Coningsby, or The New Generation (1844), is the first of the trilogy of novels that deal with the political condition of early Victorian England. The other two novels, Sybil (1845) and Tancred (1847), carry a social and imperial message, respectively. After its publication by Henry Colburn, Coningsby became an immediate success. The first edition of 1,000 copies was sold in two weeks. In the next three months three more editions were printed. In America 50,000 copies were sold within a few months. The popularity of Coningsby was due to many factors, but mostly to the fact that Disraeli was already a well-known writer and a rising MP associated with the Young England splinter group within the Tory party in Parliament, which opposed the policy of Prime Minister Robert Peel and old-fashioned Toryism. The reading public interpreted the novel as a political manifesto of this group and of Disraeli himself. In Coningsby, Disraeli foresaw the waning of the old Tory party and the emergence of the new, reformed Conservative party, open to common people. The novel prompted an ideological change within the Tories.
The first political novel
Coningsby is the first political novel in the English language, which Disraeli used as ‘a means of propaganda’ (Cazamian 183). Disraeli’s biographer William Monypenny suggested that he turned to political fiction after his exclusion in 1841 from the cabinet of Robert Peel (II, 197). The main theme of Coningsby is the development of a political leader, who arises in a rejuvenated Tory party with a sense of social responsibility. The action of the novel takes place against the political background of the years between the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832 and the fall of Lord Melbourne’s Whig ministry in 1841.
Coningsby recounts Disraeli’s political philosophy, which he first propounded in A Vindication of the English Constitution (1835) and next in the programme of the young aristocratic idealists, who acknowledged him as their leader. The Young England faction wanted to bridge the widening gulf between the upper and the lower classes in England through reconciliation and respect for the Monarchy, the Church, and the country’s traditions. An additional, and quite bizarre theme of the novel is the myth of Jewish racial superiority.
In the mid 1840s, the Tory party entered a period of crisis and its strength in the House of Commons was weakened. Disraeli hoped that Robert Peel, the new Conservative Prime Minister, would make him a minister. When Peel turned down his offer, Disraeli became a harsh critic of Peel’s government and presented himself as a progressive Tory, who believed that an alliance between the rejuvenated aristocracy and the new ‘millocracy’ through some form of Tory paternalism would increase the popularity of the new Conservatives. In this aspect he was close to Thomas Carlyle, who wrote about a revival of the medieval social concord based on class hierarchy, paternalism and mutual confidence.
The development of a political leader
In Coningsby, Disraeli attempted to show that the political responsibility for England rests with its Monarchy, the Church and the aristocracy, but the English aristocracy was, in his opinion, self-indulgent, morally and intellectually weak and isolated from other ranks of society. Since the old aristocracy had proved itself unable to mend its ways, Disraeli argued that England’s only hope could be found in some of their most illustrious sons, who might assume leadership responsibilities. One of them is Harry Coningsby, the novel’s eponymous character. He is the orphaned grandson of the Marquis of Monmouth, an old style Tory aristocrat, whose vast wealth and influence predestine him to be a leader of the nation, but he mostly lives abroad, enjoying licentious pleasures. Disraeli criticises the old, ‘bad’ Tory aristocracy because they cannot understand the spirit of reform. Strangely enough, as William Kuhn asserts, ‘Disraeli clearly loved Monmouth’s old-style corruption. He is a most attractive villain’ (191). Coningsby’s grandfather keeps in his house in St James’s Square in London a set of French novels and voluptuous portraits of beautiful women painted by François Boucher, which accounts for his immorality. He often hosts Prince Colonna, an ageing dandy, his charming wife and his adolescent daughter from his first marriage, Lucretia, whom he eventually marries.
Although Harry’s parents aroused the indignation of Lord Monmouth by their marriage against his consent, he sends him to Eton College, where he makes acquaintance with the high born youths who will be his future associates in the world of parliamentary politics, and soon he distinguishes himself as a very intelligent and diligent student. Coningsby, a handsome, brilliant young aristocratic heir, reveals his serious interest in history books and likes to engage himself in political disputes with his friends. The boys at Eton talk highly of him, quote his opinions, and even imitate him. He has a circle of close friends, including Henry Sydney and Charles Buckhurst, who stand for two members of Young England, Lord John Manners and Alexander Baillie-Cochrane, respectively. Another friend is Oswald Millbank, the son of a rich Lancashire cotton manufacturer who is a bitter enemy of his grandfather. They become attached friends after Coningsby saves Oswald from drowning in the Thames. The two boys, who often discuss current politics, are keen to determine the consequence of the reform of the House of Commons. Before meeting Oswald, Coningsby had understood politics solely in terms of a struggle between Whig nobles and Tory nobles. Now from Oswald he learns about a rising influential class outside the nobility determined to acquire power.
