What is the role of the left in times of political crisis? Reading George Eliot after Brexit

Felix Holt may not have as many fans as Middlemarch, but on its 150th anniversary, and as the political establishment dissolves around us, Kathryn Hughes finds new relevance in a depiction of a society turned upside down

I don’t know exactly when I first read Felix Holt, the Radical, but it can’t have been with much anticipation of pleasure. Perhaps I just wanted to show off about having ploughed through George Eliot’s fifth novel, the one that no one likes. Received opinion is that Felix Holt has none of the bucolic charm of Eliot’s early work (Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner) and none of the powerful complexity of the later (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda). Known as Eliot’s “political book”, it remains an awkward middle child, written when the novelist appeared to have taken her eye off the ball. Indeed, if Eliot had died in the early summer of 1866, just as Felix Holt emerged into print, she would be remembered today as a provincial novelist, important for providing a bridge between the Yorkshire gothic of the Brontës in the 1840s and Thomas Hardy’s great Wessex threnodies of the century’s end.

But what a difference context makes. For Felix Holt’s 150th anniversary happens to fall at the very moment when Britain is scrambling to deal with political Armageddon. Set in the months following the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the novel asks uncomfortable questions about the wisdom of putting the nation’s fate in the hands of people who believe their interests lie far from your own. Put simply: can democracy be relied upon to get the answer right? And, if the answer is no, then what does that reveal about the deep chasm that divides one part of society from another? Eliot wouldn’t have known the phrase “haves and have-nots” but she would have grasped what it meant, and she already knew why it mattered.

Campaigners Brexit  Hyde Park London
Campaigners for both sides of the Brexit debate in Hyde Park, London, June 2016. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Felix Holt is set in Treby Magna, a Midlands market town where social and political life has recently been turned upside down. An election is due, but the old tribal alliances have buckled under the fallout from the new post-reform voting arrangements. Harold Transome, a member of the Tory-supporting squirearchy, is standing as a radical candidate because he thinks the only way of maintaining his privilege is to appeal over the heads of the upstart middle-classes to the workers.

Meanwhile Felix Holt, a man from an artisanal background whom you might assume to be a radical, is actually a social conservative. Sceptical about the power of politics to deliver a more equitable society, Holt is convinced that the only way for working men to get a full stake in running the country is by reforming themselves through education and sober living. Whether the point of such strenuous self-improvement is to make the proletariat worthy of the vote or indifferent to it remains one of the great puzzles of this deeply puzzling book.

What is beyond doubt, though, is how out-of-joint this new political landscape feels. Political life in Treby Magna, once so slack and complacent, now crackles like a sinister carnival. Demagogues hang around pubs trying to win support with rhetoric about taking back power from the elites, despite knowing it will never happen. Silky political agents do deals behind closed doors, determined that their man will win and damn the consequences for anyone else. Meanwhile there’s a grassroots anger building in the background that explodes on election day into a violent riot in which a policeman is killed.

Eliot wrote, as she always did, about what she knew. As a young girl she had watched from her schoolroom window as Nuneaton, the model for Treby Magna, disintegrated into chaos during the election of December 1832, when supporters of the opposing radical and Tory candidates took to the streets. The Riot Act was read, the militia scrambled, and a man was killed – events that went straight into Felix Holt. There had even been an attack of suspected arson on young Eliot’s own family home, an angry response perhaps to her land agent father’s activities as political enforcer for the local grandees, the true blue Newdigates of Arbury Hall.

statue George Eliot Nuneaton match day
A statue of George Eliot in Nuneaton on match day. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Despite this first hand knowledge, though, you do sense a certain fuzziness in the details Eliot paints of political life. When I first read the novel I could never work out why the political movers and shakers pay so much attention to the labouring classes. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was carefully designed to give the vote to a handful of urban property holders rather than to the miners whom Eliot depicts hanging around the Sugar Loaf pub waiting for the election agent to woo them with free drink. It was only on a subsequent reading that the penny dropped. Felix Holt isn’t about 1832 at all. Like any historical novel, it’s actually about the present – in this case 1866.

As Eliot was working on her manuscript during the first part of that year, the second reform bill was lurching through parliament. While the 1832 act had increased the electorate very modestly, the new measure of reform would double the numbers allowed to vote. This new electorate would be drawn from the urban artisanal classes who, the hope was, were now sufficiently embourgeoised to know that their best interests lay in voting with their betters. And yet you could never be quite certain, which is what made the bill “a leap in the dark”, to use the phrase of the frankly terrified Tory prime minister, Lord Derby. Britain might emerge from this great gamble fit and ready for the new age of mass politics, or it might sink completely as home grown barbarians overran all that was civilised and rational in public life.

