Felix Holt, the Radical George Eliot
The following entry presents criticism of Eliot's novel Felix Holt, the Radical (1866). For discussion on Eliot's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 4; for discussion of the novel Middlemarch, see NCLC, Volume 13; for discussion of the novel Daniel Deronda, see NCLC, Volume 23; for discussion of the novel Silas Marner, see NCLC, Volume 41; for discussion of the novel The Mill on the Floss, see NCLC, Volume 49; for discussion of the novel Adam Bede, see NCLC, Volume 89.
One of Eliot's lesser known works, Felix Holt, the Radical is often classified as a political novel although the work features a conventional courtship narrative more typically associated with domestic fiction. Featuring an ambivalently radical Radical, parallel but virtually separate narratives, and more than one paternity revelation, the novel has been criticized for its lack of cohesion and contrived plot devices. Like many of the author's other works, however, it also provides a poignant picture of a disappearing social order while commenting on the forces allied against it.
Plot and Major Characters
Felix Holt is set in the English Midlands at the time of the Reform Bill of 1832. It covers a nine-month period in the lives of the inhabitants of Treby Magna, a town caught up in the transition from the old England of rural farmland associated with a rigid class structure to the new England of manufacturing associated with the breakdown of that structure. Harold Transome, aristocratic heir to the Transome estate, and Felix Holt, working-class heir to a quack patent medicine business, both arrive home after being away for a number of years. Transome has amassed a fortune during his time abroad in Smyrna, and he returns as a widower with a young son, hoping to parlay that fortune into political power by running for Parliament as a Radical. The family estate, Transome Court, has long been mired in financial and legal difficulties, and Harold's mother is eager for her son to assume control of the property. Holt, meanwhile, has also been away from Treby Magna for a number of years studying medicine at the University of Glasgow and serving an apprenticeship to a country apothecary. When he discovers that his late father's patent medicine concoctions are worthless, he dissolves the business and, despite his education, takes work as a watchmaker in order to maintain his ties with the working class. His mother, dismayed by her son's actions, complains to the Dissenting minister Rufus Lyon. Convinced that God would not have allowed the business to flourish had it been based on fraud, Mrs. Holt bolsters her case by misquoting passages from Scripture that support the dispensing of ointments and cures.
Transome's parliamentary campaign is supported by the family lawyer, Matthew Jermyn, who employs another lawyer, John Johnson, to stir up support for his client among the lower classes. Holt complains to Transome about Johnson's rabble-rousing in the local pub, a strategy that he fears will cause the workers to riot. The political differences between Holt and Transome are exacerbated by their rivalry for the affections of Esther Lyon, daughter of the minister. When they first meet, Holt considers the beautiful Esther too refined and materialistic; he finds fault with her curls, her use of wax candles rather than tallow, and her appreciation of Byron. As they become better acquainted, however, he finds he has misjudged Esther and begins to appreciate her inner character.
On election day, Holt's fears about the mob's volatility are realized. When he attempts to lead the workers out of town to minimize the effects of the riot, he accidentally kills a constable and is charged with the murder. Although he is convicted, Esther defends him so eloquently that he is pardoned. Meanwhile, having lost the election, Transome takes charge of his family's property and discovers that Jermyn had been draining the estate of its resources for many years. In the ensuing legal battle it is revealed that Jermyn is Transome's father, the result of an affair with Mrs. Transome—who had carried the guilt of her son's illegitimacy for thirty years. The legitimate heir to the Transome fortune is Esther, whose true parentage had also been kept secret for many years. Esther, acknowledging her love for Holt, renounces her claim to her inheritance and rejects Transome as a suitor. By rejecting the fortune and the easy life associated with Transome Court in favor of a simple life with Felix Holt, Esther proves that she is not a “fine lady,” but a woman of principle and seriousness.
Felix Holt is concerned with the social and political changes taking place in England between the 1830s, the setting of the novel, and the 1860s, when the novel was written. The values of the old order, represented by the landed interests, are set in opposition to the working class values of Felix Holt. This struggle between power and moral virtue is the most prominent theme of the novel, with the values of the working class Felix and his bride-to-be represented as superior to those of the aristocracy, represented by the Transomes, and the bourgeoisie, represented by Jermyn and Johnson.
The novel also criticizes the shallowness associated with middle-class women during this period; such women are guilty of materialism, coquetry, sensuality, and “fine-ladyism,” as Holt calls it. Esther's rejection of these values, along with her inheritance, suggests that moral seriousness will triumph over a love of luxury and idleness.
While Eliot's personal vision of political and social reform enters into the construction of Felix Holt, the Radical, neither Eliot nor her title character are as radical as appearances suggest. While the landed interests come under fire for their conservative attempt to retain power, the working class is also criticized; the workers demonstrate their unworthiness to gain the franchise they seek by their susceptibility to bribes and demagoguery. Until the working class is educated, Eliot implies, they cannot be in charge of their own political destiny.
Felix Holt, the Radical is one of Eliot's least admired novels. Many scholars consider that its parallel narratives—political and domestic—result in a confusing, even incoherent plot. The fact that there are two subplots involving secrets of paternity has also led to charges that the narrative is contrived and convoluted. Nonetheless, at least two critics have emerged in the late twentieth century to make a case for the novel's unity. Florence Sandler argues for the “architectonic unity” of the political and domestic narrative strands—a unity which she believes is based on “the centrality of Esther, and the significance of her final decision; the role of Rufus Lyon; and the nature of the radicalism of Felix Holt.” Norman Vance concentrates on issues of land ownership and religious dissent, claiming that the novel's unifying factor is the comparison between the period in which it is set and the period in which it was written.
Several critics claim that the character of Felix Holt articulates Eliot's personal vision of the appropriate reform of English society. With that in mind, many take issue with Holt's “radical” credentials, maintaining that, like Eliot, the character is more conservative than the novel's subtitle suggests. The ambivalence surrounding the character's politics leads to additional charges of incoherence within the narrative and suggestions that Holt is not always a sympathetic character. Fred C. Thomson claims that “the dearth of camaraderie in Felix, his belligerent pedantry, his aloofness from the community life in Treby, to say nothing of the shadowiness of his background and motivations and the wooden dialogue, injure his effectiveness as a spokesman for George Eliot.” Feminist scholars have also criticized Holt's character, claiming his objections to Esther's refinement and aesthetic sensibilities make him no more desirable as a suitor than Transome, who believes that women are meant to be decorative rather than functional. Such critics claim that, despite the title, the main character of the novel is actually Esther, who must choose between two “misogynist radicals,” that is, “between the radical who sees women as useless delights and the radical who sees women as temptations unless useful,” as Alison Booth describes Esther's dilemma. Nonetheless, the novel was apparently much appreciated by Leo Tolstoy, who, according to Philip Rogers, admired it principally because of its criticism of “fine-ladyism”—materialism and frivolity in middle-class women, the very things Felix criticizes in Esther.
Many scholars consider Felix Holt a precursor to Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch, suggesting that the concerns the author resolved unsuccessfully in the former novel were perfected in the latter. According to L. R. Leavis, “Felix Holt is a key novel in George Eliot's development not because of its own merits, but because of its failure in fundamental issues that establish the success of her next novel, Middlemarch.”