'Picturesque Emotion' or 'Great Asian Mystery'?

Disraeli's Tancred as an Ironic Bildungsroman

in Critical Survey

How we interpret a novel is inseparable from what kind of novel we take it to be, from what genre we assume it belongs to. As Peter Rabinowitz remarks in Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, ‘[…] what we attend to in a text is […] influenced by the other works in our minds against which we read it. Particular details stand out as surprising, significant, climactic, or strange in part because they are seen in the context of a particular intertextual grid – a particular set of other works of art.’ The truth of this axiom is strikingly illustrated by the critical history of what is possibly the most persistently misinterpreted novel in English literature, Benjamin Disraeli’s Tancred, or the New Crusade (1847). It has been read almost exclusively against an ‘intertextual grid’ consisting of both Disraeli’s earlier novels, especially Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845), and what the contemporary reviewer of the novel in The Times called ‘fiction “with a purpose”’. What the reviewer particularly had in mind was a specific type of novel which Disraeli himself had a hand in creating and which later came to be known, variously, as the condition-of-England novel (a phrase borrowed from Carlyle), the social-problem novel, the industrial novel, or simply as a political novel or a roman à thèse.