Sybil, or The Two Nations is a roman à these – a novel with a thesis. I have read that it is an exposé on the deplorable conditions of England’s working class, mid 19thCentury. In my opinion, that is only half-right. I believe the point is more precisely: the unconscionable condition – a condition the ruling elite is culpable for – of the working class and a call to change.
It is also, a Victorian Era romance.
At the time of writing, Benjamin Disraeli was a member of Parliament, who would later become Prime Minister.
Sybil – is the beautiful, intelligent, and virtuous daughter of a labor organizer. She is an ideal.
The Two Nations of the title is best described by one of the novels characters.
“Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “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.”
“THE RICH AND THE POOR.”
I may be pressing my rights as a reviewer to once more differ from conventional, and more qualified opinion, but I think The Two Nations is neither subtitle, nor alternate title, but rather the single title is: Sybil, or The Two Nations.
I called Sybil the daughter of a labor organizer, but that isn’t quite correct. Walter Gerard is a leader in the Chartist movement. Chartist demands were not merely for labor reform, but also voter and Parliamentary reform. Growing up under his reasoned and eloquent discourse, Sybil has formed a very precise world view.
The quick intelligence and the ardent imagination of Sybil had made her comprehend with fervor the two ideas that had been impressed on her young mind; the oppression of her church and degradation of her people.
In her own words...
The dove and the eagle will not mate; the lion and the lamb will not lie down together; and the conquerors will never rescue the conquered. ~ Sybil
But Sybil’s world view will be challenged by circumstance and the person of Charles Egremont, the younger brother of Lord Marney – hence not the heir – but still from a life of privilege.
Enjoyment, not ambition seemed the principle of his existence.
Charles becomes a member of Parliament, and becomes conscious of the great divide in glorious England.
There are seasons in life when solitude is a necessity; and such a one had now descended on the spirit of the brother of Lord Marney.
One thing I liked about this novel, was that although Disraeli clearly portrays “the people” as the wronged, and more virtuous party, they are not without their own foibles and prejudices. This is most poignant in Sybil herself.
She had seen enough to suspect that the world was a more complicated system than she had preconceived.
Disraeli paints a miserable picture of England’s working class. It is disturbing and heartbreaking. He describes the denizens of one particularly squalid labor town…
Ask them the name of their sovereign, and they will give you an unmeaning stare; ask them the name of their religion, and they will laugh: who rules them on earth, or who can save them in heaven, are alike mysteries to them.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel, and learned a great deal about a historic setting of which I was largely ignorant. Disraeli asserts that this history is indeed somewhat hard to discover.
Generally speaking, all the great events have been distorted, most of the important causes concealed, some of the principal characters never appear, and all who figure are so misunderstood and misrepresented, that the result is a complete mystification, and the perusal of the narrative about as profitable to an Englishman as reading the Republic of Plato or the Utopia of More, The pages of Gaudentio di Lucca or the adventures of Peter Wilkins.
And while his passion and purpose are commendable, the politics were a bit difficult to comprehend. I’m certain it was more accessible at the time. But still the human elements, and the love story were very entertaining.
My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars
This novel satisfies “a classic by a new to me author” in the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge.