As a novelist, Benjamin Disraeli belongs to the early part of the nineteenth century. “Vivian Grey” (1826–27) and “Sybil” (1845) mark the beginning and the end of his truly creative period; for the two productions of his latest years, “Lothair” (1870) and “Endymion” (1880), add nothing to the characteristics of his earlier volumes except the changes of feeling and power which accompany old age. His period, thus, is that of Bulwer, Dickens, and Thackeray, and of the later years of Sir Walter Scott — a fact which his prominence as a statesman during the last decade of his life, as well as the vogue of “Lothair” and “Endymion,” has tended to obscure. His style, his material, and his views of English character and life all date from that earlier time. He was born in 1804 and died in 1881.
“Coningsby; or, The New Generation,” published in 1844, is the best of his novels, not as a story, but as a study of men, manners, and principles. The plot is slight — little better than a device for stringing together sketches of character and statements of political and economic opinions; but these are always interesting and often brilliant. The motive which underlies the book is political. It is, in brief, an attempt to show that the political salvation of England was to be sought in its aristocracy, but that this aristocracy was morally weak and socially ineffective, and that it must mend its ways before its duty to the state could be fulfilled. Interest in this aspect of the book has, of course, to a large extent passed away with the political conditions which it reflected. As a picture of aristocratic life in England in the first part of the nineteenth century it has, however, enduring significance and charm. Disraeli does not rank with the great writers of English realistic fiction, but in this special field none of them has surpassed him. From this point of view, accordingly, “Coningsby” is appropriately included in this series.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07