Felix Holt, the Radical

by George Eliot
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Fred C. Thomson (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7361

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 ease in the field of practical politics. Yet, properly understood, this neglected book is an important guide both to George Eliot's vision of English society and to the techniques of rendering it that she perfected in Middlemarch.

Despite the title (deliberately equivocal) it becomes readily apparent that Felix Holt is not a political novel as the genre is ordinarily understood. George Eliot was not attempting, like Disraeli, to disseminate a body of party principles; nor, like Trollope in Phineas Finn, to describe the vicissitudes of a career politician. Equally remote from her purposes was the strain of social protest to be found in the novels of Charles Kingsley and Mrs. Gaskell. She gives us no scarifying pictures of contaminated slums, inhuman working conditions, or lower-class degradation. The Sproxton colliers and the barflies at the Cross Keys are brutish and stupid, but there is none of the savor of real abandonment about them. Their ignorance and a kind of childish docility to evil counsel are emphasized above their squalor.

George Eliot repeatedly, almost wilfully, neglects her opportunities for outright political discussion or debate. To be sure, there are numerous passages (for instance the market-dinner at the Marquis of Granby) where the miscellaneous political views of the characters are exposed; but the effect is more to expose the political ignorance of Trebians than to get at any real definition of principles. The most conspicuous issue of a political nature in the novel is bribery and corruption at elections, and that is made to touch as much on private as on public morality.1 Only at the Duffield Nominations do we get anything like a straight-forward expression of George Eliot's political views, and then the spirit is hostile to practical politics. Not only does Felix, the titular hero, have no vote, he is not even interested in getting one. He is ambitious enough, but no part of his ambition is to become an elected representative of his class to what Carlyle called the “National Palaver.” He is a Radical in an anti-political sense.

With her experience as an editor of the Westminster Review, George Eliot was surely well informed on the political currents of the age, but her mind habitually transmuted such ideas into broad humanitarian concepts with little correlation to legislative machinery. Believing that social reform was dependent on the healthy inner state of the individuals comprising the society, she was deeply skeptical of the wisdom of an extended suffrage while self-reform among the masses was so lagging. The veteran socialist agitator and free-thinker George Jacob Holyoake, a long-time friend of the Leweses, pointed out the deficiency of Felix Holt as a Radical document.

Felix is a revolutionist from indignation. His social insurgency is based on resentment at injustice. Very noble is that form of dissatisfaction, but political independence is not his inspiration. Freedom, equality of public rights, are not in his mind. His disquiet is not owing to the political inability of his fellows to control their own fortunes. Content comes to Felix when the compassion of others ameliorates or extinguishes the social ills from which his fellows suffer. He is the Chartist of Positivism without a throb of indignation at political subjection. That may be Positivism, but it is not Radicalism.2

If George Eliot's objective had been to depict in Felix a model political Radical, Holyoake's criticism would be unanswerable. He argued, however, from a wrong premise, giving insufficient weight to the irony in the title. Of course Felix is a Positivist, and a Tory Positivist at that.

Though it would be going too far to claim that George Eliot's political opinions were illiberal, they leaned distinctly towards the conservative side. In some thinly disguised autobiographical passages in the essay “Looking Backward,” she tells us that she imbibed from her father, Robert Evans, much of his doughty conservatism.

Nor can I be sorry, though myself given to meditative if not active innovation, that my father was a Tory who had not exactly a dislike to innovators and Dissenters, but a slight opinion of them as persons of ill-founded self-confidence; whence my young ears gathered many details concerning those who might perhaps have called themselves the more advanced thinkers in our nearest market-town, tending to convince me that their characters were quite as mixed as those of the thinkers behind them.3

This bent for “meditative if not active innovation” allowed her to hold the most advanced views in religion, philosophy, and science, while at the same time she cherished the established order in national institutions. Through Charles Bray, whom she met in 1841, she was introduced to some of the great liberal political and social movements of the time, but she never lost her “latent Conservative bias.”4 There is an interesting letter to John Sibree, Jr., in which George Eliot rejoices at the French Revolution of February 1848. But her conservatism soon comes to the fore. What is suitable to the conditions in France and the French national character would not be so in England. The English are “slow crawlers,” fit at present only for the “slow progress of political reform,” such as is permitted by the constitution. She has a horror of the brutal destructive violence, uninspired by higher motives of truth and justice, that she feels would characterize any insurrection of British laborers.5

In 1851 George Eliot became assistant editor for John Chapman of the Westminster Review, once a nursery of Philosophic Radicalism but which now announced a relatively conservative policy. She helped write the original version of the Prospectus prefacing the first number of the periodical under its new management.6 One copy of this Prospectus was submitted for comment to John Stuart Mill, who after perusing it wrote Chapman “a long, half-sarcastic letter” criticizing the conservatism and generality of the stated policies.7 Mill objected particularly to the assertions that “strength and durability are the result only of slow and peaceful development,” and that “reform, to be salutary, must be graduated to the average moral and intellectual growth of a society.”8 These views, however, are quite consistent with George Eliot's position in Felix Holt, written fifteen years later, and attest the conservatism of her politics, even when she was inhaling a “liberal air” in other intellectual areas. But her political principles were to receive their fullest exposition a year and a half after she had finished the novel in the “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt,” produced at the urging of her publisher, John Blackwood, an inveterate conservative.

Speaking to the workers newly enfranchised by the Reform Bill of 1867, Felix warns them against arrogant vaunting that they are “the future masters of the country,” when instead they should bethink themselves solemnly and humbly of “our heavy responsibility; that is to say, the terrible risk we run of working mischief and missing good, as others have done before us.” Political power, dangerously susceptible to abuse, is safely entrusted only to men possessing the indispensable qualifications of knowledge, ability, and honesty, without which no lasting good can be expected of the franchise. A society, he continues, is like the human body, a delicately poised system of parts—individuals and classes—whose health depends on the harmonious cooperation of these components. It is foolish to deny the existence of class distinctions, “as if everybody could have the same sort of work, or lead the same sort of life.” Equally vain is the pretense that class interest is unreal. “It is clear that if any particular number of men get a particular benefit from any existing institution, they are likely to band together, in order to keep up that benefit and increase it, until it is perceived to be unfair and injurious to another large number, who get knowledge and strength enough to set up a resistance.” Human nature being what it is, still tainted with selfishness, such resistance to injustice is itself in peril of becoming unjust, a mere “damaging convulsion” detonated by motives of greed and brutality. The working classes, embittered by a long history of political and economic repression, can least afford to forget that society is ligatured by all its members, all its classes. An individual, fast enmeshed as he is in the “fine widespread network of society,” cannot pursue selfish interests without incurring harmful consequences to himself or his class. And no class can seek to eradicate or violently supplant another without disrupting the whole society.

Now the only safe way by which society can be steadily improved and our worst evils reduced, is not by any attempt to do away directly with the actually existing class distinctions and advantages … but by the turning of Class Interests into Class Functions or duties. What I mean is, that each class should be urged by the surrounding conditions to perform its particular work under the strong pressure of responsibility to the nation at large; that our public affairs should be got into a state in which there should be no impunity for foolish or faithless conduct.

Such an end will come to pass only with patience, forbearance, intelligence, and fortitude.

Recalling his part in the lamentable election riot of 1832, Felix says the experience taught him the awfulness of disorder and the futility of precipitating any change while the mass of the populace, “the hideous margin of society,” is yet unweaned from ignorance, gross sensuality, and brutality. Disorder can inflict a mortal wound on society, and the fundamental duty of the government is therefore to prevent its occurrence and to enforce the laws. In their insistence upon the maintenance of order, the governing classes are not simply trying to protect a selfish tyrannic supremacy. They are exercising their peculiar class function. Infuriating though it may be for the underprivileged to behold the superabundance of wealth and comforts in the ranks above them, frequently enjoyed by persons as stupid, coarse, and selfish as the worst among themselves, they must realize that the upper classes, by virtue of ancient heritage, are best qualified for the stewardship of the national treasure of “knowledge, science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling, and manners, great memories, and the interpretation of great records, which is carried on from the minds of one generation to the minds of another.” The unremitting task of practical wisdom for the working man is “not to say, ‘This is good, and I will have it,’ but to say, ‘This is the less of two unavoidable evils, and I will bear it.’” For people unaccustomed to the proper uses of the precious cultural heritage to seize rashly the alluring prerogatives of material wealth, refinement, and leisure, trampling down their traditional custodians, would mean the debasement of the nation. The lower classes must prepare themselves gradually and industriously to become active sharers of “the common estate of society.” The “Address” closes on a characteristic note of commodious generality. “I have avoided touching on special questions. The best help towards judging well on these is to approach them in the right temper, without vain expectation, and with a resolution which is mixed with temperance.”9

The exalted sentiments, the real compassion for working class misery and injustice notwithstanding, George Eliot's political principles are perhaps closer to Carlyle's in the Latter-Day Pamphlets than to John Stuart Mill's in On Liberty. History and the collective wisdom of the nation are on the side of the ruling classes. Human nature may be perfectible, but selfishness and meanness still predominate so that “however we insist that men might act better, we are forced, unless we are fanatical simpletons, to consider how they are likely to act.” Until the vicious ignorance of the masses has been dispelled, political power is most safely left to those who have been traditionally invested with it. Sporadic corruption in high office is less to be feared than the insurrection of an insane rabble.

Such skepticism favors a conservative policy, but it cannot be said that George Eliot was attached to any organized party. Her political conservatism was not so much a basis for similar principles in other areas as it was an offshoot of the Positivist philosophy that actually controls the “Address to Working Men.” The solidarity of mankind, the idea that the good of one is the good of all, that the unfailing law of consequences will punish any selfish deviation are at the heart of her message. Social and political change must be slow because the results of a mistaken course may be irreparable. Since the gradations by which great changes for good or ill are ultimately wrought are usually minute rather than spectacular, a society must keep ceaseless vigilance over the direction of its progress; for “they are comparatively few who see the small degrees by which … extremes are arrived at, or have the resolution and self-control to resist the little impulses by which they creep on surely towards a fatal end.”

This concept of the “gradual operation of steady causes” is treated more lightly in the essay “A Political Molecule,” first published in the Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879). George Eliot here makes the point that even selfishness, so long as it does not violate the established order, can contribute to at least class welfare. She demonstrates how “a man often furthers larger ends than he is conscious of, and that while he is transacting his particular affairs with the narrow pertinacity of a respectable ant, he subserves an economy larger than any purpose of his own.” The political molecule in this case is Spike, a cotton manufacturer whose professed Liberalism is a specious cloak for the narrowest self-interest. Spike had been in favor of the Reform Bill not because of any genuine sympathy for the unenfranchised multitudes but because he saw that his business would profit from the representation of large trading towns in Parliament. He was for Corn Law Repeal not because it would help relieve famine and distress among the poor but because he thought additional foreign markets for cotton goods would thereby be opened up. Yet in advocating or opposing certain legislation for the sake of his private prosperity he necessarily acted for the weal of the cotton industry in general and of his class: “A small mind trained to useful occupation for the satisfying of private need becomes a representative of genuine class-needs. … Spike was obliged to contemplate a general benefit, and thus became public-spirited in spite of himself. Or rather, the nature of things transmuted his active egoism into a demand for a public benefit.”10

The ideas expounded in the “Address to Working Men” and “A Political Molecule” permeate Felix Holt. But it is interesting and significant that these ideas emerge less effectively through the actions and speeches of Felix himself than through characters opposed or contrasted to him, and through various symbolic features of the setting.

For the sake of playing on the ambiguity of the epithet, George Eliot has aligned Felix with the Radicals, but he is plainly a misfit in that political camp, as he would have been in the Tory, for which his purely political beliefs better qualify him. He is above all a lay Positivist, believing in the abstract principle of progress broadcast by the Radicals yet holding with the Conservatives that the rate of institutional progress should never exceed that of human nature. His Radicalism is of a root-and-branch order, which wants “to go to some roots a good deal lower down than the franchise.”11 Better than persuade the Whig capitalist Garstin to establish a company school for his employees' children, Felix aspires to get the men voluntarily to pool savings from their drinking money to hire a schoolmaster. And at Treby he carries on his educational crusade by teaching a small group of local boys. His goal is the gradual development of a strong, wise, and virtuous public opinion as the prerequisite for political power. When the trades-union man at Duffield declares, “the greatest question in the world is, how to give every man a man's share in what goes on in life,” Felix applauds; but he does not believe that the way to get a man's share in life is by legislated nostrums, including a premature franchise. Votes cannot help the workers if they are cast ignorantly to elect time-serving rascals, “men who have no real opinions, but who pilfer the words of every opinion, and turn them into a cant which will serve their purpose at the moment; … men who know all the ins and outs of bribery, because there is not a cranny in their own souls where a bribe can't enter” (xxx, 241).12

Another immediate need is to develop among laborers and artisans a sense of class duties. Felix is proud of his lineage as a craftsman. “I have the blood of a line of handicraftsmen in my veins, and I want to stand up for the lot of the handicraftsman as a good lot, in which a man may be better trained to all the best functions of his nature than if he belonged to the grimacing set who have visiting-cards, and are proud to be thought richer than their neighbours” (xxvii, 180). Elsewhere he says, “If there's anything our people want convincing of, it is, that there's some dignity and happiness for a man other than changing his station” (xlv, 85). The moral deterioration of his father, he believes, can be partly attributed to his desertion of the class to which he was born. “My father was a weaver first of all. It would have been better for him if he had remained a weaver” (v, 114).

The ambivalence in Felix's position has the effect of alienating him from almost everyone. Too much of a gadfly to conscience to make anyone around him comfortable, he is regarded by Liberals and Conservatives, by traditionalists and levelers, by Churchmen and Dissenters as a sort of renegade or barbarian at odds with all the conventions of society. 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. Ardent as a polemicist, indomitable as a crusader, he fails to convince dramatically because the reader cannot fit him into the local context of organic social change, of which he emerges a calculated exponent, not a vital symbol.

Compared to the lofty moral idealism of Felix, the political Radicalism of Harold Transome may appear rather shallow and shabbily expedient. As a character, however, he is far more interesting. To call Harold, as several contemporary reviewers did, a cynical and nefarious politician is erroneous. He has aligned himself with the Radicals out of principle rather than opportunism. Belonging to a landed family traditionally of Tory persuasion, personally avid for reputation and honor in the county, he is well aware of the pejorative meaning Treby gentry attach to the word Radical. “It did not signify about your holding Radical opinions at Smyrna,” his horrified mother tells him; “but you seem not to imagine how your putting up as a Radical will affect your position here, and the position of your family. No one will visit you. And then—the sort of people who will support you! You really have no idea what an impression it conveys when you say you are a Radical. There are none of our equals who will not feel that you have disgraced yourself” (ii, 67-68).

Every consideration of expediency would seem to militate against his decision; yet Harold sticks obstinately by it, convinced that the best interests of the country will be served by the Radical party. Holding that Toryism and Whiggery have lost their political identity and vitality, he believes that nothing is left “to men of sense and good family but to retard the national ruin by declaring themselves Radicals, and take the inevitable process of changing everything out of the hands of beggarly demagogues and purse-proud tradesmen” (ii, 58). By disposition irregularly divided between rebellion and conformity, he likes to keep up the outward forms of convention but has no desire to stunt the growing Radical saplings in favor of the rotting Tory oaks.13 His political downfall is therefore not the merited due of a mere charlatan. It is true that “the utmost enjoyment of his own advantages was the solvent that blended pride in his family and position, with the adhesion to changes that were to obliterate tradition and melt down enchased gold heirlooms into plating for the egg-spoons of ‘the people’” (xliii, 156).

But Harold is essentially honest, guilty of misjudgment rather than evil intent. Politically, as George Eliot sees it, he errs in believing that he thoroughly knows the condition of England after an absence of fifteen years. His Radicalism, as opposed to the root-and-branch moral radicalism of Felix, is superficial, confined to “rooting out abuses.” He wants to accelerate reform artificially and prematurely, ingenuously crediting the masses with the intelligence to understand what is best for them. Morally Harold was wrong in winking at the lawyer Jermyn's bad character for the sake of securing him as an election agent, and then in conniving at the corrupt methods of Jermyn's hireling on the theory that if a man is to get into Parliament “he must not be too particular.” By the law of consequences he assumes liability for his passive complicity.

Whether or not George Eliot so designed it, the Tories in Felix Holt and the social units of North Loamshire and Treby appear as symbols of organic change and the solidarity of mankind superior in dramatic effect to the nominal hero. The Tories are represented chiefly of course by the Debarry family.14 Bluff, jovial Sir Maximus and his hard-headed but finer-grained brother the Rev. Augustus are both excellent examples of those “political molecules” who almost in spite of themselves contribute to wide public benefits. Sir Maximus, though he flatters himself that he has the good of the country at heart, is solidly dedicated to the interests of the landowning classes and is opposed to any disturbance of the existing order and institutions. His daughter Selina once asks why the Nonconformist movement in the seventeenth century was condoned by the authorities:

“But all those wrong things—why didn't government put them down?”

“Ah, to be sure,” fell in Sir Maximus, in a cordial tone of corroboration.

(xiv, 290)

There is much that is faulty with what Sir Maximus stands for—social inertia, neo-feudalism, rigid class barriers, cultural materialism, monopolization of wealth, idleness, self-indulgence. He is the “long-tailed saurian,” a primeval creature too cumbersome to manage its own bulk, attracting wasteful parasites, maintaining a manor that in size and the amount of provisions therein consumed could rival an entire village.

Nevertheless, by his very unprogressiveness Sir Maximus is a valuable social component, retarding the destructive forces of hasty change. The family, extending back in time to long before the English Reformation, has its roots in ancient British traditions and is antagonistic to any rupture of their venerable continuity. If the saurian is antediluvian, he has a warranted premonition of the extinction that will come with the deluge, and is anxious to forestall that catastrophe as long as possible. He is thus performing a valid class function, one with which George Eliot sympathized.

