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...
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