Professor Gordon S. Haight and ge’s conservatism



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George Eliot and conservatism. Part One

Bob Muscutt



Professor Gordon S. Haight and GE’s conservatism

In what is still the most authoritative biography of George Eliot, Gordon Haight states:

Her (George Eliot’s) family would have been surprised to know how thoroughly conservative Marian had become. The revolutionary sentiments of those years in the Strand were gone forever.



(Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot, a Biography Oxford 1968; Haight) p.395

His statement, made in relation to 1864, about a year before GE began what is often seen as her most explicitly political novel, Felix Holt the Radical, still enjoys a broad consensus amongst many GE scholars and enthusiasts. Although academic opinion is not unanimous, I am not aware of a specific refutation based on the evidence Haight himself provided, which is what I am now attempting.

As Brenda McKay has shown in her comprehensive study George Eliot and Victorian Attitudes to Racial Diversity, Colonialism, Darwinism, Class, Gender, and Jewish Culture (Studies in British Literature Vol. 78), George Eliot’s attitudes to many of the broad major issues of her times were progressive rather than conservative. However, I would like to focus specifically on Haight’s sweeping statement and the justification he offers for it.

In support of his definitive-sounding judgement, Haight refers to GE’s refusal to donate to the Mazzini fund when asked to do so by Mrs Peter Taylor, quoting the letter (dated 1st August 1865) to convey the impression that GE had sympathy for Garibaldi but not for Mazzini. Haight writes:

When Mrs Peter Taylor asked her to contribute to the Mazzini fund, she firmly refused, explaining that, though she would gladly give for Mazzini’s personal use, she feared this fund would ultimately be used to promote conspiracy, perhaps, “acts more unsocial in their character than the very wrong they are directed to extinguish.” Garibaldi, of course, was a respectable revolutionist, approved by the British government.

(Haight, p. 395)

I would contend that this is a misrepresentation both of the content of GE’s letter and also due to the implied political contrast of Garibaldi and Mazzini. It is worth quoting in full that letter, in which she explains her position in a matter-of-fact, direct and convincing way:

I received yesterday the circular about the Mazzini fund. Mr Lewes and I would have liked to subscribe to a tribute to Mazzini, or to a fund for his use, of which the application was defined and guaranteed by his own word. As it is, the application of the desired fund is only intimated in the vaguest manner by the Florentine committee. The reflection is inevitable, that the application may ultimately be the promotion of conspiracy, the precise character of which is necessarily unknown to subscribers.

Now, though I believe there are cases in which conspiracy may be a sacred necessary struggle against organized wrong, there are cases in which it is hopeless and can produce nothing but misery; or needless, because it is not the best means attainable of reaching the desired end; or unjustifiable, because it resorts to acts which are more unsocial in their character than the very wrong they are directed to extinguish; and in these three supposable cases it seems to me that it would be a social crime to further conspiracy even by the impulse of a little finger, to which one may compare a small money subscription.

I think many persons to whom the circular might be sent would take something like this view, and would grieve, as we do, that a proposition intended to honour Mazzini should come in a form to which they cannot conscientiously subscribe.

I trouble you and Mr Taylor with this explanation, because both Mr Lewes and I have a real reverence for Mazzini, and could not therefore be content to give a silent negative.

(The George Eliot Letters in 9 Volumes, YUP 1955 and 1978, Vol. 4 pp. 199 – 200: Letters)

When read as a whole, the letter contains nothing whatsoever to support Haight’s allegation that GE had become conservative. On the contrary, her reasons for not making a donation are perfectly sensible, and are explicitly not based on reservations about Mazzini and what he represented politically. She does not say she would give money for Mazzini’s personal use; she says she would gladly give to a fund of which the application was defined and guaranteed by his own word. She does not say she feared this fund would ultimately be used to promote conspiracy; she says the application (of the donations) may ultimately be the promotion of conspiracy, the precise character of which is necessarily unknown to subscribers (my emphasis). She expressly points out that she is not opposed to “conspiracy” in principle - by conspiracy I think she means extra-parliamentary agitation. What she is in effect saying is I’m not donating money unless I know what it is going to be used for. That point of view implies neither a conservative nor a liberal political standpoint. The letter, therefore, shows that for GE there was no polarity with Garibaldi at the extreme of acceptable respectability and Mazzini at the opposite extreme of unacceptable militancy, as Haight tries to imply. Incidentally, GE’s letter also shows how hard she thought about any donations she made, which upgrades their significance when she did give money for causes with which she sympathized. These included her sustained financial support for the Positivists, arguably the most left of centre group in London, apart from the International Working Men’s Association, led by Karl Marx. This is especially worth mentioning because it is common for GE scholars to try to trivialize the importance and belittle amount of money she donated to causes that were definitely not conservative.

