Introduction: A romance and a political manifesto

Sybil; or, The Two Nations, the second of Disraeli’s Young England trilogy (1845), is one of the most important mid-nineteenth century Condition-of-England novels. Inspired by the rise of the Chartists, the novel deals with the problems of the growing social and economic disparity between the antagonistic communities in England — the rich and the poor — largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The novel, which combines politics and romance, was a best-seller and brought Disraeli much needed royalties: The first edition of the novel sold about 3,000 copies at a guinea and a half, and gave Disraeli a profit of about £1,000. Later, it went through many editions in England and America, and was translated into French in 1870. The novel was praised for its sincere, accurate presentation of the social conditions of the poor, although it did not surpass Coningsby in popularity. In Sybil, Disraeli wrote persuasively about oppression of the working classes, female and child labour, low wages, abominable conditions of housing and work, and the squalor and misery of industrial towns. However, his solution to reconciling social conflicts and restore a national unity appeared to be quite untenable.

Sybil is both an upper class romance and a political manifesto set against the backdrop of the Chartist movement (1838-1857). The novel’s romantic plot is secondary to the political message, which calls for a restoration of national unity by means of reinstating royal authority and paternalistic government. As its subtitle indicates, Sybil exposes British society’s bitter division of the rich and the poor during the “hungry forties.” Disraeli portrayed both the physical and moral degradation of working people with gritty realism, relying on accounts from the Blue Books (reports of parliamentary commissions set up to examine social conditions) and his own eyewitness observations of manufacturing towns in the North. He blamed the working class growing poverty on Utilitarianism and laissez-faire ideology. Disraeli intended Sybil as more than reportage, and the Condition-of-England debate in the novel has a clear political goal. Disraeli argues that England needs 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 a varying success, with his social welfare reforms when he twice served as Prime Minister. In addition, he also wanted to reinvigorate the programme of the Tory party by creating a one-nation conservatism.

A critical view of both country aristocracy and wealthy industrialists

The novel opens on the eve of the 1837 Derby with a glance at the lives of the idle, self-indulgent upper classes. A group of aristocratic young men, including Charles Egremont, the younger brother of Lord Marney, discuss the coming races at a sumptuous London gentlemen’s club. Interestingly, Disraeli goes out of his way to emphasize that Lord Marney’s peerage is not ancient, for it only dates back three centuries, and he explains that the founder of the family, a servant of one of the favourites of Henry VIII, owed his great fortune to the plunder of the Church estates during the Reformation. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the abbey lands became more valuable, and their owner was elevated to the peerage as Baron Marney. After the outbreak of the Civil Wars, the Egremonts joined the Cavaliers and fought on the side of Charles I, but in 1688, when James II announced his intention to restitute the church estates to their previous owners, the Lord of Marney Abbey became an adherent of ‘civil and religious liberty’, joining the Whig lords, who called on the Prince of Orange to become king of England as William the Third. During the seventy years of almost continuous Whig rule, Marney Abbey produced a crop of lords who sat in Parliament where they worked chiefly for their own sakes rather than of the nation (Vanden Bosche 91). Rather than simply criticizing the Marneys for their political irresponsibility and even corruption, Disraeli criticizes them essentially as nouveau nobility, something many of his readers might have considered strange, even bizarre.

In Sybil, Disraeli criticised uncontrolled industrialisation as the immoral byproduct of laissez-faire economics. The events of the novel, which appear against the background of the Chartist agitation, take place from 1837 to 1844. The novel exposes the darker side of early Victorian England’s prosperity by contrasting the luxurious life of the aristocracy to the extreme poverty of both industrial and agricultural workers. Disraeli showed a concern for the poverty and social instability in the rapidly expanding industrial towns. Disraeli describes with dismay the country town of Marney, the first scene of poverty the novel presents, emphasizing the poor quality of the labouring class dwellings, which lacked the most basic conveniences. The narrator tells the reader that “these wretched tenements seldom consisted of more than two rooms, in one of which the whole family, however numerous, were obliged to sleep, without distinction of age, or sex, or suffering.” The poor live in conditions that are not only crowded but also unhealthy and dehumanizing:

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; surrounded by three generations whose inevitable presence is more painful than her sufferings in that hour of travail; while the father of her coming child, in another corner of the sordid chamber, lies stricken by that typhus which his contaminating dwelling has breathed into his veins, and for whose next prey is perhaps destined, his new-born child. These swarming walls had neither windows nor doors sufficient to keep out the weather, or admit the sun or supply the means of ventilation; the humid and putrid roof of thatch exhaling malaria like all other decaying vegetable matter. The dwelling rooms were neither boarded nor paved; and whether it were that some were situate in low and damp places, occasionally flooded by the river, and usually much below the level of the road; or that the springs, as was often the case, would burst through the mud floor; the ground was at no time better than so much clay, while sometimes you might see little channels cut from the centre under the doorways to carry off the water, the door itself removed from its hinges: a resting place for infancy in its deluged home. [Book II, Chapter 3]

Finally, the “hovels” usually don’t even have the most basic, essential means of sanitation that could prevent disease, for these homes “were in many instances not provided with the commonest conveniences of the rudest police; contiguous to every door might be observed the dung-heap on which every kind of filth was accumulated, for the purpose of being disposed of for manure, so that, when the poor man opened his narrow habitation in the hope of refreshing it with the breeze of summer, he was met with a mixture of gases from reeking dunghills (Book II, Chapter 3).

Disraeli argued that laissez-faire economics and political policy produced such horrible conditions. Workers were underpaid and unable to sustain a family. Despite the growing wealth created by increased industrial production, trade, and commerce, prosperity lay only in the hands of the upper classes — landed aristocracy, merchants, and mill-owners — while most working people lived in abject poverty.

“Never was such a plunder” — Disraeli’s critique of post-Reformation nobility

Sybil centers on the awakening social conscience of Charles Egremont, who becomes increasingly disillusioned with the way many of the aristocracy (including his brother) treat the labouring poor. Charles and his brother therefore represent two opposite poles of the English aristocracy. The former is generous and tender-hearted, whereas the latter is cynical, arrogant, and devoid of sympathy for the agricultural labourers on his estate, who live in a sordid squalor. Disraeli’s emphasis upon the plight of the agricultural workers makes clear that the divide into two nations is not solely, or even chiefly, the result of the Industrial Revolution but of upper class irresponsibility.

One day Charles meets two strangers in the ruins of Marney Abbey — a Chartist leader, Walter Gerard, who works as an overseer in a local factory, and a younger Chartist agitator, Stephen Morley, who is also the editor of the local radical newspaper. Egremont discovers that Gerard adheres to ‘old faith’ (Catholicism) and hears from him about the plight of Catholic monks during the Reformation. In this episode Disraeli argues that the pre-Reformation Church and the old Saxon aristocracy cared for the welfare of common people, whereas the ‘new’ post-Reformation aristocracy, allied with the middle-class industrialists, is indifferent to the plight of the labouring poor. Gerard points out that, unlike nineteenth-century absentee landlords, ‘the monks were never non-resident. They expended their revenue among those whose labour had produced it.’ Moreover, ‘these holy men too built and planted as they did everything else for posterity: their churches were cathedrals; their schools colleges; their halls and libraries the muniment rooms of kingdoms; their woods and waters, their farms and gardens, were laid out and disposed on a scale and in a spirit that are now extinct: they made the country beautiful, and the people proud of their country.’ Hearing this, Charles asks, ‘Yet if the monks were such public benefactors, why did not the people rise in their favour?’ and Egremont responds with a tale of upper class oppression that produced a civil war against the poor:

'They did, but too late. They struggled for a century, but they struggled against property and they were beat. As long as the monks existed, the people, when aggrieved, had property on their side. And now ‘tis all over', said the stranger; ‘and travellers come and stare at these ruins, and think themselves very wise to moralize over time. They are the children of violence, not of time. It is war that created these ruins, civil war, of all our civil wars the most inhuman, for it was waged with the unresisting. The monasteries were taken by storm, they were sacked, gutted, battered with warlike instruments, blown up with gunpowder; you may see the marks of the blast against the new tower here. [Book II Chapter 5]

He concludes, ‘Never 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'. Disraeli’s radical point here is clear: the present poverty of the poor resulted not from a just, if indifferent system of laissez faire but from the thievery of families like the Marneys, who stole their present wealth and position not just from the monks but from an entire community.

