The Condition of England Question, posed by Thomas Carlyle, particularly the spiritual rebirth of the individual and society, exerted a profound effect on a number of Victorian writers, social thinkers and the reading public. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) tried to tackle the Condition of England Question both in his political activity and in his fiction. In the early 1830s, he tried unsuccessfully to start a political career. He made an important journey to the Near East and continued to write novels and political writings in which he presented anti-Whig and anti-Utilitarian views. In 1837, Disraeli was elected to Parliament and soon became a leader of a Tory splinter group called the “Young England”,which consisted of young Tory idealists who wanted to bridge the gulf between the poor and the rich in England through reconciliation and respect for the monarchy, the Church, and the country’s traditions. As Cazamian correctly points out,

There were three principal aspects of Young England: the landed gentry were outraged by the encroachments of industrial radicalism; romantic young men were filled with imaginative enthusiasm for the majestic monarchy and beautiful religion of the past; and there was a feeling of simple, humane sympathy for the poor in town and country.(Cazamian, 178)

In his Young England novels, Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845) and Tancred (1847) and in his later famous speeches, Disraeli propounded the idea of British conservatism with the maintenance of constitution and empire. Disraeli examined critically problems of contemporary political, social and religious life and provided his own alternative to the Whig conceptions of reform. His trilogy provoked a widespread public debate.

Coningsby, Sybil, and to a lesser degree Tancred, exposed the growing discrepancy between the rich and the poor. The infamous Victorian compromise meant a double standard applied to Britain’s national success as a world economic power and her exploitation of lower classes. Disraeli thought it possible to make an alliance between masters and workmen. The denunciation of the two nation divide in Disraeli’s Young England novels made an impact on the contemporary public opinion and on the subsequent Condition of England debates. However, when Disraeli became the leader of the Conservative government, he gradually abandoned the Condition of England Question in favour of a new debate — the Imperial Question.

Coningsby

Coningsby, or The New Generation (1844) is a political-romantic novel set in early Victorian England, which paints a bleak picture of post-Reform realities. The first edition of 1,000 copies of the novel was sold in a fortnight. Harry Coningsby, the orphaned grandson of an old style Tory aristocrat, represents the ideals of new Toryism. Educated at Eton College, he befriends Oswald Millbank, the son of a rich Lancashire cotton manufacturer, a great enemy of his grandfather, the Marquis of Monmouth. When Coningsby falls in love with Oswald’s sister Edith and wants to marry her, the Marquis disinherits his him. Penniless, Coningsby decides to work for his living. Eventually, he is elected to Parliament for his father-in-law‘s constituency and his fortune is restored. The character of Coningsby is based on George Smythe (1818-1857), who was a Conservative politician associated with Disraeli and the Young England movement.

Although the novel imitates the structure of a bildungsroman describing its eponymous hero’s development from a naive Eton schoolboy to a newly elected, idealistic MP, it actually depicts the emergence of the Conservative party after the waning of the Whigs and Tories. Disraeli characterises the changing social and political situation of the nobility and the rising manufacturing class. The main aim of the author was to present the influence of the political parties on the condition of the people. When Coningsby develops his political philosophy, it is in essence a tribute to the Young England movement opposed to Prime Minister Robert Peel (1834-1835, 1841-1846). Speaking to Lord Monmouth, Coningsby criticises the old conservatives who do not want to see rapid changes in the country and affirms 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. (339)

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 the Conservative government and presented himself as a progressive Tory, who believed that an alliance between the old aristocracy and the working class might 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.

Sybil

In his next novel, Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845), Disraeli shows a concern for the problems of poverty and social instability in the rapidly expanding industrial towns. Disraeli presents his interpretation of history to show how in medieval times the poor had been protected within a hierarchical social structure headed by the aristocracy and the Church. Disraeli gave the novel the subtitle The Two Nations, which was to imply that England was a bitterly divided nation. The novel, set during the period 1837-1844, exposes the darker side of England’s prosperity in the early Victorian Period; it reveals the contrasts between the luxurious life of the aristocracy and the extreme poverty of the working people.

Charles Egremont, the younger brother of Lord Marney, investigates the conditions of the lower classes in the disguise of a Mr Franklin. He visits a few manufacturing towns of the north, where he is confronted with the bitter reality of industrialisation. At Marney Abbey, Egremont meets a working-class radical, Walter Gerard and his lovely daughter Sybil. Gerard tells him about the division of England into two nations: the rich and the poor.

“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, hesitantly. “ THE RICH AND THE POOR.” [66]

Disraeli expressed his disillusionment with old aristocracy which failed to bridge the gulf between the rich and the poor. Echoeing Thomas Carlyle’s idea that the working class was waiting for their leader, Disraeli supported the Chartists’ petition to Parliament and visited the industrial North. In Sybil, Disraeli admitted frankly that the working-class was exploited by the laissez-faire system. Workers were underpaid and were unable to sustain a family. Despite the growing wealth due to increased production, trade and commerce, prosperity lay in the hands of the upper classes: landed aristocracy, merchants and mill-owners. In the majority of cases the working people lived in desperate poverty and degradation. Poor wages, long working hours, unsanitary working and living conditions, high infant mortality and short life expectancy, were factors which contributed to human degradation. The misery of the working-classes is suggestively described by Gerard.