In the Index of his magnificent nine volume edition of the GE letters, Haight includes under “Eliot” a subheading “Conservative”, which provides 14 references which he apparently believes lend weight to his contention that GE became conservative. It is significant, however, that he makes no reference in this Index entry to the letter to Mrs Peter Taylor, which in his biography, albeit in amputated form, is the main support for his argument. As we see, in its entirety, the letter provides no such support.

In addition, the Letters includes a footnote attached to the letter in question, quoting an acquaintance of the Leweses, Lord Acton, John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron. In this footnote, Haight writes; “Lord Acton cites GE’s tolerance of Mazzini as “a grave delinquency ... a criminal matter.” (Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone ed. Herbert Paul, New York, 1904, p. 236)” Again, Haight makes no mention of this in his biography, perhaps because it would weaken his case for GE’s conservatism. Acton serves as a good example of how careful we have to be with the use of terms like conservative. It is probably impossible now to find out what Haight meant by conservative, but we can avoid using such terms from a modern perspective. Lord Acton gave unqualified support to the South in the American Civil War, which we might assume marked him as conservative. In fact, in party politics he was a Liberal. In the political spectrum of the time, Acton perceived himself and was perceived by others not as conservative, but liberal, and GE’s support for both Garibaldi and Mazzini, show that she was to the “left” of Acton on this issue; i. e. she felt a sympathy for Mazzini which Acton regarded as “a grave delinquency” and a “criminal matter”. Attitudes to the American Civil War were extremely complex, but what we today would call the organized Left, from George Odger (1813 – 1877) and the new trade unionists via the Positivists to Marx, sided with the North, as they saw slavery as the main issue. Though we have no explicit statement from GE on the Civil War, we can safely assume that Brenda McKay is correct when she writes: George Eliot can be numbered among the more liberal intellectuals who did not share the sympathies of the English conservative press with Southerners in the States. (George Eliot and Victorian Attitudes p. 107. A further example of the complexity of attitudes to the American Civil War is provided by Haight himself, when he writes that Anthony Trollope’s sympathies with the South were so strong that he resigned from the editorship of the Cornhill Magazine in protest when its owner, George Smith, bought the rights to a Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, even though it had nothing to do with slavery (Biography p.355 – 356). Trollope was not prepared to work for a magazine that wanted to publish the work of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, no matter what the content of that work was. Now, that is indicative of a conservative attitude! But when in 1868 Trollope, after his retirement from the Civil Service, decided to go into politics, it was as a Liberal candidate in the infamous Beverley constituency. Possibly due to wholesale bribery and his unwillingness to spend money on his campaign, Trollope was not elected. In fact he got the worst result of all candidates, Conservatives winning both seats. Furthermore, Trollope was also one of the founders in 1865 of the distinctly liberal Fortnightly Review. My point is that if a man with Trollope’s views on slavery could still call himself and in many ways behave like a Liberal and then how far away was GE from deserving the label of “thoroughly conservative”?

To return to Haight’s use of the Garibaldi-Mazzini polarization, his too easy characterisation of Garibaldi as a “respectable revolutionist” is in itself misleading, and the disarming of course (see quotation above) presumes agreement with Haight’s image of Garibaldi which does not stand up to critical examination.

Haight goes on to mention that the Leweses attended the Crystal Palace event on 18th April 1864, at which “the “working classes” presented their deputation to him (Garibaldi)”. It is difficult to understand why Haight uses inverted commas around working classes. The Crystal Palace event, attended by about 25,000 people, was called “the people’s reception”, and trade unionists were given the opportunity to pay their own tribute to Garibaldi. It is true that Garibaldi was lionized by some members of the British government and even of the aristocracy. It is, however, also almost certainly true that he was suddenly forced to cut short his visit to England because his presence was an embarrassment to the Liberal Gladstone government, mainly because of his vocal support for Poland’s independence, another cause which clearly identified him with the Left, as well as the time he spent with Italians in political exile in London. His early departure caused outrage especially amongst trade unionists, who organized “indignation” meetings, the most famous, spontaneous one at Primrose Hill in late April, 1864, which was dispersed by the police in a “very summary manner”, as a Member of Parliament euphemistically put it.

