Felix Holt, the Radical, George Eliot - Essay

George Eliot


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Felix Holt, the Radical George Eliot

The following entry presents criticism of Eliot's novel Felix Holt, the Radical (1866). For discussion on Eliot's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 4; for discussion of the novel Middlemarch, see NCLC, Volume 13; for discussion of the novel Daniel Deronda, see NCLC, Volume 23; for discussion of the novel Silas Marner, see NCLC, Volume 41; for discussion of the novel The Mill on the Floss, see NCLC, Volume 49; for discussion of the novel Adam Bede, see NCLC, Volume 89.

One of Eliot's lesser known works, Felix Holt, the Radical is often classified as a political novel although the work features a conventional courtship narrative more typically associated with domestic fiction. Featuring an ambivalently radical Radical, parallel but virtually separate narratives, and more than one paternity revelation, the novel has been criticized for its lack of cohesion and contrived plot devices. Like many of the author's other works, however, it also provides a poignant picture of a disappearing social order while commenting on the forces allied against it.

Plot and Major Characters

Felix Holt is set in the English Midlands at the time of the Reform Bill of 1832. It covers a nine-month period in the lives of the inhabitants of Treby Magna, a town caught up in the transition from the old England of rural farmland associated with a rigid class structure to the new England of manufacturing associated with the breakdown of that structure. Harold Transome, aristocratic heir to the Transome estate, and Felix Holt, working-class heir to a quack patent medicine business, both arrive home after being away for a number of years. Transome has amassed a fortune during his time abroad in Smyrna, and he returns as a widower with a young son, hoping to parlay that fortune into political power by running for Parliament as a Radical. The family estate, Transome Court, has long been mired in financial and legal difficulties, and Harold's mother is eager for her son to assume control of the property. Holt, meanwhile, has also been away from Treby Magna for a number of years studying medicine at the University of Glasgow and serving an apprenticeship to a country apothecary. When he discovers that his late father's patent medicine concoctions are worthless, he dissolves the business and, despite his education, takes work as a watchmaker in order to maintain his ties with the working class. His mother, dismayed by her son's actions, complains to the Dissenting minister Rufus Lyon. Convinced that God would not have allowed the business to flourish had it been based on fraud, Mrs. Holt bolsters her case by misquoting passages from Scripture that support the dispensing of ointments and cures.

Transome's parliamentary campaign is supported by the family lawyer, Matthew Jermyn, who employs another lawyer, John Johnson, to stir up support for his client among the lower classes. Holt complains to Transome about Johnson's rabble-rousing in the local pub, a strategy that he fears will cause the workers to riot. The political differences between Holt and Transome are exacerbated by their rivalry for the affections of Esther Lyon, daughter of the minister. When they first meet, Holt considers the beautiful Esther too refined and materialistic; he finds fault with her curls, her use of wax candles rather than tallow, and her appreciation of Byron. As they become better acquainted, however, he finds he has misjudged Esther and begins to appreciate her inner character.

On election day, Holt's fears about the mob's volatility are realized. When he attempts to lead the workers out of town to minimize the effects of the riot, he accidentally kills a constable and is charged with the murder. Although he is convicted, Esther defends him so eloquently that he is pardoned. Meanwhile, having lost the election, Transome takes charge of his family's property and discovers that Jermyn had been draining the estate of its resources for many years. In the ensuing legal battle it is revealed that Jermyn is Transome's father, the result of an affair with Mrs. Transome—who had carried the guilt of her son's illegitimacy for thirty years. The legitimate heir to the Transome fortune is Esther, whose true parentage had also been kept secret for many years. Esther, acknowledging her love for Holt, renounces her claim to her inheritance and rejects Transome as a suitor. By rejecting the fortune and the easy life associated with Transome Court in favor of a simple life with Felix Holt, Esther proves that she is not a “fine lady,” but a woman of principle and seriousness.

