“Would he have made the cut if he had not become prime minister?”

asks Robert McCrum in his Guardian article explaining why he chose ‘Sybil’ for his “top 100 novels written in English” list. He goes on:

”his literary contemporaries such as Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, and even Anthony Trollope are much greater novelists. Disraeli’s plots are far-fetched, and his characters balsa-wood. At the same time, he has flashes of brilliance that equal these greats at their best.”

This is where McCrum and I part company. I found no flashes of brilliance in ‘Sybil’ (and I did look carefully) and I don’t think anyone else would either. McCrum provides no quotes to support his contention, and if you look at this selection in WIkiquote I don’t think you will find anything there which justifies this description either. The weight of evidence to demonstrate the opposite, the wooden, flat, simply bad nature of Disraeli’s prose is overwhelming. I obviously can’t flood this review out with bad prose, but here are a couple of examples, from the 400 pages of possibilities:  

“All this Hatton understood; it was a conclusion he had gradually arrived at by a gradual process of indication and by a vigilant observation that in its study of character had rarely been deceived; and when one evening with an art that could not be suspected he sounded Gerard on the future of his daughter, he found that the clear intellect and straight-forward sagacity of the father arrived at the same result.”

The repetition of gradual in the first clause of this clumsy sentence really grates. Disraeli’s habit of inserting political speeches into his light romantic narrative exacerbates the problem, and leaves some gear grinding turns of mood – here for example, where a condemnation of the ‘physical force’ movement within the Chartists is followed by a sudden cut to Sybil, his heroine, going for a walk:

“The party of violence, a small minority as is usually the case, but consisting of men of determined character, triumphed; and the outbreak at Birmingham was the first consequence of those reckless councils that were destined in the course of the ensuing years to inflict on the working classes of this country so much suffering and disaster.

It was about this time, a balmy morning in July, that Sybil, tempted by the soft sunshine and a longing for the sight of flowers, and turf and the spread of winding waters, went forth from her gloomy domicile.”

Bad books find many different ways to be bad. Here Disraeli uses his novel to put forward his thesis that the problems of mid-Victorian England – and he portrays these at length, albeit in a comedic, slightly farcical way that carries no pathos or empathy – could be resolved if the working classes were able to recognise their natural masters, the aristocracy, and form a coalition against the middle classes, and by opposing, end them.

“There is a dayspring in the history of this nation which those who are on the mountain tops can as yet perhaps only recognise. 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. “

Without this leadership the working class, irrespective of the legitimacy of their grievances, are just brutal, unthinking animals. Disraeli’s class instincts seeps from the page throughout the novel whenever working class people are portrayed – the only exception being Sybil and her father, who surprise surprise turn out to be members of the nobility all along. When Sybil, rushing to ‘rescue’ her father, is involved in a crash,

“a group immediately formed round the cab, a knot of young thieves, almost young enough for infant school, a dustman, a woman nearly naked, and very drunk, and two unshorn ruffians with brutality stamped on every feature”

Earlier “the Wodgate girl” is described as being “with a back like a grasshopper”. And if you thought I was being harsh on Disraeli, here is where his narrator sums matters up:

“It is not that the people are immoral, because immorality implies some forethought; or ignorant, because ignorance is relative; but they are animals, unconscious, their minds a blank; and their worse actions only the impulse of a gross or savage impulse.”

Disraeli deserves some credit for recognising some of the social ills of his time, although for a politician of the period these ills would have been hard to avoid. he obviously had some sympathy with the people of England, divided as it was in “two nations, rich and poor”, thoughts which in the 1840’s were more radical than they seem today. His portrait of the Chartist movement (and there’s an idea for a thesis, portraits of Chartism in 19th century literature) is not quite as black and white as one might have expected – having stood as a radical candidate for Parliament several time, Disraeli was not the mustachio-twirling aristocrat of the type he caricatures here. Nevertheless, ‘know your place’ would probably have served just as effectively as a sub-title for this deeply disappointing novel.

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