Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469
Sybil, or The Two Nations is a novel by British author and politician Benjamin Disraeli, first published in 1845. Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, (December 21 1804–April 19 1881) was born into a Jewish family, but his father agreed to have the children raised in the Church of England, and Disraeli was baptized as a teenager onJuly 31 1817. This conversion enabled him to serve as Prime Minister, a position only open to baptized Christians. Throughout his life and career, Disraeli was still somewhat of an outsider in a society in which antisemitism was common, and his sympathy for outsiders and the poor is a major theme in the novel. Religious discrimination against Roman Catholics, who, like Jews, were very much outsiders and subject to prejudice and legal discrimination, is a major theme in the novel.
Disraeli was a member of the Conservative or Tory party, and the novel serves to express his political philosophy. It was publication of his novels which gained Disraeli the sort of national attention that led to his political success, culminating in his becoming Prime Minister. A major theme is Tory political philosophy.
In Victorian British politics, the "liberal" or "Whig" party stood for free trade, the merchant and middle classes as opposed to the aristocracy, abolition of slavery, and freedom of speech and religion. The Whig Party was behind the first Reform Bill, which opened the right to vote to middle-class property owners. The Whigs tended to be the party of the large cities and the Tories the party of the aristocracy, the Church of England, and the countryside.
Because of a tradition of "noblesse oblige" (the Christian belief in charity) and because of the sympathy between rural landowners and small farmers, there was a degree of natural affiliation between the Tories and the poor, something Disraeli emphasized and advocated in his novels. A major theme of Sybil is the way in which traditional Tory values led to sympathy with the poor and the workers who were being exploited and mistreated in the industrial slums of England. The notion of "two nations", one of the poor and one of the wealthy, is a central theme of the novel, as is the notion that it was the Tories and aristocracy who would help the poor, and the wealthy industrialists were their true oppressors. Thus, return to traditional aristocratic values was seen by Disraeli as a way of helping the workers exploited by the industrialists and bourgeois.
A final theme is the rise of Chartism, a political movement of the British working class, and the People's Charter, which argued for universal male suffrage and other electoral reforms. Disraeli's portrait of the Chartists, although deploring rioting and violence, was quite sympathetic to their plight and offered a moving portrayal of the abuses the workers suffered at the hands on wealthy industrialists.