George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss: On Landscape, Women’s Education, & Floods

Why do I love George Eliot?  It’s strange, isn’t it?  A Midwestern woman reader of the 20th and 21st century avidly reading about Victorian English heroines.

Reading Eliot is satisfying, but rereading her is the ultimate pleasure.  I recently reread her second novel,  The Mill on the Floss:  it was like a psychedelic trip from one reality to another.   Eliot’s effervescent language is so evocative that I saw the landscape, the mill, the river Floss, and the woods.

The first time I read The Mill on the Floss,  the place riveted me.  I transposed our local landscape on Eliot’s, though I had no idea of scale:  I miniaturized our own river, sprawling fields, and wildflower-dotted meadows, because wasn’t England smaller?  Later, I pictured it all as a BBC film (I haven’t seen the Eliot adaptations, so I saw it as  Far from the Madding Crowd). I would love to travel to George Eliot country,  but perhaps it is unnecessary.   Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch, didn’t find her trip to Nuneaton particularly evocative:  Griff House, Eliot’s childhood home, is now a hotel.

But isn’t place especially vivid in Eliot’s books?  I’m afraid that says too much about me!  The first chapter of The Mill on the Floss is devoted to a spectacular description of the setting, St. Ogg’s and its environs.

Even in this leafless time of departing February it is pleasant to look at,–perhaps the chill, damp season adds a charm to the trimly kept, comfortable dwelling-house, as old as the elms and chestnuts that shelter it from the northern blast. The stream is brimful now, and lies high in this little withy plantation, and half drowns the grassy fringe of the croft in front of the house. As I look at the full stream, the vivid grass, the delicate bright-green powder softening the outline of the great trunks and branches that gleam from under the bare purple boughs, I am in love with moistness, and envy the white ducks that are dipping their heads far into the water here among the withes, unmindful of the awkward appearance they make in the drier world above.

So idyllic:  a landscape from the past, already past in a novel published in 1861.  And throughout the book Eliot emphasizes the wildness of the Floss, which ominously swells and frequently floods, which foreshadows the ending.

The landscape is one thing, the characters another, but I intertwined the one with the other, as Eliot intertwines them.  Why do I so identify with Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of The Mill on the Floss?  Is there a kind of imprinting of women’s lives from the past? I  never romped on the banks of a river, but I certainly rooted for Maggie when she pounded nails into her doll’s head in vexation and cut her thick hair after her mother and aunts denigrated it.   But it is the  question of Maggie’s education that especially interests me.

Boys and girls were educated differently.  I wonder if it was this book that persuaded me I wanted a 19th-century gentleman’s education, i.e., classics.  Maggie’s very average (bordering on slow) brother Tom learns Latin and Euclid by rote at a parson’s house, though even her father says Maggie would have benefited more from such studies.  When she visits Tom, she tells him she can help him with Latin.  The dialogue is hilarious.

“You help me, you silly little thing!” said Tom, in such high spirits at this announcement that he quite enjoyed the idea of confounding Maggie by showing her a page of Euclid. “I should like to see you doing one of my lessons! Why, I learn Latin too! Girls never learn such things. They’re too silly.”

“I know what Latin is very well,” said Maggie, confidently, “Latin’s a language. There are Latin words in the Dictionary. There’s bonus, a gift.”

“Now, you’re just wrong there, Miss Maggie!” said Tom, secretly astonished. “You think you’re very wise! But ‘bonus’ means ‘good,’ as it happens,–bonus, bona, bonum.”

“Well, that’s no reason why it shouldn’t mean ‘gift,'” said Maggie, stoutly. “It may mean several things; almost every word does. There’s ‘lawn,’–it means the grass-plot, as well as the stuff pocket-handkerchiefs are made of.”

Isn’t that amusing, innocent, and realistic?  We read a lot about Tom’s education, but almost nothing about Maggie’s. She goes to a girls’ boarding school with her cousin Lucy, but we hear about it only after she is called home by  her father who has lost all his money in a lawsuit and become very ill.  At home she finds solace in religion and in  her own studies of Latin and algebra, but none of it is  enough.

