Just finished reading George Eliot’s Felix Holt, The Radical (published in 1866). At first, I was listening to it in the car, the Librivox.org free version. Then I simultaneously picked up a paper copy and downloaded an epub version. This is my usual workflow. I sidle into large books, then turn to the paper copy as I get more and more interested. I start underlining, highlighting, making notes. The epub copy is great for searching half-remembered details, following patterns, and for grabbing quotes.
I had read Silas Marner in school, Mill on the Floss later (with its amazing deus ex machina flood washing everyone away at the end). An annoying acquaintance used to go on about how Middlemarch is the greatest novel in the English language; on his recommendation, I have never been able to read it. Felix Holt interested me now because it is one of those great English novels (like Mansfield Park, like Vanity Fair) that sneaks in the theme of slavery. Slavery, planters, and mixed-race children are the focus of the book I am writing at the moment. In Felix Holt, one of the central characters, Harold Transome, has just returned to England having made himself immensely rich in the Middle East. He brings a mixed-race son with him, offspring of a slave woman he purchased in country and whom he left behind.
I don’t know why Eliot decided to have Harold make his fortune in the Middle East, some odd delicacy on her part; for the quick fortunes in the early 19th century were mostly being made in the West Indies on the great sugar estates, where mixed-race children were common. Anthony Trollope, in Vanity Fair, has a mixed-race character who has inherited her father’s fortune and comes to England a rich woman (who is, ironically, accepted in society because of her money). In Mansfield Park, the Bertram family of the eponymous country house live off income from a slave estate in Antigua (there are no mixed-race children).
In Felix Holt, Eliot ever so lightly touches on historical occurrences that rankled society. Like many novelists, she was talking about slaves and mixed-race children in a way that gave a palliative language to the problem no one wanted to face directly. This is a kind of conservative social therapy novelists, who are after all trying to make money, are good at. The odd thing is, of course, that the novel is taken up with politics and morality, the extension of suffrage, the subordinate status of women, and, of course, true love, but no one, not a single person, objects to the fact that Harold bought a slave and had a son by her. (Similarly, in Manfield Park, a novel about Christian morality, no one objects to the slaves, the source of the family bounty.) Novelists are often very good at substituting the drama of true love and local ethical circumstances for a problem that later readers will easily identify as the elephant in the room.
Harold Transome’s story also mirrors another aspect of West Indian planter slavery. His family has inherited an English country house and estate, Transome Hall. Harold is the youngest son, and like many a younger son in those days, he must go to the colonies to make his fortune. During Harold’s absence, the feckless older brother has run the estate down, then left it in the hands of his even more feckless father and his mother. Harold’s return supplies a stream of new money to pay off the loans, refurbish the house, and settle lingering lawsuits and chancery disputes. The great Trinidadian economist Eric Williams theorized that capital from West Indian slave estates fueled the Industrial Revolution. What is perhaps more obvious is that slave money financed an immense revival of the British country house and estate; planters sunk their capital into these signs of class prerogative and into vast arrays of showy commodities. As in the Transome case, this money shored up a deteriorating symbol of privilege (now Prince Charles has to sponsor shady charities to keep them going).
Thus Eliot presents a profoundly important political and moral issue and a real historical economic process, with repercussions exploding all around us today, while writing about something else altogether.
What she wants the reader to focus on is the love story between Esther Lyon, the daughter of widowed dissenting minister, and Felix Holt, the so-called radical, set against the backdrop of an election after the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill. Esther is the core of the novel, positioned in a dramatic romantic triangle between Felix and Harold Transome. Harold is running for election as a Radical (a new breed of reform-oriented, anti-tradition candidate), but Felix is the true radical, taking a Christian vow of poverty, advocating education for the poor to improve their lives, and allowing that everyone would be happier by accepting their lot and not bothering with violent politics. He is painted as a truly good man, except for his rather demanding scruples. He is also handsome and charismatic, while Harold is a little plump. Felix is idealistic and naive; Harold is pragmatic and routinely cynical (today we are used to the type: the wealthy celebrity activist politician). Not very deep, but not a bad sort. Naturally, Felix’s idealism leads to his killing a policeman (more or less by accident). That is one of the ironies of the book, that the good man is led to crime by trying to do good. Esther’s choice, though it is not always apparent to her, is between the truly good man and the bourgeois arriviste intent on using moral positions to further his career, social standing, and fortune.
Esther chooses poverty and Felix. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that Felix’s goodness is a bit shallow and wooden, and that Esther must commit herself to his cause, his way of life, and his scruples in order to have a relationship with him. Nor that Harold, in the end, acts the gentleman by releasing Esther and by helping Felix get out of prison. By the end of the book, Harold and his mother Mrs. Transome have experienced the spiritual depths in ways undreamed of by Felix and Esther. They have had lives, so to speak. And the reader, this one anyway, keeps turning away from the sunny little household cushioned by Esther’s inheritance (there is a son, naturally named Felix) to the lonely corridors of Transome Hall where the old woman and Harold live with their disappointed dreams and that cheerful, manic little mixed-race boy, son of a slave.