Major Themes

Felix Holt is concerned with the social and political changes taking place in England between the 1830s, the setting of the novel, and the 1860s, when the novel was written. The values of the old order, represented by the landed interests, are set in opposition to the working class values of Felix Holt. This struggle between power and moral virtue is the most prominent theme of the novel, with the values of the working class Felix and his bride-to-be represented as superior to those of the aristocracy, represented by the Transomes, and the bourgeoisie, represented by Jermyn and Johnson.

The novel also criticizes the shallowness associated with middle-class women during this period; such women are guilty of materialism, coquetry, sensuality, and “fine-ladyism,” as Holt calls it. Esther's rejection of these values, along with her inheritance, suggests that moral seriousness will triumph over a love of luxury and idleness.

While Eliot's personal vision of political and social reform enters into the construction of Felix Holt, the Radical, neither Eliot nor her title character are as radical as appearances suggest. While the landed interests come under fire for their conservative attempt to retain power, the working class is also criticized; the workers demonstrate their unworthiness to gain the franchise they seek by their susceptibility to bribes and demagoguery. Until the working class is educated, Eliot implies, they cannot be in charge of their own political destiny.

Critical Reception

Felix Holt, the Radical is one of Eliot's least admired novels. Many scholars consider that its parallel narratives—political and domestic—result in a confusing, even incoherent plot. The fact that there are two subplots involving secrets of paternity has also led to charges that the narrative is contrived and convoluted. Nonetheless, at least two critics have emerged in the late twentieth century to make a case for the novel's unity. Florence Sandler argues for the “architectonic unity” of the political and domestic narrative strands—a unity which she believes is based on “the centrality of Esther, and the significance of her final decision; the role of Rufus Lyon; and the nature of the radicalism of Felix Holt.” Norman Vance concentrates on issues of land ownership and religious dissent, claiming that the novel's unifying factor is the comparison between the period in which it is set and the period in which it was written.

Several critics claim that the character of Felix Holt articulates Eliot's personal vision of the appropriate reform of English society. With that in mind, many take issue with Holt's “radical” credentials, maintaining that, like Eliot, the character is more conservative than the novel's subtitle suggests. The ambivalence surrounding the character's politics leads to additional charges of incoherence within the narrative and suggestions that Holt is not always a sympathetic character. Fred C. Thomson claims that “the dearth of camaraderie in Felix, his belligerent pedantry, his aloofness from the community life in Treby, to say nothing of the shadowiness of his background and motivations and the wooden dialogue, injure his effectiveness as a spokesman for George Eliot.” Feminist scholars have also criticized Holt's character, claiming his objections to Esther's refinement and aesthetic sensibilities make him no more desirable as a suitor than Transome, who believes that women are meant to be decorative rather than functional. Such critics claim that, despite the title, the main character of the novel is actually Esther, who must choose between two “misogynist radicals,” that is, “between the radical who sees women as useless delights and the radical who sees women as temptations unless useful,” as Alison Booth describes Esther's dilemma. Nonetheless, the novel was apparently much appreciated by Leo Tolstoy, who, according to Philip Rogers, admired it principally because of its criticism of “fine-ladyism”—materialism and frivolity in middle-class women, the very things Felix criticizes in Esther.

Many scholars consider Felix Holt a precursor to Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch, suggesting that the concerns the author resolved unsuccessfully in the former novel were perfected in the latter. According to L. R. Leavis, “Felix Holt is a key novel in George Eliot's development not because of its own merits, but because of its failure in fundamental issues that establish the success of her next novel, Middlemarch.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Life of Jesus [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1846

The Essence of Christianity [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1854

*Scenes of Clerical Life (novel) 1858

Adam Bede (novel) 1859

The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860

Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe (novel) 1861

Romola (novel) 1863

Felix Holt, the Radical (novel) 1866

The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem (poetry) 1868

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (novel) 1871-72

The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems (poetry) 1874

Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876

Impressions of Theophrastus Such (essays) 1879

The George Eliot Letters 9 vols. (letters) 1954-78

*All of Eliot's novels were originally published serially in magazines.

