Now this was totally unexpected! I decided to read it because it is a classic and once I was used to the old fashioned writing I found it engrossing and wonderfully written. Absolutely recommend it to anybody and everyone.
As an introduction to the background of Disraeli's political thought and personal positioning in a highly stratified society, Sybil is fascinating, thanks also to the Editor's brilliant notes. As a novel, it is nowhere near as entertaining as his contemporary Charles Dickens. As an attempt at social commentary in a novel form, it is pretentious, it stereotypes and really speechifies.
Disraeli and Dickens share a number of similarities in autobiographical detail, and yet it is no wonder that they each eventually took the paths that they did. The storyline of Sybil is quite similar to the Bildungsromane of Dickens. The protagonist, Charles Marney, suffers from disillusionment with the social status-quo, finds beauty in a poor girl, follows her father's quest for social justice, meets snobbery and inverted snobbery, and finally holds the poor girl in his arms, whose fortunes have meanwhile remarkably turned around.
Actually it's more ridiculously contrived than Dickens and yet more serious at the same time. But I think it is notable both that Sybil becomes the focus of the narrative and thus lead character for several chapters, which is an honour Dickens never gave to his women, and also that as the eponymous heroine she might have expected more than that. Obviously, it is not about Sybil. It is a platform for Disraeli.
Disraeli's role in and contribution to British politics is unique for many reasons, and the Editor highlights the idiosyncrasy of his worldview. Of course, Disraeli was the pioneer of One-Nationism, an idea which both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have been wrestling with and repackaging for today's electorate. But Disraeli perhaps misjudged the Essex Man of his own day. And, interestingly, Ed Miliband has since radicalised.
Disraeli may have later come to believe that the feeling of the nation was in accordance with the Tory party, but writing Sybil in the 1840s, Disraeli clearly felt the darkening radicalism of the time, and the need for change at the top, and had a lot more thinking to do. With the exception of Tancred, he had no more books to write.
I was kind of hoping that this would be a Mrs. Gaskell North and South/Ruth type affair. Sadly it was not. The plot, such as it is, is extremely thin and only inserted at the last minute where absolutely necessary. The heroine, Sybil, is a one dimensional holier than thou character with the personality of a wet sock. Her true love, Egremont is the second son of an aristocrat who longs to be of the people, mainly so that he can kiss Sybil. When Sybil finds out he is a class traitor it is all up with him, and there are extraordinary plot leaps to reunite the lovers in perfect harmony, most of which take place hurriedly in the last five pages of the book when Disraeli remembers that it is a book he is meant to be writing and not a tract about the Chartists and the make up of the political parties. This tract/ party political broadcast, takes up the other three hundred and fifty pages of the book and makes for excessively dull reading, especially, if, as I have, you have read Anthony Trollope's triumphant Palliser novels which cover a lot of the same issues but with a thousand times more brio and excitement.
Disraeli was an important politician and an incomparable orator. I knew that he was also a novelist, but did not realise his ability. Sybil is not uniformly good, but the best passages hold there own with Dickens and his contemporaries. I also failed to realise that Disraeli was obsessed with the victims of the Industrial Revolution. On a lighter level, his descriptions of parliamentarians has continued relevance today! I am tempted to read some of his other mature novels.