Tuesday, January 28, 2020

George Eliot's Felix Holt the Radical

I have decided a few things, upon finishing George Eliot's excellent and under-appreciated Felix Holt, the Radical. I have decided that Charles Palliser didn't write a Dickens homage when he gave us The Quincunx. I decided that Mary Anne Evans, aka George Eliot, is still my favorite writer of the 19th century and yes, I'm aware she's got a lot of competition. And I've decided that the novel has a totally misleading title, though yes, Felix Holt is a Radical. 

I mean, if a title contains a character's name, that character is usually a main character, if not the main  character, right? Gulliver is not a bit player in the account of his travels. Moll Flanders is not fridged in her novel. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is at least a sort of goal in human form in that story. But I'd argue that Felix Holt is nowhere near being the hero of "his" book, for all that the young woman I'd nominate for runner-up for the most important character would argue otherwise. Not that she'd be an impartial judge in this case. But we'll get to that. 

No, I'd argue that the pivotal figure in Felix Holt, the Radical is neither Felix nor his love interest, Esther Lyon; neither the dominating Harold Transome nor his scheming foil Matthew Jermyn. As to why, well, I'll remind my readers that the phrase "ware spoilers" is in the description text for this here blog first and then go on to say that...

If I were in charge of giving this book a title, I would have called it something like The Portrait of Mrs. Transome, or maybe Arabella's Agony, or if I were at a modern publishing house and determined to follow a certain annoying trend in titles, I'd slap on something like The Candidate's Mother. For it is the mother of Harold Transhome who is the fulcrum of the book, for all that her first name is only mentioned twice in the whole thing and then only indirectly. Were there not two passages in which her brother is musing on how she might react to things, we would know Arabella Transhome (neĆ© Lingon) simply as Mrs. Transhome. But without her decisions in the novel's backstory there is no story, and it is she who bears the greatest and most enduring sorrows Felix Holt, the Radical has to dish out, as the author is careful to point out fairly often. 

Indeed, after a lyrical opening that introduces us to the story's setting by having the reader imagine a stagecoach journey through the heart of 1830s England, from scenes of pastoral rural idyll and skirting its dark satanic mills and fully industrialized blight to bring us to a pleasant liminal zone between these extremes, Arabella is the first character we actually meet as she fusses her way through a morning in her stately though not perfectly maintained country house, awaiting her favorite son and fretting about how their meeting will go. Harold Transhome is her talented and capable younger son, gone for decades making his own way in the world because primogeniture, returning now to England to take over the family estate after the death of his doofus older brother has left him the heir. At first we think Arabella is merely anxious to see her darling and meet his little boy (by a woman he is generally understood to have married while abroad but whom he confesses late in the novel was actually his slave), but then we find that she's even more worried that he'll find fault with the management of his patrimony, not by his dead doofus brother or by his still living but senile father, but effectively by Arabella herself with the help and advice of the family lawyer, Matthew Jermyn. Who maybe cut some corners and skirted some rules in the course of keeping it all together. And also seems to have gotten pretty rich in the process somehow. 

And then we get the hint that Arabella has some even deeper and more unpleasant secrets yet for us to discover. And then we meet Harold himself, handsome if a little portly, confident, easy going, rich and expansive and full of plans for making the most of his family's property, which excites Arabella at first until she realizes that he has no interest in her explanations of how things have been run, opinions on his plans, or even in her participation in those plans. He's going to fix things up pretty for her, buy her some nicer clothes, redecorate her rooms and give her all sorts of things, but he doesn't care a whit for her thoughts or feelings and her disappointment at this is crushing but somehow not entirely surprising; we find she's kind of expected this and maybe even feels like she deserves it. She's just going to have to gracefully fade into the background and be a useless if still rather beautiful old woman (at age 55!) and just do embroidery and maybe cuddle her grandson now and then. 

Oh, and by the way, Harold is going to stand for Parliament. Wonderful, that is entirely suitable for a scion their genteel and well-propertied family! Oh, but he's not running as a Tory, or even as a Whig. No, his time abroad making his own fortune has led him to disrespect the status quo. He's going to run as a Radical. And he expects his mother and Mr. Jermyn to help him. 

But this is a novel about Felix Holt, the Radical. Riiiiiiight.

The next important people we meet are Mr. Lyon, a widowed Dissenting preacher, and his pretty and accomplished and very ladylike daughter, Esther, who seems on first meeting is merely going to be a figurant rather than fully a character -- it is a long time before the omniscient narrator gives us anything from her point of view. Theirs is a simple life. He preaches to a small congregation and she earns money for her little vanities by teaching French to Young Ladies, which she does very well because she is half-French herself. We learn that the story of her birth is very tragic and romantic, as (DRAMA BUTTON) she was already alive when her lovely French mother was taken in as a beggar by her soft-hearted preaching papa, who later married the poor woman and raised her daughter after she died young, i.e. Mr. Lyon is only Esther's step-father, though she doesn't know that. This all becomes important later on but for now we're just shown Esther as an unexpected adornment to her father's simple home, a vain girl whose years of exposure to the lives and households of her betters have left her with expensive tastes and maybe a little conceitedness.

