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BENJAMIN Disraeli is best remembered for his politics. But it is as a writer that he features in these pages - he was one of a wide band of authors of both factual and fictional work who took Manchester as their subject and focused the world's attention on what was happening in the Northern textile towns.

"THE best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it."
- Disraeli.
Manchester loomed large in Disraeli's mind even before he visited the city for the first time, in October 1843, when he spoke at the Athenaeum from the same platform as Charles Dickens and Richard Cobden.

He had an ambivalent attitude towards the city, admiring its greatness in his political speeches but attacking the social problems caused by that greatness in his novels. Coningsby published in 1844, features a humanitarian millowner whose enlightened ideas serve only to throw into relief the attitudes of so many of his contemporaries.

However, even in Coningsby Disraeli cannot hide his respect for the city. He has one of his characters say: "Rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens."

Sybil, published a year later, contains overtones of Dr Kay and Friedrich Engels in its description of a working-class area of a Northern town that can only be Manchester:

"An infinite population kept swarming to and fro from the closed courts and pestilential cul-de-sacs that continually communicated with the streets by narrow archways, like the entrances of hives, so low that you were obliged to stoop for admission; while, ascending to these same streets from their dank and dismal dwellings by narrow flights of steps, the subterranean nation of the cellars poured forth to enjoy the coolness of the summer night..."

In Sybil, Disraeli touches on many aspects of life in the Northern milltowns, from the dosing of babies with laudanum to keep them drugged and quiet at home while their mothers worked, to the plight of the handloom weavers and the ever-present threat of social unrest.

However, like others before and since, he is at a loss to suggest a realistic cure for Manchester's ills, proposing - like several of his contemporaries - that the answer might somehow lie in a return to religion.