Thursday, May 07, 2009

D'Israeli's "Sybil"

Reading Mr Benjamin D’Israeli’s novel “Sybil” was interesting, it could even be enjoyable if you have that bent for reading Victorian era political tracts. In some respects it was an experience similar to reading a very mild and genteel version of Swift – the difference between a good baccy and menthol or between a Central Otago Pinot Noir and an Aussie vin rouge ordinaire.

Essentially, D’Israeli uses the character of a young, single, impressionable and out-of-income upper class man to trawl through the underbelly of Victorian England It is made clear from the beginning that his best chances for a comfortable life lay in a convenient marriage, the Church, or in politics if he could find a sponsor. As best Victorian tradition seems to require, there is a beautiful young maid involved as well who does not meet the criteria of a "convenient marriage". I have been able to confirm that the rumours the character was based upon Auntie Helen are entirely fictitious.

He portrays an age and living conditions which,it must be said, prompted much of the emigration to other parts and NZ in particular. It certainly (if you read NZ historians such as Michael King) provided the incentive for those many who escaped from the class driven society of 1880’s England to seek the more egalitarian (if not equally as hard) society of the new colonies in NZ and Australia.

The actual story is flimsy, sketchy at best, but I can imagine Mr Disraeli painting his characters into the various landscapes rather than taking the opportunity to develop the characters and the story around a less defined or detailed panorama. His commentary on the surrounding events - the Corn Law, the Child Labour Law, the prospect of the abolition of slavery amonst many others - is both detailed and in some instances quite caustic.

But, this is the purpose of the book. It is about the landscape far more than it is about the characters. If you judge otherwise then the tale is worth little.

The time that Disraeli is writing is the peak of the Industrial Revolution; the industrialisation; the loss of the cottage industries; the social upheaval created by the urbanisation of large numbers of people; the legacies of past political actions – religious suppression, civil wars, and political change. It is a time of great political change – the death of the “rotten borough” is in the wind. The nature of political representation is beginning that slow but inexorable swing from vested interest to electorate interest; from class politics to party politics. It is a time when the law was made, and used, to maintain the control and advantage of a small group of people over the majority.

It is also the time that saw the rise of such neo-political activists as Marx and Engels (who was living in England at the time Disraeli wrote). I have not read Engels’ “The Condition of the Working Class…” but I suspect that there would be many parallels between that and Disraeli’s “Sybil”. That is not to elevate Disraeli’s novel to the level of a serious political analysis; it is far from that. But the times are the same; the people are “the same”; the landscape is generally “the same”.

Disraeli gives detailed description – sometimes running to pages – of surroundings, of neighbourhoods, of the people in them. He sounds the lifestyles. He watches the swell of popular antagonism against those who rule. He is not “pretty” in his prose either. Those of the governing classes are (correctly) described as “drones”; interested only in self-perpetuation; only existing for that one purpose of procreation; they have no defensive function as they are without a sting; they do not forage for the hive; they are parasites on the society in which they exist. The bee parallel is only too appropriate.

His characters walk through (here is the parallel with Swift and Gulliver) a series of societies. Each is different in outlook and response to the greater environment. They range from (what would later be) total socialism to the perpetuation of the current system. Each scene produces its own outcome; none are perfect or utopian. Where Swift though is unrelenting in his description and detail, Disraeli tends to back out just as the current landscape begins to threaten his characters.

The sympathetic chord that Disraeli (he who was one of Britain’s longer serving Prime Ministers) struck with me, comes from my meagre knowledge of my own family history at exactly the time that “Sybil” is set. My “ancestor” was a naval man, a “petty officer”, a man who did not have the “right” to progress any further in rank*. On retirement, George would have been “demobbed”; no support, no income. As son of Northumberland (probably fishing folk) parents there would have been little prospect of a comfortable retirement there in North Shields. I can only guess that his subsequent progress from Southampton to Channel Isles to Hamburg (then an independent City State) was driven by the need for his family to live – three of his sons were in merchant marine, two subsequently becoming officers and one having command before emigrating to NZ. It is impossible (at this distance in time) to reconstruct George’s motives for leaving Britain. As a decorated ex-naval man he would have had some prestige but not sufficient standing to warrant any consideration for employment. Reading Disraeli and having that dilemma of “What to do that is best” in the back of my mind has left me with images of George working the system as best he could to his family’s advantage.

* As a matter of history, that was a distinction that was still being made as late as WW2; the RAF officers were horrified by the “colonials” coming in and taking over with no inherent right to their position. (Don’t believe me? Read the RAF response to the appointment of Sir Keith Park as Air Chief Marshall, South East Sector Fighter Command.) and the running batlle between him and Leigh-Mallory over the tactics that should be employed. It is perhaps fortunate for us all that Keith Park carried the day; there has been much subsequent criticism of the tactics proposed by Leigh-Mallory.

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