I recently read “Hard Times” (1854), Charles Dickens’s only attempt at a novel about the industrial north of England, set in a cotton-manufacturing city he calls “Coketown”. Opinions of the novel have differed widely: in George Orwell’s long essay on Dickens we are told that the great Victorian historian Lord Macaulay refused to review the book because of what he saw as its “sullen socialism”, whereas Lenin was revolted by Dickens’s “bourgeois sentimentality”. In my opinion, Lenin was much closer to the mark than Macaulay. I found it a deeply irritating book, with a ramshackle plot, ridiculous characters, and a complete absence of any ideas for remedying the faults and abuses Dickens portrayed. As a corrective I reread a contemporary novel covering similar ground: “Sybil” (1845) by Benjamin Disraeli. I would like here to compare and contrast the two books.
Dickens always excels at memorable descriptions of scenes and characters. His weaknesses, apart from the improbable plots, are that the characters tend to be one-dimensional caricatures, that he has neither knowledge nor interest in how things actually work, and that the only remedy he can find for abuses is that everyone should be nicer to each other. All this is apparent in “Hard Times”. The “bad guys”, Gradgrind and Bounderby, especially the latter, are simply comic clowns, far too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Bounderby is a bully, but also rabbits on endlessly about how he dragged himself up from the gutter by his own efforts. It transpires that this is totally untrue, but his motive for doing it remains a mystery. Louisa, the daughter of Gradgrind and unwilling wife of Bounderby, is, like many Victorian heroines, too wet to be interesting. The central working-class figure, Stephen Blackpool, who is “sent to Coventry” for refusing to join a Trades Union and then unjustly accused of being involved in a bank robbery, merely comes across as pathetic, making little effort to defend himself. Then there is the Trades Union and Chartist leader, Slackbridge, who is portrayed mercilessly; ludicrous name, ludicrous appearance, ludicrous speeches; yet with the workers of Coketown eating out of his hand. When Blackpool is unjustly accused of the robbery, Slackbridge actually believes Bounderby rather than Blackpool, and urges the workers to catch him and hand him over! (Lenin and Stalin, I feel sure, would have marked out a working-class bank robber as a man of spirit and a good recruit for the revolutionary cause!) Dickens plainly has no sympathy for Trades Unionism.
I thought there were faults of construction. The local dialect of Blackpool and the lisp of Sleary the circus-owner are given phonetically throughout, which I found a very irritating distraction, forcing us to decipher every word. Gradgrind changes in character very abruptly when Louisa runs away from her husband, and has no difficulty in accepting that his son is a bank robber, despite the extreme flimsiness of the evidence against him. James Harthouse, an upper-class idler, is the only character with any sex-drive: I felt sure he must be involved in the robbery, but instead he simply disappears form the story. The pages of “pathos” describing the death of Stephen Blackpool are simply awful; and at the end, his friend Rachel is portrayed as simply working on at the factory until she is too old to continue.
What does Dickens want to happen? He has no plan at all for the relief of industrial abuses he describes. He is contemptuous of reason, and despises Parliament (calling M.P.s “National dustmen”). There is no trace of anything specifically Christian in his writings, which is perhaps not surprising, since he was essentially a pre-Victorian, born in 1812: none of his characters shows any sign of Christian belief - or, indeed, of any other religious faith. Dickens was writing twenty years before the enforcement of compulsory primary schooling, and one generally expects that education will be seen as a hope for a better society in the future. But in the unforgettable school scene which opens the book, the children are crammed with “facts” at Gradgrind’s insistence, and forbidden ever to exercise their imagination. The best that can be said for the teacher, the splendidly-named McChoakemchild, is that he is a more useful person than J. Wackford Squeers in “Nicholas Nickleby”; and yet Dickens had so little in the way of positive ideas about education that he sent his own son to Eton! I think this typifies Dickens’s limitations as a thinker.
Let us turn to Benjamin Disraeli: the only British Prime Minister to have been also the author of several novels. In the 1840s, when he was already a Tory Member of Parliament (at this point representing Shrewsbury, in Shropshire) he produced a trilogy: “Coningsby”, “Sybil” and “Tancred”; the third being the least satisfactory. His motives for writing were mixed. In the first place, he needed the money: for most of his career he was plagued by debts, which at this time amounted to about £20,000 - at least half a million in today’s terms. Secondly, there were political ideas he wished to put forward, and which he does at length in the trilogy. He was associated with a group of youthful aristocrats known as “Young England”. Their theories sound very silly nowadays, but at the time they were considered important enough for Karl Marx to jeer at them in the “Communist Manifesto”. Particularly they were hostile to their Conservative party leader, Sir Robert Peel (Prime Minister 1841-46), whom they accused of betraying old Tory principles. Disraeli, who was neither an aristocrat nor young (he was born in 1804, eight years before Dickens) produced such ringing phrases as “A Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy”, and, in “Coningsby”, “A sound Conservative government - Tory men and Whig measures”. In 1846 Disraeli was to play a leading role in splitting the party and bringing down Peel’s government: an action which left the Conservatives without a Parliamentary majority for the next thirty years.