In domestic life Sir Maximus is benevolent, generous, easy-going, the worthy father of a worthy son; but when the safety of his class is threatened, his instincts of self-preservation are swift and ruthless. He cuts Harold Transome from his acquaintance the moment he hears of his tergiversation. Despite his political treachery, Harold remains a gentleman by birth (at least on his mother's side), and when it comes to a showdown between a gentleman and a varlet Sir Maximus knows whose part to take. Forgetting former grievances, he gallantly rescues Harold when Jermyn reveals his paternity to the assemblage at the White Hart.

“Leave the room, sir!” the Baronet said to Jermyn, in a voice of imperious scorn. “This is a meeting of gentlemen.”

“Come, Harold,” he said, in the old friendly voice, “come away with me.”

(xlvii, 244)

Later he lends his prestige to suppress the scandal about Mrs. Transome in the Treby neighborhood.

The Rev. Augustus Debarry, “really a fine specimen of the old-fashioned aristocratic clergyman, preaching short sermons, understanding business, and acting liberally about his tithe” (iii, 85)—surtout point de zèle, does for the Establishment what his brother does for the landed interests. Whereas Sir Maximus is concerned about the encroachments of manufacturers and parvenus, Augustus worries over the ominous ferment of once quiescent Dissent, a concomitant of creeping industrialism. Impervious to progressive influences, he efficiently protects sacred institutions and civil order. His grim hostility to the Independent preacher Mr. Lyon is based on reasons that in principle could hardly displease Felix himself.

“Let me tell you, Phil, he's a crazy little firefly, that does a great deal of harm in my parish. He inflames the Dissenters' minds on politics. There's no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde—losing all the results of civilisation, all the lessons of Providence—letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make our almanacs, and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”

(xxiii, 122-123)

The rectory itself, like the Manor, symbolizes a surfeit of material wealth and secular comforts; it is also a symbol of what has proved best and sturdiest in the long history of British civilization.

The Rectory was on the other side of the river, close to the church of which it was the fitting companion: a fine old brick-and-stone house, with a great bow-window opening from the library on to the deep-turfed lawn, one fat dog sleeping on the door-stone, another fat dog waddling on the gravel, the autumn leaves duly swept away, the lingering chrysanthemums cherished, tall trees stooping or soaring in the most picturesque variety, and a Virginia creeper turning a little rustic hut into a scarlet pavilion. It was one of those rectories which are among the bulwarks of our venerable institutions—which arrest disintegrating doubt, serve as a double embankment against Popery and Dissent, and rally feminine instinct and affection to reinforce the decisions of masculine thought.

(xxiii, 120-121)

George Eliot's sympathy for these hidebound “molecules” is better understood if one remembers the attitude of Dickens towards Sir Leicester Dedlock of Bleak House. Like Sir Maximus Debarry, Sir Leicester is a staunch conservative, loftily proud of his long ancestry, yet capable on occasion of magnanimity.

His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks. He would on the whole admit Nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park-fence), but an idea dependent for its execution on your great county families. He is a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness, and ready, on the shortest notice, to die any death you may please to mention rather than give occasion for the least impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man.15

Dickens gives his merits due credit but the portrait generally lingers in a damp, musty gloom. The aristocratic world of Sir Leicester does not idle in the afternoon sun of North Loamshire. It feebly expires in a close shuttered room. “There is much good in it; there are many good and true people in it; it has its appointed place. But the evil of it is, that it is a world wrapped up in too much jeweller's cotton and fine wool, and cannot hear the rushing of the larger worlds, and cannot see them as they circle round the sun. It is a deadened world, and its growth is sometimes un-healthy for want of air.” Chesney Wold decays in a leaden atmosphere of drizzle and mould. It resembles Transome Court more than Treby Manor in its disrepair and haunted corridors. “The vases on the stone terrace in the foreground catch the rain all day; and the heavy drops fall, drip, upon the broad flagged pavement, called, from old time, the Ghost's Walk, all night. On Sundays, the little church in the park is mouldy; the oaken pulpit breaks out into a cold sweat; and there is a general smell and taste as of the ancient Dedlocks in their graves.” In the end, Sir Leicester “holds his shrunken state in the long drawing-room. … Closed in by night with broad screens, and illumined only in that part, the light of the drawing-room seems gradually contracting and dwindling until it shall be no more. A little more, in truth, and it will be all extinguished for Sir Leicester; and the damp door in the mausoleum which shuts so tight, and looks so obdurate, will have opened and relieved him.”16 What to Dickens, then, seemed an exhausted incubus to social and political progress was to George Eliot a useful counterbalance to the more subversive forces of radicalism.

Collective North Loamshire is in many ways a “political molecule,” symbolic of organic change; and George Eliot's handling of the setting marks a definite stage in the development of her methods of social analysis. In Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner she had closely studied the anatomy of town and rural life and manners. These stories are liberally sprinkled with minor characters representing the various trades, crafts, and professions, not to mention the subtle gradations within the land-owning and land-tilling classes. An excellent example of this kind is the account of the birthday celebration at Donnithorne Abbey, where every person is dined and entertained according to his station. Such social analysis is, however, even in the more complex world of The Mill on the Floss, relatively simple, unobtrusive, and incidental to other preoccupations.17 George Eliot contented herself with careful observation of the accomplished fact of a certain class structure without searching into political and economic causes.

In Felix Holt the social system is not taken so comfortably for granted. The Introduction contains a brilliant survey of the agricultural, marketing, and manufacturing areas of the midlands, showing the encroachment of the Industrial Revolution on pastoral domain, its effects on the native resistance to change and sluggish political consciousness of the population, and on the redistribution of Orthodoxy and Dissent. The device of the coach-ride, so dear to Scott and Dickens, is resuscitated for a purpose that goes beyond picturesqueness and nostalgia. On its dawn-to-dusk odyssey from the Avon to the Trent, the coach becomes a symbol of organic progress, in contrast to the forced unnatural progress typified by the pneumatic railway. Mr. Sampson the coachman is himself a victim of industrialism.

His view of life had originally been genial, and such as became a man who was well warmed within and without, and held a position of easy, undisputed authority; but the initiation of Railways had embittered him: he now, as in a perpetual vision, saw the ruined country strewn with shattered limbs, and regarded Mr. Huskisson's death as a proof of God's anger against Stephenson. “Why, every inn on the road would be shut up!” and at that word the coachman looked before him with the blank gaze of one who had driven his coach to the outermost edge of the universe, and saw his leaders plunging into the abyss.

(i, 11)

The study is resumed in Chapter 3 with specific application to Treby Magna, where the peaceful social balances in the town had been upset towards the end of the eighteenth century by the advent of “new conditions, complicating its relation with the rest of the world, and gradually awakening in it that higher consciousness which is known to bring higher pains” (pp. 80-81). The difference of the analysis in these chapters is that whereas in George Eliot's earlier “English” novels the background material was woven unobtrusively into the stories, in Felix Holt it is a bit too conveniently marshalled and self-consciously displayed. By the time she wrote Middlemarch, George Eliot had regained her command of technique. Manipulating far more historical and sociological detail, she adroitly kneaded it into the stuff of her drama, occasionally consolidating some of it in a transitional paragraph or two, but never permitting it to usurp an entire chapter. It is this improved artistry that lends Middlemarch much of its extraordinary depth and richness as “A Study of Provincial Life.”

Even so, the analysis of Treby is fine in its own right. Through the eighteenth century it had been a typical old-fashioned market town, specializing in “grazing, brewing, wool-packing, cheese-loading.” The “new conditions” which have since arisen—the canal, the coal mines, the spa, the tape manufactory, and finally the Catholic and Reform agitations—have touched and awakened its political consciousness; they have not succeeded in hurrying it inordinately into a torrent of progressive change. The acceptance of innovation by native Trebians is painfully slow and circumspect, but left to themselves they preserve and perpetuate a genial community spirit, their morality kept healthy under the superintendence of public opinion. The disruptive elements—moral, economic, political—are not indigenous but intrude from the outside world. The Transome family declines rapidly with the accession of those “very distant connections” the Durfeys, and the genuine branch of the Transomes, uprooted from its hereditary estates, dies with the degraded Tommy Trounsem. Mrs. Transome, herself a newcomer to Treby forty years ago, suffers from a contagious moral debility, which could infect the whole society. Luckily Treby has sufficient antibodies to ward off her corruptive influence. Jermyn, too, with his uncertain parentage and his aura of illegitimacy, arrives “from a distance” and promptly attempts to undermine Treby traditions. He is chiefly responsible for the short-lived Bethesda Spa and indirectly for the odious tape manufactory, which is such an affront to the aristocratic pride of Sir Maximus. Morally Jermy in corruptive in his liaison with Mrs. Transome, in his handling of the Bycliffe suit, and in his milking of the estate. In the end he is driven out without having seriously injured the community at large.

Harold, the son of Mrs. Transome and Jermyn, is another virtual déraciné. After fifteen years in Smyrna, he returns vainly imagining that he knows what the country needs, and embarks on a campaign which culminates in the fatal riot, itself incited by non-Trebians. “I'm an Oriental, you know,” says Harold, and the term carries here overtones of a nomadic, alien character, one without a sense of English traditions and institutions. The breed is symbolized by Harold's prized servant, the polyglot Dominic,

“one of those wonderful southern fellows that make one's life easy. He's of no country in particular. I don't know whether he's most of a Jew, a Greek, an Italian, or a Spaniard. He speaks five or six languages, one as well as another. He's cook, valet, major-domo, and secretary all in one; and what's more, he's an affectionate fellow—I can trust to his attachment. That's a sort of human specimen that doesn't grow here in England, I fancy.”

(ii, 64)

Christian is another such mongrel type. Even Mr. Lyon and Esther are “intruders” and, in less sinister ways, disturbing to Treby—Esther by her ladylike airs, unbecoming to one of her supposed station, and Mr. Lyon by his Dissenting zeal and Radical pulpiteering. Both, however, are assimilated by the society because of their essential goodness of heart and discretion.

One sees in most of the native or soundly naturalized town and county folk motives of self- or class-interest working unintentionally for larger public benefits. There is scarcely one who understands the real political significance of Tory, Whig, Radical, or Reform. They profess their party allegiance and cast their votes with the haziest notions of principles involved. Until the agitation over Catholic Emancipation in 1829 they had dwelt in a snug tranquil provincial limbo and are now just beginning “to know the higher pains of a dim political consciousness” (iii, 86). As yet party names and issues carry no more than vague connotations of honor or infamy, which impinge upon them emotionally rather than rationally. Reform is to them “a confused combination of rick-burners, trades-unions, Nottingham riots, and in general whatever required the calling-out of the yeomanry” (Introd., p. 10).

In personal relations, the breach between Churchmen and Dissenters is wider and more acrimonious than between Conservatives and Liberals. Mr. Pendrell will not employ Dissenters at his bank, and a “year ago he discharged Brother Bodkin, although he was a valuable servant” (v, 113). But the Tory farmers give Mr. Lingon a friendly cheer before his speech for Harold Transome. At the Tory inn, the Marquis of Granby, a minority from the opposite party, is goodhumoredly welcomed to the dinner table. “A respectable old acquaintance turned Radical rather against his will, was rallied with even greater gusto than if his wife had had twins twice over. The best Trebian Tories were far too sweet-blooded to turn against such old friends, and to make no distinction between them and the Radical, Dissenting, Papistical, Deistical set with whom they never dined, and probably never saw except in their imagination” (xx, 72-73). Except among the aristocracy, political differences have not yet made deep cleavages in social relations.

So long as the Treby tradespeople and land-tillers go about their business, promoting what is best for their private interests in an orderly way, like Spike the political molecule, their political innocence is not very harmful. Though almost every shade of Conservatism and Liberalism is represented among the residents, the parish as a whole reacts gingerly to external progressive pressures. The Radical concentration is still at Duffield, the coal mines are two miles away at Sproxton, the commercialized Spa has failed, and only the tape manufactory has made a successful invasion as the vanguard of industrialism. This placid resistance to change, this gradual transition in mores, just keeping pace with individual enlightenment, is, George Eliot implies, the wisest course while self-reform and altruistic feeling remain undeveloped in the majority. Political awareness, if not bigoted political partisanship, is symptomatic of a spreading sense of community with the rest of the nation, and eventually with the human race. And the inhabitants of Treby, having already felt the “higher pains,” whether they realize it or not are moving in the right direction. Already there is a glimmering of fraternalism in Mr. Nolan's remark, “‘It's all one web, sir. The prosperity of the country is one web’” (xx, 79).

Seen in this light, the title motto from Michael Drayton's Polyolbion truly embodies George Eliot's philosophy of organic change:

Upon the midlands now the industrious muse doth fall,
The shires which we the heart of England well may call.
My native country thou, which so brave spirits hast bred,
If there be virtues yet remaining in thy earth,
Or any good of thine thou bred'st into my birth,
Accept it as thine own, whilst now I sing of thee,
Of all thy later brood unworthiest though I be.

Those midland shires “which we the heart of England well may call” were for her among the last jealous guardians of a hallowed continuity in British traditions.


  1. The election, of which so much is made in Volumes i and ii, is over and virtually forgotten in Volume iii as the personal tragedy comes to a head. For an argument that the political element was not in fact a part of George Eliot's original plan for the novel, see my article, “The Genesis of Felix Holt,PMLA, lxxiv (1959), 576-584.

  2. Bygones Worth Remembering, 2 vols. (London, 1905), i, 92.

  3. Impressions of Theophrastus Such (Edinburgh and London, 1879), p. 40.

  4. John W. Cross, ed., George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, 3 vols. (Edinburgh and London, 1885), i, 5.

  5. Gordon S. Haight, ed., The George Eliot Letters, 7 vols. (New Haven, 1954-1955), i, 252-255.

  6. See Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot and John Chapman (New Haven, 1940), p. 32.

  7. George Eliot and John Chapman, p. 34.

  8. Hugh S. R. Elliot, ed., The Letters of John Stuart Mill, 2 vols. (London, 1910), i, 162-164.

  9. Blackwood's, ciii (1868), 1-11 passim.

  10. Theophrastus Such, pp. 138-139.

  11. Quotations are from the first edition (3 vols.; Edinburgh and London: 1866), xxvi, 184. Subsequent references are to this edition and show chapter and page.

  12. There is a symbolic parallel between the late Mr. Holt's Elixir and Cancer Cure and the legislative “Morrison's Pills” peddled by the political Radicals. Felix regards men like Harold Transome and Johnson as “quacks” who more or less cynically play upon the people's ignorance of the “nature of things” and their “vain expectations.” “‘My father was ignorant,’ said Felix bluntly. ‘He knew neither the complication of the human system, nor the way in which drugs counteract each other. Ignorance is not so damnable as humbug, but when it prescribes pills it may happen to do more harm’” (v, 110).

  13. “He meant to stand up for every change that the economical condition of the country required, and he had an angry contempt for men with coronets on their coaches, but too small a share of brains to see when they had better make a virtue of necessity. His respect was rather for men who had no coronets, but who achieved a just influence by furthering all measures which the common sense of the country, and the increasing self-assertion of the majority, peremptorily demanded. He could be such a man himself” (viii, 203-204).

  14. Regrettably little is said about the politics of Philip Debarry, who is a victorious candidate in the election, whose behavior, so far as we learn, is impeccable, and whom George Eliot is clearly glad to send to Parliament. He is described by the Rev. Mr. Lingon as “one of the new Conservatives,” “a new-fashioned Tory”; that is, one of those men who were dissatisfied with the concessive, unstable, latitudinarian policies of Sir Robert Peel. These men, feeling the need for a sound and well articulated body of principles to underlie the Conservative party, later rallied under Disraeli as the “Young Englanders.” The enthusiasm of many of their leaders had been kindled, it so happens, by the Church revival at Oxford. The subsequent conversion of Philip to Catholicism is therefore historically consistent with his politics. George Eliot does not specify his political tenets, but the combination of Catholicism and “new Conservatism” leads one to suspect that he was patterned to some extent after the benevolently feudalistic, alms-dispensing Catholic landlord Mr. Eustace Lyle in Coningsby. A frailer representative of the Debarrys than his father and uncle, Philip is subject to visitations of self-doubt, which enhance his appeal for George Eliot. Though the idea was left in embryonic condition, he seems partly designed to illustrate the type of personality on whom the Oxford Movement (incipient at the university when Philip was up in 1832) made its impact. George Eliot had read Newman's Apologia in 1864 with “absorbing interest.” The book affected her “as the revelation of a life—how different in form from one's own, yet with how close a fellowship in its needs and burthens” (The George Eliot Letters, iv, 158-159).

  15. Bleak House, New Oxford edition (London, n.d.), p. 9.

  16. Ibid., pp. 8, 9, 874.

  17. See the fine discussion by Claude T. Bissell, “Social Analysis in the Novels of George Eliot,” ELH, xviii (1951), 221-239.


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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.

Lenore Wisney Horowitz (essay date 1975)

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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 election under the Reform Bill of 1832, Felix Holt presents a wide range of social problems and political philosophies. There is not only conflict among the social classes but intense rivalry among leaders who seek their support. But while the novel poses the problem of political leadership initially, conventional methods of political change are ultimately rejected in favor of a more far-reaching vision of social change. Instead of endorsing political reform, the novel creates a broad myth of social transition suggesting the selective incorporation of what is valuable in the past into a social order which is really new. This myth of social transition defines meaningful change as the reorientation of society towards the future rather than the past. While George Eliot's respect for the past and its precedents is clear in the novel, Felix Holt presents an urgent plea for the present to break free from the control of the past in the definition and solution of society's problems.

