Sunday, December 05, 2004

A fresh view of Disraeli's Sybil

Benjamin Disraeli: though he wasn't much of a novelist, he definitely knew how to turn a phrase. When he finally made it to the Prime Ministership of England (the first person of Jewish descent to ever do so), he famously retorted "I have made it to the top of the greasy pole." And on the Indian Mutiny of 1857 he said, "The decline and fall of Empires are not affairs of greased cartridges." By which he meant, "Uhh, might they have motivations besides religion for revolting against our massive, rapacious Empire, which is starting to seem just a little too Roman?" (Despite ambivalence about Empire early in his career, in the 1870s, Disraeli would go on to embrace it -- probably because it was the only rhetoric the Tories could use that sounded remotely populist.)

The Hindu, in its latest monthly literary review, has a new review of Disraeli's best-known novel, Sybil, which is about the Chartist agitations in England in the 1830s and 1840s. I'm not entirely sure why The Hindu is publishing a review of Sybil now, but there it is. And here are two paragraphs:

No one previously had articulated the existence of two totally antagonistic communities that represented "two nations" with such candour. Disraeli saw its dangers and wished to take steps to quickly defuse the gathering tensions. Sybil, or the Two Nations, which contains the key to Disraeli's mind, was first published in 1845 and is set during the period 1837-1844. It depicts the storms of Chartist agitation and social disturbance in England. The Chartist movement was, of course, a working class movement that wished to bring about equal political and social rights for all classes by legal means.

Here is a dramatic exchange between the aristocratic Egremont and a young stranger in Sybil. Egremont exclaims that "our queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed". The riposte is immediate. "Which nation?" asks the younger stranger, "for she reigns over two"... "Yes,"... "Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws." "You speak of — " said Egremont, hesitatingly. And the young stranger replies, "THE RICH AND THE POOR."

Ah yes, the rich and the poor. Remember them?

[Side note: Why is the literary review section of The Hindu such compelling reading? The writing seems to be fresh & the perspective eclectic. The New York Times Book Review, in contrast, would never carry such a straightforward, plot-intensive review of a book written 140 years ago apropos of nothing in particular. Incidentally, Tabish Khair is at it again. The Indian James Wood? His latest provocation will likely require a separate post]


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