Critical Evaluation

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Sybil: Or, The Two Nations has been described as “one of few examples of the truly political novel” and is certainly one of the few novels to be written by a future British prime minister. It was written at a crucial time both for political debate over the social condition of a newly industrialized Britain and for the development of the English novel. Benjamin Disraeli believed that fiction could be used as a means of transmitting political ideas; in doing this, he extended the limits of the novel form, creating a new genre of social comment and finding new ways to document social conditions.

At the time of writing, Disraeli represented a reform element within the British Conservative Party, dubbed “young England” (a reference perhaps to the novel’s closing remark: “It is the past alone that can explain the present, and it is youth that alone can mould the remedial future”). In the novel, Disraeli depicts a Parliament marked by interparty bickering, pettiness, personal ambition, and lack of leadership. Its most serious failure is the failure to respond to Chartism, a popular movement to reform the democratic system of the country. With the accession of a young queen, Disraeli hoped that new parliamentarians would arise and put forward reforming legislation to avert the most serious consequences of a disunited country and an oppressive economic system.

Sybil: Or, The Two Nations is, in many ways, a deeply reactionary novel. It constantly returns to the Middle Ages for its social models, creating a medieval sense of race and of class (monarchy, aristocracy of various degrees, the Church, and the people). Its plea to a revitalized aristocracy to take up its leadership role reflects a doctrine of social paternalism. This doctrine is also to be found in other contemporary writers, such as Thomas Carlyle (Chartism, 1839) and Arthur Helps (Claims of Labour, 1844), and even, to an extent, in Charles Dickens. Mr. St. Lys and Mr. Trafford are clear examples of such paternalism. Egremont’s political awakening stands in contrast to the political views of his brother, who represents the decayed old order. His death and the burning of Mowbray Castle symbolize the end of the old order.

Disraeli does reveal serious ambivalence. His depiction of the aristocracy, one of the best literary features of the book, and a skill derived from his earlier “silver fork” novels, suggests strongly the unreformable nature of the aristocracy, whose position rests largely, it would seem, on past social pretension, fraud, and intrigue. Baptist Hatton’s efforts to restore the Gerards is seen as typically amoral. A similar ambivalence marks Disraeli’s attitude to Roman Catholicism. Coming from a Jewish background, Hatton rejects Catholic claims to authority, since they fail to recognize the priority of the Old Testament in the fabric of Christianity as “fulfilled Judaism.” On the other hand, his reactionary medievalism sees the medieval Catholic Church with its care for the people as ideal Christian practice, contrasted with the present Church of England, which becomes merely a part of the political system and moribund structures. Sybil’s Catholicism is never criticized, though her desire to become a nun is.

The novel, dealing largely with political ideas, also depicts current events (for example, the presentation of the Charter to Parliament), and the social conditions prevalent in both town and country in the north. Degrading living and working conditions make for a degraded populace, whether such populace is controlled by capitalists (as in Mowbray) or by free association (as in Wodgate). Disraeli considers Morley’s radicalism, and the trade unions, dangerous, because they rely on leadership from the...

(This entire section contains 757 words.)

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people, a leadership the people are incapable of giving, and because the radicalism is secular and denies the past. In many ways, Disraeli’s opinions are prophetic.

As a novelist, Disraeli makes heavy demands on his reader. Not only is his style high-flown, balanced, and antithetical, but also is his plot often melodramatic, episodic, and loose, full of subplots that go nowhere. The reader also has to support long passages of authorial comment on British history and institutions, most of which are out of reach for modern readers. Even as a historical documentary, there are gaping omissions; for example, there is no discussion on the Factory Acts or the Labor laws. The Reform Bill is treated superficially; liberal and radical views are given short shrift. Despite its shortcomings, the novel really was, in itself, a historical event, and the author’s political commitment to a united society provides a dynamic that engages the reader’s intellectual attention.