Two nations

The result of such stealing what Disraeli polemically considers an entire community’s wealth is to divide the country into two nations. In a famous passage, which takes place in the ruins of Marney Abbey, Stephen Morley tells Egremont about the division of England into two nations: the rich and the poor Listening to Morley, Egremont responds, “Well, society may be in its infancy . . . but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed'. To which Morley responds,

‘Which nation . . . for she reigns over two’. . . .‘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'. ‘You speak of –’, said Egremont, hesitatingly. ‘The RICH and the POOR’. [Book II, Chapter 5]

This phrase ‘two nations’ soon became a popular metaphor for describing the problematic social inequalities facing early Victorian Britain. In Sybil, Disraeli draws his readers’ attention to the existence of ‘two nations’ in England: the ever-growing wealthy industrialists and the mass of the population who are subjected to increasing poverty, social deprivation, physical and moral dehumanisation.

Poor wages, long working hours, unsanitary working and living conditions, high infant mortality, and short life expectancy contributed to human degradation. Published in the same year as Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Sybil exposes the miserable plight of the British poor. The moving passage that describes a gang of miners leaving a mine has the power of Engels's account of working conditions in 1840s Manchester.

They come forth: the mine delivers its gang and the pit its bondsmen; the forge is silent and the engine is still. The plain is covered with the swarming multitude: bands of stalwart men, broad-chested and muscular, wet with toil, and black as the children of the tropics; troops of youth — alas! of both sexes, — though neither their raiment nor their language indicates the difference; all are clad in male attire; and oaths that men might shudder at, issue from lips born to breathe words of sweetness. Yet these are to be — some are — the mothers of England! But can we wonder at the hideous coarseness of their language when we remember the savage rudeness of their lives? Naked to the waist, an iron chain fastened to a belt of leather runs between their legs clad in canvas trousers, while on hands and feet an English girl, for twelve, sometimes for sixteen hours a-day, hauls and hurries tubs of coals up subterranean roads, dark, precipitous, and plashy: circumstances that seem to have escaped the notice of the Society for the Abolition of Negro Slavery. [Book III, Chapter 1]

After describing the adult miners, Disraeli turns to the young children who emerge from the depths of the earth. These, too, have been ignored by the Evangelical reformers who led the drive against slavery. In fact, says Disraeli, emphasizing the hypocrisy of many Liberal industrialists, “those worthy gentlemen too appear to have been singularly unconscious of the sufferings of the little Trappers, which was remarkable, as many of them were in their own employ.” Like G. W. M. Reynolds after him, Disraeli here forces the reader to look at these frail and vulnerable children: “See too these emerge from the bowels of the earth! Infants of four and five years of age, many of them girls, pretty and still soft and timid; entrusted with the fulfilment of most responsible duties, and the nature of which entails on them the necessity of being the earliest to enter the mine and the latest to leave it. Their labour indeed is not severe, for that would be impossible, but it is passed in darkness and in solitude.” Drawing on the evidence of Parliamentary Blue Books, Disraeli points out that England allows these children to spend their lives in precisely the conditions of prisons for the most dangerous criminals:

They endure that punishment which philosophical philanthropy has invented for the direst criminals, and which those criminals deem more terrible than the death for which it is substituted. Hour after hour elapses, and all that reminds the infant Trappers of the world they have quitted and that which they have joined, is the passage of the coal-waggons for which they open the air-doors of the galleries, and on keeping which doors constantly closed, except at this moment of passage, the safety of the mine and the lives of the persons employed in it entirely depend. [Book III, Chapter 1]

Disraeli exhibited a remarkable power of empathising with the fate of the poor and downtrodden, and he did so in hopes of creating a party that could solve some of these abuses. He was one of the first authors and statesmen who correctly recognised the imminent social crisis in Britain that might have led to revolution, and he thought he had a means of heading off that revolution. His descriptions of the condition of the labouring classes in Sybil roused social consciences not only among the reading public but also among Victorian journalists, clergymen, and philanthropists. The novel’s proposal for bridging the gap between the rich and the poor was far from being feasible — really just wishful thinking — and yet it played its part in the passage of what G. M. Young, the great historian of the Victorian era, considered the turning point of the age — the Factory Act of 1847. According to Young, although the act itself did little to correct many abuses, it signaled a truly radical reconception of government in great Britain — one which pushes aside laissez faire and libertarian beliefs about government and society and begins the centralization of governmental power, which even advocates of the working class like Charles Kingsley, believed inevitably lead to tyranny. Recognizing that in a modern society citizens cannot protect themselves solely by their own efforts, Tories like Disraeli and other reformers made national government responsible for what Engels termed the condition of the working classes. As it turned out decades later when many working men received the right to vote, they voted Tory rather than Liberal, both because Disraeli and the Tories led the fight against poor working conditions in the factories and mines, and because the factory owners were represented in Parliament by Whigs and Liberals. So Disraeli’s fanciful solutions were not entirely a matter of fantasy.

