Robert O’Kell, “On Young England”


Young England was a short-lived social and political movement that developed from the altruistic ideas of a small parliamentary ginger group within the Conservative Party in the 1840s. At the core of the movement were Benjamin Disraeli (their acknowledged leader), Lord John Manners, George Sydney Smythe and Alexander Baillie Cochrane, all of whom were appalled at the state of party politics, class conflict, and the economic and moral condition of Victorian England’s poor. Their dissatisfaction with Sir Robert Peel’s leadership of the Party gained popular momentum when, between 1844 and 1847, Disraeli published a trilogy of novels that embodied both devastating satirical attacks on traditional Tory politics and an idealistic, nostalgic vision of a revitalized aristocracy motivated by social duty.

Benjamin Disraeli

Photograph of Benjamin Disraeli (1878)

Young England was the name of a short-lived social and political movement that developed from the altruistic ideas of a small parliamentary ginger group within the Conservative Party in the 1840s. The name, coined by Richard Monckton Milnes, seems to suggest a similarity with other nationalistic groups in early 19th-century Europe—for example, Young Ireland, Young Germany, and Young Italy—but, beyond the defining element of youthful age, the composition and purposes of each group were distinct and specific to the culture and locale: i.e., Irish independence; German liberal, democratic, social reform; and the unification of Italy, respectively. The acknowledged leader of Young England was Benjamin Disraeli, who was significantly older than the other members, most of whom were young aristocrats.

In 1835, after having previously lost several elections, Disraeli decided to write a political treatise that would give him some stature in the Conservative Party as a serious and significant thinker. That work, Vindication of the English Constitution in a Letter to a Noble Lord, was a post-Reform defence of what was termed “the mixed Constitution,” by which was meant the three limited estates of the realm: the Commons, the Lords Temporal, and the Lords Spiritual, each with its own duties and powers. Much of the Vindication was based on ideas that Disraeli had found in three works of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke: A Dissertation upon Parties (1733-4); A Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism (1736); and The Idea of a Patriot King (1738). In his early election campaigns, Disraeli had spoken of the need to form a “National Party,” one that would overcome the divisions of class and vested interests and that would promote the welfare of the whole country.[1] The success of a truly national party, Disraeli argued, would require heroic leadership of the kind he saw in Bolingbroke’s career as a member of the Tory Opposition to the Whig Government of Robert Walpole. From reading Bolingbroke’s works, in particular On the Spirit of Patriotism, which was addressed to the youthful Lord Cornbury, Disraeli came to believe that a revitalized idealism amongst the country’s young aristocrats was the best hope for the moral reformation of both the people and the government that was so desperately needed.

On his fifth attempt, Disraeli was elected to the House of Commons in 1837 and soon began to demonstrate his considerable talents as a debater. Once it became clear, however, that he would not be appointed to the Cabinet of Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative Government in 1841, he was in a mood of some desperation, feeling, as he said, “humiliated,” “solitary” and “utterly isolated” (To Mary Anne Disraeli (#1217), [25 February 1842], Letters 4: 17-18). But, on the strength of an impressive speech, attacking Lord Palmerston’s handling of the Foreign Office, Disraeli soon found himself “with[ou]t effort the leader of a party—chiefly of the youth, & new members” (To Mary Anne Disraeli (#1229), [11 March 1842], Letters 4: 31). The core of that group was the embryo of the Young England movement, a partie carrée composed of George Smythe, whom Disraeli had known for at least ten years, Lord John Manners, whom he had met the previous year, and Alexander Baillie‑Cochrane, who was a Cambridge friend of both Smythe and Manners. It seems that during the 1842 session the first two, discovering in him a common sympathy for many of their own views on society and politics, increasingly looked upon Disraeli as their spiritual and intellectual leader. While Smythe and Manners were very much contrasting personalities, the former being a brilliant but wildly extravagant and somewhat deliberately Byronic figure and the latter a good‑natured and very idealistic and gentle devotee of lost causes, they shared a nostalgic perspective on the Tory Party, the Church, the Monarchy, and the general progress of recent political events that was the antithesis of the “liberal utilitarian spirit of the time” (Blake 171) and that seemed to harmonize with the views Disraeli had espoused and expressed in the Vindication seven years earlier.

