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Sybil, or The Two Nations by Benjamin…

Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845)

by Benjamin Disraeli

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Young England Trilogy (2)

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615426,345 (3.22)35
Sybil, or The Two Nations is one of the finest novels to depict the social problems of class-ridden Victorian England. The book's publication in 1845 created a sensation, for its immediacy and readability brought the plight of the working classes sharply to the attention of the reading public.The "two nations" of the alternative title are the rich and poor, so disparate in their opportunities and living conditions, and so hostile to each other. that they seem almost to belong to different countries. The gulf between them is given a poignant focus by the central romantic plot concerningthe love of Charles Egremont, a member of the landlord class, for Sybil, the poor daughter of a militant Chartist leader.… (more)

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This is one of the many novels of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), published in 1845, two years before he was elected to Parliament, seven years before he became Chancellor of the Exchequer for the first time and 23 years before the first of his two terms as Prime Minister of the UK. The only other British prime minister that I know published any novels was Churchill; I am fairly sure that the combined tally of all the others must be rather less than Disraeli's 16 or so.

The political sentiments of the novel are very interesting, and completely worn on its sleeve. Since the revolution of 1690, Britain has been run by the corrupt Whigs and their successors, out only to enrich themselves. The ancient and noble aristocrats, and the poor working classes, have both been exploited by the nouveaux riches and it's jolly well time that they got their act together. The working respectable poor live in horrible conditions, exploited by the Whigs and their own local bigwigs. The Catholic church (rather to my surprise) is a strong potential unifying factor, partly because the Whigs hate it but mainly just because. Egremont, noble both in blood and spirit, dares to openly state in Parliament that maybe the Chartists have a point and pays a social price. Sybil, whose father is a leader of the misguided but well-intentioned Chartists, orbits around Egremont and then it turns out - spoiler! - that she too has noble blood as well as noble sentiments. The establishment defeats the Chartists; yet nothing can ever be the same again.

The characters are paper-thin, but there's nice interplay within Egremont's own family (his stuck-up elder brother, his manipulative mother) and the political fixers Tadpole and Taper are quite good fun - as is Mr Hatton, fixer of family trees. I was also surprised by the number of memorable one-liners:

On Ireland in the eighteenth century: “to govern Ireland was only to apportion the public plunder to a corrupt senate.”

About an MP with a bee in his bonnet about foreign policy: “he had only one idea, and that was wrong.”

An old-fashioned lord harumphs: “pretending that people can be better off than they are, is radicalism and nothing else.”

Advice to a trainee lobbyist: “be ‘frank and explicit;’ that is the right line to take when you wish to conceal your own mind and to confuse the minds of others.”

Most surprisingly, on page 415: “Resistance is useless!” (Had Douglas Adams read this?)

Not everything stands the passage of time. “Slowly delivering himself of an ejaculation, Egremont leant back in his chair.” Errrr....

I picked this up (after a long time) mainly as a result of F.R. Leavis' recommendation in The Great Tradition. My main conclusion is that I wonder what he was on, recommending this ahead of most other novels of the nineteenth century? It's entertaining for a glimpse of the political atmosphere of 1845 (with the glaring absence of Ireland), but it really isn't Great Literature. ( )
  nwhyte | Nov 1, 2019 |
If you don't like politics or satires, this is not the book for you. While I am not very political myself, I like satires very much. This one uses a variation of Romeo and Juliet as a framework: Charles Egremont, newly-elected aristocratic Member of Parliament, meets and falls in love with the beautiful poor Chartist Sybil Gerard. Disraeli used little subtlety in making his point of England being "Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; ... THE RICH AND THE POOR." and amidst the humor and the romance, there are strong indictments about a government that allows the terrible conditions of the working classes. The book covers the conditions of farming labourers, mill workers, miners and metalworkers - each suffers in a different way but all suffering.

I particularly liked the satire of the political hostesses & the names Disraeli used for the minor characters (such as Lord Muddlebrains, Lady Firebrace, Colonel Bosky, Mr. Hoaxem etc.). I had a little bit of familiarity with the way aristocratic women sometimes figured as political hostesses before this & so Disraeli's lampooning of them struck me as very funny, such as Lady St. Julian's belief that all that is necessary for the party to secure a Member's vote on some particular issue is to have "asked some of them to dinner, or given a ball or two to their wives and daughters! ... Losing a vote at such a critical time, when if I had had only a remote idea of what was passing through his mind, I would have even asked him to Barrowley for a couple of days." ( )
1 vote leslie.98 | Feb 6, 2017 |
I found this book amazing, fascinating, and irritating.
Let's get the irritating part out of the way first. I have no sympathy for the wealthy and powerful of any age and even less for the simpering Victorians -- perhaps this is a result of too many hours watching Master Piece Theater. In addition, I found the writing style of the mid 1800's ponderous compared to the current almost journalistic approach of many writers. Unlike another reviewer, I did not find Disraeli's insertion of reams of social and political commentary into the storyline a detraction. Again this is a personal bias of mine: I am an avid reader of history.

The fascinating part of Sybil is the historical context and Disraeli's narrative descriptions of life outside the Victorian Beltway. As I mentioned, I found his social and political digressions very interesting. I also found it fascinating that today's romantic novels are direct descendents of the Victorian's popular literature: something that may be common knowledge to many but was lost on me.

Lastly, Sybil amazed me because the social conflicts that so troubled Disraeli are still with us. America. One hundred and sixty-four years after Sybil was first published, the same dynamics of wealth and self-absorption that Disraeli wrote about still thrive.

Reading Sybil was time well spent. ( )
3 vote LesPhillips | Jul 9, 2009 |
Why don't more heads of state write novels? Actually, after reading Sybil we should be thankful that they don't, since apparently Disraeli thinks it's totally legit to interrupt the narrative for whole chapters devoted to the political and social history of England. Actually, I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would at first. When Disraeli is actually talking about things happening, he's really fairly good at it. Also, he has this dramatic device that initially annoyed me-- ending a chapter on a cliffhanger and then jumping ahead in the next chapter and filling in the resolution much later-- that I soon came to like, since I did want to know what happened next and thus kept on reading. Like Gaskell in North and South, though, Disraeli tangles with social problems that can't be solved in a novel, even a 400-page one, and so the resolution doesn't quite work. But Charles Egremont is a decent, likable protagonist (the best sort, really), and his overbearing, scheming mother was certainly fun; I wish she had had more to do. And that Sybil herself had had a character of any sort beyond "immensely virtuous", really.
1 vote Stevil2001 | Mar 9, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Benjamin Disraeliprimary authorall editionscalculated
Smith, Sheila M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I would inscribe these volumes to one whose noble spirit and gentle nature ever prompt her to sympathise with the suffering; to one whose sweet voice has often encouraged, and whose taste and judgment have ever guided, their pages; the most severe of critics, but—a perfect Wife!
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'I'll take the odds against Caravan.'
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