when the narrator openly judges the quality of the characters, he indirectly comments on some historical figures. Sidonia, an important influence on Coningsby and therefore in the Young England group, is valorized. “Sidonia, indeed, was exactly the character who would be welcomed in our circles.” On the other hand, the narrator satirizes characters representing the established politicians. Rigby, a member of Parliament, the narrator tells us, “was not treacherous, [on a specific evening] only base, which he always was.” Sometimes the wit is more general. “We live in an age of prudence. The leaders of the people, now, generally follow.” In this way, the novel favors the upcoming generation of political leaders who accept neither the Whig nor the Tory Party lines.
A major theme of the novel is introduced in its subtitle: The New Generation. In promoting the cause of Young England, the novel argues for the virtues of youth, genius, and heroism. Along with these romantic virtues comes the belief in the importance of the individual. All these characteristics are inherent in the Young England group, but they have already reached fulfillment in the idealized character of Sidonia. His wealth, intelligence, international reputation, high connections, and virtue indicate the possibilities of life if only the proper course is followed. Outside formal government because he is Jewish, Sidonia nevertheless embodies the ideals that the Young England group professes. (In Sidonia, Disraeli champions his own Jewish background.)
The movement of the novel suggests Disraeli’s view of history—more a spiral than a circle or a horizontal line. Tradition and the past were important in Disraeli’s politics, yet he was aware that a static policy would not be successful in a changing world. The spiral figure suggests a constant move back to what has been proven good, while at the same time presenting an understanding that there must be a movement forward to keep up with the changing world. Coningsby, in his politics, reaches back to a belief in the responsibilities of the property owners, but he is ready to accept that the manufacturing cities in England are to play an important role. His marriage to Millbank’s daughter Edith merges the aristocratic with the manufacturing segments of society. He does not proceed in a straight line, having the manufacturers overtake the aristocrats, or in a circle, coming back to the aristocracy without including the manufacturers. Coningsby, like Disraeli, wants to reinvigorate, not eradicate, the conservative perspective.
As Coningsby grows politically, he also matures socially and personally. Although much of the novel deals with political views and intrigues, other passages describe the social life of the aristocracy. At first awkward in social situations and unable to tell the difference between genuine affection and idle flattery, Coningsby learns to judge character. He chooses his role models wisely. He is influenced by both Sidonia and Eustace Lyle, men who act with sensitivity and concern for others. Coningsby is never taken in, even at a young age, by Rigby’s hypocrisy or self-interest. Although respectful of his grandfather, as a young man Coningsby refuses to act for Lord Monmouth’s self-interest, acting instead according to his own principles, even when his inheritance is at stake. He falls in love with a manufacturer’s daughter, someone of whom his wealthy grandfather and patron would certainly disapprove, but, by remaining steadfast in his choice and being willing to relinquish any inheritance and work in order to establish a living and a reputation, Coningsby manages to get everything—wealth, a seat in Parliament, and love. The rapid change in Coningsby’s fortune from isolation and despair when he loses his inheritance to his final success marks the conclusion of the novel as improbable. Yet Coningsby’s ultimate success is based on reward for his character. The ending fits an ideal if not a real world.