There’s much to be learned from Sybil, the two-time British prime minister’s novel that aimed to unify a divided nation.
Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.
—Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845)
In 1845 Benjamin Disraeli penned a story reflecting the socioeconomic chasm in Victorian England between the wealthy and poor. Sybil, or the Two Nations was a novel with a thesis and a love story. Through his tale, Disraeli shares his vision of “one nation,” connecting the fortunes of England’s success—both domestic harmony and international ascent—as mutually reinforcing. While rooted in an idealized form of paternalistic feudalism, Disraeli’s approach to politics was at the time novel and controversial. Articulating a new vision of the future required a forging of new electoral alliances in the wake of division and disruptive social and economic change.
Concerned at what the Industrial Revolution had wrought upon ordinary Victorian workers, Disraeli was motivated to raise elite awareness of their dire situation—known at the time as the “Condition of England Question”—and to urgently address it. Disraeli’s story was set against the backdrop of the working-class Chartist movement. Published in the same year as Friedrich Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Sybil shed light on the social and economic consequences of industrialization and economic policy in Victorian England. We follow Charles Egremont, a disillusioned member of the aristocracy disturbed by the way that the laboring poor are treated by the aristocrats, on his journey to explore the ordinary lives of the poor and downtrodden.
Disraeli paints a vivid vignette of poverty, describing a home with “the water streaming down the walls, the light distinguished through the roof, with no hearth even in winter, the virtuous mother in the sacred pangs of childbirth, gives forth another victim to our thoughtless civilization.” Rendering dystopian pictures, Disraeli appears to note the role of the upper class in perpetuating the increasing poverty, social deprivation, and physical and moral dehumanization, and expanding its wealth with revenue generated by others. Egremont concludes noting that there “[n]ever was such a plunder. The whole face of the country for a century was that of a land recently invaded by a ruthless enemy; it was worse than the Norman conquest; nor has England ever lost this character of ravage.”
Emerging from the ruins of Marney Abbey, the titular character of Sybil offers an example of charitable virtue in response to these challenges. Following a number of chance meetings, including one at the Chartist Convention in London, Egremont proposes to Sybil. During their courting, we hear their conversations on the condition of England. Egremont offers up his cure for the spiritual malaise and deprivation—Disraeli’s own optimistic view: “The new generation of the Aristocracy of England are not tyrants.… Their intelligence, better than that, their hearts, are open to the responsibility of their position.… They are the natural leaders of the People.” Summing up his view of the correct political priorities, Egremont declares “that the social happiness of the millions should be the first object … or the pomp and power of courts and empires, [would be] alike worthless.”
After Sybil turns him down due to their different stations in life, Egremont continues to advocate for Chartist reform as a Member of Parliament. Sybil and her father are later arrested for their involvement in the Chartist movement, and once released face a violent set of events that ends in Egremont rescuing Sybil. In the end, romance blossoms and they marry. The successful conclusion of the novel was also a lucrative one for Disraeli.
Sybil was a bestseller for its day. The first edition of the novel sold about three thousand copies at a guinea and a half, and gave Disraeli a profit of about one thousand pounds. An ardent admirer of Byron, Disraeli had turned to literary projects to recover from a series of early business ventures that failed, leaving him heavily in debt. Disraeli tried to emulate his literary hero, including cultivating a particular style of dress that didn’t go unnoticed. According to one social commentator:
He wore a black velvet coat lined with satin, purple trousers with a gold band running down the outside seam, a scarlet waistcoat, long lace ruffles falling down to the tips of his fingers, white gloves with several brilliant rings outside them.
In an earlier novel Disraeli wrote that “to enter into high society a man must either have blood, a million, or a genius.” Born to Italian-Jewish parents, Disraeli and his siblings were baptized as Christians by their father in 1817. With Jews excluded from Parliament until 1858, his father’s move enabled Disraeli to pursue a career that would otherwise have been denied him. After four attempts, in 1837 he was elected as Tory candidate for Maidstone.
Disraeli was intent on a new type of politics. He argued that, in order to maintain stability, England needed the alliance between a supposed benevolent and paternalistic aristocracy and the working classes, which he tried to implement first with the Young England faction in Parliament and then, with varying success, with his social welfare reforms when he twice served as prime minister. In addition, he wanted to reinvigorate the program of the Conservative Party through the idea of one-nation conservatism, a vision that ultimately remade the political landscape. His underlying centrist philosophy was an attempt to manage change by seeking stability. At root, Disraeli was concerned with the consequences of not addressing political instability: revolution. Disraeli’s centrism was a pragmatic reaction to his need to craft a majority and resolve an electoral conundrum of how to increase support with the enlarged franchise without completely disrupting the established social order.
Five years earlier, during his first parliamentary election attempt, Disraeli wrote of the underrated “influence of individual character,” exhorting voters with the idea that “great spirits may yet arise … whose destiny it may still be at the same time to maintain the glory of the Empire and to secure the happiness of the people.” This was indeed to become Disraeli’s real political legacy, but it came much later in life. At age seventy, Disraeli became prime minister for the second time. Domestically, he concentrated on social reform, codifying the law on public health and passing laws to prevent labor exploitation and recognize trade unions. Abroad, his acquisition of shares in the Suez Canal was considered a major success for the expansion and consolidation of British power.
Disraeli's own father once warned that “invention and imagination are not the qualities for a representative of our modern patriots,” but Disraeli’s attempt at reshaping the political landscape required exactly this type of novelty, coupled with a ruthless pragmatism. Otto von Bismarck praised his performance: “In spite of his fantastic novel-writing,” the German chancellor said, “Disraeli is a capable statesman.” While his vision today is anachronistic, the qualities of invention, imagination, and pragmatism continue to be worthy of emulation.
Matt Baker is a senior learning advisor for a U.S. federal government agency.
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