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by George Eliot
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Mary Ann Evans ("George Eliot") was born Nov. 22, 1819, at South Farm, Arbury, Warwickshire, England, where her father was agent on the Newdigate estate. Mary established herself as one of the leading novelists of the Victorian era using the male pen name 'George Eliot' she said to ensure her works were taken seriously, but possibly also to shield her identity and hide her close relationship with the married George Henry Lewes.
In January 1868, Soon after the Second Reform Act of 1867 which expanded the right to vote beyond the landed classes, Eliot penned an article entitled "Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt".
For more works by George Eliot, see The Index
The Rev. Rufus Lyon, Minister of the Independent Chapel, in the old-fashioned market town of Treby Magna, in the County of Loumshire, lived in a small house, adjoining the entry which led to the Chapel Yard.
He sat this morning, as usual, in a low upstairs room, called his study, which served also as a sleeping-room, and from time to time got up to walk about between the piles of old books which lay around him on the floor. His face looked old and worn, yet the curtain of hair that fell from his bald crown and hung about his neck retained much of its original auburn tint, and his large, brown short-sighted eyes were still clear and bright. At the first glance, everyone thought him a very odd-looking, rusty old man, and the free-school boys often hooted after him, and called him "Revelations." But he was too short-sighted and too absent from the world of small facts and petty impulses to notice those who tittered at him.
He was meditating on the text for his Sunday morning sermon, when old Lyddy, the minister's servant, opened the door to tell him that Mrs. Holt was wanting to see him. "She says she comes out of season, but she's in trouble."
The minister bade her send Mistress Holt up, and a tall elderly woman dressed in black entered.
Mrs. Holt, Mr. Lyon said to himself, is a woman who darkens counsel by words without knowledge, and angers the reason of the natural man; and he prayed for patience while his visitor rambled on concerning her late husband and her son Felix.
The minister made out that Felix objected to the sale of his father's quack medicines, Holt's Elixir and Cancer Cure, and wanted Mr. Lyon to talk to him.
"For after we'd been to chapel, he spoke better of you than he does of most: he said you was a fine old fellow, and an old-fashioned Puritan - he uses dreadful language, Mr. Lyon; but I saw he didn't mean you ill, for all that; he calls most folks' religion rottenness."
Mrs. Holt departed, and in the evening, when Mr. Lyon was in the sitting-room, Felix Holt knocked at the door.
The minister, accustomed to the respectable air of provincial townsmen, felt a slight shock, when his spectacles made clear to him the shaggy-headed, large-eyed, strong-limbed person of this questionable young man, without waistcoat or cravat.
Felix spoke loudly and brusquely when the minister mentioned the subject of Mrs. Holt's visit.
"As to those absurd medicines and gulling advertisements that my mother has been talking of to you, I've no more doubt about them than I have about pocket-picking. If I allowed the sale of those medicines to go on, and my mother to live out of the proceeds when I can keep her by the honest labour of hands, I've not the least doubt that I should be a rascal."
"I would fain inquire more particularly into your objection to these medicines," said Mr. Lyon gravely.
"My father was ignorant," said Felix, bluntly. "I know something about these things. I was 'prentice for five miserable years to a stupid brute of a country apothecary - my poor father left money for that - he thought nothing could be finer for me. No matter: I know that the Cathartic Pills may be as bad as poison to half the people who swallow them, and that the cancer cure might as well be bottled ditch-water. I can keep my mother, as well, nay, better, than she keeps herself. With my watch and clock cleaning, and teaching one or two little chaps that I've got to come to me, I can earn enough."
Mr. Lyon's suggestion that some situation might be obtained as clerk or assistant was brushed aside.
"Why should I want to get into the middle class because I have some learning? The most of the middle class are as ignorant as the working people about everything that doesn't belong to their own Brummagem life."
The entrance of Lyddy with the tea tray disturbed the conversation, but the minister, interested in his visitor, asked Felix to stay for a dish of tea, and Felix accepted.
"My daughter, who has been detained in giving a lesson in the French tongue, has doubtless returned now," said the minister. On the entrance of the young lady, Felix was conscious she was not the sort of person he had expected the minister's daughter to be, and the incongruity repelled him. There were things about her, her walk, the long neck and high crown of shining brown hair, that suggested a fine lady to him. A fine lady was always a sort of spun glass affair; but a fine lady as the daughter of this rusty old Puritan was especially offensive.
The discovery that Miss Lyon read Byron set Felix off on a tirade against the poet, and his works, and throughout the meal no agreement on any topic seemed possible between Esther and the guest.
