Mrs. Transome is an unhappy, dignified woman who loves deference and being consulted. For the past many years, her estate (her husband is basically a nonentity) has been devaluing because she shares a guilty secret with the manager, Mr. Jermyn, who fattens himself at her expense. Now her younger son has returned home as heir to take charge of the estate. He is not interested in consulting her about the estate, so she is even more powerless. She was hoping that the “doubtful deeds” of her life were going to be “justified by the result” (ch. 1), but she is disappointed. Though never stated outright, it is nevertheless made very clear that her son, Harold, is her son by Jermyn, not her husband.
Felix Holt, the Radical is full of very interesting characters. As in her other novels, George Eliot is interested in the process of temptation and falling upon normal, everyday people. Mrs. Transome, in her youth, was headstrong, fond of stories of illicit passion and expressing daring opinions. She felt that the things generally considered good for you were “stupid and drug-like”. Obviously, these notions are “not a safe theoretic basis in circumstances of temptation and difficulty.”
After we learn about Mrs. Transome’s past, Mr. Lyon is introduced with his past. He is now the Independent minister of Malthouse Yard. At one point, however, he abandoned the ministry when he fell in love with a widowed French Catholic woman. Never ceasing to consider himself a backslider, he resigned the “great treasure committed to him” (ch. 6) — his ministry — and married the woman. After her death, he returned to the ministry.
Mr. Lyon befriends the hero, Felix Holt. Felix is a forceful young man, determined to do what is right with no compromises. To the horror of his garrulous mother (a comic character), Felix stops the sale of his deceased father’s pills, considering them to be harmful. He refuses to take the high-paying work his education could get him, as he doesn’t want the temptations that go along with that kind of life. He prefers to work as a watchmaker. Politically, he is a Radical (thus the book’s title). He wants to help working people become better. Another person he wishes to improve is Mr. Lyon’s daughter, Esther.
At first, Felix despises Esther for her delicate ways and dedication to being a “lady”. He finds her worthy of trying to convert, however, and scolds her saying, “That is what exasperates me at your making a boast of littleness. You have enough understanding to make it wicked that you should add one more to the women who hinder men’s lives from having any nobleness in them.” (ch. 10). For her part, though she doesn’t want to bow before his accusations, Esther cannot help being influenced by him. Among other changes in her life, she becomes more tender to her father.
Felix, being both forceful and outspoken, is sometimes too free with his opinion and these opinions are not always correct. Mr. Lyon cautions him, “You yourself are a lover of freedom, and a bold rebel against usurping authority. But the right to rebellion is the right to seek a higher rule, and not to wander in mere lawlessness. Wherefore, I beseech you, seem not to say that liberty is license.” (ch. 13). A grace of Felix’s character is that, though being very forceful and outspoken, he is willing to admit when he has spoken out of turn or is otherwise in the wrong. One of the things Esther admires about him is his “good-humored laugh, always loud at a joke against himself” (ch. 10).
Back to the Transome story, Harold’s return is making some things awkward for Jermyn. Though Jermyn does not like rascality, he had been tempted to “nibble” at the Transome estate, doing things he would have condemned in the abstract. And so begins another recurrent subject of George Eliot’s novels: After the temptation and the fall come the consequences. “Here, in fact, was the inconvenience: [Jermyn] had sinned for the sake of particular concrete things, and particular concrete consequences were likely to follow” (ch. 9).
Illustration: “‘Father, I have not been good to you; but I will be, I will be,’ said Esther, laying her head on his knee.” (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons.)