Maggie Tulliver drawn by Frederick S. Church

Education was not an issue for me, I used to think, but as I grew older I realized that it was.  I am a feminist, and conscious of discrimination against women, but never believed discrimination happened to me–and this was part of my strength.  In fact the schools in my hometown were very good, and the teachers, mostly women, encouraged me.  I was an excellent student until my parents’ divorce, and then I lost my mojo.  My college-educated mother wanted me to go to college; my uneducated father did not.  Eventually I  wangled jobs, grants, loans, and an assistantship, but it was catch as catch can and good luck.   I could easily have been a Maggie stuck with an unappreciative brother,  or an undereducated Gwendolen Harleth (Daniel Deronda), unable to make a living..  The 20th century was better for women in most ways than the 19th century.    But the 19th century had George Eliot, who could hold her own with the best-educated men of her time, and didn’t she contribute more than most?

Near the end of The Mill in the Floss, sex becomes the major question, and sex and the flooding of the Floss become one and the same.  There are elements of melodrama.  Maggie is courted by two men, Philip, the crippled son of her father’s enemy, and handsome Stephen, a banker’s son, who is engaged to Maggie’s lovely cousin Lucy.  Tom says he will not speak to Maggie if she continues her romance with Philip, whom she would like to marry.  But Stephen and Maggie are wildly attracted to each other, and when they go out in a boat,  Stephen more or less abducts her, taking her farther than they had planned, so they have to spend the night on a commercial boat.  Maggie loses her reputation, though not her virginity, and Tom kicks her out of their home.

Poor Maggie!  We are used to 19th-century novels in which the sexually active woman must die.  Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Awakening… But Maggie doesn’t actually have sex.   And she is horribly punished by death anyway, swept away with her brother Tom in a boat  (yes, another boat!).  Both drown  in the flood.

It all seems unreal and melodramatic–did Maggie and Tom hae to die in a flood?–and what does it have to do with sex?  Yet floods happen and are melodramatic: there have bee n many terrible floods in the Midwest this century, destroying homes, art museums, libraries, downtowns, you name it.

What does the flood in The Mill on the Floss mean symbolically?  In Tim Dolin’s George Eliot, he sums up different theories.  “It has been argued that the flood has the effect of neutralizing the novel’s own commentary, contradicting or negating everything that comes before it and bringing the novel ‘hard up against its own realism’ by indulgently releasing Maggie from the narrow, unjust, oppressive world that social realism has to depict.”

All right.  I’ll accept that–sort of.  Though this is not all he says.  Frankly I need a book of criticism. And so to one of the older libraries we shall have to go one of these days.

The Brilliance of George Eliot: Why Not Read Adam Bede?

Is George Eliot still read?  I don’t mean Middlemarch:  yes, we all read Middlemarch.  But  are her other novels read as voraciously as they used to be?  My grandmother kept Eliot’s books in the glass-fronted bookcase next to the fireplace.  I’d take them out and read bits of them on rainy afternoons.  Perhaps they were Book-of-the-Month selections; she also subscribed to the Literary Guild.  Her preferences were for Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss.  Honestly, those are the only two I remember reading. Perhaps they were the only ones I could understand.

Recently I’ve been rereading Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859).  Beautiful, fluid writing, and Eliot wrote about the rural poor from her unique point of view as the daughter of a carpenter. The novel, set in 1799, was partly a homage to her father, upon whose character Adam Bede was based, partly to her aunt Elizabeth, an itinerant Methodist preacher before her marriage, who is portrayed as Dinah Morris, also a Wesleyan preacher.

Not all are as noble as Adam and Dinah.  The anti-heroine, Hetty Sorrel, the beautiful, vain, unintelligent niece of a farmer, is seduced by Arthur, the squire’s nephew.  Later, she agrees to marry Adam, but she is pregnant and ashamed, so flees before the wedding, trying in vain to find Arthur. Eventually Hetty is  imprisoned for infanticide.  Who stands by her?  Her cousin, Dinah.

The plot was inspired by a story Eliot’s aunt’s told: as a preacher, she had spent a night praying in the cell of a woman condemned to be hanged  for killing her child.   In Adam Bede, Eliot weaves the story of this persecuted and prosecuted 18-year-old  silly girl into the web of intricate inter-class relationships between rich and poor, judges and peasants, men and women, clergymen and women preachers, and, perhaps most important, women and women.  All are threatened by Hetty’s condition and lack of remorse.  When it comes down to it, women immediately understand what has happened to Hetty, and are usually more sympathetic.   Arthur is to blame.  Adam, too, understands it.