The shape of Manners’s and Smythe’s idealism was largely formed in their undergraduate years through their intense friendship with the slightly older, Puseyite clergyman, Frederick Faber, who, as their eloquent idol, impressed them profoundly with the spirit of the Oxford Movement and all of its enthusiasms—lofty ideals of chivalry and divine kingship, noble views of feudalism, and a passionate hope of revitalizing the Church of England. The essence of the bond that brought Young England’s foursome together, however, was patriotism.  Their conception of that was in part derived from their desire to restore what they conceived to be an ancient social harmony, and in part from their revulsion at the battle of warring factions that early nineteenth-century politics seem to have become. To this end, Bolingbroke’s definition of patriotism as a quality founded in great principles and supported by great virtues offered them a heroic role in the process of such restoration. Only through the nobility of character in great men and the performance of their privileged duty, they thought, could such harmony be established. In that respect, Disraeli’s earlier identification with Bolingbroke and the Opposition Circle politics of the early eighteenth century now clearly became transformed into a conscious adoption on Young England’s part of the role that Bolingbroke had urged Lord Cornbury and his circle of young aristocrats to play in the reform of the Tory Party and the country. Inherent in this posture was the idea that the Conservative Party now in the hands of Sir Robert Peel and his moderate policy is unequal to the task of addressing the nation’s most pressing problems.

It was while Disraeli was in Paris during the recess in fall of 1842 that the parliamentary identity of the Young England movement took shape. Both Smythe and Baillie‑Cochrane were also there, and the letters they wrote to Manners in London provide a “fascinating commentary” upon the role that Disraeli was beginning to envision for them all (Blake 174). His letters to his sister, Sarah, are full of reports of social encounters with dukes, duchesses, princes, counts, ambassadors, and influential politicians. In this heady atmosphere, and with a sense of recent parliamentary triumph, Disraeli began to imagine the possibilities of obtaining real political power. Something of the precise nature of the fantasy can be gauged from Smythe’s letter to Manners, dated 19 October 1842: “Most private. Dizzy has much more parliamentary power than I had any notion of. The two Hodgsons are his, and Quinton Dick. He has a great hold on Walter and ‘The Times.’ Henry Hope (who will come in soon) is entirely in his hands. He was in Paris, and I had an opportunity of judging.” Smythe went on to assure Manners that Cochrane’s alarm at “the extent of Dizzy’s influence” was but an anxiety that it might soon swallow the intimacy of their friendship (qtd. in Whibley 1: 143-4). Cochrane was not the most disinterested observer of these events, but his reservations throw even more light upon the nature of the relation between Disraeli’s imagination and external reality. Cochrane felt that no man could indulge in the “contemplation of self-aggrandisement” in the way Disraeli seemed to be doing “without at last, in the words of Thiers, ‘prenant ses voeux pour des réalités.’” Disraeli’s head, he said, was full of “great movements, vast combinations, the importance of numbers, cabinet dinners, the practice of dissimulation! in fact of the vaguest speculations, the mere phantasmagoria of politique legerdemain.” And if Disraeli returned to England in the “hope and expectation” of finding himself at the “head of a large party,” who would “intrigue against the Government,” Cochrane feared that it would all end in “disappointment and much injury to all parties concerned” (Baillie-Cochrane to Manners, n.d., qtd. in Whibley 1: 148-9).

The members of Young England (sometimes including a dozen or more sympathetic supporters such as Henry Hope, Monckton Milnes, Lord Francis Egerton, and W. B. Ferrand) did for the next few years continue to act together as a group in the House of Commons, with frequent criticisms of Peel’s Ministry. In July 1843, for example, Smythe, Manners and Cochrane voted against the Government by supporting Smith O’Brien’s motion calling for an inquiry into the distressing conditions and agitation in Ireland (Hansard, 3rd Ser., Vol. 70, 4, 7, 10, 11, and 12 July 1843, cc.1017-88). And the following month, on the third reading of the Irish Arms Bill, Disraeli delivered a “contemptuous indictment of the Government’s policy” (Blake 177).[2]

