Sybil, or the Two Nations. Benjamin Disraeli 1846

As a Victorian prime minister, Disraeli may not have thought highly of the working classes, but he reveals a considerable sympathy for them here. Sybil, a romance, includes excoriating descriptions of the “tommy” or company store system (in which workers were forced to buy poor-quality goods at crippling prices), of the young women toiling in the mines as “pit ponies”, and of the tragically neglected small children in factory towns.

His England is alternately drama-ridden, and ludicrous: for every noble Egremont there are ten foolish lords, baffled by contemporary politics. Sybil herself provides the poetry, but like a pre-Raphaelite painting she remains largely unreal, a personification of Catholicism’s mystical and sensory qualities, all incense and candlelight. Highly enjoyable.

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