Although it is a dramatic change, the use of industrial England as the setting of Felix Holt grows out of George Eliot's experiments in the earlier novels. Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner are set in the stable agricultural England of the past, but industrial England appears on the outskirts of the landscape. The Hayslope of Adam Bede is part of old England, but the impact of manufacturing is felt in Snowfield and in Leeds where Dinah Morris preaches. In The Mill on the Floss, St. Oggs is a nontechnical, provincial society, but Tom Tulliver is sent by his uncle Deane's grain company on “northern business” because of the impact that steam has had on the market. Manufacturing becomes more important in Silas Marner since Silas is a cottage weaver, but the action takes place in Raveloe rather than in Lantern Yard, the manufacturing town, and Raveloe as yet “lay aloof from industrial currents.”

While the problems of industrial England are brought more and more into the settings of these early novels, they play only a minor role. The complex problems of the new England are excluded in the resolution of each novel. Characters with a foot in both Englands end up by leaving the mills for the farm. Dinah Morris gives up Leeds for Hayslope, while Tom Tulliver exchanges a promising future in the thriving grain trade for the old family mill. The pattern of Silas Marner's moral regeneration involves leaving Lantern Yard and its problems behind; his brief return to Lantern Yard severs rather than strengthens his ties to the manufacturing town. Like Dinah Morris, he is saved in a sense by returning to old England and its values.

Such a solution to human and social problems is not possible in Felix Holt because industrial England is at the center of the novel's landscape and social problems play a major role. The novel's “Introduction” presents a striking picture of England in conflict by describing the reaction of a coach passenger journeying through the English midlands.

In these midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another: after looking down on a village dingy with coal-dust, noisy with the shaking of looms, he might skirt a parish all of fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes; after the coach had rattled over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trades-union meetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region, where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantages of a near market for corn, cheese, and hay. … The busy scenes of the shuttle and the wheel, of the roaring furnace, of the shaft and the pulley, seemed to make but crowded nests in the midst of the large-spaced, slow-moving life of the homesteads and far-away cottages and oak-sheltered parks.

(Introduction, pp. 5-6)1

The passenger observes the sharp contrast between old rural England, “the district of protuberant optimists, sure that old England was the best of all possible countries,” and the new England feeling the impact of profound social and economic problems.

The breath of the manufacturing town, which made a cloudy day and a red gloom by night on the horizon, diffused itself over all the surrounding country, filling the air with eager unrest. Here was a population not convinced that old England was as good as possible. …

(Introduction, p. 5)

It becomes clear to the coach passenger that “town and country had no pulse in common.” Rather than the traveler's vacillating movement from one England to the other, a more permanent reconciliation, a synthesis based on a “common pulse,” is sought in the novel.

The novel focuses the conflict between old rural England and new manufacturing England in Treby Magna. Like Hayslope and Raveloe, Treby Magna is an England of the past. However, while the societies of the earlier novels were stable with elements of change only beginning to show, modern political and economic forces have undermined traditional community relations in Treby Magna and have created social unrest. Coal mines and a tape factory have brought a new population and new problems, and when the passage of the Reform Bill makes the town a polling place, Treby Magna “began at last to know the higher pains of a dim political consciousness” (ch. 3, p. 50). How and by whom the people should be led emerges as an important question. A broad spectrum of political philosophies is presented. Sir Maximus Debarry, the Tory landowner, is one of those “protuberant optimists” who uphold the old ways as best, while Garstin, the Whig manager of the Sproxton mines, seeks moderate change. The miners themselves, however, have quite different opinions and call for annual Parliaments and universal manhood suffrage.

To illustrate the problems involved in leading the people to dramatic social change, the novel focuses on two Radical leaders, Felix Holt and Harold Transome. Both endeavor to change society, but both fail in their efforts to lead the people, or to “head the mob” (ch. 2, p. 34), as Reverend Lingon, Harold's Tory uncle, puts it. The reasons for these failures are important. Harold's efforts to change society are partially undermined by a fallacy in his political philosophy. He believes that society will change for the better through the agency of “active industrious selfishness.” When the Sproxton miners turn their power of self-assertion into mob violence, the danger of such a philosophy becomes clear. In the election day riot, “the multitudinous small wickednesses of small selfish ends, really undirected towards any larger result, had issued in widely-shared mischief that might yet be hideous” (ch. 33, p. 329). Harold's view of social change based on “active industrious selfishness,” like the economic Darwinism prevalent in the period, does not formulate any “larger result” than the satisfaction of self-interest, and George Eliot foresaw dangerous consequences for such limited social vision.

Harold does not look far enough into the future, nor does he see clearly how present problems are rooted in the past. Calling himself a “new man,” Harold seeks to sweep away the corruption of the past. The danger of political leadership which is based on insufficient understanding of the linkage between present and past is reflected in the Oedipal nature of the Harold Transome plot. Harold's discovery of his private past ultimately wrecks his public career. When election posters expose the manner in which his family has gained possession of the Transome estate, Harold learns that he cannot be a “new man” because the past is the “father” of the present. The past cannot be disowned, as he discovers when he sees himself and his father, Matthew Jermyn, reflected in the mirror. The moment when Harold discovers who he is coincides with his final recognition of the ties between the present and the past. Harold's failure as a political leader suggests that it would be as unwise for society to abrogate the past with sweeping changes as it is for Harold to attempt to be a “new man”;2 one's “father” always turns up.

Unlike Harold Transome, Felix Holt sees the linkage between present and past clearly. He knows who his father is and judges his parent's accomplishments objectively and even scientifically. It is knowledge rather than prejudice that leads him to repudiate his father's patent medicines. While he acknowledges his father's good intentions, Felix's training as an apothecary's apprentice convinces him that these panaceas complicate rather than cure present ills. Because he understands the relationship between the present and the past, Holt's view of social change is more comprehensive than Harold's. Felix sees social change as the gradual replacement of what is outmoded. The old ways of doing things, which he at one point likens to irrigation canals and pumps, must not be destroyed until they can be replaced. Otherwise society would be left with no means to cultivate its “common crop.” Holt's failure as a political leader is linked not to his ignorance of the past but to his inability to predict with accuracy the future consequences of his actions. This is precisely the lesson of Felix's disastrous attempt to control the direction of the mob during the election day riot. No man can predict the future, but Holt's effort to do so is made particularly difficult by the very sympathy which makes him sensitive to human misery, which makes the “spirit of innovation” a “part of religion” to him (ch. 16, p. 187). While Harold “disliked all enthusiasm” (ch. 16, p. 187), Felix is liable “to be carried out of his own mastery by indignant anger” (ch. 30, p. 292). Felix's decision to lead the mob is an act of impulse “in the midst of a tangled business” (ch. 33, p. 325), and reflects the narrator's observation that “nature never makes men who are at once energetically sympathetic and minutely calculating” (ch. 33, p. 325).

The novel's answer to the question, who shall lead the people, seems to be that social change cannot be brought about safely by political means.3 The lesson that Felix finds when he “sees behind failure” is that he can best improve society by helping those few within his immediate reach, a very limited social role. Attempts to have a wider effect are fraught with danger to both society and the individual himself. The machinery of power is best left in the hands of those who will not seek drastic changes, and it is significant that the Tory Debarry and the Whig Garstin win the novel's election.

The political plot, however, fails to deal with the more far-reaching question raised in the novel's “Introduction,” whether a “pulse in common” could be found between old England and the new. It can be argued that the question of social reform in the novel is larger than the question of who shall lead the people, that the political failures of Holt and Transome are only part of the novel's resolution of the problem raised in the “Introduction.” The other aspect of the novel's total vision of society centers around the Transome estate and Esther Lyon's role as heir. The important contrast here is not between Harold Transome and Felix Holt as political leaders but between Felix Holt and Esther Lyon as, respectively, the “outsider” and the “insider” vis-à-vis the novel's society. Each has a different relationship to society and faces different problems. Their opposite and complementary patterns of development explore the relationship between society and absolute moral values central to the novel's resolution.

Felix Holt is an outsider because he does not fit comfortably into the social structure of Treby Magna. “Felix chose to live in a way that world prevent any one from classing him according to his education and mental refinement” (ch. 22, p. 227). Felix does not accept society's values and seeks a higher morality than class prejudice or what he calls “the ordinary Christian motives of making an appearance and getting on in the world.” Instead, Felix is committed to the ideal of human brotherhood and equality, to what he calls “the labour and common burthen of the world” (ch. 27, p. 266), a commitment that is at once his great strength and weakness. However, while he is morally superior to characters who unthinkingly accept conventional values, Felix is ineffective because he does not have a viable role in society. While Felix's sense of social responsibility is close to “vocation” in the religious sense, and religious imagery abounds in the novel to describe it, it is not easy for him to translate this feeling of brotherhood into effective social action. As two Glasgow acquaintances put his problem, Felix's capacity for “large veneration” leads him to “banging and smashing” because he cannot find anything in society “perfect enough to be venerated” (ch. 5, p. 69). He bangs and smashes at conventional values, but he is unable to define the positive part of his social function, that “demagogue of a new sort” (ch. 27, p. 270) he desires to be.

An important reason for this difficulty is his fear of becoming entangled in society. He refuses to wear conventional clothes because he believes that they will “throttle” him and confine him in “straps.” He sees women as a seduction into economic and class compulsions which would force him to compromise his integrity: “Men can't help loving them, and so they make themselves slaves to the petty desires of petty creatures” (ch. 10, p. 129). His desire for independence from the corruption of social relationships extends to children as well. While “a bachelor's children are always young … with a chance of turning out good” (ch. 22, pp. 232-33), specific children would be a disappointment as well as a burden. Felix does not recognize that his refusal to become involved in social relationships hinders his effectiveness and makes him as irrelevant to society as the Byronic corsairs and renegades whose “idle suffering” he despises. As far as members of Treby society are concerned, Felix is as much in the wilderness following the “lawless life of the desert” as a “young Ishmaelite” (ch. 37, p. 363).

Felix's stance is not only ineffective but arrogant as well. No man should try to keep his hands so clean that he must “eat turnips,” as Felix puts it, to subdue his natural desires for intimate social ties. Like Reverend Rufus Lyon, whose history prefigures Holt's development, Felix must enter society even if it means compromising the purity of his ideals. Lyon's love for Annette Bycliffe, “a being who had no glimpse of his thoughts induced a more thorough renunciation than he had ever known” (ch. 6, p. 93) in his solitary life of theological devotion. Similarly, Felix has to learn that self-sacrifice for other persons is as important as self-sacrific for ideals. After learning through his experience in the riot that an aloof purity is not possible in society, he accepts the fact that it is not even desirable. He changes his role as a detached critic of society for the role of husband, father, family provider, and teacher, recognizing that his efforts will “never be known beyond a few garrets and workshops” (ch. 45, p. 443).

While Felix Holt, the outsider, is gradually brought from a position outside society to a definite place and function inside society, Esther Lyon's development begins from the opposite extreme and has an expanding rather than a contracting pattern. Esther is an insider, accepting conventional values and standards of behavior without questioning them. She insists on wax candles instead of tallow, includes Byron's Poems in her workbasket, and wonders how she can counteract the assumption current in good society that Dissenters are necessarily vulgar. It becomes clear that her views are based on a lack of sympathy for others, on a “wilfulness” or self-centeredness “that conceives no needs differing from its own, and looks to no results beyond the bargains of to-day” (ch. 6, p. 81).

The narrator makes clear, however, that Esther is capable of developing greater vision through sympathy; “Esther's dread of being ridiculous spread over the surface of her life; but the depth below was sleeping” (ch. 46, p. 458). By telling her that she is “trivial, narrow, and selfish,” Felix shatters Esther's confidence in her values. His criticisms had “shaken her mind to the very roots” (ch. 22, p. 235). Her self-absorbed world breaks apart, and she sees, as he does, the absolute claims that others have on her sympathy. Esther's growth is linked, like his conversion in Glasgow, with religious images. “The first religious experience of her life—the first self-questioning, the first voluntary subjection, the first longing to acquire the strength of greater motives and obey the more strenuous rule—had come to her through Felix Holt” (ch. 27, p. 273). In this “baptism,” sins against man rather than against God are washed away. She is no longer “dead in trespasses—in trespasses on the love of others, in trespasses on their weakness, in trespasses on all those great claims which are the image of our own need” (ch. 13, p. 161). After this process of “painfully growing into the possession of higher powers” (ch. 22, p. 235), of developing what Holt calls the “best self” to a “vision of consequences,” Esther chooses a role in society that can express this higher morality. By refusing to marry Harold and become another Mrs. Transome, Esther puts into practice her idea that “the best life” is not the most comfortable but one in which “one bears and does everything because of some great and strong feeling—so that this and that in one's circumstances don't signify” (ch. 26, pp. 260-61).

As the outsider and the insider approach each other, their different weaknesses are highlighted. While he sees man's fundamental responsibilities as a human being clearly, the outsider finds it difficult to relate these “great claims” to social relationships. In terms of their humanity, all men are equal; in society, however, men have different responsibilities and privileges. The insider, on the other hand, feels at home in social relationships but does not see beyond narrow conventional values. From different directions, Felix Holt and Esther Lyon move towards a norm of behavior in which absolute human responsibilities become workable within social relationships. Their interacting developments are described as a kind of “leavening” process. “So fast does a little leaven spread within us—so incalculable is the effect of one personality on another” (ch. 22, p. 235).

It is at the critical moment in this leavening process that Esther Lyon enters her major role in the novel as the heir to the Transome estate. Educated by Felix Holt to a clear perception of the frequent conflict between social and human values, as the Transome heir she must face squarely the problems of wealth, property, and privilege in society. While the law designates Esther as the legitimate heir and the Transomes as arbitrary possessors of the estate, Esther considers the legal tie the arbitrary one and believes that possession through years of habit and expectation is the human and legitimate claim. She feels that her responsibility to the Transomes as human beings conflicts with the laws of society which distribute property without regard for human feelings. Esther comes to realize that the possession of property and privilege is attended with “circumstances” that only the egotist, like Mrs. Transome, can “sweep away.” She finds it impossible to institute legal proceedings against fellow human beings with whom one should share rather than take.

Disposition of the Transome estate, however, raises even more profound problems than the proper relationship among members of society. The estate is really a symbol for England itself, its complex past, confusing present, and uncertain future. The estate functions in the novel as a myth of social transition which finds the common pulse between the old England and the new. Esther's role as heir of the past is crucial, much like Margaret Schlegel's role in Howards End.

The care with which George Eliot worked out the details of the Transome will is known from her letters,4 and the details, though tedious, are important to the novel's structure. John Justus Transome entailed the estate “on his son Thomas and his heirs-male, with remainder to the Bycliffes in fee” (ch. 29, p. 290). Neither Thomas Transome nor any of his male descendants has the power to dispose of the estate as he might see fit because at the end of the male line the estate is to pass to the Bycliffe family. The fee tail perpetuates the testator's view of what is right generation after generation with no possibility for change until the end of the Transome line. There are other complications. By selling the base fee to the Durfey family, Thomas Transome deprived his male heirs of their just share in the estate. The Durfey-Transomes purchased not the estate itself but only the Transome interest in it and may thus possess the estate only as long as the Transome line exists. Tommy Trounsem, the old impoverished bill-sticker, is the “last issue remaining above-ground from that dissolute Thomas who played his Esau part a century before” (ch. 29, p. 291). Mrs. Durfey-Transome and the lawyer Jermyn compound this original injustice by engaging in “law-tricks” to prolong the Transome interest and to prevent the Bycliffe heir from obtaining the estate. As a result of Jermyn's efforts, Maurice Christian Bycliffe, Esther's father, is falsely imprisoned under the name of Henry Scaddon and dies during this confinement.

The discovery of the Bycliffe heir is of great importance to the novel's myth of social transition because only the Bycliffe heir can break the control of the past and dispose of the estate according to the needs of the present situation. Esther's struggle to decide what should be done with the Transome estate thus raises the problem of the proper attitude of the present towards the past, a problem faced, as we have seen, by Felix Holt and Harold Transome as well. Unlike Harold, Felix rejects only part of the past, his father's patent medicines, because he has learned that they reflect “ignorance” of man's real needs. While rejecting these outmoded remedies, however, Felix aligns himself with a different past better suited to his present priorities: “I have my heritage—an order I belong to. I have the blood of a line of handicraftsmen in my veins” (ch. 27, p. 270). Like Felix, Esther acknowledges herself as the heir of the past but takes from the past only what is of value to the new purposes of the present.

Esther's decision as heir is crucial since the estate represents the line of succession from the past to the present. The alternatives to her choice show that, while the novel's myth of transition preserves the ties to the past, it involves a revolutionary change in the direction of society. Were Esther not revealed as the Bycliffe heir or had she decided to renounce her claim to the estate, the Durfey-Transomes would retain possession of the estate and could claim legal title after twenty years. This would merely legalize their position as false or spurious heirs of the past. Were Esther to marry Harold, the Durfey-Transomes would possess the estate under the original terms of the will through Esther's legal title. In this way, the succession of the estate through sale and injustice would be affirmed and continued. In both alternatives, the present is essentially a continuation of the past, and this principle is repudiated in the novel's myth of social transition.5 Esther reclaims the “pawned inheritance,” and, as the only heir with the discretion of disposal, she divides the estate according to her newly developed vision of priorities. She conveys the major portion of the property to Harold and his mother and arranges for annuities for her stepfather and Holt's mother. Wealth is not necessary to her new life of moral purpose with Felix, only a small income of “two pounds a week” to buy books for a lending library. The bulk of the inheritance from the past is used to provide for members of the past generation while the present looks forward to a very different kind of future.

