A novel of society, politics and elections; of people and relationships; of principles and the lack of them; of secrets; and of women’s role and place in society and family, among others, Felix Holt: The Radical (1866) was George Eliot’s fifth published novel. Set in a small (fictional) industrial town in the midlands, Treby Magna, the events of the book unfold in the context of the Reform Act of 1832 and the changes it bought in terms of people who had the right to vote, how elections were conducted at the time, and relatedly the politics (Tories vs Radicals mostly).

The younger son of the Transome family (one of the wealthy families in the neighbourhood) is returning to town after 15 years in the East, having made a substantial sum of money. His mother, Mrs Transome is anticipating his return eagerly for he is her pride and joy; her husband is described as an ‘imbecile’ while the older son (now dead) was dissipated and much like his father. But Harold has done well, and is expected to return and take over the Transome estate (which is in trouble), perhaps even contest elections. And while he does do that, the Transomes and other noble families in town are in for a shock, for Harold intends to contest as a radical. Harold means well, but his own interests and way are the priority for him—for instance, his mother’s well-being and wants are looked after but he has no care or value for her opinions (though it is she who has been managing things so far); the property agent/lawyer Jermyn is appointed as his election agent since he needs him, but Harold dislikes Jermyn and means to make him pay for his mismanagement of the Transome estates.  

Meanwhile in Treby Magna, we also meet Felix Holt, a radical in his own right, and one far more principled than Harold. Felix has trained as a doctor but scorns genteel life and occupations, choosing to earn his living as a watchmaker. He wishes to work among the workmen—educating them, making them aware of their responsibilities. But he too, like Harold disappoints his mother, for he also disdains the small pill business on which his family depends and makes Mrs Holt (who like Mrs Transome has been managing her family) give it up, dubbing it as no more than quackery.

We also have the Lyons, Mr Lyon the dissenting minister who is also somewhat of a scholar and preaches among a small congregation, and his lovely daughter Esther, fond of the finer things in life to which she applies her earnings as a teacher. Felix soon befriends the Lyons, and while Felix and Esther’s relationship starts out with a little friction (he disapproves of her reading tastes [Byron] or love of finery), soon Esther finds herself admiring his idealism and ideas, wanting to earn his approval in what she does, while his feeling too deepens, though he sees no place for love in his life.

As campaigning for the elections begins, practices like treating the miners and workmen to free liquor (thereby gathering unruly support) too, start to take place, something Felix takes strong objection to trying to drum some sense into the workmen; Harold mayn’t want these in theory, but is ok with closing his eyes to what his agents might get up to. Alongside, there are secrets in both Harold and Esther’s lives—ones they themselves aren’t aware of, and as these are revealed, relationships and dynamics alter, and matters of property, manipulation and blackmail start to emerge.

In Felix Holt, Eliot gives us an engaging read, blending personal and romantic stories with broader social issues and commentary such that both aspects move together without either taking the novel over and giving the reader enjoyment while also delivering its messages.

Elections and politics, and especially things as they unfolded post the Reform Act of 1832 are both the context and subject of the book. And at a time when suffrage wasn’t available to all men, let alone universal suffrage, one issue that plagued the election process was the use of treating (free alcohol) workmen so as to get them to support one or the other candidate. While these men didn’t have the vote, their numbers and the violence (rioting and disorder) they could be worked up to were used freely by unscrupulous agents and candidates to either simply disturb the process or in their favour. (Election day as portrayed in the book was quite the eye-opener.) Amidst this Felix is Eliot’s voice of reason trying to get the workmen to see that the vote is important but of itself of no value if it isn’t exercised responsibly—and knowledge, ability and honesty all play a part in this. This line of thought is as relevant in the present for (and I couldn’t help but think back to Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg here), mechanical or passive participation in the process can as well mean that these elements (even if we have them) are not necessarily employed.

Another broader issue that Eliot highlights is of women and thir role in society. Though unlike in Middlemarch, where Dorothea Brooke wished to do something worthwhile rather than live the typical wealthy woman’s life but lacked the education or guidance to do so, here we simply see women affected by social mores and expectations. Mrs Transome and Mrs Holt have both held the reigns of their families in their own ways, yet as their sons grow up and ‘take over’ so to speak, their opinions are sidelined and they are simply expected to fall in with the young men’s wishes and thoughts.

Our heroine, Esther is fond of feminine things and finery (which she works to provide for herself), dreams of a life of luxury, but under Felix’s influence begins to grow and change, at a point finding herself in a dilemma between her dreams and the alternative path that seems possible with Felix’s love. (Love itself though, is seen differently by different characters—Felix for instance, vis-à-vis his ideals; or Mrs Transome in terms of power).

Felix Holt himself is an interesting character. He is young and idealistic, and not so only in theory but also in practice, trying to do as he preaches, while also trying to help the workmen through encouraging their children to get an education, spreading awareness, trying to intervene where he witnesses election malpractices and such. And yet, his idealism also leads to a fair bit of trouble for himself which causes much discomfort even though he continues to live by his principles all through. Admirable though he may be, his approach does throw up the question of perhaps a need to balance ideals and practical considerations, even if not for one’s own comfort but at least of those for whom one is responsible.

But with these more serious themes there are also more entertaining ones; with more than one character with secrets and others out to use these to their own advantage, we get a fair bit of excitement in the book too. One is able to guess part of these right at the start (though nothing is ever expressly stated), but it is still interesting watching how these will play out and how these impact our characters’ lives. There is also one rather humourous episode involving a theological debate which Mr Lyon proposes, which I thought made for a really enjoyable and light segment in the book.

Felix Holt is a book which is equal parts thought provoking and entertaining, with ideas which resonate even today and characters that are flawed and sympathetic. I read this over February and March in instalments with a Goodreads group.  

(Edition details: Wordsworth Editions, 1997, paperback, 416 pp.; own purchase)


19 thoughts on “Book Review: Felix Holt: The Radical (1866) by George Eliot

  1. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never even heard of this one! I must say it sounds great – I’ve always been interested in that period of social history. Must put this one on my next Classics Club list. Thanks for highlighting it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a George Eliot I haven’t read, but sounds like one that should really be on my TBR. What I especially appreciate about her books is the nuanced and complex characters created and how she weaves their stories together in such a satisfactory way, as you’ve described so well here.

    Liked by 1 person

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