Sybil as a symbolic embodiment of one nation

In the ruins of Marney Abbey, Egremont also encounters a third stranger, Gerard’s daughter Sybil. Hearing her singing the evening hymn to the Virgin in the distant ruined chapel, he becomes captivated by her angelic voice. Disraeli describes his title character as an angelic lady (donna angelica), making her both the ideal of female purity and a symbolic embodiment of national identity, a descendant, if you will, of Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura. Sybil, who has been educated at Mowbray Convent and intends to become a Catholic nun, carries out charitable activities among the poor inhabitants of the nearby manufacturing town. When Egremont takes on the disguise of a newspaper reporter and obtains temporary lodgings near Gerard’s Mowbray cottage in order to discover the actual living conditions of the poor, he becomes enthralled with Sybil’s mysterious personality.

The form of Sybil Gerard was stamped upon his [Egremont’s] brain. It blended with all his thoughts; it haunted every object. Who was this girl, unlike all women whom he had yet encountered, who spoke with such sweet seriousness of things of such vast import, but which had never crossed his mind, and with a kind of mournful majesty bewailed the degradation of her race? The daughter of the lowly, yet proud of her birth. Not a noble lady of the land who could boast a mien more complete, and none of them thus gifted, who possessed withal the fascinating simplicity that pervaded every gesture and accent of the daughter of Gerard. [Book II, Chapter 16]

In the company of Father St. Lys, Egremont meets Sybil in the sick chamber of Philip Warner, an impoverished weaver, and is again enraptured by her spirituality and social commitment. Sybil, who regularly engages in acts of charity, awakens his social conscience, drawing his attention to the plight of the working poor. Egremont discovers to his utmost horror the bleakest and poorest corners of England. From now on he has two goals in his life — to win Sybil’s love and to improve the conditions of the labouring classes.

Egremont meets Sybil again in London when she accompanies her father at the Chartist National Convention in 1839, which advances the five Chartist demands: suffrage for all men over 21, secret ballot, abolition of the property qualification for MPs and the payment of MPs, and the creation of single-member constituencies. Sybil and Gerard discover with a shock that the reporter, Mr Franklin, is in fact the brother of the despotic Lord Marney, and hence mistakenly assume that he is also an enemy of the people. They do not know that Egremont’s visit to Mowbray has already made him sympathize with the oppressed, although he strongly believes that the lower classes cannot win their due rights without assistance from the aristocracy, which must assume its social, moral, and political responsiblities. Egremont here repeats what Disraeli had stated a decade before in The Spirit of Whiggism (1834): ‘I deny that a people can govern itself. Self-government is a contradiction in terms’. In Sybil, Egremont, who looks sympathetically on the Chartist movement, speaks similarly:

The People are not strong; the People never can be strong. Their attempts at self-vindication will end only in their suffering and confusion. It is civilisation that has effected, that is effecting this change. It is that increased knowledge of themselves that teaches the educated their social duties. There is a dayspring in the history of this nation which those who are on the mountain tops can as yet perhaps only recognize. You deem you are in darkness, and I see a dawn. The new generation of the aristocracy of England are not tyrants, not oppressors, Sybil, as you persist in believing. Their intelligence, better than that, their hearts are open to the responsibility of their position. But the work that is before them is no holiday-work. It is not the fever of superficial impulse that can remove the deep-fixed barriers of centuries of ignorance and crime. Enough that their sympathies are awakened; time and thought will bring the rest. They are the natural leaders of the People, Sybil; believe me they are the only ones. [Book IV, Chapter 15]

Disraeli insisted that the rejuvenated and conscience-stricken aristocracy whould be the natural ally of working people. As the leader of the Young England splinter group in Parliament, he called on the Conservative Party to defend the cause of the common people and to remedy the social ills caused by the Industrial Revolution, irresponsible landowners, and laissez-faire policies.