Most of Disraeli’s novels centre upon an upper-class young man making his way in politics and high society; “Sybil” being the only one where he ventured to set scenes in the industrial north. The hero, Charles Egremont, is indeed a young aristocrat, but is saved from the vapid existence led by many of his class by his love for Sybil, the daughter of the radical Chartist leader, Walter Gerard. The full title of the book is “Sybil, or The Two Nations”; the latter phrase being explained by a scene in Chapter 5 where Gerard tells Egremont that Queen Victoria rules over “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws. ……. THE RICH AND THE POOR.” (it is printed thus, in block capitals, to ensure we get the message).
Part of the plot is romantic and improbable, but it is firmly anchored into a clear chronology of historical events: the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837, the formation of Peel’s government in 1841 and, as a climax, the “Plug Plot” riots of 1842.
Disraeli outdoes Dickens by describing four different communities, each with its own problems and grievances: a decaying rural town, a factory town called Mowbray, a coalmining village, and, most memorably, the settlement he calls “Wodgate” (believed to be Willenhall, near Birmingham), where there is no constituted authority at all and the people are totally illiterate (which makes one realise that the children at Gradgrind’s school were actually quite privileged!). Disraeli had not visited such places, but he got his information from the “Blue Books” of government statistics, which were also extensively used by Marx and Engels, but which Dickens ridicules. Disraeli knew, for instance, that a principal grievance in the mining communities was the system of “tommy-shops”: the miners were not paid in cash, but in tokens which could only be used in certain shops, where they were given low-quality goods at inflated prices. One of Disraeli’s best scenes depicts Master Thomas, who runs the tommy-shop, bullying and humiliating the miners’ wives.
Disraeli’s characters, though not as memorably depicted as Dickens’s, are much more believable as people. The selfish reactionary nobleman, Lord Marney, comes across as a genuinely sinister and dangerous person, as does his friend, Lord de Mowbray, unlike the ridiculous Bounderby. It is interesting that the Chartist leaders, Gerard and Stephen Morley, are given far more sympathetic treatment than Dickens gives to the ludicrous Slackbridge; and Disraeli’s young working-class figures, Dandy Mick and Devilsdust, are infinitely more positive characters than the pathetic and passive Stephen Blackpool: indeed, all these men play important heroic roles in the plot. Devilsdust, incidentally, has genuinely risen from the gutter, as Bounderby pretends to have done, but has learnt to read and write and has absorbed a good deal of left-wing class-conscious ideology, concerning capitalists and workers, several years before the writing of the “Communist Manifesto”. Rather surprisingly, there is more overt Christianity in Disraeli’s novel than in Dickens’s: Disraeli portrays Walter Gerard and his daughter as dedicated Catholics, and among his minor characters there is a strong-minded vicar who is prepared to stand up to the upper-class bullies.
As an experienced politician, Disraeli knew how things actually worked, whereas Dickens never bothered to find out, but simply took refuge in satire. Dickens is contemptuous of Parliament and dismisses M.P.s as “national dustmen”; though many today would see the time as a golden age of political giants: Palmerston and the young Gladstone, as well as Peel and Disraeli himself. Dickens is thus incapable of matching the lethal scene where Disraeli portrays Peel (called simply “the gentleman in Downing Street”) instructing his factotum, who is given the thoroughly Dickensian name of Hoaxem, to give two completely contradictory messages to two different visiting delegations, and particularly to be “ “Frank and explicit”: that is the right line to take when you wish to conceal your own mind and to confuse the minds of others.” This is far more damaging than Dickens’s crude abuse! (Incidentally, many historians view Sir Robert Peel as one of the greatest of all British Prime Ministers)
Unlike Dickens, Disraeli brings his novel to a dramatic climax in the “Plug Plot” riots, in which the bad characters duly get their comeuppance: Master Joseph perishes as his tommy-shop is destroyed by the striking miners, Lord Marney is stoned to death by a furious crowd, and Lord de Mowbray’s bogus-mediaeval castle is plundered and burnt to the ground by the “hell-cats” of Wodgate. The plot necessitates that Gerard and Morley should both be killed by the militia, though both of them die heroically. Finally, Charles Egremont rescues Sybil from the chaos and they live happily ever after, with Disraeli assuring us that times are now getting better for everyone. Although no-one could pretend that Disraeli could ever be Dickens’s equal as a novelist, I thought this book to be a far better portrayal of the times they lived in.
I think "Sybil" would make an excellent film! I'm surprised no-one has attempted it.
1. Benjamin Disraeli served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8, and as Prime Minister in 1868. On none of these brief spells in government did the Conservatives hold a Parliamentary majority. It was only in 1874-80 that he was Prime Minister in a majority government. He was created Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876 and died in 1881.
2. 1845, the year when "Sybil" was published, also saw the publication of "The Condition of the Working Class in England" by the young Friedrich Engels (born 1830, living in England since 1842). Engels used the same official statistics as Disraeli, but it is unlikely that Disraeli knew anything of Engels's book, since it was initially published in Germany and did not appear in English for several decades.