He tells us a good deal about wages and working conditions, about female and child labour, about the squalor and misery of working class housing.
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Disraeli also recognises quite clearly that the oppression of the working class can lead to violence. Early in the book there are references to rick-burning, and later there is widespread rioting.
If it cannot understand how they occur, it will be impotent to deal with them. Unlike more timid politicians he was not afraid that explanation might be misinterpreted as justification. But that was as far as it went. What Disraeli could not admit into his picture was that the working class was capable of self-activity and self-organisation, that it could produce its own leaders. For to admit that would be to recognise that the working class was capable of developing into an alternative ruling class, thus making the aristocracy and its hangers-on quite unnecessary. Self-government is a contradiction in terms.
Their attempts at self-vindication will end only in their suffering and confusion. But this is merely to reinforce her previous statement that she is without hope; there is no suggestion that the conquered might rescue themselves. Indeed, when she becomes involved in the Chartist agitation, Sybil is fairly rapidly disillusioned. Disraeli in some ways admired the Chartists. He recognised that Chartism had a real social base and was not simply whipped up by the seditious, as some of his fellow MPs believed:. I cannot believe that a petition signed by considerably upwards of 1,, of our fellow-citizens can have been brought about by those ordinary means which are always in existence, and which five, ten or 15 years ago were equally powerful in themselves without producing any equal results.
I admit also on the other hand that this movement is not occasioned by any desire of political rights. Political rights have so much of an abstract character, their consequences act so slightly on the multitude, that I do not believe they could ever be the origin of any great popular movement. Disraeli did make a certain effort to understand Chartist ideas. Unlike Carlyle, Disraeli was well aware that Chartism was an expression of powerful proletarian articulacy, with its orators, mass meetings and numerous publications. The description of the torch-lit meeting is quite sympathetic.
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It was true enough that trade union organisation in the early 19th century involved a certain amount of clandestinity and oath-swearing. But Disraeli omits to tell his readers the basic reason for this—that trade unions had been illegal organisations. In the absence of this information the rituals can only seem to be a mixture of the sinister and the ridiculous.
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Disraeli takes a relatively relaxed view of working class violence. Disraeli claims a familiarity with mass violence not based on any extensive experience. Of the individuals involved in the Chartist movement, the one most sympathetically presented is Walter Gerard, father of the saintly and virginal Sybil. He is shown as a cultured and thoughtful man, sincerely committed to the interests of working people, and as a popular and effective orator. The paradox is that he is not really a worker at all, but an overlooker and hence part of the management structure, in what is rather implausibly presented as a humane and well-managed factory.
He disagrees with Stephen Morley about physical force—Morley is shown as a advocate of moral force. We get the impression that while Disraeli deplores working class violence, he also feels there is something a bit unmanly about moral force Chartism. Bishop Hatton, leader of the riotous Hell-cats in the final section of the novel, is presented as the exact opposite, as the worst type of working class leadership. The problem is to explain how he wins support, how indeed he becomes followed more eagerly than the most intelligent and serious leaders.
Again Disraeli is underlining his point that the working class is unable to select and recognise its own leaders, and thus constantly falls prey to agitators of the worst type. This is a frequent theme in the novels of the period. Strange as it always is to consider any assembly in the act of submissively resigning itself to the dreariness of some complacent person, lord or commoner, whom three fourths of it could, by no human means, raise out of the slough of inanity to their own intellectual level, it was particularly strange, and it was even particularly affecting, to see this crowd of earnest faces, whose honesty in the main no competent observer free from bias could doubt, so agitated by such a leader.
In other words, Dickens is telling us that he does not believe his own narrative, that the workers in the crowd were too intelligent to be taken in by such an agitator. Something similar is happening with Hatton. The decent and intelligent workers whom Disraeli has introduced us to are scarcely likely to be taken in by such an obvious charlatan. But the depiction of violence has a clear ideological role. To show the working class as subject to excesses of irrational rage and violence is a very convenient myth.
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On the one hand it alarms the reader, convincing her of the gravity of the problem. Yet at the same time it confirms that the working class is not fit to rule; it does not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to do so. The most complex character is Stephen Morley. He is presented as a man of considerable culture, surrounded by books and immersed in political ideas. He too is not a worker, but a full-time journalist. He is also, it appears, some sort of socialist, although Disraeli does not use the word.
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It is as difficult to be against community as it is to be for sin. But it seems clear that Morley is in fact some sort of Utopian socialist, probably a follower of Robert Owen. The domestic principle has fulfilled its purpose. The irresistible law of progress demands that another should be developed… Home is a barbarous idea; the method of a rude age; home is isolation; therefore anti-social.