Fred C. Thomson (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomson, Fred C. “Politics and Society in Felix Holt.” In The Classic British Novel, edited by Howard M. Harper, Jr. and Charles Edge, pp. 103-20. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Thomson claims that Felix Holt is mistakenly considered a political novel and that Holt himself is more Positivist than radical, reflecting Eliot's basically conservative politics.]

Felix Holt, the Radical has seldom been considered altogether satisfying as a political novel. The rather mannered descriptions of electioneering and the heavy-handed didacticism of Felix's speeches suggest that George Eliot was ill at...

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Lenore Wisney Horowitz (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Horowitz, Lenore Wisney. “George Eliot's Vision of Society in Felix Holt the Radical.” In Texas Studies in Literature and Language 17, no. 1 (spring 1975): 175-91.

[In the following essay, Horowitz discusses the way Eliot uses Felix Holt to articulate her personal vision for reform of English society.]

Not until Felix Holt the Radical does George Eliot bring industrial England from the periphery of her novels into the center. This is a dramatic shift in emphasis and brings to the forefront for the first time the profound concern with the problems of Victorian England characteristic of her mature fiction. Set in the year of the first...

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Linda Bamber (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bamber, Linda. “Self-Defeating Politics in George Eliot's Felix Holt.Victorian Studies 18, no. 4 (June 1975): 419-35.

[In the following essay, Bamber discusses Eliot's efforts to deal with the political situation in Felix Holt dialectically and her failure to offer precise political options through her representatives of the new order.]

George Eliot's intention as a political novelist is to make dramatic situations out of the great conflicts within political philosophy: to dramatize the antitheses between private and public morality, between custom and justice, between immediate fellow-feeling and social theory. She is interested in these...

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Catherine Gallagher (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gallagher, Catherine. “The Failure of Realism: Felix Holt.Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (1980): 372-84.

[In the following essay, Gallagher discusses Eliot's departure in Felix Holt from the conventions associated with English realism toward a more sophisticated narrative form.]

In a London art gallery in 1861, two middle-aged women stand before a painting of a stork killing a toad. The painting provokes a short, sharp argument. The older woman dislikes it intensely, calling it coarse and amoral; the younger woman admires it, explaining, somewhat condescendingly, that the purpose of art is a careful delineation of the actual. Good art, she...

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Norman Vance (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vance, Norman. “Law, Religion and the Unity of Felix Holt.” In George Eliot: Centenary Essays and an Unpublished Fragment, edited by Anne Smith, pp. 103-23. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1980.

[In the following essay, Vance defends the unity and coherence of Felix Holt, concentrating on issues of land ownership and religious dissent, and comparing the period of the novel's setting with the period in which it was written.]

Felix Holt, the Radical has not been fully appreciated. Commentators have complained of the needlessly complicated legal plot, the apparently disappointing issue of the radical promise of hero and title, and a lack...

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Robin Sheets (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sheets, Robin. “Felix Holt: Language, the Bible, and the Problematic of Meaning.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 37, no. 2 (September 1982): 146-69.

[In the following essay, Sheets explores issues of miscommunication and misunderstanding in Felix Holt.]

Mr. Wace, a successful brewer and minor character in Felix Holt, assumes that the ownership of land gives him the right to spread confusion and misunderstanding. When he decides not to sell a piece of property, he declares, “It's mine into the bowels of the earth and up to the sky. I can build the Tower of Babel on it if I like.”1 In fact, there is no need to build the Tower of...

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Florence Sandler (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sandler, Florence. “The Unity of Felix Holt.” In George Eliot: A Centenary Tribute, edited by Gordon S. Haight and Rosemary T. VanArsdel, pp. 137-52. London: Macmillan Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Sandler examines the characters Esther and Rufus Lyon and the radicalism of Felix Holt, arguing for the unity of the novel's domestic and political themes.]

The commentators on Felix Holt, the Radical have fallen for the most part into two groups, each more or less dissatisfied.1 There are those who, taking their cue from the title, expect the book to have a radical hero with effective political as well as personal quality, and...