‘The age of ruins is past’
When Coningsby meets accidentally Sidonia, a wealthy and mysterious young Jew, and tells him that he would like to visit ancient Greece, he replies, ‘The age of ruins is past. Have you seen Manchester?’ (Bk III, Ch 1) Sidonia advises Coningsby to visit Manchester if he wants to see the accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution. Coningsby follows Sidonia’s advice and arrives in Manchester where he begins his social education. He sees the ‘inconceivable grandeur’ of that industrial city. “‘But after all’, said Coningsby, with animation, ‘it is the machinery without any interposition of manual power that overwhelms me. It haunts me in my dreams’, continued Coningsby; ‘I see cities peopled with machines. Certainly Manchester is the most wonderful city of modern times!’” (Bk IV, Ch 2). Coningsby watches with keen interest the mysterious production process during which young girls produce fine cloth from rude cotton thanks to 'machines making machines'.
Nor should the weaving-room be forgotten, where a thousand or fifteen hundred girls may be observed in their coral necklaces, working like Penelope in the daytime; some pretty, some pert, some graceful and jocund, some absorbed in their occupation; a little serious some, few sad. And the cotton you have observed in its rude state, that you have seen the silent spinner change into thread, and the bustling weaver convert into cloth, you may now watch as in a moment it is tinted with beautiful colours, or printed with fanciful patterns. And yet the mystery of mysteries is to view machines making machines; a spectacle that fills the mind with curious, and even awful, speculation. [Bk IV, Ch 2]
Disraeli visited Manchester in 1843 and was fascinated by its modern, industrial vitality, but was also dismayed by the poverty and squalor of the working classes. It was probably then that he conceived the idea of the bitter division of England into ‘two nations’ of the rich and the poor, which he elaborated in the second part of his political trilogy, Sybil. Next, Coningsby visits the Lancashire factories, and is told that Mr. Millbank, the father of his bosom friend, Oswald, is the owner of a factory in a industrial settlement of the same name. Disraeli depicts Millbank, a medievalised factory village with a noble (paternalistic) owner as opposite to Manchester’s slums and squalor. Unlike the Manchester millowners, Mr. Millbank cares ‘both for the moral and physical well-being of his people; … he had built churches, and schools, and institutes, houses and cottages on a new system of ventilation; …. he had allotted gardens; established singing classes’ (Bk IV, Ch 3).
Mr. Millbank, the enlightened mill owner, tells him about the rise of a new political force, the millocracy, a rich class of factory owners, who are prepared to replace the old, inept landed aristocracy as political and economic leaders of the country. Disraeli, like many of his contemporaries, was under a great influence of Thomas Carlyle, who had developed a cult of heroes in his theory of history. Carlyle, who had little trust in democracy, appealed to middle-class industrialists to become heroic leaders of the working-classes in their strife for the spiritual and moral regeneration of the nation. He was critical of the old aristocracy and believed that industrialists, whom he called ‘Captains of Industry’, might lead the nation as ancient heroes. He called for the creation of a new aristocracy of merit that would abandon the laissez-faire mentality and become responsible patrons and protectors of their employees. Disraeli did not have much trust in the millocracy, but, like Carlyle, he strongly opposed Benthanism and hoped for the political awakening among the landed classes. However, both Carlyle and Disraeli looked upon the aristocracy as ‘the least corrupted part of the community’ (Cumming 127). However, Disraeli believed that the aristocracy should keep up with the rapidly changing time. ‘If England was to be saved by its aristocracy, the aristocracy must alter their ways’ (Froude 109).
During a conversation at Mr. Millbank’s home, Coningsby concludes that his host is opposed to the English aristocracy as natural leaders of the nation. Millbank replies: ‘No, I am not. I am for an aristocracy; but a real one, a natural one’ (Bk IV, Ch 4). Mr. Millbank’s opinion of both the Tory and Whig aristocracy is devastating. He questions the ancient lineage of contemporary peers.
‘Ancient lineage!’ said Mr. Millbank; ‘I never heard of a peer with an ancient lineage. The real old families of this country are to be found among the peasantry; the gentry, too, may lay some claim to old blood. I can point you out Saxon families in this county who can trace their pedigrees beyond the Conquest; I know of some Norman gentlemen whose fathers undoubtedly came over with the Conqueror. But a peer with an ancient lineage is to me quite a novelty. No, no; the thirty years of the wars of the Roses freed us from those gentlemen. I take it, after the battle of Tewkesbury, a Norman baron was almost as rare a being in England as a wolf is now.’ [Bk IV, Ch 4]
In Coningsby, Disraeli repeats his claim presented in A Vindication of the English Constitution that most of the Norman peerage was decimated during the Wars of the Roses. However, for him the real English aristocracy is not of Norman but of Saxon descent, and they can be found among all walks of society.
