Sybil or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli

published 1845 Book 2 Chapter 5

The divine melody ceased; the elder stranger rose; the words were on the lips of Egremont, that would have asked some explanation of this sweet and holy mystery, when in the vacant and star-lit arch on which his glance was fixed, he beheld a female form. She was apparently in the habit of a Religious, yet scarcely could be a nun, for her veil, if indeed it were a veil, had fallen on her shoulders, and revealed her thick tresses of long fair hair. The blush of deep emotion lingered on a countenance, which though extremely young, was impressed with a character of almost divine majesty; while her dark eyes and long dark lashes, contrasting with the brightness of her complexion and the luxuriance of her radiant locks, combined to produce a beauty as rare as it is as it is choice; and so strange, that Egremont might for a moment have been pardoned for believing her a seraph, that had lighted on this sphere, or the fair phantom of some saint haunting the sacred ruins of her desecrated fane.

observations: Disraeli said ‘when I want to read a book I write one’, but probably he should have read a few more first – as a novel the best you can say of Sybil is that it has its heart in the right place. He was a man with a message, and one that he put over firmly and clearly: Sybil is about poverty and deprivation, and about stupid people running the country based on nothing but a sense of entitlement (so no modern applications there then), and he has clear ideas on tackling the problems. So – for right-thinking sentiments he gets a 9 (one point docked because the poor people still need kindly-hearted higher classes to help them organize). As a novel – about a 3. At one point a character needs to find someone: a complete stranger for no reason drops a letter in front of him, which happens to be for the right person, so he gets the address from the envelope.

But there are better moments – a splendid story about the democratization of the railways has a Lady Vanilla sitting with two men and chatting friendlily to them. She does not realizing they are criminals until she asks to change seats with one, and both have to move because they are chained together.

Disraeli always sounds like a nice man who liked women (including his wife), so it’s a shame that all the female characters in this book are created at a level very fairly represented by the passage above. This is our introduction to Sybil herself, and she IS the worst, she apparently has no human characteristics whatsoever, it is quite tormenting to read the scenes she features in.

Links on the blog: Sybil wears religious garb but is not a nun: Sister Agnes is the opposite in her attractive little skirt.

The picture, Hope, is by the French artist Pierre de Puvis Chavannes, and is from the Walters Museum in Baltimore: the museum has generously released its images under a creative commons licence.


  1. Oh dear - a book where not only the central, but eponymous character is poorly portrayed. I think Disraeli was always setting himself up for a fall with a comment like that.

  2. Moira - I would have really enjoyed getting a look at something Disraeli wrote as fiction, just because of interest. But now?? Mmmmm, perhaps not. Thanks though for sharing it. And I do have to agree with your rating of the message he was trying send.

  3. Nice picture, but it doesn't look at all like the habit of any religious I've ever seen; was there some other reason for choosing it?

  4. Sarah and Margot - I feel guilty for putting you off, but can't in all honesty say it's a must-read book.

    Rosie - thanks for your interest. I liked the idea that the picture is called Hope, and it is also clear that Sybil is not a nun, so would not be wearing an actual habit, she lives quite a normal life and goes among people without being commented on or treated as a religious. I really liked a different picture of a woman in a long robe, but that woman had a rather warlike Valkyrie helmet so I thought that would be even less suitable!

    1. Thanks for clearing that up. Maybe I'll read the book some day. *contemplates long list of books already on Kindle*


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