There is more serfdom in England now than at any time since the Conquest. I speak of what passes under my daily eyes when I say, that those who labour can as little choose or change their masters now, as when they were born thralls. There are great bodies of the working classes of this country nearer the condition of brutes than they have been at any time since the Conquest. (172)

For Disraeli, Chartism, like for Carlyle, is a popular movement without a leader. As Rosemarie Bodenheimer observed, Disraeli wanted to present it as “the people‘s quest for a legitimate and noble leader” (171). However, due to a prolonged crisis in the Tory party, a “legitimate and noble leader” was hard to find. Disraeli saw hope in the Young England movement and expressed his idealistic faith in the revival of Conservatism.

In a parliamentary sense, that great party has ceased to exist; but I will believe that it still lives in the thought and sentiment and consecrated memory of the English nation. ( . . . ) Even now it is not dead, but sleepeth; and, in an age of political materialism, of confused purposes and perplexed intelligence, that aspires only to wealth because it has faith in no other accomplishment, as men rifle cargoes on the verge of shipwreck, toryism will yet rise from the tomb over which Bolingbroke shed his last tear, to bring back strength to the Crown, liberty to the Subject, and to announce that power has only one duty: to secure the social welfare of the PEOPLE. (273)

Sybil, more than Coningsby, reveals not only the distressing view of both urban and rural poverty, but its main aim is to show ways how to eliminate the “two nation” divide and create a “one nation” which would be led by the reformed Conservatives. The novel ends with a passionate call to the youth of England to take up this initiative:

That we may live to see England once more possess a free Monarchy, and a privileged and prosperous People, is my prayer; that these great consequences can only be brought about by the energy and devotion of our Youth is my persuasion. We live in an age when to be young and to be indifferent can be no longer synonymous. We must prepare for the coming hour. The claims of the Future are represented by suffering millions; and the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity. [422]

Although the legacy of Disraeli‘s political idealism could be seen in the subsequent reformulations of the ideology of the Conservative party, Disraeli as a statesman never managed to implement his ideas about reconciling the “two nations” in England.

Tancred

Tancred or the New Crusade (1847), the third novel of the Young England trilogy, reveals Disraeli’s preoccupation with the spiritual, moral and even racial rebirth of the nation through the propagation of the idea of new conservatism. Tancred, the most idealistic of Disraeli’s Young England characters, goes to the Holy Land in order to seek the secrets of the “Asian mystery”. He comes under the spell of Fakredeen, an Emir of the Lebanon, who tells him one of his political phantasies, which anticipates the Imperial Question.

You must perform the Portuguese scheme on a grand scale; quit a petty and exhausted position for a vast and prolific empire. Let the Queen of England collect a great fleet, let her stow away all her treasure, bullion, gold plate, and precious arms; be accompanied by all her court and chief people, and transfer the seat of her empire from London to Delhi. There she will find an immense empire ready made, a first rate army, and a large revenue. In the meantime I will arrange with Mehmet Ali. He shall have Bagdad and Mesopotamia, and pour the Bedouin cavalry into Persia. I will take care of Syria and Asia Minor. The only way to manage the Afghans is by Persia and by the Arabs. We will acknowledge the Empress of India as our suzerain, and secure for her the Levantine coast. If she like, she shall have Alexandria, as she now has Malta; it could be arranged. Your Queen is young; she has an avenir. Aberdeen and Sir Peel will never give her this advice; their habits are formed. They are too old, too rusés. But, you see! the greatest empire that ever existed; besides which she gets rid of the embarrassment of her Chambers! And quite practicable; for the only difficult part, the conquest of India, which baffled Alexander, is all done!

Tancred then visits Mount Sinai, where he hears the voice of an angel calling upon him to announce the doctrine of “theocratic equality”. This bizarre and vague term refers to the political programme of youthful heroism and racial regeneration propounded by the Young England movement.

In Tancred Disraeli combines politics with religion when he envisages the future of the British Empire. For Disraeli, “England is no longer a mere European power; she is the metropolis of a great maritime empire . . . she is really more an Asiatic power than a European one”. (Walton 28) Tancred goes to Palestine to find a solution to the antagonism between Judaism and Christianity in Victorian England and elsewhere. The Condition of England Question is thus extended to global and racial issues. Disraeli contributed significantly to the myth of an England, where benevolent and paternalistic imperialism is accompanied by humanitarian reforms.

Related Material

References

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Politics of Story in Victorian Social Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Cazamian, Louis. The Social Novel in England, 1830-1850: Dickens, Disraeli, Mrs. Gaskell, Kingsley. 1903. Translated by Martin Fido. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Coningsby. New York: Dent & Sons Ltd., 1948.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Sybil, Or the Two Nations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Tancred or the New Crusade. Project Gutenberg.

Walton, John K. Disraeli. London: Routledge, 1990.


Victorian Web Overview Benjamin Disraeli

Last modified 10 January 2010