By the way, Garibaldi was the favourite hero of the Marx daughter Eleanor (Karl Marx, a Biography, Progress Publishers Moscow, 1973 p. 558), something which hardly adds to any image of respectability. He allied himself with progressive causes till the end of his life, founding in 1879 the League of Democracy, which advocated universal suffrage, the emancipation of women, and the abolition of ecclesiastical property. Mazzini was a committed Republican, whereas Garibaldi was willing to accept the unification of Italy under a monarchy, but they were good friends and allies. During his exile in London, Mazzini was an opponent of Marx in the early days of the International Working Men’s Association, which shows the limits of his radicalism. In any case, Haight’s attempt to use a one-sided preference for Garibaldi on the part of GE to convince us that this showed she had become “thoroughly conservative” is clearly false.

As if to nip in the bud any possible inference of non-conservatism which GE’s attendance of the Crystal Palace Garibaldi rally might arouse, Haight adds incongruously, even clumsily: “But the author of Felix Holt obviously did not consider the ballot a panacea for political ills – “as if Bribery in all its Protean forms could ever disappear by means of a single external arrangement.” This is another attempt to cast GE in the role of conservative. Again, the use of “obviously” to secure the reader’s reflexive agreement is noticeable. This quotation (as if bribery .... external arrangement) is taken from a letter GE wrote to Charles Bray in December 1868, more than four and a half years after her visit to Crystal Palace. Its relevance to that event is, to say the least, strained, from the perspective of both time and topic. Apart from the forced connection, there is nothing intrinsically conservative about GE’s opinion on the illusion that the ballot would at a stroke get rid of bribery. In the days when her father’s duties as Newdigate’s estate manager included ensuring that the tenant farmers on the Newdigate estate voted for the Conservative candidate, pressure on individuals, be it by means of reward or intimidation, was an effective and widespread means of securing votes. Then, of course, the visible show of hands at the hustings was a necessary condition for this simple form of corruption. The introduction of the secret ballot in the election 1874, as well as the already increased number of voters since the electoral reform of 1866, made securing votes by individual coercion or bribery almost obsolete, but other forms of bribery had by no means become impossible. In other words, GE’s comment that the ballot wouldn’t cure all ills was based simply on common sense, and has nothing to do with a political persuasion of any kind. In fact, to allege that institutional corruption is an intrinsic feature of parliamentary democracy is something we associate more with the Left than with conservatism.

In the 1860s, opposition to the introduction of the secret ballot per se could not, therefore, be seen as a benchmark of conservatism. It was in fact opposed by some whose liberalism is generally regarded as beyond question. Harriet Taylor, for example, the campaigner for women’s suffrage and, at first, close friend then wife of John Stuart Mill, was an opponent of the secret ballot. Even more significant is the fact that J. S, Mill himself, the icon of Victorian liberalism, was an opponent of the secret ballot, which, from a radical perspective, was his real betrayal (John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand by Richard Reeves, Atlantic Books, London 2007 p. 315) of those who elected him. He was, after all, elected as a Radical candidate and with the support of prominent liberals, most of whom demanded the ballot. In his Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform he wrote: “Thirty years ago the main evil to be guarded against was that which the ballot would exclude – coercion by landlords, employers, and customers. At present a much greater source of evil is the selfishness, or the selfish partialities of the voter himself.” (Quoted in Reeves p. 315). This was written in 1859, and he continued his opposition as a Radical Member of Parliament 1865 – 68. It is ironic that Mill lost his seat in Parliament in the first election after the electoral reform, carried through by Disraeli’s Conservative government, which had doubled the number of voters. Judging Mill’s record in parliament, his recent biographer writes that his views “were more Tory than Radical” (Reeves p. 314). It may surprise some readers that Mill even opposed the principle of “one man one vote”, one of the six Chartist demands, and stated categorically that “one person is not as good as another”. (Reeves p. 314). Reeves tells us that Mill “suggested a weighted voting system, in which lawyers and vicars, for example, would get six votes for every one granted to an “unskilled labourer.”” Mill topped that by voting against his own party and with the inveterately anti-reform Adullamites, led by Robert Lowe, on the issue of allowing some voters more than one vote. (Reeves p. 390).

