Political Stories from the Past
We live in history, its heritage a powerful force in our present-day lives. And so it goes with nations as well. Past political errors or breakthroughs inform the way we think about nationhood and how we act as citizens in the country we call our own.
In the following political stories of the past, we see how the process of politics is enacted by those who rule, and how it impacts those who follow. Through the eyes of tragedians of long ago, such as Sophocles, and later through the words of nineteenth-century novelists of England and Russia, such as George Eliot and Dostoyevsky, we learn how average people tried to live, and tried to make do, in families and neighborhoods. But these same introspective writers were also attempting to render the political side of our lives—depicting the leaders to whom we acquiesce, and the doubt (even, at times, outright disapproval or disdain) we have with respect to them.
Here, then, are political moments of the past, given the suggestive life high art can convey to a reader’s later time. Through them, we see how politics works—we witness the manipulations of power and ambition, the art of compromise, the rise and fall of political careers, and the desire to conquer. In short, the past becomes the teacher of the present.
George Eliot (1819–80), the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, is regarded as one of the great Victorian novelists, especially noted for her insightful psychological characterizations. Her best-known novel, Middlemarch (1871–72), follows the emotional and intellectual frustrations of Dorothea Brooke. As Oscar Wilde once remarked in 1897, Eliot “is the embodiment of philosophy in fiction.”
In Felix Holt, the Radical, written in 1866, Eliot observes that progressive reformers can be even more self-interested than their conservative opponents. Young Harold Transome returns to England from the American colonies with a self-made fortune, then scandalizes his district by running for Parliament as a Radical.
This excerpt from Felix Holt introduces the concept of “political consciousness,” which can be understood as a continuing and acute sense of the role politics plays in everyday life. Through Felix Holt’s actions, George Eliot shows us how average people are affected by politics—how their values and daily activities are connected to, and shaped by, government.
For George Eliot, the political process articulated a given country’s social values—it provided public expression for the customs and conflicts of daily life. The theater of politics becomes, then, an affirmation of a citizenry’s values, concerns, and aspirations.
From Felix Holt, the Radical
Thus Treby Magna, which had lived quietly through the great earthquakes of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, which had remained unmoved by the “Rights of Man,” and saw little in Mr. Cobbett’s “Weekly Register” except that he held eccentric views about potatoes, began at last to know the higher pains of a dim political consciousness; and the development had been greatly helped by the recent agitation about the Reform Bill. Tory, Whig, and Radical did not perhaps become clearer in their definition of each other; but the names seemed to acquire so strong a stamp of honour or infamy, that definitions would only have weakened the impression. As to the short and easy method of judging opinions by the personal character of those who held them, it was liable to be much frustrated in Treby. It so happened in that particular town that the Reformers were not all of them large-hearted patriots or ardent lovers of justice; indeed, one of them, in the very midst of the agitation, was detected in using unequal scales—a fact to which many Tories pointed with disgust as showing plainly enough, without further argument, that the cry for a change in the representative system was hollow trickery. Again, the Tories were far from being all oppressors, disposed to grind down the working classes into serfdom; and it was undeniable that the inspector at the tape manufactory, who spoke with much eloquence on the extension of the suffrage, was a more tyrannical personage than openhanded Mr. Wace, whose chief political tenet was, that it was all nonsense giving men votes when they had no stake in the country. On the other hand, there were some Tories who gave themselves a great deal of leisure to abuse hypocrites, Radicals, Dissenters, and atheism generally, but whose inflamed faces, theistic swearing, and frankness in expressing a wish to borrow, certainly did not mark them out strongly as holding opinions likely to save society.
The Reformers had triumphed: it was clear that the wheels were going whither they were pulling, and they were in fine spirits for exertion. But if they were pulling towards the country’s ruin, there was the more need for others to hang on behind and get the wheels to stick if possible. In Treby, as elsewhere, people were told they must “rally” at the coming election; but there was now a large number of waverers—men of flexible, practical minds, who were not such bigots as to cling to any views when a good tangible reason could be urged against them; while some regarded it as the most neighbourly thing to hold a little with both sides, and were not sure that they should rally or vote at all. It seemed an invidious thing to vote for one gentleman rather than another.
These social changes in Treby parish are comparatively public matters, and this history is chiefly concerned with the private lot of a few men and women; but there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life, from the time when the primeval milkmaid had to wander with the wanderings of her clan, because the cow she milked was one of a herd which had made the pastures bare. Even in that conservatory existence where the fair Camellia is sighed for by the noble young Pineapple, neither of them needing to care about the frost or rain outside, there is a nether apparatus of hot-water pipes liable to cool down on a strike of the gardeners or a scarcity of coal. And the lives we are about to look back upon do not belong to those conservatory species; they are rooted in the common earth, having to endure all the ordinary chances of past and present weather. As to the weather of 1832, the Zadkiel of that time had predicted that the electrical condition of the clouds in the political hemisphere would produce unusual perturbations in organic existence, and he would perhaps have seen a fulfilment of his remarkable prophecy in that mutual influence of dissimilar destinies which we shall see gradually unfolding itself. For if the mixed political conditions of Treby Magna had not been acted on by the passing of the Reform Bill, Mr. Harold Transome would not have presented himself as a candidate for North Loamshire, Treby would not have been a polling-place, Mr. Matthew Jermyn would not have been on affable terms with a Dissenting preacher and his flock, and the venerable town would not have been placarded with handbills, more or less complimentary and retrospective—conditions in this case essential to the “where,” and the “what,” without which, as the learned know, there can be no event whatever.
