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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1776

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First published: 1826-1827

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Political romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: England and Germany

Principal Characters:

Vivian Grey, an ambitious young Englishman

Sidney Lorraine, the Marquess of Carabas

Mrs. Felix Lorraine, the sister-in-law of Lord Carabas

Baron von Konigstein, a German nobleman

Lady Madeleine Trevor, Vivian’s friend

Sybilla, an Austrian baroness

Essper George, Vivian’s servant

The Story:

In school, Vivian Grey was more popular with his fellow students than he was with his masters. After his expulsion from a private school conducted by Mr. Dallas, he continued his studies at home. Because he had decided on a career in politics, he flattered a nobleman who occasionally visited his father. This man was the Marquess of Carabas, an officeholder who had been turned out because of his blundering incompetence. Vivian, who hoped to obtain the patronage of a noble name and the backing of a privileged aristocracy, flattered the vain, stupid peer who still hoped to play an active part in the world of politics. As a result, Lord Carabas invited Vivian to visit his countryseat, Chateau Desir. There Vivian met the fashionable Mrs. Felix Lorraine, his lordship’s sister-in-law. During his visit, Vivian took advantage of his opportunities by making love to the wives while securing the confidence of the husbands.

At a brilliant dinner, Vivian made his entrance late, secured the best seat in the house, and began a discussion of Goethe’s SORROWS OF WERTHER before he had been among the company three minutes. As usual, Vivian continued his art of flattering everyone in order to curry favor.

At the first opportunity, Vivian planned to bring together a group of gentlemen out of office to form a new political party. As leader of the party, Vivian had selected Frederick Cleveland, a former minister of state who, disappointed in public life, had retired to Wales. Vivian sought him out there and won the support of the older, more experienced statesman. After completing his mission successfully, Vivian returned to his fashionable friends. He spent a harrowing night with Mrs. Lorraine, who vowed that she had seen a ghost and fainted in his arms.

Mrs. Lorraine was no less confusing to Cleveland when he met her; despite his discomfiture, she insisted on falling in love with him.

Because of Vivian’s unscrupulous conduct, his newfound friends soon deserted him, and his political ambitions were terminated by Lord Carabas, who had learned that Vivian had used the old nobleman as a pawn in the political game he was playing with names of rank and fortune.

At the same time, Vivian announced to Mrs. Lorraine that he had purposely kept Cleveland from liking her by interfering with her mail. In his arrogance, Vivian insulted Cleveland in his London club, and Cleveland challenged him to a duel. Vivian killed Cleveland.

When Vivian had recovered from a fever brought on by excitement, he left England and made his home in Germany. There he took a course of studies at Heidelberg, where he met Baron von Konigstein. Vivian and the clever, worldly Baron became close friends. At a fair in Frankfort, they were entertained by a conjurer who called himself Essper George. George attached himself to Vivian as his valet.

Shortly thereafter, while vacationing in Ems, Vivian met Lady Madeleine Trevor, who knew Vivian’s father. She was accompanied by her brother, Mr. St. George, and a friend, Violet Fane. Vivian soon became a member of her party on expeditions about the countryside. Lady Madeleine disliked the Baron because the German had been involved in a scandal over cards that had caused the death of Violet Fane’s brother. For her friend’s sake, Madeleine was anxious not to renew her own acquaintance with the Baron.

One night, a card game began at the Baron’s apartment. St. George was one of the players. Vivian remembered the card game that had ended fatally for Miss Fane’s brother. When the game had gone long enough, Vivian revealed the fact that the cards were marked. The next day, Baron von Konigstein left Ems. Vivian had learned of the marked cards from Essper George, who had seen the pack in the possession of the Baron’s servant.

A week after the episode of the Baron, two young men, formerly Vivian’s fellow students, made their appearance and joined Lady Madeleine’s party. The pleasures of the company, however, were short-lived. Miss Fane, who was in delicate health, overexerted herself and had an attack from which she never recovered. She died in Vivian’s arms, and he was overcome by grief.

Vivian and his servant, Essper George, set out across Germany toward Vienna. One night, Vivian had a narrow escape from some Germans engaged in a great drinking spree. Essper George saved him from their drunken wrath.

Vivian was a guest for a time at the home of Mr. Beckendorff, an odd recluse. There he stayed until Mr. Beckendorff objected to the presence of Essper George. Another guest, the Prince of Little Lilliput, was permitted to remain. Vivian, who had been the friend of the Prince and who on one occasion had even saved the Prince’s life, was ready to take his departure because he realized that he was becoming involved in secret political upheavals. He admired Mr. Beckendorff, who seemed to be successfully following the same policies that had ruined Vivian in London.