But Disraeli’s grand plans, as he had outlined them in an interview with the King of France, did not immediately develop in the way he had imagined.[3] Rather, in the next few years he turned to fiction to publicize the ideals of Young England in the themes and characterizations of three overtly political novels: Coningsby; or the New Generation (1844), Sybil; or the Two Nations (1845), and Tancred; or the New Crusade (1847). Indeed, the first of these novels was widely seen as a “manifesto of Young England” at the time of its publication (Monypenny and Buckle, Life of Benjamin Disraeli 2: 199), and the second was even more popular because it was thought to embody the social and religious ideals of the group. Coningsby was an imaginatively autobiographical psychological romance in which the tensions between Disraeli’s ideals and ambitions are resolved in a conventional marriage plot. The young Harry Coningsby’s career represents a firm rejection of old-style Tory Party politics and an insistence that the welfare of the country depends upon new aristocratic leadership inspired by different perspectives on the necessity of social justice, the value of history, and the importance of the Church as the representative of the people. The last of these themes did not get sufficiently drawn out in Coningsby, but became the central concern of the next novel, Sybil, which takes the form of a religious allegory in which the divisions of both class and religion are overcome by the exertions of another young aristocrat, Charles Egremont. It is clear that both of these novels are shaped by the revulsion that the members of Young England felt for the ugliness of the industrial settings and by the antagonisms between the classes that arose in England in the 1840s. And in both novels those feelings are captured in the satiric portraits of the political hacks and the social parasites who remain indifferent to the physical and moral degradation of England’s people.

As a result of Coningsby’s great success, Disraeli was invited to chair an evening meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum on the 3rd of October 1844. That event, though ostensibly a literary occasion, gave substance to his hope that he had, at last, achieved permanent national stature as a political figure. And it was, by all accounts, the apotheosis of the Young England movement. The Times reported that more than 3,200 ladies and gentlemen were in attendance at this “grand soiree,” this “most brilliant and magnificent spectacle” (5 Oct. 1844 5). Disraeli, Manners and Smythe all gave speeches that were enthusiastically received and later published in pamphlet form for a wider audience. In praising Manchester’s enthronement of “Intelligence” in place of “Force,” Disraeli prided himself on his conception of “knowledge” as like “the ladder in the patriarch’s mystic dream” upon which “the great authors” are the “angels ascending and descending on the sacred scale, and maintaining, as it were, the communication between man and Heaven” (The Times 5 Oct. 1844 6; Cf. Whibley 1: 175-6). Lord John Manners, in turn, raised a number of Young England’s favourite themes. He deplored the political rancour of the time, and its distinctions of class and party. And he urged the value of recreation and amusement in the lives of working men.  But, most importantly, he spoke of the need for a new understanding of history: “I rate highly the good which may accrue to this country from having its past history not a mere record of the kings who reigned and the battles they fought, but the history of its inner life, the habits, thoughts, and tastes of its people, the real aims and objects of its governors laid faithfully before us, because I am every day more and more convinced that half the mischief which is done to a country like this by its legislators and rulers is done from a misunderstanding of its past history” (The Times 5 Oct. 1844 6; Cf. Whibley 1; 176-7). In the context of an earlier, similar speech to the Athenic Institution at Birmingham on the 26th of August, in which he had deplored the decay of feudalism and the “unhappy separation of the classes which now existed”—“two classes of society, and two only—rich and poor” (Whibley 1: 172-3),[4] Manners can be seen here to adumbrate the themes of Sybil, some of whose scenes and settings are clearly based on the observations of Disraeli’s extended visit in the North following the triumph at Manchester.

