Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Historiography and Tory Restoration in Disraeli's Fiction

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Historiography and Tory Restoration in Disraeli's Fiction

Article excerpt

In The Rise of English Nationalism, Gerald Newman forges a link between that oldest of English political/ideological constructs, the "Norman Yoke," and the emergent movement of English nationalism in the eighteenth century. In Newman's redaction, the "Norman Yoke" becomes more than a "political philosophy"; it embodies "the theory of the English nation," and as such, constitutes a "comprehensive ideology of emancipation" (191). (1)

Newman's analysis of the mythopoetic status of the "Norman Yoke" is crucial for understanding Disraeli's transmutation of the myth into the central metaphor shaping the historical-fictional design of his novels. The prototypical narrative of the "Norman Yoke" traced by Newman "is the story of the nation's divine origin in the past, the foreign devil's machinations against it, the alien encroachments and oppressions hanging over it in the present, its urgent obligations to renew and return to itself" (190). Newman underscores the "Norman Yoke's" character as an historical-fictional narrative keyed to the thematics of paternity, legitimacy, the conflict of political ideals, and the renovation of a communal tradition uncorrupted by enemies lurking within or without the body politic. Perhaps not coincidentally, the "story of the 'Norman Yoke'" retold by Newman adumbrates the trajectory of the nineteenth-century novel plot as tracked by Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot. Taking The Red and the Black as paradigmatic for the thematics of the nineteenth-century novel, Brooks argues that the hero's search for familial origins and biological legitimacy parallels his search in the political realm for legitimate authority; in the polarities of authority and usurpation, Brooks discovers "the matrix of the principal generative and governing structures of the novel" (71).

Disraeli's novels constitute a special instance of the thematics of legitimacy and usurpation propelling the plots of many Victorian novels, those that belong ostensibly to the subgenre of "the political novel" studied by Morris Speare, as well as those that do not. (2) Most twentieth-century critics have followed Speare in classifying Disraeli's fictional works as political novels, but Victorian reviewers of Coningsby and Sybil viewed them as historical and philosophical as well as political novels. Indeed, W. E. Hickson in The Westminster Review, the organ of Utilitarianism, wrote a lengthy refutation of Disraeli's Tory historical polemic. Impugning Disraeli's historical accuracy, Hickson takes issue with the account of Whig and Tory party origins given in Coningsby and especially with Disraeli's imputation of Whig responsibility for the plunder of the Church: "The plunder of the church commenced at the Reformation, a century before the terms Whig and Tory were first introduced; and whether the descendants of Whig or Tory families hold in the present day the greater portion of the ill-gotten spoil is ... a very doubtful point" (95). It is significant that Hickson quotes the long dialogue between Millbank and Coningsby on "Norman manners" and "Saxon industry"; the conquest trope is thematized in those passages Hickson selects to scrutinize most closely. Identifying Disraeli's purpose in Sybil as "to put forward ... a correct picture of the state," W. R. Greg, like Hickson, underscores the historical-philosophical dimensions of the novel (141). It is likely that the Westminster reviewers perceived in the Tory historical framework of Disraeli's novels a direct challenge to the Whig theory of progress implicit in Utilitarian schemes for social improvement.

Victorian readers of Disraeli were responsive to the generic complexity of the novels, recognizing their medley-like structure and their fusion of history, philosophy, politics, and romance. Leslie Stephen noted Disraeli's tendency to present "a political or religious creed" undercut by irony, an "ambiguous hovering between two meanings" (430-1). And John Britton offered a precise generic definition when he described Coningsby as "a philosophical, political, epic romance. …

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