Jun. 18th, 2010

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I got slightly derailed from my Difference Engine reread by wanting to remember what the originals of Sybil Gerard, Dandy Mick Radley, Walter Gerard, and Charles Egremont (the characters Gibson and Sterling reconceived in the first section of the novel) were like. So I dusted off my copy of Disraeli's Sybil: Or, the Two Nations (1845).

Disraeli intrigues me as a novelist because he began as a fiction writer, became a politician (and, of course, Prime Minister on two separate occasions), and returned to fiction periodically through his career. Some of his fiction is out-and-out fluff, but some of it is written for political purpose; his early Young England trilogy, of which Sybil is the second, proposed the Romantic Toryism he espoused. Young England was the start of Disraeli's career; it *got him noticed.*

Hard to understand why, as his political platform is nearly incomprehensible, comprising a near-worship of aristocracy as well as the notion that the aristocracy and the people are natural allies; it's this pesky middle class we've got to look out for. (Quick quiz: what social class did Disraeli belong to?) Sybil has historical digressions that betray a willful misunderstanding of history: James II was the friend of the people? The Glorious Revolution was entirely . . . inglorious. (Bastards! Er, sorry.) Basically, things all went wrong with the Reformation and the redistribution of monastic wealth -- the monks were benevolent landlords who looked out for the tenants on their lands; most of those horrible parvenues who've come along since the Reformation have not. (If you were, say, a servant in the time of Henry VIII, your bloodline is still irrevocably tainted.)

Moreover, although he goes on and on about the sufferings of the people (horrible conditions in mines and factories, the plight of the handloom weavers when the factories came in, the advantage taken of workers by the proprietors of factory stores), he also seems never to have met a working class person. There's a nigh-insane scene of a trade union meeting . . . or as he calls it (with a fondness for ending chapters with ALL CAPS revelations): A TRADES UNION . . . that has masks and robes and torchlight and a skeleton sitting on a throne, all the stuff of paranoid antiMasonic fantasy. Yeah, just like the meeting down at Local 128. He tells us about orderly and honorable strikers, but then his big strike scenes at the end are filled with depictions of riot. His working class hero and heroine turn out to be of old noble Saxon lineage, and the one town, Wodgate, where the working class isn't oppressed by the millowners and the idle aristocracy? They just go ahead and oppress *themselves* . . . okay, when they're not getting drunk and running riot, much to the discomfort of everyone else. (But at least they have a good time, unlike everyone else in this book; the useless element among the aristocrats mostly complain about being bored).

Judging by the character of Sybil, who is beautiful, pure, and bizarrely attracted to nunhood, not only has he never met a member of the working classes, but he has also never met an actual woman. This is patently untrue -- I've read a biography, and he was a *huge* flirt and gallant, besides being married to a wealthy older woman who helped to finance his political endeavors.

It's fair to say that Benjamin Disraeli is not actually a good writer. One of my Facebook friends was recently groaning about having to read Disraeli for a project, and just revealed it was Sybil she read. Somehow I found myself wanting to jump to the book's defense (I did not), because I feel an odd fondness for it. But the honest truth is . . . it is pretty bad. There's some solid social critique, but it gets unanchored pretty quickly. Disraeli can be very funny, on purpose -- the early chapters of Sybil, where he mocks the aristocracy, are pretty damn good. But he can also be funny accidentally, in the melodrama of much of the rest of the novel. Did other writers (Gaskell, Dickens, etc.) do a better job with the plight of the working classes? Oh yes. Still, neither Elizabeth Gaskell nor Charles Dickens ever held a seat in Parliament; their novels may have been more influential as texts, but Disraeli is worth reading because of the intersections between fiction and politics.

Plus, again, it's pretty funny, both in the bits where it's meant to be, and the bits where it's not.


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