George Smythe’s speech in turn prophesied an “auspicious destiny” for literature, now free of patronage and class limitations, and it exceeded the rhetorical sublimities of those of Manners and Disraeli.  Much of Smythe’s speech was an invocation of Young England’s nostalgic idealism, but he also took the occasion to eulogize George Canning as a “statesman” who had been sacrificed to the “absurdities,” the “barbarities,” and the “vulgarities” of “party warfare” (Whibley 1: 177-8).[5] The knowing would have recognized the speech as a defence of Disraeli, who had been similarly attacked, and whom Smythe called “the Cid and Captain” of his “every sympathy.”[6]

The evening at the Manchester Athenaeum ended as a complete triumph for the members of Young England, but especially for Disraeli, who was given nine rounds of applause and thanked profusely for presiding over the event. Again, his “domestic character” added to his popularity, and Mary Anne, his wife, was also cheered three times, before the speeches gave way to the merriment of dancing “until a late hour” before a full military band (The Times 5 Oct. 1844 6). The sense of gratification and the optimism with which Disraeli now looked to the future were undoubtedly reinforced during the remainder of the autumn, while the Disraelis extended their visit in the North and stayed at the country houses of several of Young England’s sympathizers, Lord Francis Egerton at Worsley Hall, W. B. Ferrand at Bingley and Robert Pemberton Milnes at Fryston. It was at this time that Disraeli absorbed much of the detailed knowledge of industrial conditions that informs his portrayal of them in the next Young England novel, Sybil; or the Two Nations. And while at Bingley, where the Ferrands were experimenting with garden allotments for industrial operatives, he made a speech that also indicates the direction of his thoughts while writing that novel: “We are asked sometimes what we want. We want in the first place to impress upon society that there is such a thing as duty. . . . [W]e are anxious to do our duty, and, if so, we think we have a right to call on others, whether rich or poor, to do theirs. If that principle of duty had not been lost sight of for the last fifty years, you would never have heard of the classes into which England is divided. . . .   We want to put an end to that political and social exclusiveness which we believe to be the bane of this country” (Monypenny and Buckle, Life of Benjamin Disraeli 2: 247-8). Such a passage makes manifest the profoundly conservative nature of Disraeli’s view of society, for he is clearly not proposing an amalgamation of the classes in any radical sense, but rather a reciprocal, intimate moral relationship between persons of inevitable social distinctions. And this harmonizes completely with the intent of the allegory embodied in Sybil (O’Kell 256-79).

The great popularity of Coningsby in the summer of 1844, the subsequent triumph at the Manchester Athenaeum in October, and the even more enthusiastic reception of Sybil (published in May 1845) gave Disraeli a much higher political profile than he had hitherto enjoyed. And, given Disraeli’s obvious sympathies with the “Holy Church” and the “old faith” in Sybil, it might well be thought that he should have supported the Bill to provide an annual grant to the Maynooth Seminary. Lord John Manners and George Smythe were more consistent with their Young England enthusiasms in voting for the measure. But Protestant feeling in England was strongly against the Bill and Disraeli opposed it, distinguishing sharply between faith and clericalism, and arguing that the bill embodied a principle that the Tories had always struggled against.[7] Some historians have seen this split in the ranks of Young England as the moment when the movement irreparably lost its unity and momentum; but in the public’s mind the success of Sybil seemed to transcend the difference, at least until January 1846, when Smythe, at his father’s insistence, accepted the post of Undersecretary of the Foreign Office in Peel’s Government. By that point, Disraeli had come to the conclusion that his own success in the Tory Party necessitated the destruction of Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative Ministry and he was well set upon the course of his vitriolic attacks on the Prime Minister.

Central to the transformation of Charles Egremont’s character in Sybil is his new understanding of “the condition of the people” that results from his visit (in disguise) to Mr. Trafford’s model factory (Bk. 3: ch. 8). Here, we are told, the true “baronial principle” has been revived in the practice of industrial feudalism to create an idyllic village where the moral and physical well-being of the whole population is the result of the proprietor’s paternal, loving concern. At the centre of this community, whose every detail has been designed to foster the “domestic virtues,” lies a “gothic church,” which “Mr. Trafford, though a Roman Catholic, had raised and endowed” (3: 8, 211-212). Significantly, it is to this church that Egremont pays a visit when Lord de Mowbray and his entourage suddenly arrive to inspect Trafford’s factory. The symbolism of the action is clear, for any other retirement would just as easily have preserved his incognito. But clearly Egremont wishes specifically to deny his association with the spirit of secular grandeur and with the unwarranted differentiation of rank embodied in the pretension, pride, and condescension of the de Mowbrays (3: 8, 213-15).