‘I have always understood,’ said Coningsby, ‘that our peerage was the finest in Europe.’ ‘From themselves,’ said Millbank, ‘and the heralds they pay to paint their carriages. But I go to facts. When Henry VII called his first Parliament, there were only twenty-nine temporal peers to be found, and even some of them took their seats illegally, for they had been attainted. Of those twenty-nine not five remain, and they, as the Howards for instance, are not Norman nobility. We owe the English peerage to three sources: the spoliation of the Church; the open and flagrant sale of its honours by the elder Stuarts; and the boroughmongering of our own times. Those are the three main sources of the existing peerage of England, and in my opinion disgraceful ones.’ [Bk IV, Ch 4]
Then Coningsby asks Millbank where the natural aristocracy can be found. His answer is that that the natural aristocracy should be sought ‘among those men whom a nation recognizes as the most eminent for virtue, talents, and property, and if you please, birth and standing in the land. They guide opinion; and therefore they govern’ (Bk IV, Ch 4). The politically rejuvenated aristocracy could lead the English nation to true material and moral progress. In line with this view, the mysterious Jewish sage, Sidonia, tells Coningsby that ‘(a)lmost everything that is great has been done by youth’ and that ‘[t]he history of Heroes is the history of Youth’ (Bk III, Ch 1). Coningsby replies that he would like to be a great man, too, so that he could contribute to the welfare of the country. He wants to be part of the new generation of the reform-minded aristocracy.
In the meantime, Coningsby offends his grandfather by refusing to be his candidate for the Darlford seat because he does not believe in the efficacy of the Tories. “I have for a long time looked upon the Conservative party as a body who have betrayed their trust; more from ignorance, I admit, than from design; yet clearly a body of individuals totally unequal to the exigencies of the epoch, and indeed unconscious of its real character” (Bk VIII, Ch 3). Coningsby also refuses to stand for election because he does not want to be Mr. Millbank’s competitor. When Coningsby falls in love with Oswald’s sister Edith and wants to marry her, the Marquis disinherits him. Penniless, Coningsby decides to work as a barrister. Coningsby owes his intellectual and political development to three people — his slightly older Jewish mentor, Sidonia, Eustace Lyle, a Catholic gentlemen long acquainted with the Coningsby family, and Mr Millbank, the industrialist. Their influence leads him to abandon his grandfather’s obsolete traditional Toryism, which had no solution to England’s acute social problems, and he eventually finds his vocation as a conservative reformer. He is elected to Parliament for his father-in-law‘s constituency. His fortune is eventually restored when Flora, Lord Monmouth’s illegitimate daughter, heiress to his estate, dies leaving Coningsby all her fortune.
The character of Coningsby was originally based on George Smythe (1818-1857), who was a Conservative politician associated with Disraeli and the Young England movement, but he also exhibits a lot of features of Disraeli himself. The novel imitates the structure of the Bildungsroman by describing the evolution of the title character from a naive student at Eton to the newly elected, idealistic MP proclaiming the idea of a new conservatism. Disraeli realised that the Tory party had failed to face up to the realities of an industrialising society, and by so doing was losing its distinctive identity and becoming too much like the Whigs. In Coningsby, Disraeli introduced to the reading public the political ideas of the new generation of Conservatives, who called for the rejuvenation of the Tory party so that it could become a truly national one and a predominant political force in Britain. In the3 novel, as in his earlier political tract, A Vindication of the English Constitution, Disraeli argued that the monarchy and the Anglican Church were the most influential agents in the development of the country. In the Preface to the fifth edition (1849), he wrote:
The main purpose of its writer was to vindicate the just claims of the Tory party to be the popular political confederation of the country; a purpose which he had, more or less, pursued from a very early period of life. The occasion was favourable to the attempt. The youthful mind of England had just recovered from the inebriation of the great Conservative triumph of 1841, and was beginning to inquire what, after all, they had conquered to preserve. It was opportune, therefore, to show that Toryism was not a phrase, but a fact; and that our political institutions were the embodiment of our popular necessities. This the writer endeavoured to do without prejudice, and to treat of events and characters of which he had some personal experience, not altogether without the impartiality of the future.