What we want is community. As the novel develops we become more and more aware that Morley is a nasty piece of work. He is in love with Sybil, who rejects him. First, despite his attachment to moral force, he physically assaults Egremont; later he tries to seduce Sybil by threatening not to enable her father to escape arrest and imprisonment unless she will submit to him. It is always dangerous to attribute the views expressed by a character in a work of fiction to the author himself; Shakespeare would find himself lumbered with a very odd collection of opinions.
But it is interesting to ask why Disraeli has made Morley the bearer of the idea of the Two Nations. But the only character Disraeli can find to argue the possibility of overcoming the gulf is a social revolutionary who believes in a total transformation of the social order, thus leaving an unresolved paradox at the heart of the novel.
Disraeli had no compunction about using his narrative voice, and Sybil contains a number of long—and sometimes virtually unreadable—passages where Disraeli sets out his own view of English history. But the absolutely crucial Two Nations speech is put into the very ambiguous mouth of Stephen Morley.
The only working class characters who survive and come out of the story reasonably well are Dandy Mick Radley and Devilsdust. They enter enthusiastically into the rioting, but then abandon their ideals in order to become capitalists, and Disraeli predicts that their descendants will eventually be incorporated into the aristocracy.
This, of course, reflects a typical meritocratic myth—that the most talented members of the working class can rise out of it.
Devilsdust is the child of a single mother; his father is unknown. So it is always possible that he originated from a drop of aristocratic sperm. Disraeli is less sure of himself when dealing with the women characters. Apart from Sybil herself, who is implausibly pure and profoundly serious in her ideas, the other female characters are shown as rather frivolous and light-minded. It seems Disraeli has grown tired of his political purpose and has decided to resolve the novel in purely personal terms.
All four solutions, in one form or another, are used in Sybil. Sybil discovers her noble ancestry, enabling her to bridge the impassable gulf and marry Egremont, forsaking the poor who had depended on her charitable gifts. Egremont and his bride go for a year-long honeymoon in Italy. For Disraeli it is ignorance and misunderstanding which lie at the root of social conflict. She would ascribe rather the want of sympathy that unquestionably exists between wealth and work in England, to mutual ignorance between the classes which possess these two great elements of national prosperity; and though the source of that ignorance was to be sought in antecedent circumstances of violence and oppression, the consequences perhaps had outlived the causes, as customs survive opinions.
Here Disraeli was undoubtedly wrong. A century and a half on, the ruling class employs thousands of sociologists to poll the opinions of the working class and examine their lifestyles and consumption patterns; while the poor have television screens on which they can inspect the most intimate details of the lives of the rich and celebrated.
Yet class struggle continues. Disraeli took Chartism and the rise of the working class very seriously. But because of his belief that the working class could not produce its own leadership, he seems to have been largely indifferent to the development of socialism on an international scale. Not that some of them needed much encouragement. Others would invoke traditional anti-Semitic tropes — around dual allegiance and dark conspiracies — against the prime minister.
As a young man, it seemed to pass him by completely. Disraeli was, though, hardly at the forefront of the effort to enable practicing Jews to sit in parliament — hitherto this required swearing a Christian oath — which began in earnest shortly after he entered the House of Commons. Unlike most of his Tory colleagues, he consistently voted for reform, but also attempted to keep his head down and rarely chose to participate in debates. However, the election of Lionel de Rothschild — who, along with other members of the English branch of the family, he had developed a friendship with — meant that Disraeli could no longer remain publicly silent on the issue.
Where is your Christianity, if you do not believe in their Judaism? Behind the scenes, Disraeli advised de Rothschild on tactics and eventually played a key role in brokering a deal between the pro-reform House of Commons and the House of Lords where opponents held the whip hand. These, though, extended far beyond the issue of his Jewish origins.
Late into his life, he was saddled with massive debts initially ran up in his youth by ill-advised commodity speculation in South America. These were no secret: when he ran for parliament in , the seat was plastered with posters listing his huge unpaid debts and various court judgments against him.
Indeed, some have speculated that Disraeli was so keen to get into parliament because it offered immunity from imprisonment for debt.
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And the purchase of Hughenden Manor was itself dependent in part on loans from a close parliamentary ally. Disraeli has had to make his position, and men who make their positions will say and do things which are not necessarily to be said or done by those for whom positions are made.
That Disraeli was somewhat reckless with money was confirmed in the eyes of many when a brief spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer produced a budget whose sums were swiftly ripped apart across the dispatch box by the rather more financially numerate Gladstone. It was, however, the charge of political opportunism that was to dog Disraeli most throughout his career. He, for instance, opposed the cause of free trade in the s, helping to bring down the Tory prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, and split the party over the issue.
Disraeli ultimately lost the argument and went on to swiftly abandon the fight for protectionism.