We could add that Mill did not support universal male suffrage, which, along with the ballot, was the other demand of the Reform League. Reeves writes:

Mill urged in Representative Government a second defensive wall against the ignorant masses; an educational qualification for voters; I regard it as wholly inadmissible that any person should participate in the suffrage without being able to read and write, and, I will add, perform the common operations of arithmetic. ... He also insisted there should be no representation without taxation. ... And anyone who had received poor relief in the previous five years should also be disenfranchised.

(Reeeves, p. 313)

In addition, he opposed the payment of MPs, another Chartist demand. The Chartists had seen the payment of MPs as a necessary condition to make it possible for working men, and not just men of independent means or those representing wealthy backers, to become members of parliament. Mill opposed it on the grounds that it would attract “a low class of adventurers” to stand for parliament. (Reeves, p. 317). Of course, Mill did, to his liberal credit, make a gesture of great significance by proposing an amendment to the Reform Bill which would have given women the same voting rights as men. Those rights were, however, a long way removed from the universal male and female suffrage later demanded by the labour movement and some of the suffragettes. In fact, had the People’s Charter still been on the agenda in 1866, J. S. Mill would have given its six demands very scant support. On 14th May 1867, GE wrote to John Morley, who later wrote the first biography of his friend J. S. Mill, and who had taken over the editorship of the Fortnightly Review from GHL as of 1st January, 1867. As Haight himself points out Morley was publishing in the Fortnightly Review articles supporting the movement (for female suffrage). To this active supporter of (some) women’s right to vote, GE wrote: “Your attitude in relation to female Franchise seems to be very nearly mine (my emphasis) .... I would certainly not oppose any plan which held out any reasonable promise of tending to establish as far as possible an equivalence of advantages for the two sexes, as to education and the possibilities of free development.” (Letters, Vol. 4, p. 364 and footnote same page). Despite the extremely circumspect language, we see that GE was not opposed to female suffrage, as is sometimes implied, but that she regarded a mere change in the law ineffectual unless accompanied or preferably preceded by a reform of the conditions which affected or even determined real equal opportunity of men and women. Again, her attitude was sceptical but not conservative. This is a more demanding attitude than simple faith in liberal legislation but it is by no means a conservative attitude.

Although the above may give that impression, I am not arguing with his biographer that J. S. Mill was Tory or “thoroughly conservative”. To do so would be to duplicate Haight’s simplistically modern perspective on GE’s political views. What I am saying is that if Felix Holt, the self-declared Radical of the Address to Working Men is a spokesman for conservatism, as is argued by Haight and by most GE scholars, then so was John Stuart Mill, Radical M. P. for Westminster. But, the fact is that, in the context of his times, J. S. Mill was not conservative, and neither was GE. My opinion is that the modern charge of conservatism, deriving mainly from Haight, and directed at GE, fails utterly to take into account the complexity of political attitudes in the years under discussion here.

Haight’s sudden and clumsy inclusion of GE’s reservations about the ballot as a panacea for political ills could be understood as an attempt to pre-determine our understanding of the Address to the Working Men by Felix Holt and of the novel itself. Without going at length into the discussion about the “conservatism” of the novel Felix Holt the Radical, it is worth looking at the social and political context in which the Address to Working Men by Felix Holt was hurriedly written at John Blackwood’s repeated insistence. The novel was started on 31st March 1865 and completed on 31st May 1866, and the article was written in a few weeks in late November and early December 1867. Though close in time, the novel and the article were, however, written in very different political situations. There had been demonstrations demanding electoral reform in 1866, after the resignation of the Liberal government in June of that year, which raised the profile of the reform issue, but it wasn’t until early 1867 that the question of parliamentary reform began to arouse great public interest. It was only with the Hyde Park demonstrations of early May 1867, which terrified many upper-class Londoners and forced the resignation of the Home Secretary, that Reform became a burning national issue involving working class militancy and the use of physical force. In Before the Socialists, Royden Harrison writes:

During the early months of 1866, while the Russell-Gladstone Bill was being debated in Parliament, there was little agitation in the country. The Tories and the Adullamites (note: a fiercely anti-reform group led by Robert Lowe) taunted the government with its failures to interest the public in its measure.

