Disraeli and the Condition of England novel

by Mark Wallace

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, the Condition of England novel took its generic title from the opening lines of Carlyle’s Chartism (1839). Chartism and the later Past and Present (1843) set out the basic situation that was at issue, and certain measures to amend it – or, if not specific measures, at least certain modes of procedure, ways of inward being and outward working that would lead to the amelioration of the general discontent and disillusion of the country. These two works of Mr C. were the groundwork on which a genre was built by Disraeli et al. Sometimes C. was made an explicit reference point, in others his work is subjected to a hidden polemic in more or less identifiable ways.

Disraeli’s Sybil (1845) is of the second class. He was not a known admirer of Carlyle, but the hidden polemic is there. Disraeli appears to have been the first major Condition of England novelist, predating Gaskell and Dickens, and Sybil is consciously intended to provide contrasting portraits of the socio-economic situations of the aristocracy and working classes – the dandies and drudges, as Carlyle had divided the population of England (in the “The Dandaical Body” chapter of Sartor Resartus). Disraeli sees the same two-tier system, as his novel’s subtitle, “The Two Nations” makes clear. The engagement with Carlyle and Carlylism in the novel is perhaps most clear in the short section on Wodgate, the worker’s community existing in isolation from the mainstream of English society. The name, as Disraeli notes, is from Woden/ Odin, Norse all-father and God of Gods. Disraeli is here surely thinking of Carlyle’s lecture in praise of Odin as part of his 1840 series On Heroes, which had, of course, been published in book form, and had met with considerable success, being the most accessible of Carlyle’s works, if not the most substantial or convincing. Carlyle surmises that Odin, if not an actually existing god in a pedantico-empirical sense, was once a Great Man who came afterwards to be worshipped as a god. And rightfully so, for the Great Man should be worshipped beyond all bounds of reason, in Carlyle’s system of thought.

In addressing Carlyle’s somewhat scandalous exaltation of pagan ideology, Disraeli had a very different agenda. He was specifically motivated to show it is specifically the judeo-christian tradition that is the exalting influence on man in the collective. So he presents Wodgate as a place out of time, and a place out of place, a corner of paganism within England. Wodgate has never known Christianity, and it has never known the English class system. The result is that a working aristocracy of the Carlylean type is in evidence. As Disraeli notes: “It is an aristocracy that leads, and therefore a fact”(loc 2440) (a very Carlylean usage of “fact”), but it is a tyranny, wherein the leaders give free rein to their most sadistic tendencies in dealing with their underlings: “not content with beating them with sticks of flogging them with knotted ropes, they are in the habit of felling them with hammers, or cutting their heads open with a file or lock” (2432). He goes on to note that “they are animals; their minds a blank; and their worst actions only the impulse of a gross or savage instinct” (2448). When we first meet the leader of the Wodgate community, one Mr Hatton, he is engaged in “seiz[ing] he luckless ears of the first apprentice he could get hold of, and [wringing] them till the blood spout[s] forth” (2661).  Disraeli presents the Carlylean working aristocracy as a hellishly primitivistic place, where force and subjugation was the only law, thus getting at Carlyle’s weak spot: his apparent adherence to a basic “might is right” philosophy.

Disraeli is not, of course, opposed to aristocracy per se. Quite the contrary. He agrees with Carlyle that where once England had a functioning aristocracy, the class no longer lives up to their name:

There is in fact no longer an aristocracy in England, for the superiority of the animal man is an essential quality of aristocracy. But that it once existed, any collection of portraits from the sixteenth century will show. (1618)

The return to true aristocratic values is for Disraeli the return to the judeo-christian tradition. It is for Disraeli a specifically judeo-christian rather than simply Christian tradition. Disraeli was Jewish himself, and attempts a synthesis of the two creeds:

Christianity is completed Judaism or it is nothing. Christianity is incomprehensible without Judaism, as Judaism is incomplete without Christianity. (1709)

Inseparable from the task of bringing the “two nations” into harmony is the return to religious worship, so absent in Wodgate: “What you call forms and ceremonies represent the divinest instincts of our nature” (1687), says Mr St Lys. Again here a hidden polemic directed at Carlyle may be detectable, specifically at Carlyle’s call to throw off the  old forms of worship (see especially the “Church Clothes” chapter of Sartor Resartus, Carlyle at his most radical-progressive).

In its engagement with Carlylean themes, Sybil shows how and why Carlyle was received by early Victorians as radical rather than conservative (as he is more often now considered). The call to cast off outdated religious forms is clearly seen by an arch-conservative like Disraeli as a great threat to public order and to the existing class system. Disraeli wants to move in the opposite direction, an increased reverence for the socially binding religious forms as an answer to class unrest. Concepts such as “devotion” for Disraeli uphold both religious and class frameworks. All of this is more important than any truth-value religion may have in a pedantico-empirical sense. This question is secondary at best for Disraeli. Carlyle himself was getting increasingly close to this view at this time, but the residue of his Sartorean radicalism still clung to his reputation, discomfiting writers like Disraeli, for whom amelioration of the lot of the poor could never be at the expense of upsetting the old aristocratic order.

Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil [1845] (Kindle edition, 2011)