It’s no secret that I think George Eliot is one of the most incredible female authors of all time, and Felix Holt: The Radical only solidifies my feelings. It was the last full-length Eliot work I had to read, and while it was by no means my favourite of her books it was an enjoyable read, and very relevant in today’s political climate – something which I really wasn’t expecting.
This book is set around the Reform Act of 1832 and the local politics of the fictional town of Treby Magna. If there’s one thing Eliot can do it is capture a small town absolutely perfectly – she is so good at writing a novel which focuses in and around a whole community, with several people at the forefront of attention. As with Adam Bede though, the titular character isn’t really the main character (nor is he the most interesting), in fact as with all Eliot novels it is the female characters that take the crown as the most interesting character. Mrs Holt and Mrs Transome – the mothers of two of our main, male protagonists, are far more interesting than their respective sons. And Esther is, as with most of Eliot’s young, female protagonists, a young woman who want’s independence – she’s highly educated, some would argue too educated, for a preacher’s daughter in a small town.
Aside from it being a character study of life in a small town on the brink of political change, it does bring the question of do the electorate always get things right in to a Victorian setting. Obviously, that makes the book highly relevant to even today’s political climate – what with the result the electorates in the US and the UK in the last 18 months! Much as with today, the political climate is all over the place in this novel – the working class are frustrated and don’t agree with the ‘establishment’ but have no means to change it. Which is where radicalism came in to play. Felix Holt is one of our radicals, and he is an interesting character. He believes in empowering the working class from the bottom – starting with education. The coverage of the Reform Act is such a poignant reminder of how lucky so many of us are to have a vote. The Reform Act gave power to the people, not just land-owning, white men. Although it did still take 100 years for women to get an equal vote, education and the ability to vote was a start.
It is by no means her best book, and of her novels it definitely falls bottom-to-middle in my list of favourites but it was actually one of her most thought provoking for me personally. It falls in the middle of her career, and was succeeded by (arguably) two of her best books Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda – and that’s very clear for me when reading it.
So, if it wasn’t clear, while it was far from perfect, I can comfortably put it up there close, but not quite equalling, my two favourites – Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede. I still want to re-read Middlemarch, because having read the rest of her works I do feel that that book will have a better impact on me. I will be doing a whole spotlight on my beloved George Eliot in the not so distant future, so if you’re interested, look out for that!