Sybil, Or, the Two Nations

Sybil, Or, the Two Nations

Sybil, Or, the Two Nations

Sybil, Or, the Two Nations

Excerpt

The Times advertised Sybil as 'immediately ready' on 8 May 1845, and reviewed it on 13 May. Four days later Disraeli received a letter from a young woman, Mrs. Baylis, who described herself as 'a mechanic's wife' living in Sussex Terrace, a respectable, reasonably prosperous part of Camden Town. She wrote of Sybil: 'Your writings now are for the great body of the country, the People can feel, can understand, your works... You set forth in stirring words in animated, striking, and truthful description the real social condition of the country the monstrous distinction betwixt Rich-Poor...'

I have already discussed the implications of this letter in Mr. Disraeli's Readers (see Booklist p. xviii) but of interest here is Mrs. Baylis's response to the novel's immediacy. Disraeli, a practising politician, wrote it hurriedly to comment on contemporary and recently past events and to argue an acceptable political creed offering hope for the future. The period covered by the novel is 1837-44. Victoria became Queen in 1837, at a time of national distress and disturbance. In the recurring cycles of trade depression following the Napoleonic Wars prices had fallen and wages had been cut. The people of the rapidly increasing industrial towns, such as Manchester and Birmingham, on which the country's wealth depended, had lacked representation in Parliament. The Whig Reform Act 1832 provided for a more equitable distribution of seats, but there was great disappointment that it extended the middleclass rather than the working-class vote. Insufficient representation, falling wages, and the distress caused by the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834--an attempt to regulate the existing unsatisfactory poor laws by cutting down on outdoor relief and forcing paupers to submit to the rigorous and inhuman regime of the new workhouses--largely motivated the Chartists. Chartism was a distinctively working-class movement which began in the Working Men's Association, founded in 1836 by William Lovett, and which aimed to secure, by every legal method, equal political and social rights for all classes. The Chartists believed that if the working class got the vote and if working men were able to become MPs, working-class . . .

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