Eliot is not only a realist who wrote lifelike country characters, but her dialect is also pitch-perfect, i.e., convincing and comprehensible.  And Eliot is so intellectual that there are a dizzying number of references to other novels in Adam Bede.  And the name Hetty is rich in associations:  we think of Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, who is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter for adultery and for not naming the father of her illegitimate child.  Hetty also recalls Esther in Bleak House,  the lovely, graceful, illegitimate daughter of Lady Dedlock.  Lady Dedlock runs away to save her husband and Esther from being hurt by her secrets. And her long ,terrible journey is not unlike Hetty’s, while Esther and Inspector Bucket search high and low.    And let us not forget Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, the story of a pregnant orphaned seamstress who manages to make a life for herself.

So did you pass on your love of Eliot to your progeny, or progeny’s progeny?  No?  They only read Y.A. books about faerie and vampires and elven kings?

“They’re always on the phones. They take pictures all day and post them.”

“Take a picture of her reading George Eliot”

“Oh, that’s such a cute idea. Why do I think she’d hate it?”

“As usual I’m glad I didn’t breed.”

“If she would read Adam Bede, I would give her $200.”

” I would give her $300.”

“It’s a bribe!”

“It’s the only thing you haven’t tried.”

You have a perfectly nice-looking goddaughter, but unfortunately she is coming down from coke and is either running up and down the halls in rehab or  crying in the shower.  And then at the end of this pricey day in psych day care she comes home with ceramic figurines and laughs hyserically.  And then she runs around the block.

“Why is this dwarf orange?”

“I try to get out of crafts–but then they call me uncooperative..  So I painted it orange.”

I say Bye and go home to finish Adam Bede.



George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda & the Myth of Actaeon and Diana

Is George Eliot the most elegant writer of the nineteenth century?

Many of you have doubtless read Middlemarch, her superb novel about provincial life.  Some of you may have been introduced to Eliot in high school by  Silas Marner, her sentimental novel about a miser redeemed by a child.  Not the best introduction!

Over the years, Eliot’s books have delighted me, perhaps because I started with the best.  I read Middlemarch in an independent reading class in high school, and, then as now, identified with Dorothea Brooke, the bright, fiery, naive young heroine who marries a homely middle-aged scholar, Mr. Casaubon, because she mistakes him for an intellectual.  When I reread Middlemarch in 2010 and again in 2015 (I posted about it here), I channeled my inner good girl  as I pored over the story of Dorothea with bated breath and the crazed hope that Dorothea would not marry Mr. Casaubon.  (Do you ever hope a novel will have changed, too?  But then what would the story be?)

Much as I love Middlemarch, it is not my favorite Eliot, though it is a very great book.  No, I much prefer Daniel Deronda, her last novel, a strange hybrid book which is partly an inversion of the myth of Diana and Actaeon, partly the story of a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.

The heroine of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth, is a spoiled, haughty young woman who marries the wrong man. Gwendolen is over-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish, and rather lazy, and very much reminds me of Austen’s Emma. Gwendolen is accomplished, but she could be more accomplished if she practiced or studied.  She wins a golden star at an archery contest, but the golden arrow goes to someone else. She is a pleasing singer but hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress, who rides to hounds wildly, and at first seems as cruel and powerful as Diana.  When her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny and has no sympathy. She does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams. She marries the wealthy Grandcourt beause she thinks she will be able to control him–but it is the sadistic Grandcourt who controls her.

The fraught relationship of Gwendolen and Grandcourt is an inverted reinterpretation of the myth of the struggle of Diana and Actaeon. In Ovid’s version in Book III of the Metamorphoses, Diana, goddess of virginity, archery, and the hunt, is omnipotent, while Actaeon, the hunter, is stripped of power for seeing the goddess naked in the bath . She furiously throws water at him and  he metamorphoses into a stag, who then is horribly killed by his own hounds.