By ending the fee tail, Esther breaks the control of the past and aligns the present with the future. Her marriage with Felix Holt becomes a symbol for possibilities in society not dictated entirely by tradition. It is a union between two characters who are symbolically fatherless and thus not strictly tied to the class or to the past in which they have been brought up. Their social identities are flexible rather than fixed. Although he is of lower-class birth, Felix's education and intelligence raise him above it. Esther was brought up in the lower class but is of the aristocracy and half-French by birth. Their marriage cuts across class boundaries to embrace all segments of society in a way that tradition would make impossible. This union is connected not with conventional values of class and position but with more important human responsibilities. Felix gradually emerges as belonging to what the novel defines as an aristocracy not of birth but of behavior. Esther remarks that Felix's behavior to his mother is “the highest gentlemanliness, only it seems in him to be something deeper” (ch. 22, p. 234). This gentlemanliness is a deference to the human dignity of others rather than merely respect for social rank. According to the narrator, Felix's “look of habitual meditative abstraction from objects of mere personal vanity or desire” is “the peculiar stamp of culture,” the culture of the “human face divine” (ch. 30, p. 300). This marriage between an outsider and an insider whose different strengths are combined and whose different weaknesses are corrected suggests a society in which absolute human values would govern social behavior.6

This marriage reaches back to the past through inheritance and forward to the future through imagery of family connections that extend to all the social classes. Felix sees himself as belonging to the family of society: “It is held reasonable enough to toil for the fortunes of a family, though it may turn to imbecility in the third generation. I choose a family with more chances in it” (ch. 27, p. 270). The creative energy of this marriage is highlighted by contrast with the “fortunes” of the Transome family. Imbecility in the third generation is precisely their fate in the case of the half-mad Tommy Trounsem as well as the “imbecile” Durfey, Harold's older brother. By turning his efforts to the aid of all his brothers, Felix, a “man of this generation,” works for a future that will not repeat the errors of the past. The offspring of this marriage between outsider and insider, between absolute human values and social relationships, is a hopeful future for society, a young Felix with “a great deal more science than his father, but not much more money” (Epilogue, p. 487).

Taken together, the political plot and what I have called the novel's myth of social transition provide a complex answer to the question whether a “pulse in common” can be found between old England and the new. The failures of Felix Holt and Harold Transome as leaders of the people make clear that there are no reliable political solutions to society's problems. As Holt, sounding very much like Matthew Arnold,7 says to the Duffield workmen: “Now, all the schemes about voting, and districts, and annual Parliaments, and the rest, are engines, and the water or steam—the force that is to work them—must come out of human nature—out of men's passions, feelings, desires. Whether the engines will do good work or bad depends on these feelings” (ch. 30, p. 302). Moreover, to set up a political “engine” to endure for generations would condemn society to mechanical repetition with little opportunity for fresh evaluations of its problems, much like the Transome fee tail.

The political plot leads simultaneously, however, to the discovery of Esther Lyon as the true heir of the past, the Transome estate. The sequence of events that results in the failures of Transome and Holt to lead the people also leads up to the uncovering of Esther's claim to the estate. At Harold Transome's nomination speech, Maurice Christian recognizes Esther and resolves to profit by revealing her claim to the estate. During the election campaign, posters and handbills advertise the history of the Transome family and cast doubt on their claim to the estate. During the election day riot, Tommy Trounsem, the last male Transome, dies and Esther's claim to the estate becomes valid. The narrator's observations make clear that the timing of these events is important. Even though several characters learn about Esther's legal claim, information alone is not sufficient because, as the narrator says, “Esther's claim had not yet accrued” and “hurry was useless” (ch. 30, p. 306). In terms of the novel's structure, the appropriate moment for Esther's claim to become valid is the point at which her interaction with Holt has produced in her a sufficiently broad perspective on society's problems. Rather than Felix Holt or Harold Transome, it is Esther Lyon who makes the significant move for social change by disposing of the Transome estate according to her vision of present needs.8

In Felix Holt, the final emphasis is on hope for society. Esther Lyon's role in the novel's myth of social transition provides a broad perspective on society and its problems within which the political failures of Holt and Transome can be understood. The problem with England as presented in the novel is that society is dominated by ideas and attitudes that are over a century old, the fee tail of the Transome estate. The present lives in the form of the past. New conditions have arisen, but the mechanical succession from the past to the present prevents any single generation from reevaluating its future goals and its inheritance from the past. Reevaluation is necessary, but the only heir with the power of possessing the past in “fee simple” has been lost and must be found.

It is important that the heir has been lost for another reason. Because he has been temporarily disinherited, the heir is given the opportunity to break free from inherited values. The interaction between the outsider and the insider explores a wide spectrum of values from which the heir may choose. A strong connection is established in the novel between interruption in the direct line of succession from the past and the discovery of important human values. The Duffield Watchman, for example, praises Harold Transome for his “self-liberation from the trammels of prejudice … united with a generous sensibility to the claims of man as man, which had burst asunder, and cast off, by a spontaneous exertion of energy, the cramping outworn shell of hereditary bias and class interest” (ch. 8, p. 114). While inappropriate for Harold, the terms of this praise fit Esther Lyon well. She has the capacity for feeling that “breaks through formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs” (ch. 46, p. 456) and can judge the past in terms of a “generous sensibility to the claims of man as man.” According to the novel's vision of society, then, social development would parallel the pattern of individual development.9 The “spiritual convulsion” in Esther's personal life is matched, on the level of social development, by the temporary loss and discovery of the true heir of the past.

The confusion and dislocation between old England and the new described in the novel's “Introduction” is resolved in a vision of society as involved in a broad transitional process from the past to the future. The solution to present confusion is to find the true heir of the past, the only heir who can “cast off, by a spontaneous exertion of energy, the cramping outworn shell of hereditary bias and class interest” and rediscover the human values with which a better society can be built.10 As the true heir of the past, Esther Lyon restores the proper line of succession by reclaiming the “pawned inheritance” but disposes of it in such a way as to orient the present towards a better future for men, towards the “transition of an improved heritage” as Reverend Lyon puts it. Political solutions to social problems are rejected because society should be truly “re-formed” with the new energy of love and sympathy, and not simply build another mechanical engine to entail on future generations.

I have suggested that Felix Holt's setting makes it a transitional novel in terms of George Eliot's development, but it is a transitional novel in terms of her use of plot and character as well. Felix Holt is not the first outsider in George Eliot's novels. Earlier characters were also at odds with society because of their extraordinary beliefs and behavior. Dinah Morris is criticized by Mrs. Poyser for having ascetic ideas and for preaching, an unconventional occupation for a woman. Maggie Tulliver frequently says and does things that embarrass her Dodson relatives, staunch exponents of conventional virtues. Silas Marner is called “queer Master Marner” because of his antisocial behavior. Nor is Felix Holt the last outsider. In Middlemarch, the outsider will be called a “later-born Theresa” trying to fuse “spiritual grandeur” with “domestic reality.” Daniel Deronda is perhaps the most explicitly defined outsider, a character “stirred with a vague social passion but without fixed local habitation to render fellowship real.”

Although there are important variations, the outsider's marginal relation to society is generally represented in his fatherless and sometimes homeless condition, his commitment to wider values than narrow social conventions, and his consequent difficulty in defining a social role. His development generally takes the shape of a gradual entry into society by means of assuming specific social responsibilities. Not until Felix Holt, however, is the outsider's gradual movement into society integrally involved with an insider's opposite and complementary development. Felix Holt's movement into a fixed social position is at once result and cause of Esther Lyon's movement towards recognizing absolute responsibilities outside conventional distinctions of rank and privilege.

The relationship between Felix Holt and Esther Lyon is a formal achievement of great importance because it focuses the question of the relationship between society and absolute values which George Eliot sought to explore and resolve in all her fiction. This formal pattern has its origin in the earlier novels and in the even earlier short story “Janet's Repentance.” But while outsiders and insiders had been previously combined, their developments were not interdependent. The stimulus for Adam Bede's growth as an insider is Hetty's tragedy, and Dinah Morris, the outsider, is also affected primarily by the suffering Hetty causes. Moreover, she never really becomes a major character. In The Mill, Maggie's growth is not connected with the growth of an insider of comparable stature. After Book Four, Tom Tulliver moves into the background and remains unmoved in his commitment to conventional values until the flood brings about his sudden awakening. Silas Marner is the first novel in which a double plot structure presents the complementary developments of an outsider and an insider, but Silas and Godfrey Cass develop independently until Eppie brings them together near the novel's end. In Romola, Savonarola's character is altered by the events in the shifting political life in Florence rather than changed through his relationship with the insider, Romola. While the development of the novel's other outsider, Tito Melema, is more fully presented than Savonarola's, it involves his relationship with Baldassarre more than Romola. It is not until Felix Holt that the developments of outsider and insider become directly linked, a significant achievement in using the conventions of the novel to illuminate the conflict between absolute and conventional values and the possibilities for their reconciliation.11 This combination of characters is at the core of both Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, although there is in both these novels an almost astonishing increase in scope and complexity especially since the outsiders continue to be involved with political ideals rather than with religion as in the earlier works.

The marriage between Felix Holt and Esther Lyon which reconciles absolute and conventional values also looks back to the earlier novels and ahead to her major achievements. Marriages conclude all but two of George Eliot's novels and bring together either an outsider and an insider (Dinah Morris and Adam Bede, Eppie and Aaron Winthrop, Felix Holt and Esther Lyon) or two outsiders whose entry into the social bond of marriage is equivalent to an entry into society itself (Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, Deronda and Mirah). These marriages, except in her first novel, are connected with important and well-developed patterns of inheritance. The heirs are symbolically fatherless, able to judge the past critically. Temporarily disinherited and “orphaned,”12 Eppie, Romola, Esther Lyon, Dorothea, Ladislaw, and Deronda select from the past only what is important to present priorities.

Society for George Eliot is more than simply a condition of life to which the individual must adjust, however painfully. Its problems and possibilities for its reform are explored with increasing insight and comprehensiveness as stable societies like Hayslope and Raveloe are replaced with traditional societies beginning to change, like Treby Magna and Middlemarch, under the impact of modern political and economic forces, and finally, in Daniel Deronda, by contemporary society itself. The widening scope and complexity of George Eliot's investigation of society is made possible by her gradual development of significant formal techniques such as the interdependent developments of outsider and insider, marriage, and inheritance. Felix Holt is the key novel in understanding the way in which George Eliot gradually learned to shape formal conventions into a structure flexible enough to explore the upheaval of mid-nineteenth-century England and to interpret it finally as a transition to something better for men.


  1. All quotations are from Felix Holt the Radical, ed. George Levine (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970).

  2. In her review of Wilhelm Heinrich von Riehl's The Natural History of German Life for the Westminster Review of July, 1856, George Eliot agrees with his recognition of the organic bonds between society's present and past. Language is used as a metaphor, as Carlyle uses clothes, for man's changing social institutions. “Language must be left to grow in precision, completeness, and unity, as minds grow in clearness, comprehensiveness, and sympathy. And there is an analogous relation between the moral tendencies of men and the social conditions they have inherited. The nature of European men has its roots intertwined with the past, and can only be developed by allowing those roots to remain undisturbed while the process of development is going on, until that perfect ripeness of the seed which carries with it a life independent of the root. This vital connexion with the past is much more vividly felt on the Continent than in England, where we have to recall it by an effort of memory and reflection; for though our English life is in its core intensely traditional, Protestantism and commerce have modernized the face of the land and the aspects of society in a far greater degree than in any continental country” (The Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1967], p. 288).

  3. For a fuller discussion of George Eliot's conservative attitude towards political solutions for social problems, see Thomas Pinney. “The Authority of the Past in George Eliot's Novels,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 21 (September, 1966), 131-47.

  4. On 9 January 1866, George Eliot wrote to Frederic Harrison for advice on the Transome will. Significantly, her major concern was the extent of time that the will would influence. She wrote, “I should be glad of as large a slice of a century as you could give me, but I should be resigned if I could get forty years.” In three lengthy letters written on January 11, 27, and 29, Harrison suggested what amount to the broad outlines of the Transome will. See The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon Haight (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1954-56), IV, 216-32 and 237-40.

  5. George Eliot rejected Frederic Harrison's suggestion that Esther turn out to be a Transome as well as a Bycliffe. As a Transome-Bycliffe, Esther would have been more closely allied with the past. See Letters, IV, 230-31.

  6. Social distinctions do not disappear. George Eliot did not foresee any benefits from the abolition of the class structure, and was sympathetic to von Riehl's belief that “in modern society the divisions of rank indicate division of labour, according to that distribution of functions in the social organism which the historical constitution of society has determined” (Essays, p. 296). In the “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt,” published in the Blackwood's Magazine of January, 1868, Felix Holt advises the working classes that, while their claims are just, these claims must find expression in changes that would not give a “fatal shock” to the “living body” of society as a whole. Particular changes “can be good only in proportion … as they put knowledge in the place of ignorance, and fellow-feeling in the place of selfishness. In the course of that substitution class distinctions must inevitably change their character; and represent the varying Duties of men, not their varying Interests” (Essays, p. 422). In this way, social distinctions will gradually be unified with absolute moral values so that what von Riehl called “the principle of differentiation and the principle of unity” become “identical” (Essays, p. 296).

  7. Matthew Arnold uses the metaphor of machinery in Culture and Anarchy. “Faith in machinery is, I said, our besetting danger; often in machinery most absurdly disproportioned to the end which machinery, if it is to do any good at all, is to serve; but always in machinery as if it had a value in and for itself” (Culture and Anarchy, ed. R. H. Super [Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1965], p. 96). Arnold identifies “machinery” with a wide range of things—railroads, coal, wealth, industrialism in general, religious organizations, and radical political movements like Jacobinism. Culture, which is concerned with man's spiritual development, must evaluate and direct society's economic and political machinery. “The idea which culture sets before us of perfection,—an increased spiritual activity, having for its characters increased sweetness, increased light, increased life, increased sympathy,—is an idea which the new democracy needs far more than the idea of the blessedness of the franchise, or the wonderfulness of its own industrial performances” (p. 109).

  8. It is tempting to go so far as to suggest that it is Esther who is “nominated” on the day of Transome's nomination speech and who is “elected” on election day when her claim to the estate becomes valid.

  9. David R. Carroll is one of the few critics to recognize that the fate of society itself is a central issue in Felix Holt. In his article, “Felix Holt: Society as Protagonist,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 17 (December, 1962), 237-52, he suggests that society's growth parallels Esther's development but does not link her role as heir to the Transome estate with George Eliot's vision of society.

  10. In the “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt,” the opposition between a wisdom seen as “outside” society and the social structure is explained by Felix Holt. “Wisdom stands outside of man and urges itself upon him … before it finds a home within him, directs his actions. … But while still outside of us, wisdom often looks terrible, and wears strange forms, wrapped in the changing conditions of a struggling world. It wears now the form of wants and just demands in a great multitude of British men: wants and demands urged into existence by the forces of a maturing world. And it is in virtue of this—in virtue of this presence of wisdom on our side as a mighty fact, physical, and moral, which must enter into and shape the thoughts and actions of mankind—that we working men have obtained the suffrage. … But now, for our own part, we have to seriously consider this outside wisdom which lies in the supreme unalterable nature of things, and watch to give it a home within us and obey it. If the claims of the unendowed multitude of working men hold within them principles which must shape the future, it is not less true that the endowed classes, in their inheritance from the past, hold the precious material without which no worthy, noble future can be moulded. … Here again we have to submit ourselves to the great law of inheritance” (Essays, p. 429). In this passage Felix Holt expresses rhetorically what the novel presents formally through the marriage of the insider-heir and the outsider.

  11. The interrelated developments of the outsider and insider can be seen as George Eliot's effort to explore and try to resolve what she calls the conflict between Antigone and Creon in her article for the Leader, “The Antigone and its Moral” (29 March 1856). “Whenever the strength of a man's intellect, or moral sense, or affection brings him into opposition with the rules which society has sanctioned, there is renewed the conflict between Antigone and Creon” (Essays, p. 265). Her belief that this conflict is an “antagonism between valid claims” is reflected in the complex “leavening process” in which the different weaknesses of the outsider and the insider are corrected and their different strengths combined.

  12. Ian Adam has discussed the significance of “lost children” in terms of the problems in individual character development in “Character and Destiny in George Eliot's Fiction,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 20 (September, 1965). 127-43.

Principal Works

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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.

Linda Bamber (essay date 1975)

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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 situations chiefly for their moral complexity and is endlessly preoccupied with the fact that neither side of a political conflict can ever claim exclusive justification. It is her intention as a moralist and as an artist to handle her political characters and situations in such a way that our sympathy and censure are equally divided between the conflicting elements. This excerpt from an essay on Sophocles' Antigone can be taken as a statement of her own political aesthetic:

It is very superficial criticism which interprets the character of Creon as that of a hypocritical tyrant and regards Antigone as a blameless victim. Coarse contrasts like this are not the materials handled by great dramatists. The exquisite art of Sophocles is shown in the touches by which he makes us feel that Creon, as well as Antigone, is contending for what he believes to be the right, while both are also conscious that, in following out one principle, they are laying themselves open to just blame for transgressing another.

This “antagonism of valid claims,” says Eliot, represents “that struggle by which the outer life of man is gradually and painfully being brought into harmony with his inward needs.”

Until this harmony is perfected, we shall never be able to attain a great right without also doing a wrong. … Reformers, martyrs, revolutionists, are never fighting against evil only; they are also placing themselves in opposition to a good—to a valid principle which cannot be infringed without harm. Resist the payment of ship-money, you bring on civil war; preach against false doctrines, you disturb feeble minds and send them adrift on a sea of doubt; make a new road, and you annihilate vested interests; cultivate a new region of the earth, and you exterminate a race of men. Wherever the strength of a man's intellect, or moral sense, or affection brings him into opposition with the rules which society has sanctioned, there is renewed the conflict between Antigone and Creon; such a man must not only dare to be right, he must also dare to be wrong—to shake faith, to wound friendship, perhaps, to hem in his own powers. Like Antigone, he may fall victim to the struggle, and yet he can never earn the name of a blameless martyr any more than the society—the Creon he has defied, can be branded as a hypocritical tyrant.1

In general terms, then, Eliot will deal with political issues dialectically; particularly she will recommend to her readers sympathy and respect for the representatives of entrenched interests and resistance to a vulgar identification with the champions of reform.

