Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461
Sybil, or The Two Nations is an 1845 fictional and political novel written by British writer and politician Benjamin Disraeli, originally published in London, UK, in three volumes. The novel is the second part of Disraeli’s Young England trilogy, which consists of Coningsby, or The New Generation, Sybil, or The Two Nations and Tancred, or The New Crusade. As it deals with the state of the working class of Victorian England and portrays the struggles of the people who were forced to live in poverty and unpleasant conditions, the novel is also considered a roman à these (a didactic novel in which the author presents a specific thesis or theory).
Disraeli took inspiration from the Chartist movement and talks about the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, which separated the country in two basic socio-economic classes—the rich and the poor; these classes are, essentially, the "two nations" mentioned in the book's alternative title. The rich enjoyed a lot of privileges of different character, while the poor and working classes dealt with heavy labor, low wages, unsanitary and inhumane living conditions, sickness, and depression.
Being a politician himself, Disraeli, in the majority of his works, blamed the industrialization of the British society for its unfavorable condition, and presented a unique solution in which he suggested that the aristocracy and the working class should work together, under a strong male leadership in the government, for the betterment of the country. He tried to push this idea forward in Sybil as well, as he was rather respected in several political circles because of his involvement and leadership of the Young England party, which promoted feudalistic ideals.
Aside from its obvious political plotline, the novel has a secondary romantic plot and tells the love story of Sybil Gerard—a beautiful aristocrat with a powerful persona and lovely singing voice who wishes to become a nun, and Charles Egremont—the younger brother of a Lord, who has lost his aristocratic status and inheritance and must work and marry a rich heiress. He takes up a new identity as a journalist and travels around the country, evaluating the condition of the people. At first, Sybil rejects him because of the obvious class differences, however he manages to win her over by finally expressing his political ideals in the parliament and becoming the new Earl of Marney. The marriage between Sybil and Charles represents the union of the 'two nations' of Victorian England. Thus, the novel is classified as a romance, as well.
Sybil received a lot of commercial success, especially in the time of its publication, and it is considered one of the most important political and so-called Condition-of-England novels in English literature. The novel is also at no. 11 on the "100 best novels" list composed by "The Guardian."
Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 690
*London. As in Elizabeth Gaskell’s similar novel, North and South (1854-1855), the London of Sybil is not systematically portrayed. However, a contrast is set up between areas of power and those of powerlessness. The former include the Houses of Parliament, the prime minister’s residence, and such politically influential meeting places as men’s clubs and the houses of aristocratic women who see themselves as power-brokers. The latter are places where the Chartists, outsiders to London, find temporary residence on the fringes. The Temple, where “Baptist” Hatton has an office, is a sort of middle-ground, a place where power can be transferred in a way that a reactionary Parliament refuses to.
Mowbray Castle. Modern edifice in the Gothic style, built on the newly purchased Mowbray estate by the River Mowe, where it has extensive woods and parklands. The castle is built by the first man to hold the title of Lord Fitz-Warene—a newly created title that is eventually shown to be false, as the castle should belong to Sybil Gerard’s family. Meanwhile, the estate’s wealth is greatly increased by the prosperity of the nearby town of Mowbray. However, at the end of the novel, the castle is burned down by a mob of disgruntled workers, and the title reverts to its rightful owner.
Mowbray. Town that was originally a village on Mowbray estate before growing rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. Although the town’s central parts reflect its new prosperity, it also has wretched slums in its suburbs, and shantytowns beyond. Disraeli symbolically shows the result of the division of rich and poor by contrasting the parish church, administered by the philanthropic Reverend Aubrey St. Lys, himself an aristocrat, with the Cat and Fiddle inn kept by “Chaffing Jack.” The latter has a genuine working-class culture but no spiritual values as such.
Mowedale. Peaceful and still rural valley of the Mowe River. Disraeli uses this space between town and castle to show the possibility of a middle way, particularly by showing Mr. Trafford’s model factory, whose workers live in a properly built village on site. The benign influence of this environment is able to withstand the rioting mob at the end. Also in this space stands Mowbray Convent, a center of good works and spiritual influence, especially for Sybil. Gerard’s cottage, and for a while, Charles Egremont’s, also exist in this space of enlightenment.
Marney Abbey. Former church that is now the home of the wealthy landowner Lord Marney, Egremont’s older brother. The abbey is located on the side of the county opposite that of Mowbray Castle and represents another aristocratic center, the place where Egremont’s family has its ancestral seat. The abbey’s lands were originally church lands, but the old abbey lies in ruins. Significantly, this is where Egremont meets Sybil, showing the need to reach back into the past to find a true foundation for future union. The new abbey was built in 1610 and constantly upgraded to become a comfortable house in a well-wooded park. However, Lord Marney shows no concern for his tenants, resisting all change unless personally profitable. He is thus unfit to continue the line, symbolized by an accidental death and the inheriting of the title by Egremont.
Wodgate. Large village in a mining area. Because its land belongs to no one, its inhabitants enjoy squatters’ rights. The village is self-regulated, under the leadership of master workmen who rule through fear and brutality. Its center is aptly called Hell-house Yard.
Disraeli sees this village, where labor reigns supreme, as the ugliest spot in England. The leading master becomes the “bishop” of this utterly pagan town. It is from here the mob emerges to hijack the Chartist reform movement.
Mining village. Unnamed village located ten miles closer to Mowbray than Wodgate that has no real organization, typical of the unplanned and unchecked industrial growth of the time. Child labor is rife, as is social injustice, especially in the nonpayment of wages in cash. These malpractices, Disraeli shows, are what is likely to bring revolution to England.
Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231
Braun, Thom. Disraeli the Novelist. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1981. Concentrates on Disraeli’s career as a novelist rather than as a politician. It seeks to reconstruct his life through his novels and to show his development as a novelist. Chapter 5 particularly relates Sybil: Or, The Two Nations to the political events in Disraeli’s life.
Cazamian, Louis. The Social Novel in England, 1830-1850. Translated by Martin Fido. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. Cazamian’s book is the classic study of the subject. Sybil: Or, The Two Nations is fully treated along with Disraeli’s other two social novels. Bibliography and index.
Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Surveys the whole field of the industrial novel, with an excellent introductory discussion of “The Condition of England” question. Chapter 8 deals extensively with Sybil: Or, The Two Nations. Notes, bibliography, index.
Ridley, Jane. The Young Disraeli, 1804-1846. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995. A recent biography, and one of the most objective. It draws extensively from letters and papers, and demonstrates clearly that although Egremont may represent Disraeli’s political views, in no way does he represent Disraeli’s actual life.
Schwarz, Daniel R. Disraeli’s Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. Seeks to establish Disraeli’s skill and importance as a novelist, and that writing fiction actually helped form Disraeli’s character.
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