Gwendolen’s arrows are less accurate than Diana’s. Grandcourt first sees her at the archery competition; he admires her beauty and wants to crush her power.  Gwendolen refuses his proposal of marriage after she is approached by his mistress, who has children, but changes her mind when her mother loses her money.  Although she marries to support her mother and sisters, she had another option: her uncle had arranged for her to be a governess to a bishop’s family. And so Gwendolen, too, has committed an immoral act.

My much-read Everyman copy, with the lettering on the title fading.

Grandcourt restricts her social contacts and isolates her, forbidding her to develop a friendship with Daniel Deronda and ordering her not to invite her mother for a visit.  Gwendolen/Diana is slowly reduced from huntress to hunted.

Eliot writes,

Of what use was the rebellion within her? She could say nothing that would not hurt her worse than submission. Turning slowing and covering herself again, she went to her dressing-room. As she reached out the diamonds it occurred to her that her unwillingness to wear them might have already raised a suspicion in Grandcourt that she had some knowledge about them which he had not given her. She fancied that his eyes showed a delight in torturing her. How could she be defiant? She had nothing to say that would touch him—nothing but what would give him a more painful grasp on her consciousness.

Grandcourt has many dogs.  They dote on him, but he is indifferent, sometimes cruel.  Gwendolen observes,

“He delights in making the dogs and horses quail: that is half his pleasure in calling them his,” she said to herself, as she opened the jewel-case with a shivering sensation.

“It will come to be so with me; and I shall quail. What else is there for me? I will not say to the world, ‘Pity me.'”

Finally, Grandcourt manages to isolate her completely on a sailing trip off the coast of Italy. She is more trapped, more confined, than she has ever been on land.

But water conquers Grandcourt, as it conquers Actaeon.There is an accident, and Grandcourt  falls into the sea.  There is one moment,  Gwendolen later relates to Daniel,  when delayed throwing him the rope, paralyzed, though whether or not this would have made any difference we do not know. (Daniel says it would not.)  Guiltily, she jumped into the sea after Grandcourt. She is rescued; Grandcourt drowns.

Water killed him, but was his drowning her fault?  She believes it is.   If indeed she killed him, as she fears, the motive was her freedom, not his money:   she already knew the money would go to Grandcourt’s mistress and son if she did not produce an heir.

Diana, too,  uses water to kill Actaeon.  Here is a literal translation of Diana’s reactions (Metamorphoses III.188-190)

Though she wished she had her arrows at hand,
she took the water which she had and threw it in his virile face,
sprinkling his hair with avenging waters…

… ut vellet promptas habuisse sagittas,
quas habuit sic hausit aquas vultumque virilem
perfudit spargensque comas ultricibus undis…

Eliot’s novel is in many ways a feminist realist retelling of the myth of Diana and Actaeon. Water can be treacherous; water can be death or rebirth.    Gwendolen’s doppelganger, Mirah, the talented Jewish singer, also wrestles with water:  she is saved by Daniel from suicide by drowning.  Which heroine do we prefer?  The sinful, shattered woman who withholds the rope, or the sinful, shattered woman who tries to obliterate herself because of poverty and solitude? Curiously, Mirah, who as had a much harder life, is portrayed as almost too pure and goody-goody to be true.  Gwendolen is entirely human.  A brilliant, fascinating novel.

Are We Dorothea? Reading Middlemarch on a Cold, Windy Day

Middlemarch eliot 9780192817600-uk-300 I wanted to get out:  I wanted to ride my bike, but the wind gusts were 9 mph. Yesterday the gusts were 21 mph:  I  zigzagged through tree-lined neighborhoods to find shelter.  Today I dressed lightly, because it was sunny and I was optimistic.  As I rode into a fierce wind, I shivered and sweated.

I took a break at a  coffeehouse and sat on the terrace and opened my copy (actually e-book) of Middlemarch.

An e-reader and iced ta.

Middlemarch on my unphotogenic e-reader and  iced tea.

