For our fractured times, the release of Disraeli’s Sybil in unabridged audio, narrated with the respect it deserves by Tim Bentinck, is timely as, despite its title being familiar, these days it is seldom read. Published in 1845, 23 years before Disraeli’s first premiership, the story, rich in the minutiae of then contemporary political conflict, covers the years of reform and unrest between 1837 and 1844, but throws up startling parallels between then and now.
The young agitator Stephen Morley speaks directly to us. There’s no community in England, he says; city men are united only by their desire for gain, not in a state of co-operation but of money-seeking isolation. Did Brexiteers vote, as did the Chartist Walter Gerard for the People’s Charter, not for the ‘reforms & remedies’ but merely because they were ‘a change’? Hard-pressed labourers resent the ‘himmigrants’ from Suffolk beating down their already meagre wages and, concerned for the future by the increasing population, Gerard asks Charles Egremont: ‘How will you feed them? How will you clothe them?’
Egremont, Disraeli’s protagonist and mouthpiece, is the younger brother of Lord Marney, the savagely unfeeling aristocrat who is content for his tenants to survive — or not — on seven shillings a week.