Felix noted that Mr. Lyon was devoted to his daughter and stood in some fear of her.
"That is a singular young man, Esther," said the minister, when Felix had gone. "I discern in him a love for whatever things are honest and true, and I feel a great enlargement in his presence."
"I think he is very coarse and rude," said Esther, with a touch of temper. "But he speaks better English than most of our visitors. What is his occupation?"
"Watch and clock making, my dear."
Esther was disappointed, she thought he was something higher than that.
Felix on his side wondered how the queer old minister had a daughter so little in his own likeness. He decided that nothing should make him marry.
The return of Mr. Harold Transome, to Transome Court, after fifteen years' absence, and his adoption as Radical Candidate for the county created no little stir and excitement in Treby. It also assisted the growing intimacy between Mr. Lyon and Felix Holt, for though neither possessed votes in that memorable year 1832, they shared the same liberal sympathies. Perhaps the most delightful friendships are those in which there is much agreement, much disputation, and yet more personal liking; and the advent of the public-spirited, contradictory, yet affectionate Felix, into Treby life had made a welcome epoch to the minister.
Esther had not seen so much of their new acquaintance as her father had. But she had begun to find him amusing, though he always opposed and criticised her, and looked at her as if he never saw a single detail about her person. It seemed to Esther that he thought slightly of her. "But, rude and queer as he is, I cannot say there is anything vulgar about him," she said to herself.
One Sunday afternoon Felix Holt rapped at the door of Mr. Lyon's house, although he could hear the voice of the minister in the chapel.
Esther was in the kitchen alone, reading a French romance, and she opened the door and invited him in.
He scoffed at her book, and as the talk went on, upbraided her for her vanity. Finally he told her that he wanted her to change. "Of course, I am a brute to say so," he added. "I ought to say you are perfect. Another man would, perhaps; I can't bear to see you going the way of the foolish women who spoil men's lives."
Mortification and anger filled Esther's mind, and when Felix got up to say he was going, she returned his "good-bye" without even looking at him.
Only, when the door closed she burst into tears. She revolted against his assumption of superiority.... Did he love her one little bit, and was that the reason why he wanted her to change? But Esther was quite sure she could never love anyone who was so much of a pedagogue and a master.
Yet, a few weeks later, and Esther accepted willingly when Felix proposed a walk for the first time together. That same afternoon he told her that she was very beautiful, and that he would never be rich: he intended going away to some manufacturing town to lead the people to better things and this meant a life of poverty.
Something Esther said made Felix ask suddenly, "Can you imagine yourself choosing hardship as the better lot?"
"Yes, I can," she answered, flushing over neck and brow. They walked home very silently after that. Felix struggling as a firm man struggles with a temptation, Esther struggling as a woman struggles with the yearning for some expression of love.
On the day of the election a mob of miners, primed with liquor by an unscrupulous agent of Transome's, came into the town to hoot the Tory voters; and as the disturbance increased, Felix knowing that Mr. Lyon was away preaching went round to the minister's house to reassure Esther.
"I am so thankful to see you," she said eagerly. He mentioned that the magistrates and constables were coming and that the town would be quieter. His only fear was that drinking might inflame the mob again.
Again Felix told her of his renunciation of the ordinary hopes and ambitions of men, and at the same time tried to prove that he thought very highly of her. He wanted her to know that her love was dear to him, and he felt that they must not marry - to do so would be to ruin each other's lives.
When Felix went out into the streets in the afternoon, the crowd was larger and more mischievous. The constables were quite unable to cope with the mob, the polling booth was closed for the day, and the magistrates had sent to the neighbouring town of Duffield for the military.
There were proofs that the predominant will of the crowd was in favour of Transome for several shops were attacked and they were all of them "Tory shops."
Felix was soon hotly occupied trying to save a wretched publican named Spratt from the fury of the crowd. The man had been dragged out into the streets, and Felix had got as near him as he could when a young constable armed with a sabre rushed upon him. It was a choice of two evils, and quick as lightning Felix frustrated him, the constable fell undermost and Felix got his weapon. Tucker did not rise immediately, but Felix did not imagine that he was much hurt, and bidding the crowd follow him tried to lead them away from the town. He hoped that the soldiers would soon arrive, and felt confident that there would be no resistance to a military force.
Suddenly a cry was raised, "Let us go to Treby Manor," the residence of Sir Maximus Debarry, whose son was the Tory candidate.