What is your favorite Eliot?  It is supposed to be Middlemarch, yes? I love it, but I prefer Daniel Deronda, whose arrogant heroine, Gwendolyn Harleth, makes so many horrendous mistakes:  she even loses a valuable necklace gambling.  Yet Middlemarch is a masterpiece, an absorbing, satiric portrait of characters in a provincial town.  And we channel our inner good girl as we read about Dorothea Brooke, the bright, fiery, naive young heroine who marries a homely middle-aged scholar, Mr. Casaubon, mistaking him for an intellectual. She wants to shine in a brighter light than the society of Middlemarch and imagines herself helping with the research and making a contribution to the world.  Mr. Casaubon, however, is unable to organize his life work, a mass of notes for a “Key to All Mythologies.” During their honeymoon, he cannot even be bothered to accompany her to art museums and churches, but toils at his useless work. His young cousin, Will Ladislaw, an artist-turned-writer whose education has been paid for by Mr. Casaubon, is in Italy, and begins to take Dorothea to galleries.  He says Casaubon’s scholarly has already been done in German, a language Mr. Casaubon does not know. Dorothea is startled. And Mr. Casaubon is jealous of Will, with reason.

Illustration of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, publishe by the Jenson Society in 1910.

Illustration of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, published by the Jenson Society in 1910.

E-readers are so wonderful on the road, because Middlemarch is a big book to carry  on a bike.  I was up to Chapter 50:  Mr. Casaubon has finally died, and Dorothea is infuriated by “a strange indelicate proviso” in his will stating that Dorothea will lose his money if she marries Will Ladislaw.   (Will and the will–I like the joke.)  Dorothea is humiliated–certainly she has never thought of a second marriage– but  she also believes Will should have half the money, because his mother was disinherited for marrying out of her class.

Women in Middlemarch are dependent on men.  Dorothea has her own money, but she does not have the education.  It is not Mr. Casaubon’s money that interested her, but his mind. And because of the proviso in the will, she is  exasperated to find he also expected her to continue his work  She no longer feels the obligation.

Every word Eliot writes is so vivid and brilliant, and the images are spectacular.  His useless scholarly work is “a tomb.”

…he willingly imagined her toiling under the fetters of a promise to erect a tomb with his name upon it.  (Not that Mr. Casaubon called the future volumes a tomb; he called them the Key to all Mythologies.)  But the months gained on him and left his plans belated:  he had only had time to ask for that promise by which he sought to keep his cold grasp on Dorothea’s life.

The grasp had slipped away. …now her judgment, instead of being controlled by duteous devotion, was made active by the imbittering discovery that in her past union there had lurked the hidden alienation of secrecy and suspicion.

Every word is perfect!

middlemarch modern library 31G4jQG40XL._BO1,204,203,200_There are many, many characters in Middlemarch.  I am fascinated by Lydgate, a brilliant doctor with the ambition to do scientific research. His marriage prevents him:   marriage is  a trap in Middlemarch.    I am also very fond of  Mary Garth, the smart, sharp, sometimes  bitterly sarcastic young woman who, unsuited to be a governess, prefers to work as a nurse/companion to Mr. Featherstone, a dying rich man.  Mary’s morality unwittingly spoils her friend Fred Vincy’s chance of inheriting the money: I won’t tell you how.  Characters struggle in Eliot’s fictional provinces with doing the right thing.  The right things are right, but can be costly.  It takes a gambling vicar, Mr. Farebrother, to explain why Mary was right in the long run.  (And that’s why Mary should marry Mr. Farebrother, but you know it’s not going to happen.)

Whom do you love?  Not necessarily the right person in Eliot’s world:  that’s for sure!

Any introduction to Middlemarch can give you the background you need. These are just musings.  Writing about the classics is so difficult:  it is the life work of scholars.  This is not my life work!

Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, my favorite, is even more intense.

On with Middlemarch!

Three “Literary” Women’s Blogs, Book Week, & Is Silas Marner a Classic?

Matisse, "Woman Reading with Tea"

Matisse, “Woman Reading with Tea”

Last week I wrote The Blogger Chronicles, a series on the pros and cons of blogging.

And so I am declaring this “Book Week” at Mirabile Dictu.  (“I have been reading” is my new motto.)

Before I move on, let me give you links to three literary women bloggers I neglected to mention.

1.  Mary Beard’s A Don’s Life appears at the TLS (my favorite book review publication and the only one I subscribe to).  Beard, a classicist, historian, professor at Cambridge, and TV celebrity, writes a blog about classics, her domestic life, travels, experiences on TV, and more.

