Felix Holt, The Radical

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Felix Holt, The Radical ranks alongside Romola as George Eliot’s least-read novel. I’m happy this time to report that Eliot’s fourth full-length novel abundantly deserves and repays reading.

Felix Holt receives criticism for two alleged flaws.

Flaw one is the title character himself. Felix is a Gentile Daniel Deronda, an almost too good to be true character created by what Richard Brookhiser has aptly and amusingly called the Eleanor Roosevelt side of George Eliot’s brain. Holt is handsome, brave, scrupulously honest, piercingly intelligent, and militantly class conscious:

“If there’s anything our people want convincing of,” Felix at one point declares, meaning the working class, “it is, that there’s some dignity and happiness for a man other than changing his station. That’s one of the beliefs I choose to consecrate my life to.”

The second alleged flaw is its over-complex plot, filled with mysterious secrets, sudden revelations, and astounding revelations.

These two flaws are linked together. What the astounding revelations reveal is the artificiality and unreality of the English class system: characters thought to be lowly turn out to be of high birth, characters of high station discover that they have disgraceful antecedents. Ironically, it turns out that it is the revelation that one is not a “gentleman” in the blood sense of the term that inspires a character to act like a “gentleman” in the moral sense of the term.

Because the plot turns on surprise, and because the novel is obscure enough that I have to assume that many potential readers do not already know the plot, I will not summarize it here.

Instead, without disclosing too much, I’d like here to argue the novel’s merits. To my reading, Felix Holt is as fine as any of Eliot’s full-length novels other than Middlemarch itself. I’d give it a few literary demerits as compared to The Mill on the Floss – but those demerits are balanced by Felix Holt‘s faster pace and more exciting story.

Felix Holt is a novel of politics. It is set on the eve of the enactment of the Reform Bill of 1832, and the background to the main action of the novel is a parliamentary election in a Midlands district. English politics in the period could be very violent and corrupt, and Eliot shows us the system in action more vividly than any other Victorian novelist I know, more even than Anthony Trollope, who softens the portrait with comedy.

Felix Holt is also a novel of class politics. Eliot’s plot gives a number of characters an opportunity to make choices about the class they will occupy – but those choices inevitably entail a heavy moral cost. Some characters do terrible things to rise, others accept the consequences of voluntary declassing – in one sad case, emigration out of England altogether.

Finally, and most brilliantly, Felix Holt is a novel of sexual politics. The most interesting and most finely realized character in the novel is an older woman, the genteel Mrs. Transome. The daughter of an earl, her husband’s senility and her eldest son’s irresponsibility burden her with the responsibility for managing the Transome estates, a once magnificent inheritance now impoverished by prolonged litigation and overshadowed by half-remembered local scandals.

At enormous personal sacrifices, she preserves the estates for her beloved second son, Harold. Harold left England at 18 to make his fortune as a merchant in Smyrna, on the Aegean coast of Turkey. The novel opens with the death of the elder son, and Harold’s return to England. The novel opens with Mrs. Transome’s eager anticipation of Harold: He has succeeded, he is rich, he will restore the family fortunes, and requite all Mrs. Transome’s labors, both public and some more morally dubious efforts carried out in secret.

The real adult Harold proves brusque, patronizing, and insensitive. He meets his mother’s every material need: redecorates the house, lavishes her with new clothes, installs her in the ultimate luxury of a carriage (the private jet of the pre-industrial era). But he has no sympathy or understanding for her. His attitudes toward women are brutally dismissive: They cannot be expected to think, or know, or decide, and any unhappiness in the women around him is attributed by him to their overstepping their proper role as adoring pets and toys. Harold’s attitude is best summed up in his treatment of the son he brings home with him. His mother is surprised and dismayed – had no idea that Harold had ever married. And indeed he had not: The boy’s mother was a slave bought for Harold’s pleasure in the markets of the Ottoman empire.

Mrs. Transome’s hurt and injury and then fury at her abandonment make her the outstandingly realized character of the book – and her insights into her condition as a once beautiful but now unregarded older woman form an indictment more accusatory than any wrong in the parliamentary or social condition of England. Political corruption and social inequality can be corrected or at least ameliorated. But there is nothing that can be done to redress the balance between the power of youthful beauty and the isolation of unfilial old age.

Mrs. Transome is no Victorian saint of the drawing room. Her love for Harold is conditioned on his gratitude and devotion to her, and when those do not satisfy her, she inwardly rages at him. She feels nothing for her feral grandson. Her self-sacrifice was not self-sacrificing at all: She sought to achieve her own ego ends through the instrumentalities of others, and when they disappoint her she finds no solace in their seeming triumphs.

She is one of the great tragic characters of English literature, and also one of the greatest literary statements on the condition of women and the problems of feminism – all the greater because Eliot appreciates that these conditions and problems are not political in any useful sense of that term and not resolveable in the absence of the only thing that can bring understanding between men and women: love.

As for the character of Felix Holt, I credit Eliot with this: He is marginally more believable than Daniel Deronda – almost too good to be true, but not quite overstepping the line. The main female love interest of the novel, Esther Lyon, is a literary failure, a poorly delineated character unequal to the burden of sustaining two separate romantic subplots and also providing the secret crux on which the novel’s plot turns and on which its symbolism depends. Unsatisfactory as she is, however, she is highly interesting to the Eliot admirer because one can see in her the embryonic elements that will later be separated out into two of the most unforgettable female characters of Eliot’s final novels: Rosamund Lydgate and Gwendolyn Harleth.