It is significant that Disraeli has Stephen Morley, the “godless Owenite” (Brantlinger 102) who had articulated the “Two Nations” theory, reject as “unnatural” the example of Trafford’s altruistic concern for his workers’ domestic virtue: “‘The domestic principle’ Morley says, ‘has fulfilled its purpose. The irresistible law of progress demands that another should be developed. . . .  In the present state of civilization and with the scientific means of happiness at our command, the notion of home should be obsolete. Home is a barbarous idea; the method of a rude age; home is isolation; therefore antisocial. What we want is Community’” (3: 9, 225).

Apart from the fact that Walter Gerard and his daughter, Sybil, both disagree with Morley, the reader is also guided by the narrator’s previous endorsement of Trafford’s views: he had, we are told, “imbibed” a “correct conception of the relations which should subsist between the employer and the employed” and, having “deeply . . . pondered” upon his possible influence, he “knew well that domestic virtues are dependent on the existence of a home” (3: 8, 210-11). The results of Trafford’s efforts speak for themselves; in his village there is cleanliness and order, crime and drunkenness are unknown, the people are well-clad and the “moral condition of the softer sex” has been “proportionately elevated” (3: 8, 212). Finally, Morley’s claim to the reader’s intellectual sympathies is completely destroyed in the last chapter of Book 3. Here Disraeli descends to comic pathos in using the affections of Sybil’s “Saxon” bloodhound, Harold, to indicate both Morley’s violent intentions and her fondness for the still-disguised Egremont. But in having the utopian, secular rationalist driven to attempted murder by his sexual jealousy, Disraeli is undermining all of the ideas, including that of the “Two Nations,” which that utilitarian frame of mind has produced. In effect, Morley’s materialist conception of human nature ignores the very aspects of it that Disraeli sees as fundamental to humanity’s morality and happiness.

The development of Disraeli’s religious allegory does not depend solely upon the overtly sincere emblematic elements of his romantic plot. It also comprises parodic elements, which in effect are illustrations of the antithetical, or Satanic, view of society. The most obvious of these parodies are the scenes in Wodgate (otherwise known as “Hell-house Yard”). There “Bishop” Hatton presides over a secular Hell in which all of the principles of Christian civilization have been inverted. Wodgate has no Church, no government, no magistrate, no schools; and the working population of this “most hideous burgh” exists amid “gutters of abomination” and “pools of filth,” in a state of complete degradation and “savage instinct.” Ironically, in Wodgate, “Labour reigns supreme,” for the manufacture of ironmongery is carried on in the form of a pre-industrial, mediaeval guild. And equally so, the masters form a “real aristocracy” which earns its privileges. As the very name of the town indicates, Disraeli intends here to illustrate the perverse consequences of such institutions when inspired by pagan rather than Christian values. This is also the function of the Satanic sacrament of marriage described by the young man, Tummas: the “Bishop,” he says, “‘sprinkled some salt over a grid-iron, read “Our Father” backwards, and wrote our name in a book’” (3: 4, 194). Equally obvious in its purpose is the statement of Tummas’s wife, Sue, as she describes their creed: “‘He believes now in our Lord and Saviour Pontius Pilate who was crucified to save our sins; and in Moses, Goliath, and the rest of the Apostles’” (Ibid.). Disraeli’s wit, it should be noted, is deadly serious, for embodied in the Dantesque, infernal scenes of grotesque physical deformities, horrifying punishments, and the incessantly compelled motion of the files is the central vision of life governed not by love and charity, but by fear and violence.

It was in retrospect that Disraeli himself described Tancred as the third novel of his political trilogy. The opening chapters, written in the fall of 1845, do re-establish the earlier novels’ “new generation” theme of heroic sensibility in the person of Tancred, Lord Montacute. And much of the first two books of Tancred consists of the same malicious satire of the beau monde, particularly its complacent and selfish materialism, its moral corruption, and its intellectual fatuity as were exposed in the early chapters of Coningsby and Sybil. Disraeli, it seems, intended to pursue the implications of the religious allegory embodied in Sybil by sending his eponymous hero to the Holy Land to gain divine sanction for the doctrine of “theocratic equality” as the basis for a renewed Judaic-Christian faith. Before that plot could be developed, however, the manuscript was set aside when a parliamentary crisis erupted over the repeal of the Corn Law. That crisis, which ended in a revolt within the Conservative Party and the defeat of Sir Robert Peel’s Ministry after the repeal Bill had been passed, was precipitated by Disraeli’s vitriolic attacks on Peel for what was seen as his betrayal of the Tory landed interest in changing his mind about free trade. But the same sharply dramatized issues of principle and expediency were also applied by Peel’s supporters to Disraeli for what was seen as his opportunistic and slanderous assaults on the Prime Minister’s character.

