Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
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.
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