Whistlestop Blog

Resuming George Eliot's Felix Holt, the Radical

Felix Holt, the Radical was one of the those books that got put on hold or on the back burner or set aside as I moved on to other books, other projects.  I had been enjoying it, as I always do with a George Eliot novel, but . . . .  So last Fall I picked it up after years of suspended animation and determined to finish it.  I am very glad I did.

After my first George Eliot, Adam Bede, I was so pleasantly astonished that I wanted to read all of her in order.  Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) is her fifth novel.  Already I am bending my self-imposed ambition:  I will read Romola (1862-63) next, her novel about Renaissance Florence, because I had skipped it to stay in her perfect groove of small-village and countryside English life.  Eliot, the pen-name of Marian Evans, was a thoughtful and serious writer with a lovely, formal, and precise style that is a pillar of Victorian literature.  Her work is more restrained than Thackeray, not as virtuoso as Dickens, and more nuanced and empathetic than Collins.

Felix Holt is a man with a vision that sees justice and a noble integrity for all humanity and yet is oblivious to the heart of Esther Lyon, an intelligent and kind Dissenting minister's daughter (or is she?).  Set in 1832, at the time of the first Reform Act, it is a sharp-eyed novel of village life, politics, and class -- and also a suspenseful romance that will keep you in suspense until the last chapter.  It has one of the most moving scenes of father-daughter conversation that I have ever read.  The portrait of the elder Mrs. Transome is devastating, yet poignant.  Its frankness will surprise you.  It has a riot in it (not giving away anything here) that will shock American readers who think of English country life as sleepy and innocent.  

Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie (1867-1906), an Anglo-American writer and critic, wrote in the classic 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that "the charm of Jane Austen is the charm of the untroubled and well-to-do materialist, who sees in a rich marriage, a comfortable house, carriages and an assured income the best to strive for; and in a fickle lover of either sex or the loss of money the severest calamities which can befall the human spirit.  Jane Austen despised  the greater number of her characters:  George Eliot suffered with each of hers.  Here, perhaps, we find the reason why she is accused of being inartistic.  She could not be impersonal."

If you know Eliot, the beautiful and precise writing will not surprise you at all.  If you do not know Eliot, if she is one of "those classics" that you have missed, I highly recommend her.