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Sybil, or the Two Nations

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Summary

Sybil is one of the most prominent political novels of the mid-nineteenth century, taking as its subject the "condition of England" question. That phrase was first used by Thomas Carlyle in an essay of 1839 on Chartism, a working-class protest movement that plays a prominent role in this novel. The two nations are the rich and the poor, and the increasing gulf between them, and their condition also inspired such writers as Charles Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell, among others (one of whom, Friederich Engels, was the disciple of Karl Marx, and in his The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 described the appalling effects of the industrial revolution a year before Sybil appeared).

Disraeli, of course, was far from being a Marxist though, like Engels, his sympathies are with the poor, exemplified in this book particularly by the Chartists, who were active between roughly 1839 and 1848. In his view, the villains are the aristocratic Whigs and Whig-Liberals, who, ever since the despoliation of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, had made sure that the moneys which had been used for the alleviation of social distress and poverty, now flowed into their own pockets, leaving the poor with little recourse to help. His solution, which he sought to put into effect when he later became Prime Minister, was to push for measures of what he called "Tory democracy," or a kind of "compassionate conservatism," though quite different from the sort recently seen in the United States. Whatever one thinks of his politics, Disraeli tells a good story, in this case about the love of the aristocratic Charles Egremont for the lovely Chartist Sybil Gerard. In 2003, the Guardian ranked Sybil as No. 15 on its list of Hundred Greatest novels, and some consider it the best political novel of the nineteenth century. There is also general agreement that Disraeli (Lord Beaconsfield, as he became) and Winston Churchill are probably the only two prime ministers who can be seen as successes in the world of literature as well as that of politics.

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