Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 48 (2017)
While Felix Halt the Radical was being written there was a transformation in the atmosphere surrounding further parliamentary reform in Britain. In March 1865, when George Eliot began the novel, the Liberal Prime Minister Palmerston remained cautious about an extension of the franchise. Yet Felix Holt was finished on 31 May 1866 amidst great political excitement: a Reform Bill was being debated and the outcome uncertain. This change in emphasis in the political mood had its effect on Eliot 's writing, since the 'reform campaign had not gained enough momentum' I to explain Eliot's initial choice of subject. To say in early 1865 that Britain was 'on the brink of parliamentary reform' is to be wise after the event,2 It was not impending Reform legislation but philosophical discussion about who should possess the right - or privilege - to vote that initially inspired Eliot's theme. Considerable attention was given to debating the nature of radicalism and democracy in the early 1860s. Eliot's increasing connections with Radical political circles and heightened awareness of international events impinged directly on her writing.
A renewed friendship with Clementina (Mentia) Taylor was a significant development in Eliot's political thinking. Mentia and her husband Peter Alfred Taylor (Pat) belonged to a different generation of Radicals from those campaigning around 1832 and their fictional equivalents, Felix Holt and Harold Transome. The Taylors showed greater interest in Radical causes abroad and supported women's suffrage at home. At the time of the General Election in July 1865 Eliot wrote supportively to Mentia regarding her husband's re-election as M.P. for Leicester: 'Success to the canvassing! I should have liked to be present when you were cheered'.) Felix's high moral tone, his refusal to carry on a family business he regarded as dishonest as well as his reluctance to take a lost note back to landowner Philip Debarry directly, for fear of a largely undeserved reward, were reminiscent of Pat Taylor. He refused to help any local Leicester charities as this might be regarded as buying votes.4 What a contrast to the corrupt mood of 1832 when Leicester seats were known to be sold for £1 or £2.5 His moral earnestness can bear comparison with Felix's.