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Lyn Pykett (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pykett, Lyn. “George Eliot and Arnold: The Narrator's Voice and Ideology in Felix Holt The Radical.Literature and History 11, no. 2 (autumn 1985): 229-40.

[In the following essay, Pykett examines the relationship between Eliot's Felix Holt and Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy.]

It has become commonplace for students of George Eliot to reach for their Arnold when discussing the ideology of her later novels. It is also clear, as a number of commentators have pointed out, that in that problematically transitional work, Felix Holt, the Radical, George Eliot made a common cause with the Arnold of the roughly contemporaneous Culture...

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Philip Rogers (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rogers, Philip. “Lessons for Fine Ladies: Tolstoj and George Eliot's Felix Holt, The Radical.Slavic and East European Journal 29, no. 4 (winter 1985): 379-92.

[In the following essay, Rogers discusses Eliot's criticism of frivolity and materialism in middle-class women in Felix Holt, a criticism shared by Leo Tolstoy, who admired the novel.]

Tolstoj read George Eliot's Felix Holt, the Radical twice in his lifetime: the first reading was probably in 1867-68;1 the second (in February 1885) he noted in a letter to his wife: “I'm reading Eliot's Felix Holt. It's a splendid book. I had read it before, but at a time when...

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L. R. Leavis (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Leavis, L. R. “George Eliot's Creative Mind, Felix Holt as the Turning Point of Her Art.” English Studies 67, no. 4 (August 1986): 311-26.

[In the following essay, Leavis discusses how the failure of Felix Holt led to the success of Middlemarch.]

In our time when literary criticism has been generally discarded for the fashionable mechanics of structuralism and post-structuralism, George Eliot's novels can still raise extreme responses. The Jewish sections of Daniel Deronda or the ‘failed St. Theresa’ emphasis on Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch still find their admirers,1 while those hating her writing can reject...

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Andrew Thompson (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, Andrew. “George Eliot, Dante, and Moral Choice in Felix Holt, The Radical.Modern Language Review 86, no. 3 (July 1991): 553-66.

[In the following essay, Thompson evaluates Eliot's many references and allusions to Dante in Felix Holt.]

In his introduction to George Eliot—A Writer's Notebook 1854-1879, Joseph Wiesenfarth draws attention to the ‘substantial body of allusion’ to the Divina Commedia of Dante in Felix Holt, the Radical. In particular Wiesenfarth notes the use of Inferno Canto xiii (the Wood of the Suicides), which Eliot uses to make Transome Court ‘akin to a circle of Dante's Hell’ and to...

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Judith Wilt (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilt, Judith. “Felix Holt, The Killer: A Reconstruction.” Victorian Studies 35, no. 1 (autumn 1991): 51-69.

[In the following essay, Wilt explores the transformation of Felix Holt from doctor to radical and the role of secrets within the narrative in accounting for that transformation.]

What on earth happened in Glasgow in the spring of 1832, to turn Felix Holt the Doctor into Felix Holt the Radical? This mystery remains well after a first reading of George Eliot's 1866 “political” novel has brought to light, more or less satisfactorily, the other secrets which have been guarded for generations by characters, and for many chapters by a narrative...

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Alison Booth (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Booth, Alison. “Not All Men Are Selfish and Cruel: Felix Holt as a Feminist Novel.” In Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, edited by Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor, pp. 143-60. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Booth discusses elements of feminism in Felix Holt, claiming that the novel criticizes injustices related to gender as well as to class.]

Once George Eliot had established herself as a great woman of letters in such works as the unpopular but authoritative Romola, she found herself in a difficult position. The stakes were higher perhaps even than they had...

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Shifra Hockberg (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hockberg, Shifra. “Nomenclature and the Historical Matrix of Felix Holt.English Language Notes 31, no. 2 (December 1993): 46-56.

[In the following essay, Hockberg explores Eliot's use of names in Felix Holt to encode literary and historical references.]