Such is how Felix Holt -- remember Felix Holt? This is a novel about Felix Holt, the Radical -- certainly sees her when he starts calling on Mr. Lyon out of a shared concern over the plight of the poor and the overworked, whose ranks Felix has voluntarily joined despite having been raised and educated to be a doctor like his daddy was before him, which means, yes, Felix threatens to be That Guy. And he comes off as super self-righteous at first, very much That Guy. His late father made a fortune in patent medicines, which raised their standard of living and led Felix's mother to grow accustomed to the Finer Things, which she always assumed Felix would continue to provide for her but no, he's learned that daddy's drugs not only cured nothing but often made things worse, and he forbids her from continuing to make or sell them, which he can totally do because Patriarchy, and now she lives with him in a crummy house in which he teaches school to the children of the working poor and the indigent and he just seems a tiny bit punchable on this first meeting, does Felix Holt, except he's not there at the Lyons' house to pat himself or anyone else on the back for virtue, but because he's worried that the upcoming election will lead to considerable Trouble among the people he and Lyon both seek to serve, none of whom can vote but all of whom can be gotten rip-snorting drunk, turned loose on the streets during speeches and on election day and encouraged to commit mayhem on behalf of the candidate whose agents have generously been plying them with ale and gin for weeks and what can we do about it?

The Transhome and Lyons/Holt storylines take a while to intersect as we explore the nature of the coming elections and the general socioeconomic state of the era*, but when they do it's head-on, and it's all lawyer Jermyn's fault as Harold's campaign manager/ratfucker, ultimate author of Operation Get the Miners Drunk to Scare Away the Voters and much else. Holt shames Harold into trying to put a stop to it before somebody gets hurt, but Jermyn convinces Harold that it's way too late for that but overplays his hand because he, like Arabella, still just can't believe Harold has become a Radical but kind of thought he'd done so cynically and would act a good Tory MP once elected but what's he doing hanging out with the likes of this Holt fellow, Something Must Be Done.

Which is weirdly where the Quincunx stuff comes in. That novel concerns an inheritance case in which various versions of a will and codicils thereto have a valuable estate tied up in court for decades but in the control of the most powerful claimants. The conditions that will allow them to maintain control require that another family with a better claim not die out entirely, for if that happens the machinery of inheritance law turns the estate over to a still different set of claimants. The tale focuses on the very last child of the otherwise extinct middle party, who has grown up in poverty, been orphaned, is hunted by one branch and cynically protected -- but to a bare minimum -- by the other. When I first read it many years ago, I took it as a sort of Dickens pastiche even though it was set decades earlier than Dickens' own time period. 

Now, though, I see it was not only more of a George Eliot homage, but a neat inversion of a state of affairs in Felix Holt, the Radical. When Jermyn finds that he not only has lost control over his candidate and client family but also might be sued into poverty by his candidate on the grounds that he gave Arabella decades of bad advice and profited from her resulting bad decisions, he revisits a decision of his own made long ago, in which he manipulated affairs behind the scenes in an inheritance dispute over the Transhome Estate! Moreover, it was a dispute just like the one at the heart of The Quincunx, only in this novel we've been getting the side of the winners of that dispute, whose counterparts were the villains of The Quincunx. The hero-victim figure of The Quincunx is only represented as a minor but rather amusing character in Felix Holt but takes the important step of dying in the last third of the book here, though, which means the losing family, whose claims Jermyn worked hard to squash by hounding the last scion to an early grave long ago, though, turn out to have just one more descendant!!!! But only Jermyn knows who that descendant is! So of course he thinks this is all the leverage he needs to keep Harold in line.

But he thinks wrong. Harold made his own fortune, so he's not quite as worried about losing the estate as he might otherwise be, and for good measure comes up with a counter move that looks to thwart Jermyn's threat... but this only means Jermyn has to go for the nuclear option.

The nuclear option relates also to decisions made long ago, but not only by Jermyn, which brings it all back around to Arabella. Arabella, who was a seriously beautiful woman in her youth (as a large and dominant portrait of her that still hangs in the drawing room of her home attests) but already not very happy in her marriage. Arabella, to whom managerial responsibilities seem to have fallen long before her husband hit senility but needed a man's help because Patriarchy, and who was there to turn to but her doofus husband's handsome young lawyer? Arabella, who seems to have just gotten sadder and more tired and withdrawn over the decades...

Oh, there are some agonizing scenes between Arabella and Jermyn. All of his shady dealings were for her sake. He could have gone somewhere bigger and made more money and been more important but he stayed, again for her sake**. And while her number one son was doofus like his daddy, her number two son was smart and handsome like his daddy and of course this was going to turn into Star Wars a little bit. Search your feelings. 

And yes, the election happens and riots happen and Esther and Felix fall in love and there is supposed to be a preacher fight but there winds up not being a preacher fight (which is too bad, because I'm thinking George Eliot could have written one hell of a preacher fight. Heh) and Esther and Felix turn out neither of them to be as insufferable as they first seemed but really, who cares? Arabella done screwed up (though her situation wasn't super great to begin with) and was made to pay and pay and pay and pay for it and per the epilogue she kept right on paying until the day she died. 

Oh and meanwhile? Jermyn, while manipulating her and her family's resources for decades had gone ahead and married someone else and had three beautiful dollars and also lived in the days when a man could have a totally shady career for decades and then just relocate to another county and have a perfectly nice life. 

So, anyway, Felix Holt. Who he again?

Great book, though. 

*Which is a stonking mirror of our own times, right down to people (including the author. Especially the author) waxing nostalgic over the halcyon days of yore when people weren't so bitterly partisan, elections were fair and straightforward, etc. People were pining for kinder, gentler, less political times. IN 1833.
**Which, did she ever ask all that of him, I wonder?

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