An impassable gulf and reconciliation through marriage

When Egremont passionately reveals his love to Sybil, asking for her hand, she turns him down because she believes that the gulf that separates rich and poor is impassable. In the meantime, the House of Commons rejects the Chartist petition after violent riots take place in Birmingham and elsewhere. After the outbreak of riots, Egremont makes an important speech in Parliament in favour of the Chartists, emphasizing the radical ideas that the rights of labour are as sacred as those of property and that the social happiness of the millions should be the government’s most important concern. When Egremont meets Sybil again, she is sincerely grateful to him for his support. Worrying about their security, Egremont advises Sybil and her father to leave London because the government may take action against the Chartist convention. However, Gerard refuses to return home, and eventually, both he and his daughter are arrested. Luckily, through the intervention of Lord John Russell, Sybil is discharged from prison, whereas her father is accused of seditious conspiracy, but is held to bail. Three years later Gerard and Sybil become involved in another riot during a strike in Lancashire, when Gerard tries to save the factory of the benevolent manufacturer Mr. Trafford, who has created model industrial relations for his employees. At a large labour demonstration the previous night on the moors outside the town of Mowbray, Gerard was acclaimed a popular hero by the rioters. When the crowd rushes at the troopers, Gerard is killed, Lord Marney is stoned to death, and Mowbray Castle is burnt down. A group of drunken rioters assail Sybil, but Egremont arrives just in time to rescue her:

One ruffian had grasped the arm of Sybil, another had clenched her garments, when an officer covered with dust and gore, sabre in hand, jumped from the terrace, and hurried to the rescue. He cut down one man, thrust away another, and placing his left arm round Sybil, he defended her with his sword, while Harold now become furious, flew from man to man, and protected her on the other side. Her assailants were routed, they made a staggering flight; the officer turned round and pressed Sybil to his heart.'We will never part again', said Egremont.'Never', murmured Sybil. [Book VI, Chapter 12]

When Egremont eventually marries Sybil, they symbolically unite the two nations into one as their marriage makes an ingenious but hardly plausible attempt to bridge the gulf between rich and poor. Their marriage is not the only fantastic element readers encounter by the novel’s close: after a jury trial reveals that Sybil has noble Anglo-Saxon blood, she regains possession of her ancient aristocratic title, the right to Mowbray Castle, and the estates that provide her with a handsome — indeed, enormous —  income of £40,000 a year. Disraeli thus ends his novel with that trite device one could term “the discovery of the rightful heir,” the kind of plot device Oscar Wilde parodied in The Importance of Being Ernest as did Gilbert and Sullivan in their operettas. As absurd as this plot device might seem, Disraeli employed it because it embodied one of his political obsessions, the idea that a ‘natural aristocracy’ exists not only among the upper classes but also among the impoverished members of English society who had Anglo-Saxon roots. Of course, the dénouement of Sybil is hardly satisfactory for this political novel because it suggests that Disraeli has forgotten his initial emphasis on the nation’s bitter divisions and therefore fails to offer any plausible means of social reconciliation. To make things even worse, Egremont and his wife abandon their social work and go for a year-long honeymoon in Italy — an escape from the problems of their country that undermines Disraeli’s characterization of them.

Nonetheless, Sybil is the most interesting Condition-of-England novel of the Young England trilogy because it examines critically the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing split of the nation into the rich and the poor. Despite its melodramatic clichés and a highly improbable romantic plot, it influenced other Condition-of-England novels, such Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855), Charles Kingsley’s Yeast (1848) and Alton Locke (1850), and Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854). In Sybil, as in Coningsby, Disraeli, who described himself as a progressive Tory, argued that an alliance between an enlightened aristocracy and the working class could bridge the gulf between the two alien ‘nations’ of rich and poor. Like Thomas Carlyle, he called for a revival of the medieval social concord based on hierarchy, paternalism, benevolence, and mutual confidence. Sybil contests the Chartist claim that the people can act for themselves. Disraeli, who wanted to recreate medieval social relations based on hierarchy and paternalism, argues that an enlightened aristocrat like Egremont can become a successful leader of the people, whereas Chartist leaders, in his opinion, proved themselves incapable of leading the people.

References and Further Reading

Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Sybil, or The Two Nations. Project Gutenberg.

Fido, Martin. ‘From His Own Observation’: Sources of Working Class Passages in Disraeli’s Sybil, The Modern Language Review, 72(2) (Apr., 1977) 268-284.

Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. Vol. XLIX, London: Thomas Curson Hansard, 1839.

Schwarz, Daniel R. ‘Art and Argument in Disraeli’s span class ="book">Sybil. The Journal of Narrative Technique, 4(1) (Jan. 1974): 19-31.

Vanden Bossche, Chris R. Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832–1867. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Last modified 24 June 2018