Felix Holt, one of the least read of George Eliot's works, provides a fascinating example of the ways in which the novelist uses onomastics to encode historical and literary allusions into her text. Jerome Meckier, for instance, suggests that Eliot's novel “rewrite[s] the Book of Esther for Victorian audiences,” with Esther Lyon, like her Scriptural counterpart, functioning as a...

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Rita Bode (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bode, Rita. “Power and Submission in Felix Holt, the Radical.SEL 35, no. 4 (autumn 1995): 769-88.

[In the following essay, Bode suggests that Eliot's use of “politics” in Felix Holt extends beyond the scope of government and public life into the private relationships between men and women, and parents and children.]

In Felix Holt, the Radical, George Eliot considers carefully the difficult political demands, with all their troubling and threatening implications, that beset the era of Reform in nineteenth-century England. If we acknowledge, however, that politics involves the continual struggle between authority and submission,...

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Carolyn Lesjak (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lesjak, Carolyn. “A Modern Odyssey: Realism, the Masses, and Nationalism in George Eliot's Felix Holt.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 30, no. 1 (fall 1996): 78-97.

[In the following essay, Lesjak discusses Eliot's representation of the working class, which she removes from the productive sphere and situates within the domestic sphere in order to minimize class conflicts and disparities in income.]

The industrial novel occupies a unique place in the context of debates about realism. As Erich Auerbach suggests, the subject matter of the realist novel—the masses or “the common people”—comes into being as a serious subject for literature as part of...

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Alicia Carroll (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carroll, Alicia. “The Giaour's Campaign: Desire and the Other in Felix Holt, The Radical.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 30, no. 2 (winter 1997): 237-58.

[In the following essay, Carroll discusses Eliot's use of Orientalism in Felix Holt through the character of Harold Transome, who is neither English nor Eastern.]


George Eliot's novels of “English life” often touch upon the outer limits of empire (Felix Holt 79). But in her hands, the English novel may be less engaged in redrawing contemporary imperialist plots than in challenging them. Featuring a heavily Byronic, Eastern exoticism or Orientalism in...

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Christopher Z. Hobson (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hobson, Christopher Z. “The Radicalism of Felix Holt: George Eliot and the Pioneers of Labor.” Victorian Literature and Culture 26, no. 1 (1998): 19-39.

[In the following essay, Hobson claims that Eliot was the first major writer to invest a labor activist character with social importance and moral value, and to recognize that class divisions would not disappear with industrialization and modernization.]

With the death of Michael Zametkin last week at the age of 76 another of the thinning ranks of pioneers of the Jewish Socialist and Labor movements passed away. Few, indeed, are left of the gallant band of idealists, mainly...

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Elizabeth Starr (essay date 2001)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Starr, Elizabeth. “‘Influencing the Moral Taste’: Literary Work, Aesthetics, and Social Change in Felix Holt, the Radical.Nineteenth-Century Literature 56, no. 1 (June 2001): 52-75.

[In the following essay, Starr discusses Eliot's beliefs on the relationship between authorship and commerce in Felix Holt.]

For George Eliot, as for many successful Victorian novelists, moral inquiry into the nature of “the author's vocation” inevitably turned to the relationship between fiction and commerce.1 In the section headed “Authorship” in her “Leaves from a Note-Book,” Eliot deplores the circumstances that lead writers to behave like...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Butwin, Joseph. “The Pacification of the Crowd: From ‘Janet's Repentance’ to Felix Holt.Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (1980): 349-71.

Compares Eliot's use of images of orderly crowds and disorderly mobs in one of the stories from her Scenes of Clerical Life and in Felix Holt.

Cohen, Susan R. “Avoiding the High Prophetic Strain: De Quincey's Mail-Coach and Felix Holt.Victorian Newsletter no. 64 (fall 1983): 19-20.

Compares the introduction of Felix Holt with Thomas de Quincey's 1849 essay “The English Mail-Coach.”

Conway, Richard....

(The entire section is 357 words.)