Eliot may have been a member of the metropolitan progressive elite, but her roots – which is to say her strongest hopes and deepest terrors – remained wrapped in her memories of what she had witnessed in 1832. The Great Reform Act had always been intended as a one-off adjustment to new social realities, a bulwark against further political reform. Yet now, just 35 years later, here was the nation once more in danger of being swamped by an electorate that appeared to be swayed by passion rather than rational debate. There had been huge, bad-tempered gatherings in Glasgow and Manchester which would culminate in July 1866 in the Hyde Park riots, during which every railing was torn up and the police pelted with missiles.

Her response to this terrifying uncertainty was to attempt to write a new kind of politics into being. In an exercise in wish fulfilment, she makes her hero into the sort of working class radical about whom it was possible for even the most jittery of middle class householders to feel safe. Felix, it turns out, doesn’t want the vote, not for himself and certainly not for the miners of Sproxton, the industrial village outside Treby Magna which is a hotbed of politicised bad behaviour. According to the young man’s trenchant analysis, the “extension of suffrage … can never mean anything for [working men] but extension of boozing”.

So what does Felix want? Like all oppositional politicians he is a bit vague on the details. He’s clear that he intends “the working men to have power” and he plans to fight “against privilege, monopoly, and oppression”. But instead of doing this the obvious way, through the ballot box, he intends to operate at a level “a good deal lower down than the franchise”. This sounds alarming – does the powerfully built young man mean he intends to resort to the kind of direct action that involves burning hay ricks and smashing machines? Thankfully not. What Felix has in mind is a programme of moral and social reformation by which the working class will cease to hanker after social and material advancement and become instead a kind of moral yeast, capable of transforming society simply by being, to use the parlance of the day, “respectable”.

To make this all a bit more comprehensible, Felix offers himself as a model of this new, transformed working class political subject. Despite having studied medicine at Glasgow University and worked as an apothecary, Felix is adamant that he has no interest in scrambling up the social ladder for “the sake of two parlours, a rank eligible for the church-wardenship [and] a discontented wife”. Instead he will stick to mending watches, a skill that involves close, patient attention to ensure that all the cogs and wheels in an intricate ecosystem work together.

That’s not all. Felix envisages running a night school and continuing to mentor local children whose parents are not up to the job. His aim, then, is to “try to make life less bitter for a few within my reach” even if it means that his good works “will never be known beyond a few garrets and workshops”. It’s at this point that Felix Holt starts to sound an awful lot like Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Eliot’s next novel, the incomparable Middlemarch.

This would all be preposterous enough, were it not for the fairytale romance that Eliot proceeds to graft on to this piece of political pabulum. For Felix falls in love with Esther Lyon, a dissenting minister’s daughter who has likewise renounced material and social advancement by refusing to take up her rightful place as heir to the magnificent Transome Court. Clearly we are now in the realm of the cross-class marriage plot of the kind that every Victorian novelist from Mrs Gaskell to Charles Dickens was obliged to resort to in an attempt to offer a healing resolution to the problems of a fractured society.

But then, just when we might be about to spin off into a daydream about the possibilities of mending our own broken polity with a well-timed marriage – Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn walking up the aisle? – we are brought up sharp. For Eliot, as so often turns out to be the case, is actually closer to the truth that we could have guessed. It turned out that doubling the electorate in 1867 required the political parties to spend far more time and money on securing votes than ever before. Rhetoric coarsened as the stakes rose, wild and impossible promises were made and there was more drunkenness at the ballot box than anyone could remember, even the great boozy days of 1832.

What’s more, the outcome of the agitations of 1866 was not only wholly unintended, it was disastrous for pretty much everyone. In the first parliament constituted under the new rules there was an increase rather than a decline of upper class men at Westminster. Politics had become a rich man’s game, and several middle class MPs were forced to drop out. Meanwhile the new voting arrangements had brought both major parties to a state of dissolution. The 1866 bill, originally sponsored by the Liberals, split the party bitterly, forcing a resignation after 10 years in power. The Conservative opposition fared no better. Despite adopting the bill as a cynical way of forging links with working class voters, the party found itself immediately booted out of government. Politics in this new age was revealing itself as an even dirtier, trickier business than before. Felix Holt had been right all along. For all the sound and fury at surface level, it was becoming clear that it was “a good deal lower down, at grassroots level, that things really needed to change.


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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