One final reflection:

Among Eliot’s most important themes – and the reason she sets her finest works in the period before the advent of the railway, the newspaper, and the factory – is the widening mental consciousness brought by the changes of the 19th century. Eliot who lived through these changes herself felt no nostalgia for the vanishing Gemeinschaft of village life. The provincial mind of her girlhood – and especially the mind of the laboring classes – was in her description, darkened, unconscious, unthinking. She takes up this subject in almost all her books, but never more fully or more eloquently than in her introduction to Felix Holt. The blog format does not welcome extended quotations, but here is a highly edited and abridged selection from the central passage, which views the Midland countryside from an imagined seat atop a mail coach:

The shepherd with a slow and slouching walk, timed by the walk of grazing beasts, moved aside, as if unwillingly, throwing out a monosyllabic hint to his cattle; his glance, accustomed to rest on things very near the earth, seemed to lift itself with difficulty to the coachman. Mail or stage coach for him belonged to that mysterious distant system of things called ‘Goverment’, which, whatever it might be, was no business of his, any more than the most out-lying nebula or the coal-sacks of the southern hemisphere: his solar system was the parish; the master’s temper and the casualties of lambing-time were his region of storms. … 

[L]abourers’ cottages dotted along the lanes, or clustered into a small hamlet, their little dingy windows telling, like thick-filmed eyes, of nothing but the darkness within. The passenger on the coach-box, bowled along above such a hamlet, saw chiefly the roofs of it: probably it turned its back on the road, and seemed to lie away from everything but its own patch of earth and sky, away from the parish church by long fields and green lanes, away from all intercourse except that of tramps. If its face could be seen, it was most likely dirty; but the dirt was Protestant dirt, and the big, bold, gin-breathing tramps were Protestant tramps. There was no sign of superstition near, no crucifix or image to indicate a misguided reverence: the inhabitants were probably so free from superstition that they were in much less awe of the parson than of the overseer. Yet they were saved from the excesses of Protestantism by not knowing how to read, and by the absence of handlooms and mines to be the pioneers of Dissent: they were kept safely in the via media of indifference, and could have registered themsclves in the census by a big black mark as members of the Church of England. …

The land around was rich and marly, great corn-stacks stood in the rickyards – for the rick-burners had not found their way hither; the homesteads were those of rich fammers who paid no rent, or had the rare advantage of a lease, and could afford to keep their corn till prices had risen. The coach would be sure to overtake some of them on their way to their outlying fields or to the market-town, sitting heavily on their well-groomed horses, or weighing down one side of an olive-green gig. They probably thought of the coach with some contempt, as an accommodation for people who had not their own gigs, or who, wanting to travel to London and such distant places, belonged to the trading and less solid part of the nation. The passenger on the box could see that this was the district of protuberant optimists, sure that old England was the best of all possible countries, and that if there were any facts which had not fallen under their own observation, they were facts not worth observing: the district of clean little market-towns without manufactures, of fat livings, an aristocratic clergy, and low poor-rates. But as the day wore on the scene would change: the land would begin to be blackened with coal-pits, the rattle of handlooms to be heard in hamlets and villages. Here were powerful men walking queerly with knees bent outward from squatting in the mine, going home to throw themselves down in their blackened flannel and sleep through the daylight, then rise and spend much of their high wages at the ale-house with their fellows of the Benefit Club; here the pale eager faces of handloom-weavers, men and women, haggard from sitting up late at night to finish the week’s work, hardly begun till the Wednesday. Everywhere the cottages and the small children were dirty, for the languid mothers gave their strength to the loom; pious Dissenting women, perhaps, who took life patiently, and thought that salvation depended chiefly on predestination, and not at all on cleanliness. The gables of Dissenting chapels now made a visible sign of religion, and of a meeting-place to counterbalance the ale-house, even in the hamlets; but if a couple of old termagants were seen tearing each other’s caps, it was a safe conclusion that, if they had not received the sacraments of the Church, they had not at least given in to schismatic rites, and were free from the errors of Voluntaryism. The breath of the manufacturing town, which made a cloudy day and a red gloom by night on the horizon, diffused itself over all the surrounding country, filling the air with eager unrest. Here was a population not convinced that old England was as good as possible; here were multitudinous men and women aware that their religion was not exactly the religion of their rulers, who might therefore be better than they were, and who, if better, might alter many things which now made the world perhaps more painful than it need be, and certainly more sinful. …

In these midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another: after looking down on a village dingy with coal-dust, noisy with the shaking of looms, he might skirt a parish all of fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes; after the coach had rattled over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trades-union meetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region, where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantages of a near market for corn, cheese, and hay, and where men with a considerable banking account were accustomed to say that “they never meddled with politics themselves.” The busy scenes of the shuttle and the wheel, of the roaring furnace, of the shaft and the pulley, seemed to make but crowded nests in the midst of the large-spaced, slow-moving life of homesteads and far-away cottages and oak-sheltered parks. Looking at the dwellings scattered amongst the woody flats and the ploughed uplands, under the low grey sky which overhung them with an unchanging stillness as if Time itself were pausing, it was easy for the traveller to conceive that town and country had no pulse in common, except where the handlooms made a far-reaching straggling fringe about the great centres of manufacture; that till the agitation about the Catholics in ’29, rural Englishmen had hardly known more of Catholics than of the fossil mammals; and that their notion of Reform was a confused combination of rick-burners, trades-union, Nottingham riots, and in general whatever required the calling-out of the yeomanry.

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