Category Archives: Novel

Benjamin Disraeli: True Blue Conservative

httpv:// Disraeli addresses Parliament in Mrs. Brown

Benjamin Disraeli died on this date in 1881 (born 1804).

It cannot be said too often: North American politicians who call themselves “conservatives” are no such thing.  They are corporatists. Below is some of the notable legislation passed during the arch-conservative Disraeli’s ministry. This is what the record of a real conservative looks like: offering assistance to those in need in the name of social stability; promoting justice for the sake of sound social health. Just the titles of this legislation might give contemporary “conservatives” a Victorian case of the vapors. Where are the tax cuts for the rich and for corporations? Where is the corporate welfare? Disraeli extended the franchise, offered assistance to the poor, and enhanced the rights and protections of workers, including the right to form trades unions:

Artisans’ and Laborers’ Dwellings Improvement Act

Public Health Act

Factory Acts

Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act

In response to these reforms, Liberal-Labour MP Alexander Macdonald told his constituents in 1879: “The Conservative party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.”

It would raise hurricanes of laughter all along the political spectrum to suggest that today’s “conservatives” might do anything remotely resembling this now.

Maybe a large part of the reason is that Disraeli was extraordinarily accomplished. However “conservatives” regard themselves, glad handing the corporate elite does not round out a world-view.

Here’s Frye making reference in “Dickens and the Comedy of Humours” to Disraeli the novelist; a writer who gives expression to the enduring foundations of romance, despite the conventional thinking:

In general, [it is assumed that] the serious Victorian fiction writers are realistic and the less serious ones are romancers. We expect George Eliot or Trollope to give us a solid and well-rounded realization of the social life, attitudes, and intellectual issues of their time; we expect Disraeli and Bulwer-Lytton, because they are more “romantic,” to give us the same kind of thing in a more flighty and dilettantish way; from the cheaper brands, Marie Corelli or Ouida, we expect nothing but the standard romance formulas. (CW 10, 287)

As Frye goes on to say in his examination of the work of Dickens, the second-tier status of romance is a long way from the truth. Writers of romance like Disraeli are closer to the imaginative bedrock of literature and life than any realist. “Conservatives” who by denying assistance to the poor and justice to society at large to further enrich a bogus crony-capitalisim may flatter themselves as living in “the real world.” But it is in fact not much of a world and, because it’s unsustainable, it is not even real; just temporarily realized and doomed to fail.

Charles Dickens


The opening sequence of David Lean’s film adaptation of Great Expectations

Today is Charles Dickens‘s birthday (1812-1870).

Frye’s plangent account of the creative absurdity of literature in “Dickens and the Comedy of Humours” — this is an extraordinary paragraph, even for him:

I used the word “absurd” earlier about Dickens’s melodramatic plots, suggesting that they were creatively and not incompetently absurd.  In our day the word “absurd” usually refers to the absence of purpose or meaning in life and experience, the so-called metaphysical absurd.  But for literary criticism the formulating of the theory of the absurd should not be left entirely to disillusioned theologians.  In literature it is design, the forming and shaping power, that is absurd.  Real life does not start nor stop; it never ties up loose ends; it never manifests meaning or purpose except by blind accident; it is never comic or tragic, ironic or romantic, or anything else that has shape.  Whatever gives form and pattern to fiction, whatever technical skill keeps us turning the pages to get to the end, is absurd, and contradicts our sense of reality.  The great Victorian realists subordinate their story-telling skill to their representative skill.  Theirs is a dignified, leisurely vehicle that gives us time to look at the scenery.  They have formed our stock responses to fiction, so that even when travelling at the much higher speed of drama, romance, or epic we still keep trying to focus our eyes on the incidental and transient.  Most of us feel that there is something else in Dickens, something elemental, yet unconnected with either realistic clarity or philosophical profundity.  What it is connected with is a kind of story that fully gratifies the hope expressed, according to Lewis Carroll, by the original Alice, that “there will be some nonsense in it.”  The silliest character in Nicholas Nickleby is the hero’s mother, a romancer who keeps dreaming of impossible happy endings for her children.  But the story itself follows her specifications and not those of the sensible people.  The obstructing humours in Dickens are absurd because they have overdesigned their lives.  But the kind of design that they parody is produced by another kind of energy, and one which insists, absurdly and irresistibly, that what is must never take precedence over what ought to be.  (CW 17, 307-8)

Virginia Woolf


The only surviving recording of Woolf: a talk delivered on the BBC in April 1937 under the title “Craftsmanship.”  It was part of a series called “Words Fail Me.”

Today is Virginia Woolf‘s birthday (1882-1941).

Frye in his 1948 Canadian Forum review of Woolf’s posthumously published The Moment and Other Essays :

Like its predecessors, it makes very agreeable reading, but indicates that Virginia Woolf was as minor a figure in criticism as she was a major one in the novel.  She was a great novelist, with a consciousness about form and structure more Continental than English.  For the English novel, as she occasionally complains, has usually been rather like one of the county houses it so often describes: rambling in structure, provincial in setting, showing a good deal of improvising in the building, full of drafts caused by loose ends of plot and loopholes in motivation, and with the less mentionable aspects of existence difficult to access yet marked by a pervasive smell.  Virginia Woolf’s novels looked “experimental,” not because she was trying stunts but because she went all out for whatever novel she was writing, determined not to let it go until every detail had been hammered into the right shape and place.  So although words like “subtlety” and “delicacy” spring to mind first in connection with her, these qualities are, as they should be, the results of great imaginative energy and vigorous craftsmanship. (CW 26, 80)