In Coningsby, Disraeli also makes his famous attack on the political manifesto issued by Sir Robert Peel in 1834 in Tamworth, in which he promised that the Conservative party would be engaged more actively in social reforms.
The Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 was an attempt to construct a party without principles; its basis therefore was necessarily Latitudinarianism; and its inevitable consequence has been Political Infidelity. … Conservatism discards Prescription, shrinks from Principle, disavows Progress; having rejected all respect for Antiquity, it offers no redress for the Present, and makes no preparation for the Future. It is obvious that for a time, under favourable circumstances, such a confederation might succeed; but it is equally clear, that on the arrival of one of those critical conjunctures that will periodically occur in all states, and which such an unimpassioned system is even calculated ultimately to create, all power of resistance will be wanting: the barren curse of political infidelity will paralyse all action; and the Conservative Constitution will be discovered to be a Caput Mortuum. [Bk II, Ch V]
Disraeli criticises old-fashioned conservatives, like Robert Peel, who, he claims, were afraid of changes and failed to introduce true reforms.
I observe indeed a party in the state whose role it is to consent to no change, until it is clamorously called for, and then instantly to yield; but those are concessionary, not Conservative principles. This party treats institutions as we do our pheasants, they preserve only to destroy them. But is there a statesman among these Conservatives who offers us a dogma for a guide, or defines any great political truth which we should aspire to establish? It seems to me a barren thing, this Conservatism, an unhappy cross-breed: the mule of politics that engenders nothing. [Bk III , Ch 5]
Coningsby carries the message that the aristocracy as a social class will never disappear in England, because it will survive any social change. When Coningsby develops his political philosophy, he in fact pays tribute to the ideals of ‘Young England’ and delineates the ideology of new conservatism, which was later called ‘one-nation conservatism. Turning to Monmouth, Coningsby criticises old conservatives who do not want to see dramatic changes in the country and accept the inevitable progress: “I have for a long time looked upon the Conservative party as a body who have betrayed their trust; more from ignorance, I admit, than from design; yet clearly a body of individuals totally unequal to the exigencies of the epoch, and indeed unconscious of its real character” (Bk VIII, Ch 3).
Disraeli’s Coningsby contributed to Tory split after the fall of Robert Peel’s ministry in 1846, but the Young England movement itself also waned a few years later having received no real popular support.
The union of aristocracy with the middle class
The marriage of Mr Millbank’s daughter Edith and Coningsby symbolises the union of the aristocracy with the new middle class. The closing paragraph of the novel contains a rhetorical question.
They stand now on the threshold of public life. They are in the leash, but in a moment they will be slipped. What will be their fate? Will they maintain in august assemblies and high places the great truths which in study and in solitude they have embraced? Or will their courage exhaust itself in the struggle, their enthusiasm evaporate before hollow-hearted ridicule, their generous impulses yield with a vulgar catastrophe to the tawdry temptations of a low ambition? Will their skilled intelligence subside into being the adroit tool of a corrupt party? Will Vanity confound their fortunes, or Jealousy wither their sympathies? Or will they remain brave, single and true: refuse to bow before shadows and worship phrases; sensible of the greatness of their position, recognize the greatness of their duties; denounce to a perplexed and disheartened world the frigid theories of a generalizing age that have destroyed the individuality of man; and restore the happiness of their country by believing in their own energies and daring to be great! [Bk. IX, Ch. 7]
Disraeli was also much concerned at the ignorance of the upper classes, both the aristocracy and the middle class, of the condition of the working classes. He dealt with this issue more comprehensively in Sybil.
After the publication of Coningsby, which started the genre of political fiction, Disraeli found himself in the first line of British authors. At the same time, he also became renown as one of the most vociferous speakers in Parliament, although he had not done anything of importance yet. His ascendant political career was boosted after the defeat of Peel’s government, but he had to wait thirty years, until 1874, to create a Conservative government which had little in common with the paternalistic ideals of Young England.
Cazamian, Louis. The Social Novel in England, 1830-1850: Dickens, Disraeli, Mrs. Gaskell, Kingsley. 1903. Translated by Martin Fido. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.
Cesarani, David. Disraeli: The Novel Politician. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.
Cumming, Mark, ed. The Carlyle Encyclopedia. Cranbury, NJ: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp, 2004.
Disraeli, Benjamin. Coningsby. Project Gutenberg.
Froude, J.A. The Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivingto, Limited, 1890.
Kuhn, William M. The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006.
Monypenny, William Flavelle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1912.
North, William. Anti-Coningsby; or, the New Generation Grown Old. By an Embryo, MP. 2 vols. London: T. C. Newby, 1844.
Last modified 20 March 2018