Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot.

1866 edition.
I've been meaning to read this book for so long I can't quite believe I've finally read it. Having read five of Eliot's seven novels (the last one I read was Silas Marner in June '15) I kept picking up and putting down Felix Holt (Eliot's fifth novel, first published in 1866) and never getting anywhere with it. Probably the last time I attempted it was around the time of the General Election of May '15, though it may have been during Brexit of June '16. Whatever the case something political was happening and was, as these things often are, very disappointing, so it was out of political disappointment I stopped reading Eliot's political novel! I do wish I could continue by saying I absolutely loved it and should never have left it so long, but sadly this is not the case. I by no means hated it, I enjoyed it well enough, but it was hard going: I put quite a bit of effort into reading it, but didn't quite get the return I would have hoped. From what I can gather, this is usually everyone's least favourite Eliot.

The novel is set at the time of the Reform Act of 1832 that would change electoral system of England and Wales. The Tory Prime Minister in 1830, Arthur Wellesley (1st Duke of Wellington), was opposed to reforms that would address unequal distribution of seats, rotten boroughs, and eligibility to vote. As a consequence the Tories were ousted later that year to be succeeded by the Whigs under Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1832-34). The reform was introduced once more, and again was defeated with strong opposition from the Tories and the House of Lords, but when it was put forward a third time it was finally successful, receiving Royal Assent (when the monarch, in this case William IV, formally approves an Act) in 1832. Part of its success was down to Lord Grey asking William IV to create more Whig peers (Lords in the House of Lords). William IV threatened to, which led to the Tories abstaining from voting to block the reform. 

The UK Parliament website describes the reforms that were made:
  • disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales and reduced another 31 to only one MP
  • created 67 new constituencies
  • broadened the franchise's property qualification in the counties, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers
  • created a uniform franchise in the boroughs, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers

With this came the Parliamentary Boundaries Act 1832, however, despite this reform, the majority of the working classes were still unable to vote. In 1780, when the population was just 8 million, only 214,000 were eligible to vote. The French Revolution had its part to play in this Reform Act 1832 with men demanding their voices be heard, and it led to around 1 in 7 being allowed to vote (only to men who occupied property with an annual value of £10). It was until the Representation of the People Act 1918 that all men over 21 and women over 30 were allowed to vote. Voting equality of the sexes was brought in under the Representation of the People Act 1928 with both men and women over 21 allowed to vote, and under the Representation of the People Act 1969 the age was reduced to 18.

A meeting of the Birmingham Political Union during May 1832
by Benjamin Haydon.
The early 1830s, then, was a time of some social upheaval. During the time of the introduction of the Reform Act the Whig government actually fell, and had was reinstated simply because Wellesley was unable to form a Tory government. The French Revolution and Luddites were still in people's memory, Chartism was not so far off being formed, the New Poor Law of 1834 was about to be formed which would prevent poor people receiving relief if they refused to enter into a workhouse, the Swing Riots took place in 1830 (uprising by agricultural workers in Kent that spread throughout the country, against labour-displacing agricultural machinery), the Queen Square riots in Bristol took place in 1831 after one of the attempts at the Reform Act was defeated, the Merthyr Rising of 1831 took place in Wales (against lowering of wages and unemployment), the Days of May unrest and riots, also because of the blocking of the Reform Act, took place, and in France the Canut revolts went on during the early 1830s (1831, 1834 and 1848) as well as the July Revolution, also known as the French Revolution of 1830 (Trois Glorieuses) with the overthrowing of Charles X (who was succeeded by Louis Philippe I, the last king of France. Quite a lot going on, in short, and there was a concern of "mob rule" or ochlocracy in which a mass of people or mob intimidate authorities into getting their own way. This is one such concern in Felix Holt.

Whilst this part of the 19th Century was dominated by the Tories (who would become the Conservatives) and the Whigs (who gradually morphed into the Liberals, then the Liberal Democrats), there was another political movement: the Radicals (a famous example of a radical would be Joseph Chamberlain, who began as a radical Liberal, before becoming the Prime Minister from 1895 to 1903), who were in favour of the Reform. Eliot's novel tells the story of  Harold Transome, the Radical son of a Tory family (much to his mother's horror). He is wealthy from Trade in the Far East and intends to stand as MP for North Loamshire (a fictional constituency) and much of his electioneering takes place in the village of Treby Magna, where resides young Felix Holt, (himself, as the title suggests, a Radical), as well as Rev. Rufus Lyon and his step-daughter Esther, both friends of Felix. Returning for a moment to Transome: the problem is him he isn't as radical as one would hope and his election campaign is somewhat dirty. Meanwhile Felix finds himself falling in love with Esther, who is on the brink of finding out the true identity of her father. As this plays out, riots take place and Felix is accused of the manslaughter of a policeman. Esther must choose between Felix Holt, the Radical, and the less Radical but financially stable Transome.

It isn't the most fascinating of novels, I must say. The background I found very interesting indeed, and there are debates on mob-rule (and the fear of it), democracy, and the power of educational reforms, as well as the ins and outs of election campaigns. One enjoyable element, however, was the change of Treby Magna from a generally complacent constituency to a rather rabid one, and I was reminded continuously of Brexit: the turnout for Brexit was 72.2%; compared with the General Elections of 2015 (61.1%), 2010 (65.1%), 2005 (61.4%), and 2001 (59.4%) it was relatively high. Both the Remain and Leave camps got, to be frank, rather rabid themselves at times and there was, almost out of nowhere, great social tension and unrest. This I could see reflected in Treby Magna. Aside from that both Transome and Holt could be rather vague, and it got on occasion a little tedious. Nonetheless worth a read, or even just a skim, to see an example of Eliot nodding. It does fall well short of the Middlemarch standard.

Comments

  1. i've had this book staring at me from across the room for several years; time i gave it some attention, maybe...

    Disraeli's "Sybil" covers some of the same ground as "Felix", but in a more approachable fashion, i think... i'm quite a Disraeli fan(both Benjamin and Isaac[Curiosities of Literature]) and have enjoyed most of the former's books; he's not classed as a major talent, i guess, but i've found him clever and comprehensible... Isaac is a study in himself; a lifelong autodidact, he was a sometime author and bibliophile with connections in the political world...he had the misfortune of becoming blind in later years, but it didn't stop him from writing more books...

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    Replies
    1. I remember you liked DIsraeli - I've still not checked out his other titles, though have kept my eye out :) I may buy one on Amazon soon, not having much luck finding anything other than Sibyl.

      As for Felix - I'd understand if you skipped it, but it is fairly good... :)

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    2. i'm starting to repeat myself; sorry: one of the failings of age...

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    3. Don't apologise - you reminded me to check out more Disraeli (I too am a litter forgetful!) :)

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