These days, I mostly fill my reading time with lighter fare from the likes of Agatha Christie, John Grisham, Stephen King, and Michael Connelly. There’s nothing wrong with that, as I’ve read more than my fair share of classics over the years and need a break from the heady stuff once in a while.
Nevertheless, I occasionally feel guilty about the lack of substance in these reading materials, and force myself to read something from The Guardian’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. That’s why I decided to tackle Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, the No. 15 entry on the list, a couple weeks ago. (And in case you’re interested, I’ve now read the top 25 novels on the list and 61 of the titles overall.)
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Written in 1845, Sybil, or The Two Nations (the full title of the novel), deals with hot-button political issues of the day. Specifically, Disraeli, who was Prime Minister of the UK in 1868 and again from 1874-1880, wrote about the extreme differences between Britain’s rich and poor. The wealthy landowners enjoyed excesses beyond all imagination, while the poor working class endured squalid conditions that were barely able to sustain human life.
Disraeli couches his opinions in the form of a novel with two distinct storylines. The first is a basic love story between Charles Egremont and young Sybil Gerard. Sybil is the daughter of Walter Gerard, man of modest means who has aligned himself with Stephen Morley and others in an attempt to unite workers and bring British industry to a screeching halt until workers start receiving fair wages for their efforts.
Egremont, an aristocrat whose family owns a great deal of property, first meets Morley and Sybil when he poses as a reporter under an assumed name and goes to live among the regular folks to get the lay of the land, so to speak. Egremont immediately falls in love with the kind, innocent, angelic Sybil, but he doesn’t dare to reveal his feelings or his true identity.
Disraeli intertwines the Egremont/Sybil story with passages detailing Morley and Gerard’s work, as well as with depictions of daily life of the rich and poor. Eventually, both storylines mesh as the major players cross paths with one another and the novel proceeds towards its optimistic conclusion.
My Reaction: I thought Sybil started off very slowly. It was hard to get into the flow of the novel because Disraeli kept jumping back and forth between Egremont and the Gerards. Since these people lived in totally different circumstances and since I didn’t know enough about the novel to expect these scene shifts, I was extremely confused by what was going on. This confusion soon led to boredom, which led to me putting the book down after every couple of pages, etc.
But once I got past the first quarter of the novel or so, things started to pick up. Sybil was an interesting character, as was Egremont, making it easy to become invested in their love story. I wasn’t quite as interested in the struggles of the working class, however, so those parts remained slow for me. Things might have been different if I knew anything about that period of England’s history, but as it was, none of the things Disraeli was writing about seemed all that relevant anymore.
Overall, I had mixed feelings about Sybil. Parts of it were good, but this is not a novel that I can envision myself reading again and again — as I do with several other favorites. As such, I have to quibble with The Guardian’s high placement of the book on the Top 100 list. Obviously I’m no literary scholar, but I certainly wouldn’t rank Sybil as the 15th greatest novel ever written. Oh, well… de gustibus non est disputandum!