Eliot's commitment to a dialectical understanding of people and events is, of course, temperamental as well as ideological. To see the other side is almost a reflex for her. If she describes an idyllic canal scene in which a boat is towed by a horse, it is more or less predictable that the finale of the description will be written from the point of view of the horse.2 Such a temperament is not an unmixed blessing in the field of politics, but if it imposes certain limitations on Eliot's work, it also makes possible her central accomplishments: her generosity, her moral vision, her large humanity. It is only because her goals seem to me worth achieving that I shall be measuring her by her own standard. The opposing standard is one which measures political achievement in terms of energy, persistence, and the capacity to subordinate the lesser to the more relevant fact; capacity, that is, to act. Eliot was perfectly aware of the claims of this political mode, and in fact intended to treat dialectically even so basic a conflict as exists between this mode and her own. I think she fails in her attempt; but there is so much intelligence and so much scope to her efforts that an analysis of her failure is in itself a kind of political education.

So long as she is concerned with the Creons of her society Eliot is not a failure at all but a distinguished and sometimes brilliant political novelist. The legitimate inheritors of the Ancien Regime—Sir Maximus Debarry, Vicar Lingon and Mrs. Transome in Felix Holt, Sir Hugo Mallinger in Daniel Deronda, Sir James Chettam in Middlemarch—evoke exactly the mixture of irony and affection, disapproval and admiration that they were intended to call forth. Since these characters are, furthermore, perfectly placed in their cultural contexts, this mingled response extends beyond the individual characters to the portion of society they represent. The English gentry is not unprincipled, Eliot keeps telling us; it merely confuses its own class interests with the interests of the nation as a whole. The homage that its members pay to class seems to them to have its source in an emotion akin to patriotism. The New Men are unprincipled in Eliot's novels, and when she comes to treat these men, the dialectic is not so much between the virtues and defects of a class as between one class and another. But the conflicts between the New Men and the guardians of tradition are made into a mirror of the larger battle for England with perfect evenhandedness. For instance, Harold Transome offers Transome Court efficiency, economy and relationships based on the cash nexus; Mrs. Transome stands for the old feudal relationships, hierarchy, and secrets in high places that work their corruption on the whole social body: landlord, tenants and town. Here as well as in the treatment of the representatives of the Ancien Regime the costs are always counted: the tension never leaks out of the dialectic.

But when Eliot comes to her Antigones, to Will Ladislaw and Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda, something goes wrong. Unlike the other political figures these men are cultural changelings; their political behavior therefore does not have the interest of social analysis. Moreover, the social or political option they offer is so thoroughly protected by vagueness and authorial enthusiasm that it is impossible to say just what these characters stand for.3 In such cases there can be no accounting of costs and benefits, no dialectic. These figures are offered at the price they put on themselves. Since they are the representatives of the author's political identity, their failure to offer a political option must be seen as Eliot's failure to find one for herself, and Eliot's failure to treat them dialectically is both symptom and cause of the problem. The problem is clearest in Felix Holt because Eliot was ambitious enough to plan this novel with English politics at its very center. In Felix Holt, then, we can best see the dimensions of Eliot's search for a political stance as well as the mechanisms that finally defeat her.

Arnold Kettle believes that the conflict in Felix Holt was to have been between the two different kinds of radicalism represented by Felix and Harold, the one based on “the aspirations of the working people,” the other on “the fears of the ruling class.” The book fails, he thinks, because “the whole moral position on which Felix has originally taken his stand” is undermined—by the income that Esther brings him, by the emphasis on his character rather than his principles, by Felix's willingness to let the gentry get him out of jail. “By disarming Felix as an effective moral agent, George Eliot commits the blunder of disarming him as an effective force in the book.” The problem with the novel, says Kettle, is that what “Felix stands for as a radical” does not emerge “as more convincing than what Harold Transome stands for.”4

But it seems to me that the promise of the book is not to show us why good radicalism is better than bad radicalism, but to deal with the antagonism between the valid claims of public and private morality. Again and again Eliot sets up situations in which characters “are conscious that, in following out one principle, they are laying themselves open to just blame for transgressing another” (“The Antigone and Its Moral,” p. 265). And yet for Felix there is always a way out. Felix never has to pay the moral price for his actions that George Eliot believed was the cost of social reform, and her reluctance to let him do so eviscerates his radicalism and his effectiveness as a hero. It also gives the reader a constant sense of retreat on the part of the author; situations are set up that demand to be treated dialectically and are dropped as soon as it becomes clear what the dialectic ought to have been.

At the beginning of the book, for instance, Felix retires his father's quack medicine for the good of the public and to the enormous distress of his mother. Although this is not a very elevated example of the moral economics implied in “The Antigone and Its Moral,” the point is clear: Felix has dared to be wrong as well as right, to sacrifice private morality to public. But the gesture is no sooner made than it is undercut. George Eliot gives us to understand that by moving in with his tedious mother and undertaking to support her, Felix pays off his debt and rights the wrong; although Mrs. Holt still grumbles, it is clear to us that Felix has not injured her.

A larger public-private conflict in the novel is between a man's good work and the woman he loves. Annette is to Mr. Lyons as Esther (at first) is to Felix; both men are at some point in the book asked to choose between marriage and a life work based on precious and sincere belief. Mr. Lyons actually makes this choice, and George Eliot approves it, although she finds Annette herself a relatively trivial person. But Felix is not required to make such a choice. While he is waiting for his trial, Esther is carefully educated into a state of moral vigor comparable to his own. By the end of the book, marriage to Esther does not involve the slightest compromise with the principles that Felix is supposed to hold.

Felix is made to muse, early in the book, “on the intricacies of life, which would certainly be greatly simplified if corrupt practices were the invariable mark of wrong opinions” (I, chap. 13). Here Eliot has got hold of an issue that she might have made central to the book, for it is symbolic of the differences between private and public temperament, between literary and political sensibility. Is the individual the ultimate measure of morality or can a self-serving, immoral action be valued for its service to society? But of course the problem of a corrupt man representing a good cause is peripheral to Felix Holt because Felix supports neither the bad man nor his good cause. The question of separating Harold's radicalism from his personal morality never comes alive as a moral issue because the moral center of the book, Felix, is committed to neither. Eliot, however, is perfectly aware of the importance of this issue; she returns to it not only in Felix Holt but also in Middlemarch. It is interesting to contrast her earlier to her later treatment of the theme.

In Middlemarch Lydgate and Will argue about Will's support of Mr. Brooke. Will appears to Lydgate to be “crying up a measure as if it were a universal cure, and crying up men who are a part of the very disease that wants curing.” This sounds reasonable, especially considering that the politician in question is Mr. Brooke. But when we hear what Will has to say in response, Lydgate's concern for subtleties, contradictions and consequences seems edged with intellectual prissiness. Will argues,

But your cure must begin somewhere, and put it that a thousand things which debase a population can never be reformed without this particular reform to begin with. … Wait for wisdom and conscience in public agents—fiddlestick! The only conscience we can trust to is the massive sense of wrong in a class, and the best wisdom that will work is the wisdom of balancing claims.

(II, chap. 46)

Will's question is whether, in the face of a simple and obvious wrong “we are to try for nothing until we find immaculate men to work with.” The two sides of the question are clearly and fairly articulated; Will's position seems to argue a more generous and ardent nature, a man whose commitment to his principles is too strong to allow him to rest with an analysis that implies inaction.

The parallel debate in Felix Holt takes place in the Nomination Day scene. Felix, like Lydgate, feels that political reform is useless because it does not address itself to the moral nature of the individuals who make up the body politic. But Felix is supposed to be a Radical and this is a Conservative argument. Will's position is represented by an intelligent laborer who, unfortunately, walks away immediately after he finishes speaking. This man argues for “universal suffrage, and annual Parliaments, and the vote by ballot, and electoral districts”; ignoring Felix's cry of “No! Something else before all that!” he concludes much as Will does that

You must lay hold of such handles as you can. I don't believe much in liberal aristocrats; but if there's any fine carved gold-headed stick of an aristocrat will make a broomstick of himself, I'll lose no time but I'll sweep with him.

Felix Holt answers his speech with a long sermon on human nature. Not only are the politicians part of the disease that wants curing—the voters are, also:

The men who have had true thoughts about water, and what it will do when it is turned into steam and under all sorts of circumstances, have made themselves a great power in the world: they are turning the wheels of engines that will help to change most things. But no engines would have done, if there had been false notions about the way water would act. Now, all the schemes about voting, and districts, and annual Parliaments, and the rest, are engines, and the water or steam—the force that is to work them—must come out of human nature—out of men's passions, feelings, desires. Whether the engines will do good work or bad depends on these feelings; and if we have false expectations about men's characters, we are very much like the idiot who thinks he'll carry milk in a can without a bottom. In my opinion, the notions about what mere voting will do are very much of that sort.

(II, chap. 30)

Whereas the debate between Will and Lydgate was at the very least a draw, Eliot here identifies herself with Felix's (and Lydgate's) position. Whereas Lydgate expressed himself in plain language and briefly, Felix runs on for three pages like an obfuscating pedagogue. These differences are both related to the different role that politics plays in the two novels. Middlemarch is not set up so that the working out of the plot, the unfolding of the moral design, is to be congruent with the unfolding of the author's political ethos. Political responses, such as these of Will and Lydgate, enliven and deepen character, but the experience in which these characters are ultimately to be tested is private and not political. Eliot is able to attribute to Will a political stance that attracts her as a stance because she does not intend to deal with the logical ramifications of his attitude issuing in action. Mr. Brooke is a joke and a failure, and so Will's support for him remains a generous gesture rather than a morally ambiguous act. The design of the book justifies Will as the intellectual, social, and sexual opposition to Casaubon, not as a reformer; and so Eliot is free to present sharply defined political dialectic in the relatively isolated scenes where Will is seen politically. But when, as in Felix Holt, Eliot wishes to justify her hero on the basis of his politics, her commitment to personal morality and to the individual as the measure of worth forces her to defend a conservative political position with which she is extremely uneasy; in such circumstances the confidence that she needs to present politics dialectically deserts her.

In fact, Felix's exclusive interests in “roots a good deal lower down than the franchise” (II, chap. 28), in men's souls rather than their votes, is so difficult for Eliot to justify politically that she finally gives up trying to do so and has Felix “declare himself to have become indifferent” to “the probabilities of Transome's return” (II, chap. 28). She abandons, that is, the effort to write a political novel; for, once Felix is free from the public event—the election—the novel resolves itself (like Middlemarch) through the working out of private moral situations. But these situations have the air of something rescued from the wreck of the novel; they do not have the resonance of the moral encounters in Middlemarch because they are not reflected down a narrative and thematic hall of mirrors. Such resolution as there is, as Kettle says, “comes near to seeming a mockery in the light of the issues that have been raised, the depths sounded” (“Felix Holt the Radical,” p. 108).

When Eliot abandons the effort to make Felix a political figure, a working-class reformer, she does so with a vengeance. Kettle says that Felix “is not allowed to grapple in a serious way with the problems of popular leadership, and his very inadequacies in this respect are paraded as virtues” (“Felix Holt the Radical,” p. 110). I would go one step further and say that as the book turns away from politics Felix becomes the spokesman for Eliot's mistrust of the very idea of political leadership. In her novels and essays she argues that leadership is likely to be morally bad for the leader himself and materially bad for those he would help. It will be morally bad because the politician must protect the doctrine with which he has identified himself (and for which he was chosen as a representative) by protecting himself from the reality of other people's feelings. He will refuse to acknowledge the humanity of those whose interests oppose his constituency's. And the reformer who wishes to have the scope of a political leader distances himself so far from the particular situation that he will never know if the costs of reform outweigh the benefit. Throughout “The Natural History of German Life” Eliot criticizes the “bureaucratic plan of government” which is “bent on improvement … in accordance with modern enlightenment”5 instead of in accordance with the emotional make-up of the peasants whose lives it would improve. A failure to understand the peasant's forms and traditions, to calculate the costs to the peasant of “rationalizing” his government has meant that these efforts have made life worse instead of better for the peasantry.

So Felix again and again abjures political actions which are meant to have far-flung consequences, benefiting the lives of people who are unknown to the reformer. “I will try to make life less bitter for a few within my reach” (II, chap. 26), he says, and “the question now is, not whether we can do away with all the nuisances in the world, but with a particular nuisance under our noses” (I, chap. 16). This is the meaning of the rather heavy-handed exchanges between Felix and Esther on Esther's admiration for Byron. Gentlemen of the “Byronic-bilious style,” according to Felix, have “no particular talent for the finite, but a general sense that the infinite is the right thing for them” (II, chap. 26). Felix's final “political” statement is a re-dedication to the immediate:

I don't mean to … make a new era, or it would be kind of you to get a raven and teach it to croak “failure” in my ears. Where great things can't happen, I care for very small things, such as will never be known beyond a few garrets and workshops.

(II, chap. 45)

Felix, of course, is the character who should have stood for a faith that great things can happen in the life of a nation. But Eliot is too uncomfortable with his politics to persist in her effort to make him a public man.

Eliot's uneasiness with Felix's position, her unwillingness to expose it to plain language and dialectic, is related to her determinism. Felix's emphasis on the priority of loving souls over Radical votes is, to the determinist half of George Eliot, the wooliest of wooly-headed liberalism. Her determinism tells her that the forces at work on the minds and souls of the lower classes—poverty, servitude, drudgery, ignorance—are not only miserable to endure but miserable in their effects. Throughout her work she assumes or asserts that the oppressed condition of the working classes has made them narrow, selfish, and greedy, interested only in material and immediate benefits. Think of Dagley, Brooke's tenant in Middlemarch, or of this comment on Dickens:

But for the precious salt of his humour … his preternaturally virtuous poor children and artisans, his melodramatic boatmen and courtezans, would be as noxious as Eugene Sue's idealized proletaires in encouraging the miserable fallacy that high morality and refined sentiment can grow out of harsh social relations, ignorance, and want; or that the working classes are in a condition to enter at once into a millennial state of altruism, wherein everyone is caring for everyone else, and no one for himself.

(“German Life,” p. 171)

Again, in a review of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Dred, she points out that “If the negroes are really so very good, slavery has answered as moral discipline,” whereas she believes that “the most terribly tragic element in the relation of the two races” is “the Nemesis lurking in the vices of the oppressed.”6

The narrow self-interest of the English lower classes, Eliot believes, is the nemesis of electoral reform because a man whose vote can be bought or whose ignorance makes him prey to inflammatory rhetoric will undoubtedly return to office “men who know all the ins and outs of bribery, because there is not a cranny in their own soul where a bribe can't enter” (II, chap. 30). The selfish, ignorant voter returns the selfish, crafty politician who, in the long run, betrays the best interests not only of society in general but of the very class that elected him. The reformer can hope to break into this cycle from two opposite points: either you attack the determining causes of the electorate's untrustworthiness by proposing programs to redistribute society's wealth; or you attack the greed and ignorance itself, hoping to educate the masses into group loyalty and farsightedness so that they will return honest legislators, who will in turn implement reforming programs. Orwell has distinguished between these two positions in his essay on Dickens: the “revolutionary” point of view asks, “how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system?” whereas the “moralist” asks, “what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature?”7 These are the antagonistic valid claims of which Eliot tries to make political dialectic in Felix Holt, but in fact she consistently stacks the deck to protect the moralist position from the implications of her determinism.

For social determinism must logically lead one to the position Orwell has called revolutionary. If social problems are bred by people whose natures have been determined by evil social conditions, then the thing to change is the institutions responsible for these conditions. But institutions involve large bodies of men, and Eliot believes that “any large body of men is likely to have more of stupidity, narrowness and greed than of farsightedness and generosity.” Changing the institutions of the society can never make for permanent justice because “the number who resist unfairness and injury are in danger of becoming injurious in their turn.”8 The key word here is “number.” An individual who resists injury may do so out of loyalty to his sense of justice; he may resist unfairness on behalf of others as well as on his own behalf. But when a number of people resist a common injury they do so out of a common self-interest; loyalty to a political group must involve loyalty to one's own interests. George Eliot keeps trying to imagine and embrace a specifically political morality, one which would be appropriate to conflicting social groups rather than to individuals, but she cannot believe that a sense of one's own injuries is a laudable motive for action. As often as she comes up to the hurdle she refuses to jump, and so her political essays have an awkward manner of always saying “yes, but …”:

I don't want to decry a just indignation; on the contrary, I should like it to be more thorough and general. … Let us cherish such indignation. But the long-growing evils of a great nation are a tangled business, asking for a good deal more than indignation in order to be got rid of. Indignation is a fine war-horse, but the war-horse must be ridden by a man: it must be ridden by rationality, skill, courage, armed with the right weapons, and taking definite aim.

If an old pump is bad, then clearly we need a new one, says Eliot, drawing a comparison between a pump and a social custom, but

it would be fool's work to batter down a pump only because a better might be made, when you had not machinery ready for a new one: it would be wicked if villages lost their crops by it.

Or again,

You will not suspect me of wanting to preach any cant to you, or of joining in the pretence that everything is in a fine way, and need not be made better. What I am striving to keep in our minds is the care, the precaution, with which we should go about making things better, so that the public order may not be destroyed, so that no fatal shock may be given to this society of ours, this living body in which our lives are bound up.