(Before the Socialists; Studies in Labour and Politics 1861 - 1881 Gregg Revivals 1994 by Harrison, Royden p. 81).

In his introductory notes in Order and Progress (1875) to his article Parliament Before Reform, which had originally appeared in the Fortnightly Review in March 1867 (only three months after Lewes had given up the editorship), Frederic Harrison wrote that: “No one expected, and certainly the essayist (i. e. Harrison) did not, that anything like a Reform Bill would at that time (i. e. March 1867) pass into an Act. … Nor had the signs of popular agitations attained any serious dimensions.” (Frederic Harrison, Order and Progress, edited by Martha S. Vogeler, The Harvester Press 1975 p. 126). Few, if any, witnesses can provide more reliable verifiable factual evidence than Harrison on the events leading up to the passing of the Reform Bill, so we can take these words of his at face value. Expectation of significant electoral reform, and the popular agitation, which helped bring it about, only occurred after the novel had been written and therefore could have had no influence on the writing of Felix Holt the Radical. More specifically, Volume II, which contains the “riot” scenes, was already completed by the end of March 1866, so those scenes, based on events in Nuneaton in 1832, definitely had no contemporary equivalent.

The Reform League’s new policy of militancy of 1867 had been made possible by the resignation of the Liberal government, whose tentative Reform Bill had split and partially lamed the Reform League, and by the ensuing election of a Conservative government, against which the Reform League re-united in uncompromising opposition. Social conflict was further heightening by an economic crisis from the end of 1866, and even by a terrible cholera outbreak early in 1867.

The events subsequent to the Reform League’s commitment to mass agitation from early summer 1867, though they have no significant bearing on the novel, are, however, crucial for an understanding of the Address to Working Men by Felix Holt, which was published in January 1868. This mass agitation, which to some extent divided the working class movement for male suffrage from its middle-class supporters such as John Bright and J. S. Mill, reached a triumphant expression in the defiant Hyde Park demonstration of May 6th 1867, which incited a real fear of violent insurrection amongst conservatives and some liberals. It was partly the fear that a failure to introduce significant electoral reform might lead to political turmoil, even to revolution, that induced the Conservative government to extend the suffrage to a larger section of the male working class than originally planned in the Second Reform Act, passed in August 1867.

In the summer of 1867, there was indeed in London a very real threat, even examples, of not only politically motivated demonstration of physical force advocated and controlled by the leaders of the Trade Unions and the Reform League, but also of the uncontrolled and apolitical mob violence of the kind that occurs at the end of the second volume of Felix Holt the Radical, which, we recall, had already been finished in March, 1866. In a footnote added in 1875 to an essay entitled Parliament After Reform, printed in the Fortnightly Review in April 1868, Frederic Harrison looks back on the events of 1867, prior to the passing of the Reform Bill. He notes;

There can be little doubt now that the famous Hyde Park Riot was unpremeditated chance medley, arising out of an idle crowd eager for frolic. I know now (in 1875) that Mr. Beales (of the Reform League) did not hear of any violence having occurred till late at night. After the riot very dangerous elements really appeared. There was complete preparation for a grand street fight. I know of men of good position who travelled up to London from the North to fight, and that clerks in business houses had rifles beside their desks. But all this was after the suppression of the riot, and simply its consequence.

(Order and Progress pp. 183 – 184)

The contemporary and well-informed witness Frederic Harrison provides valuable insights into the rapidly changing conditions of the reform agitation of 1866 and 1867, and the social historian Royden Harrison describes and analyzes the fluid situation in great detail in Chapter III of Before the Socialists (pp. 78 – 136). It is enough for my purposes here to repeat that these, for some, terrifying disturbances occurred too late to have any influence on the novel Felix Holt the Radical, but certainly were still fresh in Blackwood’s mind, and in the minds of the target readership of the novel, when he asked George Eliot to write the Address to Working Men by Felix Holt in November 1867.

