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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Book Review: Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot

Felix Holt, the Radical tells the story of political upheaval around the time of the Reform Act in a provincial town. Harold Transome returns from years living abroad to claim his estate and also to stand for election as a Radical, rejecting his Tory roots. At the same time, Felix Holt returns home and sets about working hard in poverty when he could be something better. Felix befriends the Dissenting minster, Rev. Lyon but initially has something of a tetchy relationship with his daughter, Esther Lyon. However, as the election approaches, secrets begin spilling out and both Harold and Felix find themselves in difficult situations.

I've struggled with Eliot in the past but I really enjoyed this book once I got into it. It seemed to take a little while to get going, but once all the main players were in place it was a smooth read. Of the major secrets in the novel, one is obvious from the start, giving a colour to every interaction between certain characters that one of them is completely unaware of. In addition, I adored the interplay between Felix and Esther. Their sparring conversations in the early part of the novel are certainly one of the highlights, as are their slow realisations that they don't dislike each other as much as they think they do. Also, while Rev. Lyon irritated me a little in his opening few chapters, he develops quite well as the nature of his relationship with his daughter changes.

The riot scenes which Felix gets himself involved in are extremely evocative without being a litany of what every individual was doing at any given time. While the outcome of the riot is, perhaps, a foregone conclusion, Eliot's representation of both it and Felix is delicate and well-handled. The riot, along with the scene preceding it where Felix and Esther are skirting around the issue of their love are two of my favourite scenes in the novel, though I did also enjoy the court and prison scenes. I suppose that suggests that the best portions of the book come towards the end and that may well be the case.

There were some things about the book that grated slightly. I didn't like how long it took to get going, as mentioned above. I also found Eliot's segues into the mind of random voters (whilst completely understandable) a little tiresome. I found I was trying to keep names in my head that were only going to pop up once or twice again and for very little purpose. However, the milieu Eliot was trying to create certainly comes across on the page so I suppose that's a victory.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Felix Holt, the Radical for the characterisation of a few - Felix, Esther, Rev. Lyon and Mrs Transome - and some splendid scenes. I may have been at last converted to a 'proper' Eliot fan.

This book was read as part of the 'Victorian Bingo' reading challenge, details here.

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