Monday, 24 October 2011

On Reading: Felix Holt The Radical by George Eliot

I came across a copy of this novel in a second hand bookshop recently. The media is currently full of stories about how the internet is changing our brain and affecting our ability to concentrate. It did take me a while to set my brain to work on the sentence construction and slow unfolding of a full-blooded nineteenth century novel - but it was well worth the effort.

Eliot's novel, published in 1866, is set in the aftermath of the first of the great electoral Reform Acts, in 1832. Somewhere on my shelves I also have a now very dusty thesis on this subject, written for my BA in Modern History at Manchester University over thirty years ago. I have a clear memory of my excitement, waiting for the Bristol County Record office to open on a crisp autumn morning, so that I could get at the archives and the tales of derring-do about corruption and rioting in the days before a secret ballot. I like the fact that Eliot, as a "woman novelist" is willing to tackle these great political and economic upheavals while at the same time focussing in on a small circle of characters who hold the story and the outcome of whose lives you very quickly come to care deeply about. There is a Dickensian element to the plot, dealing with inheritance and parentage and the machinations of lawyers. But Eliot has a deftness of touch and lacks the heavy-handedness I have always found in the more polemical works of Dickens. For me, she is worth the effort which I never seem able to make for him.

Taking time to get acquainted with this novel through its descriptive introduction is to slow oneself down to the pace of that world, one that was already thirty years in the past when Eliot was writing. She compares the glories of travel on the outside box of a stagecoach to the fast pace of train travel: "shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle". Having recently been "shot" between London and Colombo in our modern form of tube, the jet plane, I met an educated Sri Lankan woman, now resident in Australia, who was looking to provide her westernised sons with the opportunity to ride from the station in a bullock cart before this form of transport disappears for good. It is into this older, slower-paced world that Eliot gentle circles us, like a plane waiting to land at Heathrow.

On landing we find ourselves at Transome Court, where Mrs Transome, who has grown old holding the estate together in the face of an imbecile husband and elder son, awaits the return from the east of her younger son, Harold, in whom all her hopes for the future rest. But like many things long anticipated, Harold's return does not bring what she hopes. For one thing he has become a Radical and will stand for election as such and not as a Tory as his family and rank should dictate. For another, he fails to understand his mother's contribution during his absence and the complex relationship she has with the estate's lawyer Matthew Jermyn. Meanwhile, at Malthouse Yard in Treby Magna, seemingly a million miles away in rank, if not in distance, live the Reverend Rufus Lyon and his daughter Esther. He is the minister of the Independent Chapel and she is a young lady with a certain love of finery and an air about her that is somewhat "above her station" and outside of her father's strict religious principles. A neighbour of theirs, widowed Mrs Holt, also has a son recently returned who has brought disappointment to her. He is the eponymous Felix Holt, an "idealist working class Radical" who has rejected both the middle class life that his parents wanted for him and the business of quack medicine he has inherited from them. He wants to keep his mother through his honest work as a watch cleaner and repairer. She, rightly as it turns out, is terrified that this will not provide her with the financial security she needs for her old age. It is the interactions of this group of people, and a servant of the Transomes, Maurice Christian, the revelations of the truth about who they are and the real nature of their characters that carry the story through to its beautifully worked and woven structure and conclusion. I found myself longing for a "happy ending" and perhaps it does not give the plot away too much to say that this is provided although not without various twists and turns along the way.

The writer of the introduction to my Everyman's Edition, Professor F. R. Leavis, says that Felix,"(t)hough the titular hero of the book... is not representative of its strength." This is because he is not "real". Leavis also sees Rufus Lyon as "another of the book's liabilities" and Esther Lyon, although "not so complete a failure as Felix" is also flawed because Eliot didn't know whether she was creating Gwendolen Harleth (the heroine of Daniel Deronda) or Dorothea Brooke (the heroine of Middlemarch). Nevertheless, I found myself caught up in their story and there was a resonance for me about the complexity of the human character and its behaviour. We are none of us straightforwardly good or evil and we all have motives that to us at least seem "rational". I found the interchanges between Felix and Esther particularly moving as they explore whether either can or should transform in the way required to make a life together before circumstances and status drive them apart. But perhaps the most moving portrait is that of the elderly Mrs Transome, who in one sense sees her life's work realised but in another has all her hopes and dignity dashed away. Highly recommended brain-stimulating fireside reading.

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