(“Address,” pp. 418-22)

The imaginary audience of these remarks is made up of individuals eager to act out of a common interest. But Eliot is sure that the only legitimate political interest is in the welfare of society as a whole, not in the welfare of a particular class. As George Levine says, “The traditional metaphor of society as a living organism … is for Eliot barely a metaphor at all.”9 Eliot's political moralism triumphs over her reformist sympathies largely because moralism implies an organic model of society whereas “revolution” implies a mechanical model. Institutional reform implies a relationship between social groups that includes mutual antagonism, and Eliot is primarily concerned with the interdependence of all members of society. Thus, in the famous sentence that announces her intention to write Felix Holt as a political novel she unconsciously serves notice that she is not interested in politics in the ordinary sense of the word. In this sentence she is not interested in conflicts of interest:

There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life, from the time when the primeval milkmaid had to wander with the wanderings of her clan, because the cow she milked was one of a herd which had made the pastures bare.

(I, chap. 3)

Her metaphor implies that political adversity is properly met by identifying one's interest with the entire society, and the kindest treatment she ever affords a character whose politics are primarily self-serving is irony. The priority she gives to education over political enfranchisement is due to a genuine fear that the “living body” of society would be irreparably damaged by the self-interestedness of the working classes. The “treasure of knowledge, science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling and manners,” she argues, is “bound up at present with conditions which have much evil in them”; but

Do anything which will throw the classes who hold the treasures of knowledge—nay, I may say, the treasure of refined needs—into the background, cause them to withdraw from public affairs, stop too suddenly any of the sources by which their leisure and ease are furnished, rob them of the chances by which they may be influential and pre-eminent,

and you deal civilization a blow from which it may not recover (“Address,” p. 426). George Eliot's desire for an improvement in the condition of the working classes was not without passion, but she could have wished for a way of giving the working man his slice of the pie without putting the knife in his hands.

This is no longer an honorable political attitude, but it was, of course, a standard feature of serious Victorian social thought. It was Carlyle's position during the period of his greatest influence, and it surfaces in his disciples and inheritors: Ruskin, Kingsley, Mrs. Gaskell. Arnold's famous protest against the Hyde Park riot may also be seen in this context. The political attitude itself is not responsible for the self-defeating rhetoric in which Eliot has Felix express himself; it is rather that in Felix Holt she has dealt herself a hand she cannot play. She does not believe in Felix as a working-man; she does not believe in the efficacy of his political program, and she does not believe that the audience of the “Address” or of the Nomination Day speech would sit still for the abuse and mistrust that Felix directs at them. Eliot is wholly without irony about Felix's desire to be “a demagogue of a new sort; … who will tell the people they are blind and foolish, and neither flatter them nor fatten on them” (II, chap. 27), but when the time comes for him to perform this function she has him talk of pumps and milk-cans and warhorses instead. She knows that people do not want “a demagogue of the new sort” and so she unconsciously conceals Felix's meaning from the audience in these slippery, silly parables.

Eliot does not believe in the political program she attributes to Felix because it depends upon the self-regeneration of a whole class. A man who hopes to determine his own character must first of all be

a man who knows why he does what he does, who knows the probable effect of his actions, who understands the forces of habit, emotion and circumstance, and who is therefore able to avoid succumbing irrationally to their influence.10

This is Felix Holt, the educated proletarian, who wants to avoid involvement in petty meanness not only for its own sake, but for the sake of the miserable effect he is sure it would have on his character. He carries with him always, he says, the “picture of what I should hate to be”:

I'm determined never to go about making my face simpering or solemn, and telling professional lies for profit; or to get entangled in affairs where I must wink at dishonesty and pocket the proceeds, and justify that knavery as part of a system that I can't alter. If I once went into that sort of struggle for success, I should want to win—I should defend the wrong that I had once identified myself with. I should become everything that I see now beforehand to be detestable.

(II, chap. 27)

Thus Felix's farsightedness protects his character from the effects of his social disinheritance. But Eliot does not believe that the conditions of the lower classes were such as to breed many men of Felix's self-knowledge and consciousness of consequences. It is this that demonstrates why she does not believe in Felix as a working man. The working men, says Eliot, must strive harder than others to overcome their sins because there are sins whose burden, “like taxation, fall[s] heaviest on the poorest” (“Address,” p. 427); yet she believes that the poorest are precisely the ones with the least moral capital to pay off the taxes of inherited immoralities.

It would be unfair to imply that George Eliot thought the upper classes were morally superior to the lower classes; every statement she makes on the subject is emphatic in its denial of this fallacy. But although Eliot is quite confident of finding compassion, sensitivity, and generosity in the lower classes, she does not expect to find there the capacity for self-determination. If a lower-class character in her fiction is morally praiseworthy, it is not because he has exerted himself successfully to be so, but because it is his habitual nature to be so. Morality in George Eliot is process only for the gentry or the middle class; for the great majority of her lower-class characters it is stasis.

It is stasis, in fact, in Felix's case. His self-conversion is reported only; with so little conviction that it could have taken place, Eliot could never depict the process by which a man of Felix's background developed into a messianic altruist. Her account of the conversion is awkward and brief: when in Glasgow Felix went on a six weeks' binge, became as a consequence of overindulgence disgusted with his own search for a life of “easy pleasure” (I, chap. 4) and resolved henceforth that he would strive, like Daniel Deronda, to “make a little difference for the better” (II, chap. 32). Eliot does not believe in this for the same reason that she does not believe in the moralist program of reform: the lower classes are too short-sighted, too concerned with the material benefits of which they have been deprived, to understand that their real self-interest is served only by their submergence of self in the larger human community. Such moral growth (or failure to grow) is Eliot's great subject, and her decision to open the novel with Felix as a finished product leaves him with no role to play when the novel turns to issues of personal morality. He must cool his heels in jail while the plot turns to Esther because there is no plausible way Eliot could concern herself with his moral education.

Eliot's determinism, then, operates as an iron law for the lower classes, although middle-class characters like Fred Vincy need not be inexorably bound by their past. She does not realize that her determinism is selectively applied, but she is aware of its implications, and they trouble her a great deal. In order to detach herself from a position that treats working-class men as statistics she makes Felix a political moralist; her determinism threatens to make nonsense of his moralism and she reacts to the threat by banishing from the novel all possibility of confrontation between Felix and a representative of her determinist attitudes. And thus she banishes the possibility of effective politics: if the lower classes must not be treated as numbers and cannot honestly be treated as morally self-responsible adults, then they must be left to stew in their own juice. Political reform must accept one model or the other as a basis for action.

“Felix Holt the Radical,” said Joseph Jacob in 1895, “is rather Felix Holt the Conservative. He is not even a Tory Democrat” (quoted in Essays, p. 415). A more recent critic, George Levine, is equally emphatic: “Felix Holt is no more a radical … than Barry Goldwater” (Levine, p. lx). Strangely enough George Eliot herself points out that her hero's ideological affinities are Tory—although she does so with such a lack of emphasis as to imply that this is a matter of little importance. In the middle of Felix's speech on Nomination Day Eliot remarks that his support comes not from the original radical group he has been addressing but from “some strollers who had been attracted by Felix Holt's vibrating voice, and were Tories from the Crown” (II, chap. 30). It seems to me that by calling Felix a “Radical” when she knows he is a Tory and, even more importantly, by placing him in a social, cultural, and economic context that would have been appropriate to a Radical, Eliot is protecting Felix from the attack she would have been obliged to launch upon his politics if she had encountered them where they historically occurred—in a cultural context closer to the monied, high-church Debarry milieu than to that of Malthouse Yard. The scheme of the novel does not leave room for a real radical because Eliot cannot admit the damage the Radical position does to her moralism. But since the “revolutionary” position goes unrepresented there can be no serious dialectic of the sort Eliot describes in “The Antigone and Its Moral.” Instead we get a little political melodrama: the Radical machine, so thoroughly self-interested as to be innocent of any political opinions, is exposed for bribing voters by Felix, one of its campaign workers, who happens to share most of the political philosophy of the Tory opponent, Debarry. There can be no ideological confrontation between men of good will, not only because the Conservative claims to be a Radical, but also because the Radicals are villains. Felix's disagreement with them takes place at a level of interest far below that of the “antagonism of valid claims.”

If Eliot's conflicts are unconscious at one level, at another they are fully realized and eloquently examined. The following analysis of Daniel Deronda is obviously also a self-analysis, and it illuminates the nature of Eliot's struggle with the idea of political commitment:

His early-wakened sensibility and reflectiveness had developed into a many-sided sympathy, which threatened to hinder any persistent course of action: as soon as he took up any antagonism, though only in thought, he seemed to himself like the Sabine warriors in the memorable story—with nothing to meet his spear but flesh of his flesh, and objects that he loved. His imagination had so wrought itself to the habit of seeing things as they probably appeared to others, that a strong partisanship, unless it were against an immediate oppression, had become an insincerity for him.

A too reflective and diffusive sympathy was in danger of paralysing in him that indignation against wrong and that selectness of fellowship which are the conditions of moral force; and in the last few years of confirmed manhood he had become so keenly aware of this that what he most longed for was either some external event, or some inward light, that would urge him into a definite line of action, and compress his wandering energy.

But how and whence was the needed event to come?—the influence that would justify partiality, and make him what he longed to be yet was unable to make himself—an organic part of social life, instead of roaming in it like a yearning disembodied spirit, stirred with a vague social passion, but without fixed local habitation to render fellowship real? To make a little difference for the better was what he was not contented to live without; but how make it?

(Daniel Deronda, II, chap. 32)

Here Daniel (and I think George Eliot) wills himself to become partisan—that is, political—because partisanship is the basis of moral force.

This dilemma—an intellectual commitment to passionate involvement in conflict with the author's moral sensibilities—is one which might have engaged our deepest sympathies. It is, after all, a large part of the problem of Hamlet. Although she can present the problem movingly as analysis, she can never make it into the structure of a novel. Her novels ultimately say something she does not mean; the plot of Felix Holt insists that politics are secondary to personal relationships, and the plot of Daniel Deronda claims that the problem of partisanship is amenable to remarkably tidy solutions. Daniel's discovery of his Jewish parentage, his mystical brotherhood with Mordecai, and his attraction to Mirah channel the enthusiasm that Daniel lacked for English politics into Zionism, and Eliot would have us believe that the search for a fellowship in action has a happy ending. But she cannot make it believable, and Henry James disposes of Deronda's “mission” once and for all:

“Well,” said Theodora, … “I wonder what he accomplished in the East.” … “Oh,” [replied Pulcheria,] “they had tea-parties at Jerusalem—exclusively of ladies—and he sat in the midst and stirred his tea and made high-toned remarks.”11

As for Will, his political activities take place off-stage, for the most part, or after the end of the book:

Will became an ardent public man, working well in those times when reforms were begun with a young hopefulness of immediate good which has been much checked in our days and getting at last returned to Parliament by a constituency who paid his expenses.


Eliot can say what she really thinks here, that Will worked well but accomplished little, because politics are incidental to the structure of the book.

Eliot's failures in political dialectics are obviously related to her failures in sexual dialectics. Except in The Mill on the Floss, her sense of sexual politics is acute only in isolated scenes or with reference to minor characters. It cannot be sustained or used structurally. Eliot attributes to Felix the virtues of both sexes just as she attributes to him the virtues of both political options. The results are the same in both cases: he is finally sexless just as he is finally apolitical. But these speculations lead away from the topic at hand. Eliot was probably unable to make art out of her politics quite simply because her interest in social issues had its roots in a sense of duty instead of an excitement about the life of cities and nations. Quentin Anderson has pointed out that the historico-political material in Eliot has a different feel to it from the same type of material in Tolstoy or Flaubert; the latter were partially motivated by their interest in the material per se, by their desire to put the event before us.12 Eliot, on the other hand, generally seems to use her history to make a point rather than to present it for its own sake. Politics did not work for her as an organizing principle, as a lens that shows things in their true relationships to one another. The system that worked for her was an adaptation of Feuerbachian ethics. Under this system, politics is not interesting or valuable for its own sake but only as a means of fulfilling a moral obligation. A treatment of politics that deals only with its altruistic aspects is so partial as to be false; it is this partiality that ruins Felix Holt.

George Eliot believed that the way she could “make a little difference for the better” was by writing novels which insist that we can unify our lives, that moral achievements need not be at odds with a rich and satisfying life, that it is in our real self-interest to put aside petty and immediate desires in favor of our duty to our fellow men. Thus, if her topic is politics she must believe that the will to feel a whole-hearted partisanship can issue in the appropriate feeling; that public and private life can run in a continuous stream if we give both our best energy and our best intelligence. But public and private morality are not, in fact, congruent; they only intersect. It seems to me that George Eliot might have been able to handle the material of Felix Holt if she had been able to reconcile herself to her own essentially tragic vision. Then she might have conceived of Felix as a man who fails to unify politics and the moral life, but who is ennobled by the size of his commitment to each—by his insistence, in the face of “the supreme unalterable nature of things” (“Address,” p. 429), that politics and morality must coincide. Eliot's insistence on creating images of unity where she is most conscious of conflict only leads her to artistic and political retreat.


  1. George Eliot, “The Antigone and Its Moral,” Essays of George Eliot, edited by Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), p. 265.

  2. George Eliot, Felix Holt the Radical, Cabinet Edition (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, n.d.), I, chap. 11. All subsequent references to the novels of George Eliot are to this edition and will be cited in the text of the essay.

  3. In “George Eliot: Politics and Personality” William Meyers says: “Ladislaw, for instance, is described by Mr. Brooke as ‘a kind of Shelley … I don't mean as to anything objectionable—laxities, atheism, or anything of that kind, you know … But he has the same kind of enthusiasm for liberty, freedom, emancipation …’ (chap. 37). Mr. Brooke's vague vocabulary is amusingly confused, but in fact George Eliot hardly examines Ladislaw's beliefs with any greater precision herself. On the contrary she uses virtually Mr. Brooke's methods to keep the novel's political and religious themes as indefinite as possible.” Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century, edited by John Lucas (London: Methuen & Company, Ltd., 1971), p. 117.

  4. Arnold Kettle, “Felix Holt the Radical,Critical Essays on George Eliot, edited by Barbara Hardy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), pp. 108-110.

  5. George Eliot, “The Natural History of German Life,” Essays, p. 282.

  6. Westminster Review, LXVI (October 1856), 572-573, quoted in Gordon Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 185.

  7. George Orwell, A Collection of Essays (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1954), p. 72.

  8. George Eliot, “Address to Workingmen by Felix Holt,” Essays, pp. 420-421.

  9. George Levine, “Introduction,” Felix Holt (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1970), p. ix.

  10. George Levine, “Determinism and Responsibility in George Eliot,” A Century of George Eliot Criticism, edited by Gordon Haight (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), pp. 357-359.

  11. Henry James, Partial Portraits (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1919), p. 65.

  12. Quentin Anderson, “George Eliot in Middlemarch,A Century of George Eliot Criticism, p. 314.

Catherine Gallagher (essay date 1980)

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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 insists, must show the world as it is. The older woman then pointedly asks whether it would be good art to delineate carefully men on a raft eating a comrade. According to the older woman's later report, the question silences her companion.1

In itself, the exchange is hardly remarkable. It seems still another iteration of a debate that was already wearing thin by 1861, the controversy between aesthetic idealists and realists. If the followers of the one orthodoxy required art to imbue reality with value, to show the world as it could be, followers of the other orthodoxy required art to record facts and show the world as it is. The two debaters, however, were more than followers of established orthodoxies. As an exchange between Harriet Martineau and George Eliot, women whose opinions had a profound effect, the dispute deserves closer attention.

George Eliot's insistence, in 1861, on a totally unembellished rendering of reality might surprise not only those turn-of-the-century detractors who called her work tediously didactic, but also all those more recent critics who have rightly insisted that even early works such as Adam Bede present a world at once probable yet “shaped through and through by moral judgment and moral evaluation.”2 Martineau's remarks, too, might seem puzzling: certainly no early-Victorian writer seems more comfortable with unpleasant facts than the writer who—long before George Eliot professed to find “few sublimely beautiful women” and even fewer real “heroes”3—had introduced English readers to truly plebeian and unpicturesque protagonists, to dismal quotidian destinies, to an unflinching (at times even unfeeling) scrutiny of the harshest realities. Indeed, many of her contemporaries would have considered “men on a raft eating a comrade” an accurate emblem for Martineau's own social vision.4

The argument between the two women, then, was not, as it might have seemed to a casual eavesdropper, an argument between an aesthetic idealist and a realist, but rather a debate between two realists eager to settle the right relationship between facts and values. Their debate illustrates an essential tension within the tradition of English realism. Moreover, it also points to a tension within George Eliot's own realistic fiction—a tension which results in contradictions and shifts that become most marked in her productions of the 1860s, especially in Romola, The Spanish Gypsy, and Felix Holt, the 1866 novel which will serve as this essay's prime illustration of George Eliot's break with the notions of realism to which she still paid lip service in her debate with Martineau.

Theoretically at least, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot were equally dedicated to the desire to keep facts and values continuous and inseparable. Martineau's objection to “mere delineation” grows out of her belief that all facts emanate from values inherent in a God's benign purpose. The parabolic stories in her Illustrations of Political Economy (1834) yield facts that supposedly leave behind a sedimented deposit of meanings and morals, the principles of political economy that can be tallied at the end of each tale.5 Reality itself thus furnishes an illustration of principles, at once material and moral. For Martineau, a morally neutral realism was a contradiction in terms; her own didactic fiction was simply the most efficient form of realism, deducing facts from principles she knew to be true.

George Eliot's narrative method purports to be inductive rather than deductive like Martineau's. Unable to share the older woman's belief in a benign providential necessity, the younger adopts, as critics have shown, the methodology and diction of those who scrutinize a more impersonal process of evolution. Still, like Martineau, George Eliot assumes a bond between facts and values. Indeed, her insistence that art need only “delineate the actual” would appear, superficially at least, to express a greater faith than Martineau's in the necessary connection between “is” and “ought.” Despite the doubts expressed in such early works as “The Lifted Veil,” George Eliot continued to cling to the hope that a detailed recording of everyday life might ineluctably lead to moral progress. This, at least, is the faith professed in the much-analyzed seventeenth chapter of Adam Bede, where the narrator defends herself against an imagined idealistic reader by claiming that realistic fiction could increase the world's stock of charity: “These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are … it is these … you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people … for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience.” By recommending an acceptance of the obscure, the imperfect and the commonplace, the narrator also recommends, in fact, her own fictional practice as an antidote to meanness and intolerance. A better world, presumably, would be composed of figures such as Wordsworth's Wanderer or George Eliot's narrators, telling one another endless stories, including all details within the sphere of significance, and thereby gradually expanding one another's sympathy. We get from facts to values by the process of inclusion, equalization, and acceptance, by that slow-moving narrative method we now call metonymic realism.

