'Picturesque Emotion' or 'Great Asian Mystery'? Disraeli's Tancred as an Ironic Bildungsroman

Article excerpt

      I am provoked with you for being the least pleased with Tancred,
   but if you have found out any lofty meaning in it, or any true
   picturing of life, tell it me and I will recant.
        (George Eliot, letter to Sam Hennell, 27 Nov. 1847)

   Sybil ... found to her surprise that great thoughts have very
   little to do with the business of the world; that human affairs,
   even in an age of revolution, are the subject of compromise; and
   that the essence of compromise is littleness.
        (Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil)


How we interpret a novel is inseparable from what kind of novel we take it to be, from what genre we assume it belongs to. As Peter Rabinowitz remarks in Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, '[...] what we attend to in a text is [...] influenced by the other works in our minds against which we read it. Particular details stand out as surprising, significant, climactic, or strange in part because they are seen in the context of a particular intertextual grid--a particular set of other works of art.' (1) The truth of this axiom is strikingly illustrated by the critical history of what is possibly the most persistently misinterpreted novel in English literature, Benjamin Disraeli's Tancred, or the New Crusade (1847). It has been read almost exclusively against an 'intertextual grid' consisting of both Disraeli's earlier novels, especially Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845), and what the contemporary reviewer of the novel in/he Times called 'fiction "with a purpose"'. (2) What the reviewer particularly had in mind was a specific type of novel which Disraeli himself had a hand in creating and which later came to be known, variously, as the condition-of-England novel (a phrase borrowed from Carlyle), the social-problem novel, the industrial novel, or simply as a political novel or a roman a these. Assuming Disraeli's purpose to be nothing less than to attack progressive Western civilization, the Times reviewer responded with indignation: 'We will not regard our active and progressive nation, intent as it is to-day upon the happiness of its people and the intellectual advancement of mankind, as used up, corrupt, and selfish.' (3)

What is surprising is not that a reviewer might respond this way in 1847, but that it has remained the orthodox interpretation of the novel ever since. Monypenny and Buckle, Disraeli's official biographers, later solidified this misinterpretation into orthodoxy when they pronounced the novel 'a fierce protest against Western civilization and Philistinism' and found in it evidence of 'a sudden revolt of the author against the routine and hollowness of politics, against its prejudices and narrowness [...],. (4) Hesketh Pearson concurred, calling Tancred 'a sermon against materialism', and claiming that '[...] the author was passing through a phase of aversion from politics and avidity for mysticism.' (5) There is certainly no evidence for this view. No one reading any of the biographies of Disraeli would conclude that between 1845, when he finished Sybil, and 1847, when Tancred was published, that Disraeli had suddenly become disillusioned with politics. Tancred certainly lacks the optimism of Coningsby and Sybil, but this shift in tone can, in my view, best be explained by positing not a change in Disraeli but rather a change in genre. A 'correct reading' of a work, says Rabinowitz, 'requires [...] a correct initial assumption about the genre that a work belongs to,' and a 'misreading follows in the wake of erroneous placement' (177). Critics have consistently misplaced Tancred within the 'intertextual grid' of Coningsby, Sybil and other condition-of-England novels. But since Tancred belongs to a different genre, the novel will make a great deal more sense if we stop (mis)reading it as an autobiographical roman a these and instead read it as a combination and transformation of two well-established genres: the quixotic or ironic Bildungsroman, such as Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752) and, even more relevantly, the historical romance, with Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814) as the primary prototype. …