From that moment Felix was powerless, and was carried along with the rush. All he could hope to do was to get to the front terrace of the house, and assure the inmates that the soldiers would arrive quickly. Just as he approached a large window he heard the horses of the troopers, and then came the words, "Halt! Fire!" Before he had time to move a bullet whizzed, and passed through Felix Holt's shoulder - the shoulder of the arm that bore the sabre.
Felix fell. The rioters ran confusedly, like terrified sheep.
It was a weary night for Felix, and the next day his wound was declared trivial, and he was lodged in Loumford Jail. There were three charges against him; that he had assaulted a constable, that he had committed manslaughter (Tucker was dead from spinal concussion), and that he had led a riotous onslaught on a dwelling house.
Four other men were arrested, one for theft, and three others for riot and assault.
A great change took place in the fortunes of Esther in the interval between the riot and the opening of the assizes. It was found that she, and not Harold Transome, was the rightful owner of the Transome estates. For Esther's real name was Bycliffe and not Lyon, and she was the step-daughter only of the minister. Mr. Lyon had found Esther's mother, a French woman of great beauty, in destitution - her husband, an Englishman, lying in some unknown prison. This Englishman was a Bycliffe - and heir to the Transome property, and on the proof of his death Mr. Lyon, knowing nothing of Bycliffe's family, married his widow, who, however, died while Esther was still a tiny child. Not till the time of the election did Esther learn that her real father was dead.
Mr. Transome's lawyer - Jermyn - was fully aware of the claim of the Bycliffes, but knew they were powerless without money to enforce the claim, and that Esther and her step-father alike were ignorant of all the facts. It was only when Harold Transome, on his return, quarrelled with Jermyn on the management of the estates, and, after the Election (which Transome lost) threatened him with a law-suit, that Jermyn turned round and told Harold the truth. At the same time, another lawyer, formerly in Jermyn's confidence, thought the more profitable course could be found in throwing Jermyn over, and wrote to Esther informing her of her inheritance.
Harold Transome decided to act openly. With his mother, he drove to the minister's house and Mrs. Transome persuaded Esther to come and stay at Transome Court. Both mother and son found Esther to their liking, and it appeared to Harold that marriage with Esther would be a happy conclusion to the divided claim to the property. He was rich, and the Transome (or Bycliffe) property was heavily encumbered.
The Transomes, Esther and Mr. Lyon all agreed that no law-suit over the property should take place.
But while Esther stayed at Transome Court she never forgot her friend in prison. Mr. Lyon had visited Felix, and Esther herself obtained an interview with him just before the assizes began.
She had grown conscious that Harold Transome was making love to her, that Mrs. Transome really desired her for a daughter-in-law, and it seemed to her as she waited with the minister in the cheerless prison room, that she stood at the first and last parting of the ways.
Soon the door opened, and Felix Holt entered.
"Miss Lyon - Esther!" and her hand was in his grasp. He was just the same - no, something inexpressibly better, because of the distance and separation, which made him like the return of morning.
"Take no heed of me, children," said Mr. Lyon. "I have some notes to make." And the old man sat down at a window with his back to them, writing with his head bent close to the paper.
Felix had heard of Esther's change of fortune and felt sure she would marry Harold Transome. It was only when the time for parting came that he could bring himself to say:
"I had a horrible struggle, Esther. But you see I was right. There was a fitting lot in reserve for you." Esther felt too miserable for tears to come. She looked helplessly at Felix for a moment, then took her hands from his, and turning away mutely, said, "Father, I am ready - there is no more to say."
She heard Felix say the word, with an entreating cry, and went towards him swiftly. He clasped her, and they kissed each other.
When the trial came on Esther went under Mrs. Transome's protection to the court.
The case against Felix looked very black when the prosecution closed. Various respectable witnesses swore to the prisoner's leadership of the mob, to his fatal assault on Tucker, and to his attitude in front of the drawing-room window at the Manor.
Felix then gave a concise narrative of his motives and conduct on the day of the riot, and explained that in throwing the constable down he had not foreseen the possibility of death ensuing. It was a good, straightforward speech, not without a touch of defiant independence, which did the prisoner little good with judge or jury.
Mr. Lyon and Harold Transome both gave evidence in favour of Felix, stating that the prisoner had often expressed his hatred of rioting, and had protested with indignation against the treating that went on during the election by some of the Radical agents.
One or two witnesses were called who swore that Felix had tried to lead the mob in the opposite direction to Treby Manor, and it was understood that the case for the defence was closed.
Then it came to Esther that she must speak if Felix was to be saved. There had been no witness to tell what had been his behaviour just before the riot. There was time, but not too much time.