Let’s remember that GE had carried on a lengthy correspondence with Fredric Harrison while writing Felix Holt the Radical, consulting him mainly in his capacity as a lawyer on the niceties of inheritance law in 1832, the year in which Felix Holt the Radical was set. She also wrote to him on 7th November 1867 thanking him for and congratulating him on his article in the Fortnightly Review (November 1867), in which he satirizes the conservative intellectual Matthew Arnold’s attack on Harrison. In his article “Culture and its Enemies”, Arnold accused Harrison of being very hostile to culture and of Jacobinism (Letters, footnote p. 395). GE took Harrison’s side by writing “It seems to me that you have said the serious things most needful to be said in a good humoured way, easy for everyone to read.” In a public controversy between the conservative Arnold and the “Jacobin” Harrison, GE sides, albeit privately, with the leftist Harrison.

The Address to Working Men by Felix Holt is often used by GE scholars as evidence of her conservatism and even compounded with the novel Felix Holt the Radical (by George Eliot) to support their reading of that book as conservative in content. It is arguable that the Address was neither requested nor written for the purpose expressed by Blackwood – to make the newly enfranchised working class men aware of their new responsibilities (Letter Vol. IV, p. 395). Neither was it in reality an address to the working men, as Helen Kingstone also notes in her article The Two Felixes in The George Eliot Review No. 43, correctly pointing out that; ”The readership of Blackwood’s Magazine was conservative and primarily middle-class; in this sense the “Address” is not written for the eyes of “working men at all”. (p. 46). The Bee-Hive would have been the natural home for such an article but it is very doubtful that the abstruse piece, written by someone with no real knowledge of the working men she was ostensibly addressing, would have been accepted.

Why then would an article purportedly addressed to working men appear in the conservative Blackwood’s Magazine, which had a middle-class readership? My personal opinion is that Blackwood was disappointed with the sales of Felix Holt the Radical (see Letters, Vol. 4 p. 239, 293, 307, 308-309) and, due to the disturbances which occurred mainly after the book’s publication, felt it necessary to encourage sales by reassuring potential buyers, especially those of a conservative frame of mind who read Blackwood’s magazine, that the book was politically respectable, that they wouldn’t be supporting insurrection if they bought it and wouldn’t be exposing themselves to subversive ideas if they read it. GE’s friendship with Harrison and Beesly, two Positivists very much involved in Reform League’s agitation, was no secret, and it may have increased Blackwood’s anxiety. In other words, the Address was quite possibly an exercise in marketing not in politics.

Devious as this sounds, Blackwood was, from his perspective as a publisher wishing to give a title its best chances on the market, quite justified in taking this precaution because in fact the novel was not, as we have seen, written in the same political and social context in which it would be read. In other words, Blackwood wanted to avoid the sales of the book being damaged by association with events which in fact had no bearing on the book. I think this testifies to Blackwood as a highly capable publisher and as an extremely perceptive reader of novels. The Address fulfilled its real purpose of de-politicising the novel for future readers, not by elucidating a political point of view but by obscuring one.

GE regretted that the Address was written in a hurry and was therefore difficult to understand but it was exactly that lack of clarity which must have mightily pleased the canny publisher. Apart from an attack in the liberal Daily News, the Address made very little public impact (Blackwood wrote of the non attention of the press), but nonetheless Blackwood was satisfied that it appealed to his target readers, whatever their political persuasion. In her letters of January 1868, GE herself shows a distinct lack of interest in the reception of the Address (Letters Vol. 4, p. 414). Her comment on attack in the Daily News contrasts strikingly with her usual hypersensitivity towards criticism of her novels and poetry. On the article in the Daily News she wrote: “I, for my part, don’t care, and should be glad to think that you cared as little. But you are obliged to see what is written, and I am not. I am serenely indifferent to any newspaper writer’s insinuation that I am, or am not, what is approved by his standard.” (Letters, p. 414). We recall that GHL habitually vetted GE’s reading of the press and even of her personal correspondence, allegedly to protect her from adverse opinions of her work. Her total lack of interest in the reception of the Address supports the view that she identified very weakly with its declared purpose. As I said, this explanation for Blackwood’s eagerness for the Address is to be written and published as George Eliot’s work (he ignored her request that he should add a note of his own to the article), is an opinion which requires more substantiation than is relevant here.