Her latest post: “A 1950s childhood: 5 objects of nostalgia”

2.  Novelist Caroline Leavitt’s CAROLINELEAVITTVILLE. In her latest post, she writes about SheBooks, an e-book publisher of short stories and memoirs by women.

3.  Novelist Jennifer Weiner’s A Moment of Jen:  In her latest post, she writes about counting “the number of books reviewed that were written by women, and the number of women writers profiled in the Times, and then I grumble when those numbers turn out to be significantly lower than the number of male authors whose works and selves got that consideration.”

And now for BOOK WEEK.  First Book Post Up: Is Silas Marner a Classic? 

One of the disadvantages of taking a vacation in London is that the Nuneaton tour of George Eliot is apparently in Nuneaton. Perhaps I should go there?

Daniel Deronda is my favorite novel by Eliot, and possibly my favorite novel of all time, but instead of rereading it I have been catching up on her shorter works, because even her lesser works are better than most other novels.

silas-marner-weaver-raveloe-george-eliot-paperback-cover-artWhen my friends read Silas Marner at the public school, I was attending a hippie/lab school ($25 a year) and reading Middlemarch.  My school apparently couldn’t afford to buy books, so I took courses like Independent Reading (in which I read everything from Middlemarch to Sisterhood Is Powerful! to Richard Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn), and an English lit course where there were enough copies of Macbeth, but we had to choose between David Copperfield and Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case (and  a few others I can’t remember) in the novel unit, probably because there weren’t enough books to go around.

Not everyone did a lot of reading, though there is much nostalgia for this school, which closed in the ’70s.  (There are still reunions, I think.)   One of my most vivid memories is of running a consciousness raising group in a classroom over the lunch hour.  I also recall the principal’s emerging from the office to stop two students from disrobing in the halls, an episode I had found unexpected and  intriguing.

I saw no need to read Silas Marner until I realized that I’d never read it.

If I were still at hippie school, I would doubtless have referred to it as “f—ing Silas Marner,” because it’s not very good, and that’s how we talked then.

The plot?  Silas Marner, a weaver, goes to chapel regularly. He is very religious, and very happy in Lantern Yard; but one day his friend sets him up for the theft of the church’s treasury.  Although his friend committed the robbery, Silas is blamed and prayed for; he moves to Raveloe to get away from his bad rep, and works as a weaver out of his home.  Ironically, “post-theft” he falls in love with gold.  He hides it under the floor and loves to count it.  But when someone steals the gold, Silas is devastated.  It turns out for the best, though, because shortly thereafter he sees the gold curls of a toddler (instead of gold!  yes, that’s how ungainly the structure is) whose opium-addicted mother has died in the snow. The little girl has wandered into his house, and, happily for all, he raises her and becomes a favorite of the villagers.

It is an extremely sentimental novel, rather too perfectly structured and clumsily put together, and exactly the kind of thing mediocre school teachers used to love to teach because there’s much symbolism, and it’s really no work for them (and so thank God for the hippie school, where we were left alone to learn).

Eliot is a wonderful writer, but this is the kind of writing we’re dealing with here:

…he had a dreamy feeling that this child was somehow a message come to him from that far-off life:  it stirred fibres that had never been moved in Raveloe–old quiverings of tenderness–old impressions of awe at the presentiment of some Power presiding over his life; for his imagination had not yet extricated itself from the sense of mystery in the child’s sudden presence, and had formed no conjectures of ordinary natural means by which the event could have been brought about.

“Somehow a message”–oh, please.

Not Eliot at her best.

But Terence Cave, the writer of the introduction to the Oxford edition of Silas Marner, says,

By thus placing Silas so precariously on the threshold of unconsciousness, George Eliot was also able to give imaginative form to the Comtean notion of a gradual evolution of human consciousness in human history.  Nineteenth-century German philosophers (Schopenhauer in particular) attributed the great movements of the history not to conscious decisions made by individuals, but to an unconscious collective will…

Read Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, or The Mill on the Floss if you want to understand Eliot.  Silas Marner just isn’t as good.

George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical

I’m a Radical myself, and mean to work all my life against privilege, monopoly, and oppression.”  –George Eliot’s Felix Holt:  The Radical

Felix Holt eliotGeorge 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.

George Eliot

George Eliot

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.