I’m a Radical myself, and mean to work all my life against privilege, monopoly, and oppression.” –George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical
George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical is the richest and most compelling of several rather strained Victorian political novels I’ve read in recent years. The others are Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Marcella, and George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career.
All of the aforementioned are also love stories: the Victorians knew we long to read about the complex emotions that flourish or die under the machinations of politics.
And, yes, I read them for the love interest.
To an American reader whose 19th-century English history has been learned from novels, the politics are complicated but not incomprehensible. The issues are usually (a) something called the First Reform Act in June 1832, (b) the Second or Third or possibly Fourth Reform Act, (d) unrepealed corn laws, (f) union politics, and (g) electioneering.
If forced to take a quiz, you could scribble a few words after skimming the footnotes.
But of course you get it: there’s corruption, there are votes bought and sold, and there’s rioting.
In Felix Holt, Eliot’s uneven, if compelling, novel, two men have parallel yet widely separate radical beliefs. Felix Holt, the radical son of a quack doctor, returns to Treby after five years apprenticed to an apothecary and forbids his widowed mother to continue to sell a quack patent medicine. Philosophically, in a hipster mode I sympathize with completely, he goes into business as a watchmaker, insisting it is preferable to a career as an apothecary or clerk. When the minister wonders why he is wasting his education and offers to find him a clerical job, Felix insists that a job that requires a cravat is “really lower than many handicrafts; it only happens to be paid out of proportion…. I mean to stick to the class I belong to–people who don’t follow the fashions.”
The wealthy Harold Transome at the same time returns from the East to Treby and stands for election to Parliament as a Radical, though his family are Tories. His politics do not, however, interfere with his rank: he is not an idealist like Felix. Like Felix, he takes over the family business from his mother, i.e., running the estate. Their mothers smoulder with anger in the background.
The two men’s lives intertwine when Felix reports to Harold that one of his election agents has bribed men in a pub with liquor. Harold is annoyed: he is a good man, he wants to win the election straight, but Jermyn, the lawyer who is running his campaign, considers dirty politics acceptable.
The radicalism of the two men also interests the beautiful, intelligent heroine, Esther Lyon, the minister’s daughter. Both men are captivated by her beauty. And the point of the novel comes down to, Whom should she love?
Esther is in her own right well-educated. She has worked as a governess and tutors the upper-middle-class children in the neighborhood. But she also dreams of love and likes to read novels, and the earnest Felix doesn’t approve of romantic dreams or novels.
His brilliance and outspokenness influence her.
The favorite Byronic heroes were beginning to look something like last night’s decorations seen in the sober dawn. So fast does a little leaven spread within us–so incalculable is the effect of one personality on another. Behind all Esther’s thoughts like an unacknowledged yet constraining reverence, there was the sense, that if Felix Holt were to love her, her life would be exalted into something quite new–into a sort of difficult blessedness, such as one many imagine in beings who are conscious of painfully growing into the possession of higher powers.”
Harold, on the other hand, becomes interested in Esther when he learns that she is, through some very convoluted circumstances, the true heir of his estate. Harold acknowledges her position, and begins to court her. If they marry, everyone will be happy.
Esther gradually becomes a realistic, three-dimensional character whose understanding of the political riot that sends Felix to jail is far beyond what we expect of the beautiful “novel-reading” minister’s daughter.
I cannot pretend this is a George Eliot “must-read”: it is, in fact, the least brilliant of her major novels. Felix is not a very well-rounded, believable character; Harold is also a bit of a stick. Eliot was ill when she wrote this novel, and it shows.
It is negligible compared to Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, or The Mill in the Floss, her masterpieces.
Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed it. A beautifully-written book over the holidays. What could be better?
N.B. I recently wrote about Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Marcella here. I jotted a few notes about Bronte’s Shirley, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career at my old blogs, but so briefly that I won’t bother you with links. All five are worth reading in their way, but they are not brilliant.