I want to mention just two more events that argue strongly against GE’s “conservatism” and which are not mentioned in Haight’s biography, although he certainly knew about them from the letters he had edited some years before the biography appeared.

In 1865 George Henry Lewes took over the editorship of the newly-founded Fortnightly Review, a magazine which covered a wide range of views and topics, and which was partly owned by leading Positivists (Beesly and Harrison). His period of editorship partly coincided with the Staffordshire iron workers’ strike and the subsequent national lock-out, one of the bitterest industrial disputes of the second half of the nineteenth century. A convenient summary of the strike is provided by a report on the 18th March 1865 under the headline The Great Lock-out, in the Spectator:

(at the moment) … a contest between labour and capital, the most serious that this country has perhaps ever seen, is going on,—a contest of which the focus is in Staffordshire, but which in fact extends throughout the whole of Great Britain, wherever ironworks are to be found. Because 1,000 men in North Staffordshire struck work, 70,000, we are told, have been or are threatened to be thrown out of employment by their masters, more than 200,000 persons are deprived of the means of subsistence, and nearly 100,000/. a week in wages are withheld from the working-classes.

http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/18th-march-1865/7/the-great-lock-out

In 1865 the legality of strikes, peaceful picketing and even of combination – the right to form trade unions – was still very uncertain. The mainstream press sided unanimously with the employers, but for the very first issue of The Fortnightly Review (May 1865), Frederic Harrison, a friend of the Leweses and a leading Positivist, wrote an article which supported the strikers and condemned the action of the employers in great detail and at some length. As the Positivists almost invariably did, he also criticized the biased reporting of the dispute in the mainstream press. George Henry Lewes welcomed this article, although he complained diplomatically about its length, and in a letter dated 11th May 1865 to Mrs. Richard Congreve, wife of the “father” of Positivism in England, George Eliot herself wrote: “The first number of the (Fortnightly) Review was done last Monday, and will be out on the 15th. You will be glad to hear that Mr. Harrison’s article is excellent.” She goes on to mention the “importance of the subject (the strike and lockout) and the excellence of the treatment”. (Letters Vol. 4, pp.191 – 192). I think it is elf-evident that these words, written in 1865, at a time when the Establishment was criminalizing the strikers and the Unions in general, could not have been written by someone who was “thoroughly conservative”.

Incidentally, her approval of Harrison’s article, which is totally in favour of the Unions, lends weight to the argument that Address to Working Men, though written later than the novel, was the voice of Felix Holt and not necessarily that of George Eliot. And the fact that she read Harrison’s article before it had been printed testifies to her interest in the topic as well as in the launch of the Fortnightly.

In late 1866 a comparable situation occurred, when the so-called Sheffield Outrages were widely reported in the press. During the 1860s a number of murders had been planned and some carried out by a small group of desperate trade unionists in Sheffield. Of course, the culprits did not have the support of their trade union or of trade unionists in general. In 1867 Edward Spencer Beesly, the leading Positivist, close friend of the Leweses and of Karl Marx, gave a speech at a meeting of Trade Unionists at Exeter Hall, in which he did not defend the crimes committed but did point out that such murders should be treated in law in the same way as other murders. In other words, he was trying to de-escalate the anti-Union hysteria that dominated the mainstream press. In return he himself was vilified by that press – Punch referred to him as Mr Beastly - and it was even suggested in high places that he should, as a consequence of his speech, be removed from his position as Professor of History at University College, London. In a letter to Cara Bray on 16th July, 1867, shortly after the campaign against Beesly had broken out in the mainstream press, GE defended Beesly and wrote that “our friend Professor Beesly is being persecuted for simply pointing out the unfairness with which crime is estimated.” In a footnote attached to this letter, Haight writes: “He (Beesly) was singled out for attack (by the press) as an advocate of assassination and crime, and a serious attempt was made to deprive him of his professorship and expel him from the Headship of University College, London.” (Letters Vol. 4, p. 374). Again, by defending a person who was being almost universally demonized by the conservative press, and continuing to call him friend and invite him to her home, GE was behaving in a way that simply cannot be reconciled with Haight’s description of her as “thoroughly conservative.” It also needs to be pointed out that Haight avoids mention of this incident in his biography, which again suggests that he omitted pertinent facts that might have weakened his claim about GE’s conservatism.