News came that Beckendorff had become prime minister of the Duchy of Reisenberg and that the Prince was to be rewarded by a high position of state. Vivian spent some time at the court with the Prince. At brilliant balls and on all public occasions, Vivian observed closely but with great detachment the machinations of court intrigue. He fell in love with Sybilla, a young baroness, much to the dismay of Mr. Beckendorff, who planned to kill Vivian. His life was spared, however, on the condition that he leave the duchy at once. Vivian now learned that the baroness was in reality an Austrian archduchess whose marriage with the deformed, half-witted crown Prince had been arranged as a matter of state. This final revelation into the nature of power politics sickened Vivian thoroughly. He continued on his way to Vienna.

When his carriage broke down, he was invited to stay with the lord of the village, who was soon to celebrate his daughter’s marriage. Vivian was amazed to discover that the bridegroom was his former friend, Baron von Konigstein.

Vivian and Essper George left the carnival that followed the wedding celebration. They were not far from the village when a terrible storm began. Its fury smashed against the unprotected hamlet, and a mountain river overflowed its banks, cutting away the hillside, destroying the village, and drowning its inhabitants. Essper George was killed. Vivian, his horse dying under him, was flung to the earth. It was as if this upheaval of the elements matched the tumult of Vivian’s own nature. He had yet to learn that the delusions and desires of youth give way to the disappointments of manhood on the road by which man travels toward old age.

Critical Evaluation:

VIVIAN GREY is one of those interesting, unsuccessful novels that appears at the juncture of divergent literary movements, and which, at the same time, is filled with intense personal and biographical energy. That such a story could achieve popularity in its time is neither a discredit to the youth of the author nor to popular taste. Reflected in VIVIAN GREY are characteristics of the romantic concept of the young man struggling with his soul, of the nature of the frightening elements when the utmost in horror and terror are presented. There are more than the qualities of an Ann Radcliffe or Monk Lewis in this book, however, for precepts and truisms of a particular nature are scattered throughout the length of the narrative. Many of these reflect the political life of the times, and all of them reflect the mind of the nineteenth century. As such, they deserve the study of any scholar or enthusiast for the activities of men. To read this novel is to understand better Lord Byron, Shelley, or William Godwin, and the intellectual world in which they participated.

In 1826-1827, when the two volumes of VIVIAN GREY were published, the novel in England was divided between those of the Romantics and those of the “fashionable” set. The former stream is, of course, best represented by Sir Walter Scott’s followers and the prose descendants of Byron. The latter, or “fashionable” novel, concerned itself with the habits, mannerisms, and intrigues of the British upper class. This class, with its tightly developed social rituals and elaborate, superficial manners provided the social setting for what were nicknamed the “silver fork” novels. Using this class for its social setting, VIVIAN GREY also incorporates much of the philosophical discourse and melodrama of the romantic tradition.

Benjamin Disraeli, an offspring of a Spanish-Jewish family that had lived in England for eighty years and the son of a minor literary figure and antiquarian, was a fiercely ambitious and determined youth (as his later career in government attests). He modeled VIVIAN GREY on TREMAINE, a “silver fork” novel, but he changed the tone and gave it a romantic flair. VIVIAN GREY was written before Disraeli had reached the age of twenty-one, and the novel displays all the excesses to which young novelists are prone. The hero is an idealized version of the author. His political manipulations, his romantic escapades, his various adventures in Germany (disconnected and difficult to follow) and, above all, his intense egotism are sometimes interesting but frequently offensive. The other characterizations suffer from the self-centered interest of Vivian Grey himself and are most often wooden and without much life. They resemble, in the tradition of fashionable novels, various important personages in upper-class Britain, and they are stereotyped characters lacking humanity and depth.

This weakness in characterization naturally affects the novel’s action. Because of his self-education, Vivian Grey shows little or no real development through the two volumes. Therefore, his political activities and romantic interests, which provide the motivational force of the plot, are not always interesting in themselves. Furthermore, the action resulting from conflicts between characters is usually as mechanical as the characters themselves.

What is interesting in the novel is the story of Vivian Grey’s coming to age, and the spectacle of the author, through Vivian Grey, coming to grips with important ideas of the age. Finally, the novel does communicate a sense of restlessness and a youthful, searching energy—qualities that have an undeniable attraction.