Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Felix Holt, by George Eliot

Anyone who takes a look at my bookshelves will know how much I love the Victorian novel. The nineteenth century was a period of huge social change; with the expansion of manufacturing towns and introduction of the railway, Britain’s population exploded and ’new money’ became a force to be reckoned with. It provides a backdrop for some of the most iconic English language writers: Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and a personal favourite, George Eliot. Born Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans, the daughter of a farmer, she was lucky to receive an excellent education, largely because she was considered such an unattractive child she would never marry well. Her early life was respectable enough, taking over as her father’s house keeper at the age of 16 after her mother’s death; she remained with him until his death when she was thirty. At this stage her life takes a more unconventional turn; Evans moved to London, became a literary editor and fell in love with a married man. Although George Lewes was estranged from his wife, he was unable to divorce her, so Evans and he decided to live together openly as a couple. When she began to publish as an author Marian Evans adopted the male name George Eliot not just to avoid stereotyping as a female novelist, but also to avoid the scandal associated with her home life.

Many of Eliot’s novels are in fact historical novels, set during the years of her childhood, and Felix Holt is no exception. Set in 1832 this was an important year for British history, as it was the year the first Reform Bill was passed. This event forms a backdrop for much of the novel’s action. Before I had read George Eliot I had never heard of said bill, but it changed the electoral landscape of Britain dramatically. Way back in 1430 laws were passed establishing that male owners of land worth more than forty shillings were able to vote in county elections. Amazingly this rule did not change for four hundred years, until the passing of the Reform Bill, which increased the eligible voters by 50%. The Reform Bill also created new seats of parliament in the industrial towns such as Manchester. It is interesting stuff, but Eliot writing in 1866 assumes a level of familiarity with this history that I think most modern readers will struggle with. But that, in my opinion, is what Wikipedia was made for.

The political landscape of this novel may be dense, but her depiction of English country life and its people is as accessible as ever. The novel begins with a coach ride through southern rural England into the industrial midlands, depicting the shift from the agrarian lifestyle in tune with the earth to the smoky cities with workers up all night. The story itself begins at Transome Court, where a coach is expected. Eliot paints a picture of the whole estate in anticipation, but includes details that lead us to understand this is an estate in decline. We read a whole page before we are introduced to Mrs Transome, and two more before we learn it is her son, Harold Transome whom she awaits. Mrs Transome is a sad creature; she puts me in mind of Miss Havisham without the craziness, only the heartbreak. Eliot describes her beautifully with ‘She was far beyond fifty; and since her early gladness in this best-loved boy, the harvest of her life had been scanty.’. Harold has been overseas for fifteen years and has now returned to run the estate ruined by his now deceased elder brother. The Transomes represent the old families of England, clinging on to respectability and class, even though scandal is knocking at their door.

Into this we introduce Esther Lyon, adopted daughter of the local Dissenting minister. Esther is of humble origin, but has developed taste for the high life working as a governess in fashionable families. It would be easy for her to be a flighty Victorian female, but in the hands of Eliot, Esther is a rounded human being, aware of her faults, and capable of deep love and compassion. Esther’s father is friends with Felix Holt, a young craftsman of strong political opinion and high ideals. Holt is the least successful character in this novel; unusually for Eliot he never comes across as a person, only an idea, and unfortunately, a plot device.

Holt and Harold Transome are drawn together by the destabilising effects of the county elections. But it is in their love of Esther that they are truly rivals. Temptation lies in Esther’s way when she is invited to spend time at the Transome estate. This allows Elliot to explore a new relationship, that between Esther and Mrs Transome. The care that develops between the two is lightly depicted and believable. Mrs Transome is lonely and yearns for the affection Esther can give her; she haunts the manor like a living ghost. Esther on the other hand, in her youth and vitality, embodies a possible future for England, and in conjunction with Felix Holt, a new politically vocal middle class.

Eliot always writes convincing female characters and here she has succeeded again. Unlike many contemporary writers, Eliot can be unkind to her characters, allowing them to make bad marriages, so there is genuine tension as to whether Esther will end up like Mrs Transome. Some of the political machinations are convoluted but Eliot brings the rapid change Britain was experiencing to life within the scale of one village. While I enjoyed this book I would have to say it is probably of most interest to those who have already enjoyed George Eliot’s work. While it is a shorter novel than some, the plot meanders more. In short, it isn’t her best work. But, at the risk of sounding like a snob I think ‘not as good as Middlemarch’ is a criticism that can be made of every other novel ever written.

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