Harriet Martineau and George Eliot, then, held similar metaphysical assumptions: meaning is incrusted in the details of every-day reality; the universe is orderly and determined; facts and values are inseparable. And yet, if we are to trust Martineau's account of their 1861 conversation, George Eliot, so suddenly silenced, no longer seemed eager to argue that the artist need only multiply facts to arrive at essences and values. Was she simply exasperated, perhaps tired of shouting responses at an almost completely deaf companion? Or had Martineau hit on a difficulty that George Eliot had herself found increasingly perplexing? As U. C. Knoepflmacher and, more recently, Walter M. Kendrick have shown, George Eliot's latent idealism had always been at odds with her programmatic belief in the objective recording of fact.6 In 1861, the year of Silas Marner, the romance that had interposed itself between the composition of The Mill on the Floss and Romola, she seemed at the threshold of a new phase—a phase that would lead her to a rejection of the metonymic method to which she had until then adhered.

George Eliot's early novels are metonymic in the simple sense mentioned above: they operate on the assumption that observable appearances bespeak deeper moral essences. We come to know her characters through what they wear, how they use words, furnish rooms, or dress their hair. We arrive at moral essences by accumulating the specific details of appearance that surround these essences. Flaubert expressed the same idea when he advised Guy de Maupassant, “When you pass a grocer sitting in his doorway … [or] a porter smoking his pipe … show me that grocer and that porter, their attitude and their whole physical aspect, including, as indicated by the skill of the portrait, their whole moral nature.”7 This faith, however, only half conceals a correlative doubt. The stress on “whole” in Flaubert's advice indicates the realist's acknowledgment that signs are not individually very telling. The need to heap sign upon sign thus grows out of a recognition of the insufficiency and ambiguity of signs. Indeed, most realistic novels, Adam Bede or The Mill on the Floss among them, ironically exploit the incongruity between appearances and essences; they are full of misunderstandings, isolation, the inadequacy of conventional signifiers. Realists thus are forced to supplement metonymic representation with other forms of signification. Indeed, if appearances were as self-sufficient as realists sometimes claim, there would probably be no need for novels, certainly no need for omniscient narrators with access to their characters' subjective inner lives, and surely no need for a body of critical explication.

Realistic fiction, then, invariably undermines, in practice, the ideology it purports to exemplify. The discontinuity between facts and values, already apparent in her earlier work, became increasingly obtrusive in George Eliot's fiction during the 1860s. Why did this latent tension manifest itself so much more pronouncedly in her writing during that decade? Miriam Allott, in “George Eliot in the 1860's,” rightly notes that “ill-health and the emotional depressions of middle age” were quite “possibly deepened by the scepticism which is usually associated with this decade's movement of ideas”; George Eliot, she stresses, “was now facing for the first time the more sombre implications of her own doctrines.”8 Yet Allott does little to connect the artistic impasse that the novelist reached after Silas Marner with her changing social and political doctrine, the skepticism about reform and amelioration that now distanced her from thinkers like Harriet Martineau. In the 1860s George Eliot seemed to have become acutely aware of a larger crisis in something that, for want of a better word, is generally called liberalism. This new awareness seems most clearly illustrated in Felix Holt, a novel that not only calls in question some of her former social theories but also relentlessly separates facts from values.

George Eliot's earlier notions of realism had been closely tied to liberal ideas of social reform. In chapter 17 of Adam Bede, by likening her narrative method to the workings of family love, she seems to lend her support to those liberal humanists who recommended the extension of family feeling as a cure for the conflicts of Victorian society.9 The idea of a communal family, capable of conferring significance on the least of its members, was at variance with the hierarchical notions of Tory paternalism. It was a metaphor that could be aligned with the other liberal metaphor of the free marketplace; as such, both could be—and were—described through the use of some of George Eliot's favorite adjectives, the same adjectives she applied to her own realism: “wide,” “inclusive,” “encompassing,” “gradually developing,” and “common-place.” Though hardly a simple-minded free trader, nor even a staunch political liberal, the early George Eliot thus displays, nonetheless, certain affinities with social thinkers of the 1850s, such as John Bright: she is antihierarchical in her social and artistic outlook; she insists on equalizing by raising all to the level of significance; and she hopes that inclusion and acceptance will of themselves lead to the production of meaning, order, and universal understanding.

As Joseph Butwin shows in the preceding essay by contrasting Romola to the earlier Scenes of Clerical Life, the George Eliot of the 1860s became disenchanted with the principle of mere aggregation. She was only one of many liberals to undergo an ideological transformation at a time when working-class reformers and their allies appropriated the earlier rhetoric of marketplace accumulation to urge an extension of the franchise and to argue that including more classes in the political process would result in an improvement of that process. By mid-decade, when the agitation for the second Reform Bill was reaching its height, George Eliot had joined Matthew Arnold in the task of redefining the relationship between what is and what ought to be.10

That task demanded major rhetorical shifts. The metaphor of the marketplace gives way to tropes that imply notions of hierarchy: the public realm now becomes a church or state.11 Though retained, the metaphor of the family undergoes significant changes: instead of loving inclusiveness, the new stress falls on order and subordination.12 What is more, the notion of family is now infused with the Burkean idea of a collective inheritance, a large portion of which is called “culture.” As a repository of values, however, culture becomes an elusive legacy, as Romola or Fedalma sadly discover: by its very nature, culture cannot be possessed, only pursued, and its relationship to daily life is uncertain. Material structures such as the Hall Farm, Dorlcote Mill, or Squire Cass's Red House give way to the transcendent legacies to which a Romola or Fedalma must cling. Unlike the earlier values of charity and fellow feeling, culture does not grow out of commonplace events. Ordinary people do not produce it in their daily lives. By the end of George Eliot's career, in Daniel Deronda, Daniel and Mirah become the recipients of a higher destiny that removes them from the aggregated facts of a too provincial English life.

Like Romola before it, Felix Holt reflects the formal consequences for George Eliot's realism of the new need for a transcendent realm of values and ultimate meanings. Whereas in Romola she could retreat to a more epic past, in Felix Holt she returns to the Midland landscapes of her earlier realism to reexamine the problem of facts and values and addresses herself more directly to the sociopolitical crises of the 1860s. With its emphasis on radical politics and on the working class's demands for the franchise, this novel connects the author's skepticism about democracy to her reactivated doubts about facts and values. The formal consequences of this decision are various, and result in certain imbalances and contradictions. The intertwining of individual and family destinies now requires Dickensian intricacies of plot; there are abrupt changes in narrative tone, with a large number of discursive passages that often resemble self-parodies. The most startling difficulty of the novel, however, results from Felix's opposition to George Eliot's own realistic method of metonymic representation. No longer able to squelch an imaginary idealist opponent, as in Adam Bede, the narrator now seems undermined by Felix's own “cultured” mode of beholding reality.

Felix Holt is full of comments about the nature of signs and portents. The first meeting between Felix and the Reverend Rufus Lyon explicitly introduces the subject of the relationship between outward signs, or facts, and inner essences, or values. Felix and Mr. Lyon, the book's two moral arbiters, admit to one another that they scarcely see the conventional physical signs by which their fellows communicate their importance and priorities. Hence, when Felix enters the room, we are told what he does not see. He does not see the wax candle on the table that the dissenting minister feels uneasy about:

when, after seating himself, at the minister's invitation, near the little table which held the work-basket, he stared at the wax-candle opposite to him, he did so without any wonder or consciousness that the candle was not of tallow. But the minister's sensitiveness gave another interpretation to the gaze which he divined rather than saw; and in alarm lest this inconsistent extravagance should obstruct his usefulness, he hastened to say—

“You are doubtless amazed to see me with a wax-light, my young friend; but this undue luxury is paid for with the earnings of my daughter, who is so delicately framed that the smell of tallow is loathsome to her.”

“I heeded not the candle, sir. I thank Heaven I am not a mouse to have a nose that takes note of wax or tallow.”13

Mr. Lyon, who has not even actually seen Felix's gaze, replies that he is “equally indifferent.”

The implied “mouse” who does have a nose for wax or tallow is, of course, the minister's unregenerate daughter, Esther. But we must note that the narrator also falls into this category of “mouse,” and so do all of us who are forced by the narrative method to read an external world through its metonymic signs. Narrator and reader must make meaning out of the low facts that Felix is too cultivated and “abstracted,” as the narrator repeatedly tells us, to notice. It is through wax candles that we come to know Esther, and it is through the detail of Felix's inattention to such details that we come to know him. Our first introduction to Felix, then, reveals the wide discrepancy in this novel between the state of mind explicitly recommended in the “cultured” person of Felix and the mental practices actually encouraged by the method of inductive realism.

Moreover, we soon learn that Felix's inattention to metonymic signs is not just a casual abstraction but a programmatic denial of the meanings and values conventionally attached to signs. In his person, Felix is more than an escapee from realism (as the Reverend Rufus Lyon is); he represents an attack on conventional reading. This fact becomes clear when he discusses his own metonymic unreadability. Referring to himself, Felix says to Rufus,

“You're thinking that you have a roughly-written page before you now.”

That was true. The minister, accustomed to the respectable air of provincial townsmen, and especially to the sleek well-clipped gravity of his own male congregation, felt a slight shock as his glasses made perfectly clear to him the shaggy-headed, large-eyed, strong-limbed person of this questionable young man, without waistcoat or cravat.


Faced with this illegible creature, Rufus tries to suspend “interpretations.” Nevertheless, he inadvertently gives a spiritual reading of Felix's appearance:

“I myself have experienced that when the spirit is much exercised it is difficult to remember neckbands and strings and such small accidents of our vesture, which are nevertheless decent and needful so long as we sojourn in the flesh. And you too, my young friend … are undergoing some travail of mind.”


But Rufus has misread these significant absences about Felix's person; they do not betoken the carelessness of an unquiet spirit. Felix is not simply inattentive to all conventional signs of prosperity; he is, rather, actively hostile to some, for he sees them not as arbitrary signs but as material causes of spiritual degeneration. Rufus tries to bring him to a relatively settled Protestant view of the relationship between outward appearance and inward essence, a view that stresses the conventionality of signs:

“The ring and the robe of Joseph were no objects for a good man's ambition, but they were the signs of that credit which he won by his divinely-inspired skill, and which enabled him to act as a saviour to his brethren.”


But Felix will have none of this talk about the importance of crediting such appearances. It is his avowed purpose to prove these so-called signs are not signs at all, but actual promoters of inner corruption. He answers Rufus,

“O yes, your ringed and scented men of the people!—I won't be one of them. Let a man once throttle himself with a satin stock, and he'll get new wants and new motives. Metamorphosis will have begun at his neck-joint, and it will go on till it has changed his likings first and then his reasoning, which will follow his likings as the feet of a hungry dog follow his nose.”


Oddly, Felix, who professes not to be interested in outward appearances, actually believes some of those appearances to be absolutely related to inner states. He reverses the normal causality of metonymy: instead of believing that meanings find expression in signs, he believes that signs cause their meanings. In Felix's image, the sign literally becomes the meaning; the two are indistinguishable.

Felix, therefore, first attributes too little and then too much to the world of appearances. This apparent inconsistency is appropriate in a character who stands for culture, for a realm of values independent of facts but also a realm of values that are absolutely and eternally fixed, where appearances that are recognized are equated with essences.

This second attitude toward material signs is as antithetical to Eliot's inductive realism as was Felix's earlier indifference, for it turns the hero into one of those spokesmen for didacticism whom the narrator scolded in Adam Bede and whom she still criticizes in Felix Holt. The real world, the narrator of Felix Holt assures us, is not one in which good and bad are easy to separate or in which signs always mean the same thing. She criticizes the “little minister” for wanting a more fixed and obvious relationship between signs and their meanings than an ambiguous world permits:

He cared intensely for his opinions, and would have liked events to speak for them in a sort of picture-writing that everybody could understand. The enthusiasms of the world are not to be stimulated by a commentary in small and subtle characters which alone can tell the whole truth.


Still, the narrator seems more lenient towards Felix, who, after all, insists on “picture-writing,” on didactic simplicity, even more strenuously than Rufus does. Felix gets into trouble because he cannot stand to see his cause compromised by the mixed motives of others. Somehow Felix's truth, unlike that of the narrator, can dispense with the testimony of “small and subtle characters.”

Moreover, Felix is himself a piece of that “picture-writing” the narrator ostensibly repudiates. In her descriptions of Felix, the narrator gives the same details repeatedly and always makes them stand for the same inner qualities, qualities that can be summed up in the word “culture”:

Felix Holt's face had the look of the habitual meditative abstraction from objects of mere personal vanity or desire, which is the peculiar stamp of culture, and makes a very roughly-cut face worthy to be called “the human face divine.” Even lions and dogs know a distinction between men's glances; and doubtless those Duffield men, in the expectation with which they looked up at Felix, were unconsciously influenced by the grandeur of his full yet firm mouth, and the calm clearness of his grey eyes.


With his booming voice, his massive frame, his leonine head, and his perfect integrity, Felix has nothing “small” or “subtle” about him. His meaning is known “unconsciously” by those he encounters, and therefore he need not be perceived in detail and deciphered. He completely lacks ambiguity; in his character, appearance and essence seem pure and identical. We do not need to see much of Felix because what we do see is wholly expressive, a “picture-writing that everybody could understand.”

Felix's characterization, then, is even more incongruous than the presentation of similarly idealized figures in previous novels, Adam Bede, say, or Romola. It is significant that the narrator should rely on epithets borrowed from other writers (for example, “the human face divine”) when she describes her hero. It is true that George Eliot tries to complicate Felix's presence in the novel when she involves him in a compromising situation: he appears to be guilty of leading a riot and is accused of manslaughter. He is arrested and placed on trial, where the prosecution produces “picture-writing,” the outline of appearances, against him. Indeed, this trial is the context for the narrator's disparaging remarks about oversimplifying the relationship between facts and values. Here at last, it seems, Felix can only be acquitted by a “commentary in small and subtle characters.” The trial, one expects, will be a triumph of inductive realism in which truth is rendered by filling in the details that completely change the picture.

This expectation, however, is disappointed, for instead of filling in the facts of Felix's case, the defense's most important witness, Esther, simply sweeps them aside: “His nature is very noble; he is tender-hearted; he could never have had any intention that was not brave and good” (46). This testimony would hardly seem sufficient to exonerate Felix in the eyes of the law, yet everyone in the courtroom is willing to believe it. Felix's character is not complicated in the least by this episode; no one who has the slightest contact with him ever doubts his innocence. He is finally delivered simply because he is obviously and indisputably good. His “cultured nature” (43), as Esther calls it, overwhelms the evidence, the facts, once again emphasizing that the meaning of Felix Holt cannot be reached by multiplying appearances.

Thus Felix and the plot that revolves around him contradict the inductive metonymic assumptions of the rest of the novel. What is explicitly recommended in the exemplary person of Felix Holt is implicitly denied in the book's dominant narrative method. Felix's own discourse is even more didactic than Harriet Martineau's, and his “habitual meditative abstraction … which is the peculiar stamp of culture” bars him from the world of inductive realism in which metonymic signs are produced and exchanged. That is why we see almost nothing in this novel through Felix's eyes. The narrator takes up the perspective of every other major character; Felix, we are repeatedly told, has a “high” view of things; it is too high, apparently, for the narrator to reach.

The treatment of Felix's character shows George Eliot swinging far beyond Harriet Martineau's position in their 1861 debate. For not only Martineau but George Eliot herself had clearly recognized all along that a mere delineation of appearances, no matter how detailed, could not yield essential truths and values. The political concerns of the 1860s so unsettled the novelist that her accommodation in Felix Holt of Martineau's side of the argument may seem as crude and disruptive as the older woman's own didactic parables. But for an author who regarded each of her works as but a distinct “mental phase,” Felix Holt must be seen as part of a movement towards more sophisticated and self-conscious narrative forms. That movement was to reach two very different climaxes: the knowing, artful compromise of Middlemarch, in which reform and the 1832 Reform Bill become themselves metaphors, and the daring experiment of Daniel Deronda, which undoes that compromise. The rejection of inductive realism, moreover, was to be completed by later novelists. Writers such as Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf would declare it impossible to reach a character's essence and value by concentrating on the outward facts of his or her “social being.” Felix Holt should be seen as a significant step in the progress towards that understanding.


  1. This story, originally recorded in a letter from Harriet Martineau to Henry Reeve (7 May 1861) is retold by R. K. Webb in Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian (New York: Columbia Univ. Press; London: Heinemann, 1960), p. 39.

  2. Dorothy Van Ghent, “On Adam Bede,” The English Novel: Form and Function (New York: Rinehart, 1953), p. 172. For a summary of the debunking criticism of the 1890s and 1910s, see David Carroll, Introduction, George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, ed. David Carroll (London: Routledge; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971), pp. 41-43; and Elaine Showalter, “The Greening of Sister George,” which appears in this issue of Nineteenth-Century Fiction.

  3. Adam Bede, ed. Stephen Gill (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), ch. 17.

  4. Twentieth-century commentators have softened the outlines of Martineau's reputation. Thus, R. K. Webb defends her against charges of hard-heartedness (see Harriet Martineau, passim); and Mark Blaug, Ricardian Economics: A Historical Study, Yale Studies in Economics, 8 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 129-39, sees her as an optimistic humanitarian when contrasted to the political economists she popularized.

