Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 17 (1986)
This article is an examination of some political aspects of George Eliot's Felix Holt.
The very first Iine of the first chapter of the novel makes it clear that the action takes place in 1832. This was the year of the Reform Act - the year too of the first general election to be held under the provisions of that Act. When she began writing her book in 1865-66 George Eliot did some painstaking research into the happenings and into the electoral practices of the 1832 election. (See her oft-quoted Journal and the Quarry usefully abstracted in the Clarendon edition of Felix Holt.)
In doing so she was in fact refreshing her own recollections of the period. Not only had she, as a schoolgirl, witnessed the agitation of the 1832 election in a Midland town, but she must also have known her father carry out political work for his employers in his capacity as a land agent. Furthermore, before she left the Midlands she lived through four more general elections there - in 1835, 1837, 1841 and 1847 - plus a contested by-election at Coventry in 1833. Her personal experience and careful research give the novel real authenticity when she covers post-Reform Act electoral practice. But Felix Holt is not, of course, intended to be a descriptive political novel. As George Eliot herself says in Chapter 3, " this history is chiefly concerned with the private lot of a few men and women .... " (p.45). Thus she tells us of electoral qualifications and registration practice (e. g. pp 112 and 227-28). There is a full description of Nomination Day (pp. 242-45) and Polling Day (pp. 253- 59), with a riot to follow (PP. 264-72). But strangely enough, the Declaration of the Poll, that culminating stage of an election, is not described. We are simply told that Harold Transome "had lost the election…. and…. paid eight or nine thousand (pounds)" (p.277).
The election of the novel takes place in the town of "Treby Magna", a polling place, in the fictional constituency of "North Loamshire" and ends with a riot in which the eponymous hero is implicated. J. W. Cross, George Eliot's husband and first biographer, tells us that she saw such a riot as a schoolgirl in 1832 "at Nuneaton on the occasions of the election for North Warwickshire"; and practically every subsequent biographer has accepted this identification of Nuneaton as the venue of the Felix Holt riot. Only two or three historians with special local interest have suggested otherwise. Bertram A. Windle wrote in A School History of Warwickshire (1906):
" the election riot which is described in (Felix Holt) is reminiscent of an actual riot which took place in Coventry in 1832 and of which the novelist was an eye-witness."
M. Jourdain wrote in Memorials of Old Warwickshire (1908):
"The Treby Magna of the novel is the 'city of the three tall spires' (i.e. Coventry)".
The suggestion that the riot in Felix Holt could have been somewhere other than Nuneaton is feasible because the riot at Nuneaton was not just an isolated occurrence. The Coventry and the Warwickshire newspapers report a surprising number of electoral riots in December 1832. In all of them broken limbs, smashed windows, pubic disorder, even deaths occurred; and troops often had to be called in to restore order. Riots were reported at Stamford (“a serious riot"); Warwick (“a desperate affray”); Wolverhampton (“lithe most brutal outrages”); Walsall ("disgraceful proceedings"); Sheffield (“five persons shot by the military”); Coventry ("ferocious and systematic violence”); Nuneaton (“peace disturbed by a set of miscreants"); and elsewhere.