Felix Holt: Novel by George Eliot

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      Felix Holt was begun in March 1865, and it was completed in little more than a year. In this novel, we come back from Florence of the Renaissance to the English midlands during the Reform Bill agitation, and for that, we may be thankful. But George Eliot is no longer drawing upon the old memories of Griff She turns to account an election riot which, we are told, she had seen in her school days at. Nuneaton; but she is thinking mainly of the Coventry time. Mrs. Poyser and her dairy have vanished, and with them the old-world charm. We have no longer the peculiar glamour which invested the former stories; the sense of looking at the little world through the harmonizing atmosphere of childish memories and affections; or of becoming for the once denizens of a social order, narrow enough in its interests, but yet wholesome, kindly and contented. We have some of the old-fashioned country gentry and a parson who fill the subordinate parts satisfactorily enough; but the principal interest is to be in the county-town of Treby Magna, just waking to the consciousness of the great political movement outside, and with little enough that was romantic about its lawyers, tradesmen, or manufacturers. Canals and coal mines and a saline spring are beginning to rouse it from its “old-fashioned grazing, brewing, wool-packing, cheese-loading life”: and the change only seems to reveal thoroughly prosaic, not to say vulgar and stupefying characteristics. Naturally, therefore, we are expected to sympathize with Felix Holt the Radical, who is trying to stir up this stagnant pool.

      Felix Halt is a radical of the days of 1832; and George Eliot, as we have seen, had been refreshing her memories of that period by reading the old newspapers, and had been surprised by the strength of the language. Felix Holt, however, has to be a model young man and, therefore, he sees from the first the errors of contemporary zealots. When a self-styled radical orator addresses a public meeting and demands “universal suffrage”, and the other points of the Charter, Felix appeals to reason. Systems of suffrage and the rest, he tells the mob, are engines; the force that is to work them must come from men’s passions. No scheme will do good, therefore, unless the power behind it takes a right direction.

      The “steam that is to work the engines” is public opinion, that is, “ruling belief in society about what is right and what is wrong, what is honorable and what is shameful”. Nothing, therefore, is to be expected from a party which sanctions bribery and corruption. When Felix makes a personal application of this lofty doctrine by pointing out that the agent of his own party is an embodiment of corruption, he naturally produces loud cheers; but the doctrine itself however philosophical, would hardly have pleased his audience.

      The effect is to take the sling out the hero. He is too reasonable for this part. He is introduced as a redhot radical, and shows it by extreme rudeness to Esther, whom he suspects of fine-ladyism. Esther, benign and admirable young woman, comes to see that he is right, and even that there is something complimentary in his exasperation against her. No doubt, Felix is an honorable man, for
he refuses to live upon a quack of medicine or to look leniently at bribery when it is on his own side. But there is a painful excess of sound judgment about him. He gets into prison, not for leading a mob, but for trying to divert them from plunder by actions which are misunderstood. He is very inferior to Alton Locke, who gets into prison for a similar performance. The impetuosity and vehemence only comes out in his rudeness to Esther and plain Speaking to her adopted father; and in trying to make him ideal of wisdom, George Eliot only succeeds in making him unfit for his part.

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