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How Harold Transome came to be a Liberal in opposition to all the traditions of his family, was a more subtle inquiry than he had ever cared to follow out. The newspapers undertook to explain it. The North Loamshire Herald witnessed with a grief and disgust certain to be shared by all persons who were actuated by wholesome British feeling, an example of defection in the inheritor of a family name which in times past had been associated with attachment to right principle, and with the maintenance of our constitution in Church and State; and pointed to it as an additional proof that men who had passed any large portion of their lives beyond the limits of our favoured country, usually contracted not only a laxity of feeling towards Protestantism, nay, towards religion itself—a latitudinarian spirit hardly distinguishable from atheism—but also a levity of disposition, inducing them to tamper with those institutions by which alone Great Britain had risen to her pre-eminence among the nations. Such men, infected with outlandish habits, intoxicated with vanity, grasping at momentary power by flattery of the multitude, fearless because godless, liberal because un-English, were ready to pull one stone from under another in the national edifice, till the great structure tottered to its fall. On the other hand, the Duffield Watchman saw in this signal instance of self-liberation from the trammels of prejudice, a decisive guarantee of intellectual pre-eminence, united with a generous sensibility to the claims of man as man, which had burst asunder, and cast off, by a spontaneous exertion of energy, the cramping out-worn shell of hereditary bias and class interest.
But these large-minded guides of public opinion argued from wider data than could be furnished by any knowledge of the particular case concerned. Harold Transome was neither the dissolute cosmopolitan so vigorously sketched by the Tory Herald, nor the intellectual giant and moral lobster suggested by the liberal imagination of the Watchman. Twenty years ago he had been a bright, active, good-tempered lad, with sharp eyes and a good aim; he delighted in success and in predominance; but he did not long for an impossible predominance, and become sour and sulky because it was impossible. He played at the games he was clever in, and usually won; all other games he let alone, and thought them of little worth. At home and at Eton he had been side by side with his stupid elder brother Durfey, whom he despised; and he very early began to reflect that since this Caliban in miniature was older than himself, he must carve out his own fortune. That was a nuisance; and on the whole the world seemed rather ill-arranged, at Eton especially, where there were many reasons why Harold made no great figure. He was not sorry the money was wanting to send him to Oxford; he did not see the good of Oxford; he had been surrounded by many things during his short life, of which he had distinctly said to himself that he did not see the good, and he was not disposed to venerate on the strength of any good that others saw. He turned his back on home very cheerfully, though he was rather fond of his mother, and very fond of Transome Court, and the river where he had been used to fish; but he said to himself as he passed the lodge-gates, “I’ll get rich somehow, and have an estate of my own, and do what I like with it.” This determined aiming at something not easy but clearly possible, marked the direction in which Harold’s nature was strong; he had the energetic will and muscle, the self-confidence, the quick perception, and the narrow imagination which make what is admiringly called the practical mind.
Since then his character had been ripened by a various experience, and also by much knowledge which he had set himself deliberately to gain. But the man was no more than the boy writ large, with an extensive commentary. The years had nourished an inclination to as much opposition as would enable him to assert his own independence and power without throwing himself into that tabooed condition which robs power of its triumph. And this inclination had helped his shrewdness in forming judgments which were at once innovating and moderate. He was addicted at once to rebellion and to conformity, and only an intimate personal knowledge could enable any one to predict where his conformity would begin. The limit was not defined by theory, but was drawn in an irregular zigzag by early disposition and association; and his resolution, of which he had never lost hold, to be a thorough Englishman again some day, had kept up the habit of considering all his conclusions with reference to English politics and English social conditions. He meant to stand up for every change that the economical condition of the country required, and he had an angry contempt for men with coronets on their coaches, but too small a share of brains to see when they had better make a virtue of necessity. His respect was rather for men who had no coronets, but who achieved a just influence by furthering all measures which the common sense of the country, and the increasing self-assertion of the majority, peremptorily demanded. He could be such a man himself.
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“It is such a beautiful day,” he said, “it would do you good to go into the air. Let me take you along the river towards Little Treby, will you?”
“I will put my bonnet on,” said Esther, unhesitatingly, though they had never walked out together before.
It is true that to get into the fields they had to pass through the street; and when Esther saw some acquaintances, she reflected that her walking alone with Felix might be a subject of remark—all the more because of his cap, patched boots, no cravat, and thick stick. Esther was a little amazed herself at what she had come to. So our lives glide on: the river ends we don’t know where, and the sea begins, and then there is no more jumping ashore.
When they were in the streets Esther hardly spoke. Felix talked with his usual readiness, as easily as if he were not doing it solely to divert her thoughts, first about Job Tudge’s delicate chest, and the probability that the little white-faced monkey would not live long; and then about a miserable beginning of a night-school, which was all he could get together at Sproxton; and the dismalness of that hamlet, which was a sort of lip to the coalpit on one side and the “public” on the other—and yet a paradise compared with the wynds of Glasgow, where there was little more than a chink of daylight to show the hatred in women’s faces.
But soon they got into the fields, where there was a right of way towards Little Treby, now following the course of the river, now crossing towards a lane, and now turning into a cart-track through a plantation.
“Here we are!” said Felix, when they had crossed the wooden bridge, and were treading on the slanting shadows made by the elm trunks. “I think this is delicious. I never feel less unhappy than in these late autumn afternoons when they are sunny.”
“Less unhappy! There now!” said Esther, smiling at him with some of her habitual sauciness, “I have caught you in self-contradiction. I have heard you quite furious against puling, melancholy people. If I had said what you have just said, you would have given me a long lecture, and told me to go home and interest myself in the reason of the rule of three.”
Copyright © 2005 by Robert Coles. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.