By the time Disraeli resumed work on Tancred in the fall of 1846, Young England had become congruent with his own identity and the focus of the novel had shifted somewhat to include the possibility of reconciling principled and expedient behaviour in political life. The romance accordingly embodies the relation between altruism and expediency through the relationship of the two protagonists, Tancred, who is the personification of English nobility, altruism and faith, and the Emir Fakredeen, a Prince of the Lebanon, portrayed as a completely egocentric, ambitious opportunist who lives in a swirl of schemes and lies designed to extract him from his crushing debts and to gain him political power over a unified Syrian kingdom. The imaginatively autobiographical nature of this novel is also reflected in the way Disraeli pursued the theme of reconciling the differences between the Judaic and Christian faiths. This is done through the relationships between the heroine, Eva Besso, the daughter of a Jewish banker, and the two protagonists. The dynamics of her relationship with Fakredeen (who was raised as her foster-brother) are in large measure modelled on those of Disraeli and his sister, and they reflect the same skepticism about his motives and behaviour. Tancred’s relationship to Eva is, by contrast, one of purest altruism, even if also tinged by erotic interest. In having Tancred and Eva sympathetically discuss the apparent differences of their respective religions, Disraeli’s intent, it is clear, is to remove the stigma attached to the Jews ostensibly on the authority of the Gospels, but which was in reality a largely secular prejudice in Victorian England, and one that threatened to block his hopes of ever advancing to the leadership of the Conservative Party.

The political theory expressed in Disraeli’s Young England novels derives in part from the works of Viscount Bolingbroke, but the application of that theory to the nineteenth century has much in common with the ideas of Thomas Carlyle, especially as embodied in Past and Present (1843). Disraeli’s emphasis upon the division between mechanical and organic theories of society, the rejection of materialism, the doctrine of noble hero worship, and the fear of unregulated human nature, are so obviously resonant with Carlyle’s ideas that critics have often surmised that Disraeli was borrowing directly from him. There is, however, no conclusive evidence that Disraeli had read Carlyle’s works. And, when one recognizes that all of the elements of this political theory had found expression in Disraeli’s poem, The Revolutionary Epick (1834) and in the Vindication of the English Constitution (1835) (i.e., considerably earlier than Carlyle’s major works), the most sensible conclusion would seem to be that such ideas were, as much as their antitheses, a part of the spirit of the age, which found its most forceful expression in Carlyle’s prose.

On the other hand, even before the publication of Coningsby, Carlyle had thought about the potential of Young England to be the much needed rallying point for social change of the kind he had advocated in Past and Present. A paragraph in his letter to Monckton Milnes, dated 17 March 1844, is quite explicit on the subject:

On the whole, if Young England would altogether fling its shovel-hat into the lumber-room, much more cast its purple stockings to the nettles; and honestly recognizing what was dead, and leaving the dead to bury that, address itself frankly to the magnificent but as yet chaotic and appalling Future, in the spirit of Past and Present; telling men at every turn that it knew and saw forever clearly the body of the Past to be dead (and even to be damnable if it pretended still to be alive, and go about in a galvanic State),— what achievements might not Young England perhaps manage for us! Whatsover was noble and manful among us, in terrible want of a rallying-point at present, might rally there, and march. But alas, alas!—

In a similar way, Friedrich Engels recognized the value of Young England, even as he, too, saw the folly of its ambivalent nature:

And I can, for the same reason, mention but casually the few members of the bourgeoisie who have shown themselves honourable exceptions. These are, on the one hand, the pronounced Radicals, who are almost Chartists, such as a few members of the House of Commons, the manufacturers Hindley of Ashton, and Fielden of Todmorden (Lancashire), and, on the other hand, the philanthropic Tories, who have recently constituted themselves “Young England,” among whom are the Members of Parliament, Disraeli, Borthwick, Ferrand, Lord John Manners, etc., Lord Ashley, too, is in sympathy with them. The hope of “Young England” is a restoration of the old “merry England” with its brilliant features and its romantic feudalism. This object is of course unattainable and ridiculous, a satire upon all historic development; but the good intention, the courage to resist the existing state of things and prevalent prejudices, and to recognize the vileness of our present condition, is worth something anyhow. (n. 85).[8]

Karl Marx and Engels also mentioned Young England in much the same vein in The Communist Manifesto, as an example of “feudal Socialism”: “half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history” (III. I. a.).

The literary dimension of Young England, it should be noted, also had a minor strain in Lord John Manners’ poems, published in 1841 as England’s Trust, and in his pamphlet, “A Plea for National Holy Days” (1843), as well as in George Smythe’s miscellany of poetry and prose, Historic Fancies (1844). To some observers, however, the movement’s back-to-the-future interest in romantic mediaevalism was risible. For example, Robert Browning had fun mocking the fashion with the description of the young Duke’s feudalistic obsessions in his poem, “The Flight of the Duchess” (Bells and Pomegranates, No. VII, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, 1845). And in his courtship correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett, Browning commented sarcastically on the ideas of Young England: “The cant is that ‘an age of transition’ is the melancholy thing to contemplate and delineate—whereas the worst things of all to look back on are times of comparative standing still, rounded in their impotent completeness. So the Young England imbeciles hold that ‘belief’ is the admirable point—in what, they judge comparatively immaterial!” (Letters 1: 51-52).

As might be expected, on numerous occasions Punch made fun of Young England. For example, under the heading “Juvenile Delinquency,” for the 15th of May in the calendar for 1844, it announced “‘Young England’ publishes its ‘Coningsby’,” and then in October of the same year it included in the “Bubbles of the Year” an unflattering cartoon illustrating “Young England’s Soiree” at the Manchester Athenaeum (8: 1845 [5], [10]).[9] Punch often personified Young England simply as Disraeli, and in doing so there was often a streak of anti-Semitism in the squibs and cartoons. See, for example, the “Cartoon for the Merchant Tailors,” with a supposedly witty poem, subtitled, “Moses and Son Attiring Young England” (6: 1844, 261);[10] “The Ioways—‘The Lost Tribe’—and Young England” (7: 1844, 95); and “Ben Sidonia Smoking the Calumet with the Ioways” (7: 1844, 100).

William Makepeace Thackeray also indulged in parody of Young England with “Jeames’s Diary,” which includes a poem entitled “Upon my Sister’s Portrait” by “the Lord Southdown” and Jeames’s comment upon it: “All Young Hengland, I’m told, considers the poim bewtifle. They’re always writing about battleaxis and shivvlery, these young chaps” (10: 10 Jan. 1846, 30).[11] And even Monckton Milnes (who himself hovered on the fringes of Young England—anxious to share the fame and notoriety, but never quite finding the acceptance he sought) could not in the end resist the temptation of mockery. In his lampoon, “Lines to a Judge” by “a culprit actuated with Young England sentiments,” he brilliantly caught the absurdity that seemed to characterize some of the Young Englanders’ enthusiasms:

“Oh! flog me at the old cart’s tail.
I surely should enjoy
That fine old English punishment
I witnessed when a boy!
I should not heed the mocking crowd
I should not feel the pain
If one old English custom
Could be brought back again!”
(qtd. in Whibley I: 171)

Most historians of the period have focused upon the nostalgic paternalism of Young England’s cherished notions about the Church, the aristocracy, the people, and the condition of England in the 1840s. It is clear that Disraeli was genuinely attracted by the purity of Young England’s motives and ideals, perhaps best exemplified by Lord John Manners’ generous nobility. Theirs was a friendship that endured, for Manners served in the Cabinets of both of Disraeli’s Ministries, in 1868 and again from 1874-1880. But it is clear now that Disraeli was also thinking of the group’s potential as the tail that could wag the dog. In that regard, when in 1846 (after Sir Robert Peel’s conversion to Free Trade and the repeal of the Corn Laws), the Ultra-Tories took their revenge on Peel for “betraying” their Party, Disraeli was gratified to report from the Carlton Club that Peel’s Ministry had resigned: “All ‘Coningsby’ & ‘Young England’ the general exclamation here.  Everyone says they were fairly written down” (To Mary Anne Disraeli (#1499), 29 June 1846, Letters 4: 236). That is something of a simplification, but never before or since have novels been given credit for defeating a British Government.