Interestingly, a few months after Beesly’s talk pleading for judicial fairness for the culprits of the Sheffield Outrages, GE wrote the Address to the Working Men, in which she has Felix Holt say: The reason for our (working men) having the franchise … does not in the least lie in any high betting chance that a delegate is a better man than a duke, or that a Sheffield grinder is a better man than any one of the firm he works for. (my emphasis). This is an unmistakable reference to those involved in the Sheffield Outrages, the men for whom Beesly was risking his career by simply arguing they get a fair trial. Given GE’s solidarity with Beesly, her real behavior is to some degree at odds with Felix Holt’s rhetorical use of the Sheffield grinder as an example of the less than ideal working man, again supporting the view that the Address was written in the voice of the fictional Felix Holt, not the real George Eliot.

In my opinion, the above examples of GE’s firmly principled responses to real political issues carry more weight than carefully selected quotations. Nevertheless, it is worth looking at what Haight considers evidence of GE’s conservatism on the basis of the Index entry in the Letters. Under “Conservative” (Vol. 9, p. 419), he lists 14 references to letters written between 23rd December 1857 and 1st August 1878, as well as a quotation from Edith Simcox’s Autobiography referring to a conversation with GE which took place on 26th December, 1879. Haight appears to assume that any reservations about the effectiveness of social reform necessarily derive from and are evidence of conservatism. This is an extremely simplistic, not to say false notion. Objection to or lack of confidence in measures implemented by the Liberal government of the day does not necessarily imply let alone prove a conservative attitude. Otherwise we would have to classify Karl Marx as well as the Positivists as conservative as they too expressed fundamental reservations about the hope that parliamentary reforms would cure social ills and abolish inequalities, something I will deal with in more detail in Part 3. The most interesting of the references Haight provides is to her letter to M. D’Albert-Durade of 1st August 1878 (Letters Vol. VII, pp. 46 – 47), in which, after comparing the performance of the Liberal opposition unfavourably to that of the Conservative government on the Eastern Question, she writes to her old friend: “You remember me as much less of a conservative than I have now become. I care as much or more for the interests of the people but I believe less in the help they will get from the democrats.” Even this, which on first sight seems to be obvious evidence for her conservatism, needs to be looked at very closely to determine what it really reveals about her political whereabouts. But, as it lies well outside the time scope of this article, I’ll leave that to interested readers. I would just comment that the policy of the Conservative Government in 1878 was labelled Beaconsfieldism by Gladstone, a reference to Disraeli’s title, and is seen by most historians as continuing the Realpolitik of Palmerston, who was a Liberal Prime Minister. Gladstone’s moralistic agitation on the Eastern Question can be seen as determination or even duty to oppose the government rather than an expression of a genuine conservative-liberal antagonism. Interesting also is to ask who were, for GE, the “democrats”?

To sum up, therefore, I argue that Haight’s assertion that by 1864 GE had become “thoroughly conservative” was not only false but could only be maintained by being very selective with the evidence he presented in order to establish his claim as accepted wisdom. It is worthwhile, however, to go beyond Haight on this issue, and try to find out where GE did stand politically. This is what I will attempt to do for the period 1864 – 1872 in Part 2 of this article.

Note: Part 2 will refer a lot to GE and her contact with Positivism and with the leading Positivists, mainly E. S. Beesly and Frederic Harrison, but in connection what I have written above on the Address to Working Men by Felix Holt, I want to mention here the opening of the Address. It refutes at length the idea that working men are somehow morally better than their social superiors. This is a direct rebuttal of the Positivists’ idealization of the proletariat. The founder of Positivism, Auguste Comte, and his disciples really did portray the proletariat, the urban working class, as morally superior to other classes of society. GE disagreed with them on this point, as did Marx, who, while he along with the Positivists allocated the proletariat a special role in history, did not share the Positivists’ moral elevation of the urban working-class, and based his views on a totally different ideology. GE’s refutation derives logically from her conviction that, to improve people morally and intellectually, the conditions in which they live and which determine their moral and intellectual level must be changed. This is manifested in her attitude to the poor, to women’s suffrage and to slavery. Though their respective positions are by no means identical, GE and Marx do share common ground here.


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