Before Harold Transome was aware of Esther's intention she was on her way to the witness-box.
A sort of gleam shot across the face of Felix Holt, and anyone close to the prisoner would have seen that his hand trembled, for the first time, at Esther's beautiful aspect. There was no blush on her face: she stood, divested of all personal consideration whether of vanity or shyness, and gave her story as if she had been making a confession of faith.
She knew Felix Holt well, she said. He came to see her on the day of the election, and told her he feared the men might collect again after drinking. "It was the last thing he would have done to join in riot or to hurt any man, if he could have helped it. He could never have had any intention that was not brave and good."
When she was back in her place Felix could not help looking towards her, and their eyes met in one solemn glance.
Esther stayed in court till the end. She heard the verdict, "Guilty of Manslaughter," followed by the judge's sentence, "Imprisonment for four years." But so great was the impression made by Esther's speech that a petition to the Home Secretary was at once set on foot by the leading men of the county.
One April day, when the sun shone on the lingering raindrops, Lyddy was gone out, and Esther chose to sit in the kitchen. She was not reading, but stitching, and as her fingers moved nimbly, something played about her lips like a ray.
A loud rap came at the door.
"Mr. Lyon at home?" said Felix in his firm tones. "No, sir," said Esther: "but Miss Lyon is, if you'll please to walk in."
"Esther!" exclaimed Felix, amazed.
They held each other by both hands, and looked into each other's faces with delight.
"You are out of prison?"
"Yes, till I do something bad again. But you - how is it all? Are you come back to live here then?"
"You are not going to be married to Harold Transome, or to be rich?"
"Why?" said Felix in rather a low tone, leaning his elbow on the table, and resting his head on his hand while he looked at her.
"I did not wish to marry him, or to be rich."
"You have given it all up?" said Felix, leaning forward a little and speaking in a still lower tone. "Could you share the life of a poor man, then, Esther?"
"If I thought well enough of him," she said, with a smile, and a pretty movement of her head.
"Have you considered well what it would be? - that it would be a very bare and simple life? and the people I shall live among, Esther? They have not just the same follies and vices as the rich, but they have their own forms of folly and vice. It is very serious, Esther."
"I know it is serious," said Esther, looking up at him. "Since I have been at Transome Court I have seen many things very seriously. If I had not, I should not have left what I did leave. I made a deliberate choice."
She could not tell him that at Transome Court, all that finally seemed balanced against her love for him, was the offer of a silken bondage that arrested all motive, and was nothing better than a well-cushioned despair. A vision of being restless amidst ease, of being languid among all appliances had quickened her resignation of the Transome estates.
Esther explained, however, that she thought of retaining a little of the wealth.
"How?" said Felix, anxiously. "What do you mean?"
"I think even of two pounds a week: one needn't live up to the splendour of all that, you know: we might live as simply as you liked. And then I think of a little income for your mother, and a little income for my father, to save him from being dependent when he is no longer able to preach!"
Felix put his hand on her shoulder, said, lifting up his eyes with a smile:
"Why, I shall be able to set up a great library, and lend the books!"
They laughed merrily, each holding the other's arms, like girl and boy. There was the ineffable sense of youth in common.
Then Felix leaned forward, that their lips might meet, and after that his eyes roved tenderly over her face and curls.
"I'm a rough, severe fellow, Esther. Shall you never repent? - never be inwardly reproaching me that I was not a man who could have shared your wealth? Are you quite sure?"
The very next May, Felix and Esther were married. Everyone in those days was married at the parish church; but Mr. Lyon was not satisfied without an additional private solemnity, "so that he might have a more enlarged utterance of joy and supplication."
It was a very simple wedding; but no wedding, even the gayest, ever raised so much interest and debate in Treby Magna. Even the very great people of the county went to the church to look at this bride, who had renounced wealth, and chosen to be the wife of a man who said he would always be poor.
Some few shook their heads; could not quite believe it; and thought there was more behind. But the majority of honest Trebians were affected somewhat in the same way as Mr. Wall, the brewer of the town, who observed to his wife as they walked home, "I feel somehow as if I believed more in everything that's good."
Felix and Esther did not take up their abode in Treby Magna; and after awhile Mr. Lyon left the town too, and joined them where they dwelt.
As to the town in which Felix Holt now resides I will keep that a secret.
I will only say that Esther has never repented. Felix, however, grumbles a little that she has made his life too easy.
There is a young Felix, who has a great deal more science than his father, but not much more money.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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