Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 36 (2005) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
A preoccupation with the idea of home was central to George Eliot's fiction from its beginnings until its end. In Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda, however, this theme is developed in terms that involve legal complexities that have embroiled her characters, perplexed her readers, and sent the author to seek advice and reassurance from the barrister Frederic Harrison. Esther Lyon has a 'right in remainder'! in a property, while Harold Transome has 'a reversion tantamount to possession' (p. 284), Sir Hugo Mallinger is a tenant for life, his nephew Grandcourt a tenant in tail. These intricacies of plot have puzzled and annoyed many readers and critics, including F. R. Leavis, who, with respect to Felix Holt, declared the technical elaboration 'perversely ... misdirected', demanding 'of the reader a strenuousness of attention that, if he is an admirer of George Eliot, he is unwilling to devote' .2 Assuming that Leavis did not mean to imply that nonadmirers would be prepared to devote such attention, we might still ask, what aspects of Eliot's writing do not require varying degrees of strenuous attention. Is it not her ability, which no novelist of her own period equals, and few before or since come near, to hold us as readers in a high state of alert, as we follow the delicate nuances of her balanced prose and subtle reasoning and weigh the implications of her erudite allusions, that keeps discussion of her work alive? Rather than assume that, in designing these difficult plots, Eliot suffered a lapse of judgement, perhaps we should allow the possibility that she was fully in control of her art, and even accept the compliment she extends us by assuming our ability to keep our footing on some fairly steep paths. Great authors make, as well as find, their readers.
Fred C. Thomson has explicated the details of the settlement with great clarity in his article 'The Legal Plot in Felix Holt'.3 By the time Eliot consulted Harrison, she had written a substantial part of the novel, and had already decided on the relations between her characters with respect to property and ownership. She was justifiably worried about the law of limitations, however, which could have nullified Esther's claim to Transome Court. Harrison himself could, at first, see no way around this problem, and, in order to grasp the fictional situation more fully, he became one of a very few people ever to read part of an Eliot manuscript before publication. He then came up with the idea of a settlement and base fee, which means that the Bycliffe claim to the property does not take effect as long as the settlor has living descendants.