Robert O’Kell is Professor Emeritus of the Department of English, Film & Theatre, and Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Arts, at the University of Manitoba. His recent book, Disraeli: The Romance of Politics (University of Toronto Press), appeared in 2013 and was re-issued in paperback in 2014. He is currently at work on a study of Victorian political rhetoric.


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[1] “Address to the Electors of Wycombe” (#215), 1 Oct. 1832, Benjamin Disraeli Letters 1: 303-05. Cf. “‘What Is He?’” (1833), reprinted in William Hutcheon, Whigs and Whiggism 20-22.

[2] For Disraeli’s harsh rhetoric on this occasion, see Hansard, 3rd Series. Vol. 71, 9 August 1843, col. 430-8.

[3] See, for example, the discussion of the 1842 memorandum that Disraeli wrote to Louis Philippe, King of France, in Robert O’Kell, Disraeli: The Romance of Politics 208-11.

[4] See also “Birmingham Athenic Institution” and the “Editorial Comment—Abridged from the Birmingham Journal,” in The Times 4 Sept. 1844, 5.

[5] Cf. The Times 5 Oct. 1844, 6. It is necessary to use caution in citing quotations in Whibley, for he sometimes conflates phrases and sentences, and he occasionally appropriates metaphors from other speakers to enhance the point at issue.

[6] Smythe to Disraeli, 2 Jul. 1852, Disraeli Papers (Bodleian Library), B/XXI/S/652. Cf. an earlier letter, which gives an indication of how Smythe’s thoughts were particularly focused on Disraeli’s leadership on the occasion of the speech at Manchester: “I . . .  never shall forget how you found me low abused in my own esteem and that of others, morbidly debating my own powers, and how you made a man of me and set me on my legs at Manchester, and have ever been to me the kindliest and gentlest of councilors” (Smythe to Disraeli, 16 Jan. 1846 (erroneously dated 16 December), Disraeli Papers B/XXI/S/650).

[7] Hansard, 3rd Series, Vol. 79, 11 Apr. 1845, 555-9.

[8] In the same note, Engels pays tribute to Carlyle’s critique of the condition of England: “Wholly isolated is the half-German Englishman, Thomas Carlyle, who, originally a Tory, goes beyond all those hitherto mentioned. He has sounded the social disorder more deeply than any other English bourgeois, and demands the organisation of labour.”

[9] Later in the same volume, Punch included an illustration and satirical poem, “Young England’s Lament,” which mocked Disraeli’s disappointment at not finding preferment in Sir Robert Peel’s Government. See Punch, 6: (1844): 127.


The novel of Coningsby clearly discloses
The pride of the world are the children of MOSES
Mosaic, the bankers—the soldiers, the sailors,
The statesmen – and so, by-the-by are the tailors.
Mosaic, the gold – that’s worthless and hollow;
Mosaic, the people – the bailiffs that follow.
The new generation – the party that claim
To take to themselves of Young England the name;
In spite of their waistcoats much whiter than snow,
It seems after all are the tribe of Old Clo!
Then where in the world can Young England repair
To purchase the garments it wishes to wear —
Unless to that mart whose success but discloses
The folly of man, and the cunning of MOSES.
(Punch, 6, 1844, 261)

[11] The melodramatic conclusion of Thackeray’s satiric poem is as follows:

Dash down, dash down, yon Mandolin, beloved sister mine!
Those blushing lips may never sing the glories of our line:
Our ancient castles echo to the clumsy feet of churls,
The spinning Jenny houses in the mansion of our Earls,
Sing not, sing not, my Angeline! In days so base and vile,
’Twere sinful to be happy, ’twere sacrilege to smile.