Book Review: Sybil, or The Two Nations

SYBILSybil, or The Two Nations, by Benjamin Disraeli. First published in 1845.

The first thing I need to say about this book is about the particular edition that I read (pictured left), not about the book itself. But very quickly (I’m on the fourth book of my 1000-plus) I have learned another lesson. And here it is: Do NOT fall for the POD (print-on-demand) versions of public domain books. Now, we all know I love POD as much as the next guy, although largely for self-publishing authors trying to break into the field or claim more of their revenue. However, I snagged the International Alliance of Pro-Publishing version of Sybil, and I have regretted it ever since. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought of the idea of public domain books being printed for a quick buck by some crappy company or some guy sitting at home at his computer in the dead of night. But I sure figured it out quick. For one, the cover and paper type is completely indicative of a POD. Which is okay. But it is not the highest quality. What really got me was the lack of material (most classical books include introductions, character lists, all sorts of extra things to help you enjoy and understand the story) and the excess of typos, grammatical errors, and misspellings. And because the book is in an older, British English, it was hard for me to catch all of the mistakes, instead left looking at the page confused. If I had a dollar for every time the “publisher” forgot to close a quote or move a paragraph to the next line, I would have doubled my last month’s salary. Seriously. Not to mention that the format was terrible: large pages and small margins (it is more affordable for the publisher) make for very long times between page turns and easily losing one’s place. It felt like forever.

The SYBIL NORTONmoral is, stick to the traditional publishers for the classics (Norton, Penguin, etc.), or at the very least, be on the look-out for bad versions of old literature (check ratings, sales, etc.), as I’m sure they will continue to rise in number.

Now for another prefacing comment. This is Sybil or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli. (Recognize that name? He was a prime minister.) It is not Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber  and played in movie form by Sally Field. The OTHER Sybil is the one about the lady with dissociative identity disorder. THIS Sybil is a novel with a thesis about the Chartist movement in early 19th century/Victorian England and the gulf between the classes.

So, Sybil, or The Two Nations, by Benjamin Disraeli. First published in 1845. Where to start?

This book is described as a novel with a thesis (as I mentioned). That means that Disraeli was trying to reach the masses and the powers-that-be by slipping his political and societal rhetoric, like a little pill, into literary applesauce. It was effective. Now, more than 150 years later, it is less effective, but it is interesting to witness. For one, Disraeli is an alright novelist, but not the best. His characters tend to be flat (uncomplicated) and he is extremely fond of the surprise ending chapter.  (For example, you enter the chapter reading about a “guy” and some other people, and lots of events take place, and at the end of the chapter he suddenly writes, “and that man was EGREMONT” (yes, with the capitalization).  Really obnoxious to us modern readers.

NoSYBIL PENGUINt to mention that the book–because it is full of hidden political pills–is very dull at times. Especially at the beginning. I admit to skimming whole sections where Disraeli turns back into his usual moralist self. The only reason I even found this part remotely interesting is 1) that someone did it and 2) I happened to have just watched Amazing Grace, which is a movie about William Wilberforce and includes many themes related to this book. And yet, the maker of that movie did a far better job at letting the “story” speak for itself. Disraeli’s version reminded me more of cookie dough where the liquid can still be distinguished from the flour. Doesn’t make for good cookies.

It’s not all bad, though. By the end of the book I found myself continually thinking that it would make a great period film. Or even a re-write. In the hands of a skilled novelist (or screenwriter and director), the plot could really sing. And somewhere in there we would all get the idea of class distinction, the degradation and persecution of the working classes, the excesses of the upper, and all that. (There was a movie made in 1921, but I can’t find a way to get my hands on it.)

One last thing: Did anyone else find it odd that to portray the rift between the upper and working classes, Disraeli chose Sybil, who secretly possessed a noble lineage and a plan to move into the upper class? I found that awkward, to say the least. Maybe it helped make the message more tolerable to the upper class? These days, it seems like a bad choice born of an undercurrent of the dregs of prejudice. Like Disraeli, as noble as he was, couldn’t even imagine a pure and worthy heroine without a claim to “old blood?”

Also annoyed me that three of the main characters were named Marney, Mowbray, and Morley. Just one of those things.

Would I recommend it? Depends on how interested you are in Victorian suffrage and how willing you are to read pages of Chartist essay. In the end, I would say wait for the film, or until your Literature teacher makes you read it. Then enjoy.

Ooops. Almost forgot my quotes.

“Then all was blooming; sunshine and odor; not a breeze disturbing the meridian splendor. Then the world was not only made for a few, but a very few.”

“To be conscious you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.”

“But the obscure majority, who under our present constitution are destined to govern England, are as secret as a Venetian conclave. Yet on their dark voices all depends.”

“‘My inclination is of course to do everything for you; but when I calculate my resources, I may find that they are not equal to my inclination.'”

“Always sacrificed, always yielding, the moment she attempted to express an opinion, she ever seemed to assume the position not of the injured but the injurer.”

“He looked for a moment in despair upon this maiden walled out from sympathy by prejudices and convictions more impassable than all the mere consequences of class.”

“There was not that strong and rude simplicity in this organization she had supposed. The characters were more various, the motives more mixed, the classes more blended, the elements of each more subtle and diversified, than she had imagined.”

“The people had enemies among the people: their own passions.”

“…the conquerors will never rescue the conquered.”

“Predominant opinions are generally the opinions of the generation that is vanishing.”

“‘What if everything were changed, if everything were contrary to what it is?’ said Sybil. ‘The people are not disciplined; their action will not be, cannot be, coherent and uniform; these are riots in which you are involved, not revolutions; and you will be a victim, and not a sacrifice.'”

“‘In the agitated hour wild words escape. If I have used them, I regret; if you, I have forgotten.'”

“‘Time and accident, which change everything.'”

“‘Can we be free without suffering?’ said Gerard. ‘Is the greatest of human blessings to be obtained as a matter of course?'”

“An empty belly is sometimes as apt to dull the heart as inflame the courage.”

“What we want is, good wages and plenty to do.”

“‘Why in a sense, Julia, in a certain sense you are right; but there are two sense to everything, my girl.'”


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