  5. Indeed, Martineau chose to write her Illustrations of Political Economy because she regarded political economy to be itself an “illustration” of providential necessity, a science that showed how “facts” were generated by divine laws. See Martineau's review of Samuel Bailey's Essays on the Pursuit of Truth, on the Progress of Knowledge, and on the Fundamental Principle of all Evidence and Expectation, rpt. in her Miscellanies, 2 vols. (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1836), II, 174-96.

  6. Knoepflmacher, George Eliot's Early Novels: The Limits of Realism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1968), passim; Kendrick, “Balzac and British Realism: Mid-Victorian Theories of the Novel,” Victorian Studies, 20 (1976), 5-24.

  7. Guy de Maupassant, “Of ‘The Novel,’” Pierre and Jean, trans. Clara Bell (New York: Collier, 1902), p. lxi.

  8. “George Eliot in the 1860's,” Victorian Studies, 5 (1961), 97.

  9. The 1840s and 1850s saw the adoption of the family-society metaphor by industrialists. See John Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution: Early Industrial Capitalism in Three English Towns (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), pp. 188 ff.; Sidney Pollard, The Genesis of Modern Management: A Study of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 189-242; and my own “British Industrial Narratives, 1830-1855,” Diss. University of California, Berkeley, 1979, pp. 191-215.

  10. George Eliot's innate conservatism, evident in “The Natural History of German Life,” Westminster Review, 66 (1856), 51-79; rpt. in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 266-99, resurfaced in the 1860s, but only with the positive focus on the idea of culture did that conservatism become strong enough to allow her to uncouple facts from values.

  11. In Culture and Anarchy (1932; rpt. [with corrections] Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1935), Matthew Arnold wishes to reintegrate into the “main current of the national life” those excluded from the Church of England (p. 34). He also bemoans the lack of a strong idea of “a State” in England (p. 81).

  12. Arnold compares society to an overly permissive and indulgent family; ironically contrasting its disparate treatment of an Irish Fenian and a Hyde Park rioter, he claims that the latter is forgiven because he is of “our own flesh and blood” (Culture and Anarchy, pp. 79-80).

  13. Felix Holt, the Radical (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), ch. 5; further citations appear in the text parenthetically by chapter number.

Further Reading

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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. “Silas Marner and Felix Holt: From Fairy Tale to Feminism.” Studies in the Novel 10, no. 3 (fall 1978): 295-304.

Discusses Felix Holt as an expanded version of Silas Marner, suggesting that in the relationship between Esther and Rufus Lyon, Eliot was revisiting the relationship between Eppie and Silas Marner.

Dramin, Edward. “‘A New Unfolding of Life’: Romanticism in the Late Novels of George Eliot.” Victorian Literature and Culture 26, no. 2 (1998): 273-302.

Examines Eliot's ambivalent attitude toward Romanticism as it informs her last three novels.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. “George Eliot's Conception of Sympathy.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 40, no. 1 (June 1985): 23-42.

Discusses Eliot's notion of sympathy in Romola, Silas Marner, and Felix Holt, suggesting that the author's particular views on sympathy inform her treatment of social and moral problems in the novels.

Guth, Deborah. “George Eliot and Schiller: Narrative Ambivalence in Middlemarch and Felix Holt.Modern Language Review 94, no. 4 (October 1999): 913-24.

Traces Eliot's admiration for Schiller and his influence on her novels.

Milton, Paul. “Inheritance as the Key to All Mythologies: George Eliot and Legal Practice.” Mosaic 28, no. 1 (March 1995): 49-68.

Examines issues of inheritance and property rights in Romola, Felix Holt, and Middlemarch.

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “Why Political Novels Have Heroines: Sybil, Mary Barton, and Felix Holt.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 18, no. 2 (winter 1985): 126-44.

Explores the function of the innocent heroine and the courtship narrative in three Victorian political novels.

Additional coverage of Eliot's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 35, and 55; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 20; and World Literature Criticism.

Norman Vance (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7591

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 of overall imaginative coherence.1 This essay seeks to review these criticisms against the background of the 1830s and of the 1860s, the historical setting of the novel and the intellectual climate of the decade in which it was written.

The most obvious link between the two periods is the question of parliamentary reform. After the novel was published in 1866 George Eliot was induced to make explicit its implied topicality, the connection between the treatment of the 1832 Reform Bill and the political excitement which was to culminate in the second Reform Bill in 1867. In November 1867 she wrote “Felix Holt's Address to Working Men” which applied to the 1860s the essentially gradualist and ethical approach to political and social change put forward in her novel about the 1830s.2 But Felix Holt is much more than a political novel in the narrow sense. It presents a comprehensive view of English society at a critical moment of transition from aristocratic and agrarian values to the new leadership offered by the middle classes in the towns created or transformed by the Industrial Revolution. The law relating to land-ownership and the social and political status of the new urban Dissenters are two important aspects of the transition on which the novel focuses, but George Eliot begins by drawing attention to the general history of the late 1820s and early 1830s.

This historical moment is brilliantly captured in the Introduction to the novel, which was written independently of the early chapters, as the manuscript indicates,3 to provide a general statement of the social theme of the whole book. After some general description the total vision of society crystallizes in the perceptions of the coachman travelling through a now changing countryside, uneasily aware of riot and disturbance and “Reform” in town and country, sensitive to the violent beginnings of a railway age which threatened his own livelihood and provided a comprehensive metaphor of dislocation:

the recent initiation of railways had embittered him: he now, as in a perpetual vision, saw the ruined country strewn with shattered limbs, and regarded Mr. Huskisson's death as a proof of God's anger against Stephenson.4

These terrible new railways were an important sign of the times. Huskisson, a former President of the Board of Trade, had been killed on 15th September 1830, at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester line. Tennyson had been on the first train on this railway and took from it an image of progress for his poem “Locksley Hall”.5

But George Eliot's coachman was more interested in the land than in railways. Like the radical William Cobbett on his rural rides in the 1820s, he always knew whose the land was wherever he went. He was familiar with the traditional patterns of prosperity and dissipation, extravagance and game-preserving on the land, but was disturbed and disoriented by the new dimension of Reform in the early 1830s, a phenomenon which had been observed by John Stuart Mill in his articles on “The Spirit of the Age” (1831)6. The disputed ownership of Transome Court can be seen as a symptom of this new instability in an era of Reform. With old families fallen on evil days and new fortunes being made the coachman opined darkly that “property didn't always get into the right hands”.7 The Transomes were poor, but lawyer Jermyn had grown rich in their service. Durfey the heir had been feeble-minded and dissipated, as if to suggest that the older gentry had had its day, and Harold, the more energetic second son, was in a position to improve the family estates after the depredations of litigation about title only because he could bring a new, commercial fortune to the task. Harold's businesslike energy and efficiency, and his radical politics, are out of keeping with the traditions of the old landed gentry, more in keeping with the entrepreneurial skills of the new men like lawyer Jermyn who set out to make Treby Magna into a commercially successful spa. The plot symbolically demonstrates this by disclosing that Harold is in fact Jermyn's natural son and not a Transome at all. The illegitimacy is compounded in that it turns out that the Transome family have lost their title to the estates Harold was to inherit.

George Eliot was not alone in seeing problems of land-ownership as an important index of social change in the 1820s and 1830s. William Cobbett, mentioned in passing in the novel, deplored the supplanting of the old landed gentry by commercial interests and observed everywhere how estates had passed into the hands of the “new men”. Spicer the Stockbroker now drove a much better carriage then the once-great magnate Lord Onslow, and the Baring brothers, from the banking family, had acquired the lands of the Duke of Bedford and Lord Northington.8 The elaborate inheritance-plot of Felix Holt, with its dependence on the law as an institution for furnishing ultimate title or warrant for land-ownership in conditions of social change, is not merely appropriate to the economic conditions of the period: it functions as an extended metaphor for problems of moral and political warrant in a novel concerned with the relationship between personal integrity and social position. The politico-religious theme of the novel relates to this as well. It is not merely that political and religious radicalism have gone together since the seventeenth century and that the 1832 Reform Bill gave political power to Dissenting shopkeepers, as Wellington ruefully acknowledged:9 the heroine is (ostensibly) the daughter of a Dissenting preacher with tastes and instincts and, as it turns out, an inheritance above and beyond her humble social station, but in the end she eschews the position among the landed gentry and the socio-religious establishment which could be hers. Morally as well as politically this is less unique, less worthwhile than it might once have been, and in her love for Felix Holt and his moral reformism she finds a better resting place.

The themes of social change and the social status of Dissenters were still current and controversial in the 1860s. Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy began to appear in article form in July 1867, a year after Felix Holt was published. Its concern not so much with aristocratic Barbarians as with the newly powerful middle-class Philistines reflects the same sense of a changing society. Six years previously, in the Introduction to The Popular Education of France, Arnold had raised the same issues, noting that

The time has arrived, however, when it is becoming impossible for the aristocracy of England to conduct and wield the English nation any longer … the masses of the people in this country are preparing to take a much more active part than formerly in controlling its destinies.10

In retrospect the Reform Bill of 1832 seemed to represent an important phase of this transition, the beginning of the end of the old order which had been much more drastically terminated in France with the Revolution. In the period between the two Reform Bills many advanced thinkers brooded on the political power conferred by the ownership of land and the inappropriateness of this in an increasingly democratised society. In 1851 Herbert Spencer, George Eliot's friend and mentor, published his Social Statics, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Lewes in The Leader. Some of Spencer's most radical ideas, partly repudiated in later life, were introduced in the ninth chapter on “The Right to the Use of the Earth”, which Lewes half-teasingly described as a “terrible chapter”.11 Spencer advocated a kind of joint-stock public ownership of the land on moral grounds, claiming that private ownership led to landowning despotism. He argued, ingeniously, that the legal fiction that all land in England was vested in the crown had a certain literal force:

After all, nobody does implicitly believe in landlordism. We hear of estates being held under the king, that is, the State; or of their being kept in trust for the public benefit; and not that they are the inalienable possessions of their nominal owners.

From this he concluded that claims to private, ancestral ownership of land were ultimately ill-founded, “constantly denied by the enactments of our legislature”.12 By resting his case on the law, or rather on a fundamental principle of law cutting deeper than the superficial legitimacies of land ownership, Spencer provided George Eliot with a hint of the plot of Felix Holt. Through this the novelist elaborately contrived to undermine the legitimacy of the Transomes' position in the country by permitting underlying legal principle, allied with the moral principle of Esther and Felix Holt, to dispossess them morally if not materially.

Henry Fawcett, Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge, was as concerned as Spencer about the manifestly unjust distribution of landed property. In his The Economic Position of the British Labourer, which George Eliot read in November 1865 in preparation for writing Felix Holt,13 he stoutly maintained that any law which affected land ownership should immediately be altered if it failed to promote the welfare of the whole community. Fawcett was particularly opposed to the entailing of estates on eldest sons as this prevented land from being brought into the market and caused stagnation by discouraging proper development and efficient cultivation: income and capital often had to be diverted from this to provide for the other children who could not inherit the estate.14 In Felix Holt the contrast between the eldest son Durfey, an effete wastrel who is only a drain on the estate, and the vigorous Harold Transome who has had to seek an independent fortune, is a sufficient illustration of the unfairness of the principle of primogeniture which Fawcett attacked.

But Fawcett had a more fundamental point to make: like Spencer he was sensitive to a changing social and political climate in England and did not see why there should be anything sacred about the traditional association of political power and ownership of the land, or indeed why land should continue to be regarded as inalienable private property. Some might claim that

the existence of the House of Lords depends upon the maintenance of the large landed estates of our peers. Educated people will rebel against such opinions …15

Like Spencer, he felt that the traditional rights of private property, the liberty to do what one likes with one's own, simply did not apply to the land, which had always involved social responsibilities. The innovations of the Industrial Revolution made this the more apparent: in cases of necessity the private land owner had to yield to Parliament and give up some of his land, perhaps for a new railway passing through his property, “because public convenience requires it”. Spencer had used the same argument and the same example, adding the further examples of canals and turnpike roads.16 Harold Transome's attempt to graft a new radical politics onto a traditional power-base of land which is not inalienably his is bound to fail, for there is a truer radicalism indicated by Spencer and Fawcett which locates political legitimacy in responsibility to society in general and in moral principle rather than in land-ownership as such. The empty and unhappy life of Mrs Transome on her neglected estate is a private tragedy which is also a symbol of the bankruptcy and decay of the old order challenged by the 1832 Reform Bill.

The law in Felix Holt threatens to pull down the mighty from their seats and to exalt the humble and meek, but it does not actually do so as in the end Esther waives her inheritance and marries Felix. Law is the book's central mechanism, but more importantly it emerges as one of its central metaphors. It is possible to see the story in terms of an opposition of Byronic and Wordsworthian romanticism: the aristocratic world of Transome Court and the exoticism of Harold's past life and marriage with a slave-girl from the Levant, contrast with the obscure dignity of Felix's educational endeavours in the spirit of Wordsworth's Excursion.17 Esther rightly chooses Felix and Wordsworth rather than Harold (perhaps hinting at Childe Harold) and Byronism, so her rewards are moral rather than material and the law becomes an image of moral legitimacy rather than a prize-giving instrument.

Rufus Lyon, who shares with Felix Holt the responsibility for the novel's moral positives, hints at this additional meaning of “law” in a discussion of the prospects of society with Felix. There is a sense in which the underlying principle of social harmony, imperfectly realised at present, represents the Law behind legalisms, the Law which is more important than lawyer Jermyn. Rufus sees in this the final solution to the political and social unrest of the time:

I apprehend that there is a law in music, disobedience whereunto would bring us in our singing to the level of shrieking maniacs or howling beasts … And even as in music, where all obey and concur in one end, so that each has the joy of contributing to a whole whereby he is ravished and lifted up into the courts of heaven so will it be in that crowning time of the millenial reign, when our daily prayer will be fulfilled, and one law shall be written on all our hearts, and be the very structure of all thought, and be the principle of all action.18

The writing is brilliantly concise. George Eliot strengthens the reader's sense of the seventeenth-century matrix of Rufus's thought by recalling Milton's L'Allegro with its “hidden soul of Harmony” ecstatically revealed by soft Lydian airs. But Rufus's rhetoric is firmly linked to a non-classical millenarian vision which recalls traditions of radical political thought associated with Milton and seventeenth-century puritanism. For the man of faith the realisation of “one law” is coterminous with the second coming and the realisation of the Kingdom of Christ, but for the nineteenth-century agnostic like George Eliot the words can carry a purely secular meaning. There was a kind of secular millenarianism associated with Comte's positivist “religion of humanity” which formed part of George Eliot's intellectual background, and it is not difficult to substitute for the prospect of “one law … written on all our hearts” Comte's vision of present activity as “but a preparation for the final science of Humanity”.19 Reasoning from different premises the novelist's friend Herbert Spencer arrived at a similar confidence in an ultimate future when, on condition of “search[ing] out with a genuine humility the rules ordained for us”, men might eventually come to an epoch “when there is perfect sincerity—when each man is true to himself—when every one strives to realize what he thinks the highest rectitude …”.20

George Eliot deliberately leaves the content of Rufus's apocalyptic vision of “one law” rather vague, because at that point positivist and Puritan would begin to part company, but the general idea of underlying Law is put forward, in different contexts, by Felix and Esther as well. Felix's assault on the constable during the Treby election riot was technically in breach of the law but was in fact a calculated action in support of a more fundamental notion of law and order, the only stratagem available to save the mob from itself and from anarchy. At his trial Felix tactlessly defended his action in terms of general principle, distinguishing between the idea and the imperfect reality of law:

I reverence the law, but not where it is a pretext for wrong, which it should be the very object of law to hinder.21

He does himself no good by proceeding to argue that his hatred of disorder does not mean he would never fight against authority, for moral principle represents a higher court of appeal than legally constituted authority. The unfavourable verdict despite convincing evidence of Felix's purity of motive in the riot, a verdict influenced by the manifest prejudice of the judge, indicates all the more clearly the distinction between law properly understood, fundamental justice, on which Felix takes his stand, and the legal mechanisms which secure his conviction.

Poor old Tommy Trounsem is only a helpless cipher in the legal plot but his death in the riot (which was promoted by Transome's agent) has the morally satisfying consequence of destroying Transome's title to his estate, and this demonstrates the operations of fundamental moral law in the novel, working through the mechanisms of the law of the land. Tommy's uncomprehending words to Christian, as he loyally sticks up Transome election posters, are rich in irony:

For there's no man can help the law. And the family's the family …22

In fact, the family is not the family, for Harold is not a Transome at all. But the law is still the law. Its inexorability and pervasiveness are a moral metaphor. If Tommy does not realize this, Esther does, for her growing love for Felix brings with it an irresistible personal intuition of underlying moral principle, the “one law” of which her father had spoken:

[Felix] had seemed to bring at once a law, and the love that gave strength to obey the law.23

This contrast of superficial mechanisms and underlying Law is at the very heart of the novel, the meaning and perhaps the justification of the complicated legal plot, the fundamental insight which George Eliot maintains will sustain “Reform” and preserve a troubled society through major social change. Mrs Transome's tragedy is that she has never fully confronted this ultimate Law, and public and private themes intersect in the moral compromise which has poisoned her life, encumbered the estate, and involved Harold in the toils of corruption associated with Jermyn his natural father. As George Eliot observes:

She had never seen behind the canvas with which her life was hung. In the dim background there was the burning mount and the tables of the law; in the foreground there was Lady Debarry …24

So Mrs Transome contrives to keep up appearances and cherishes a morally worthless and outmoded aristocratic ideal of social position and display. The sheer complication of the plot, the almost physical effort the reader must make to disentangle the problem of the ownership of the Transome estate, represents the devious paths by which the Transomes and their kind have departed from the original and ultimate sanction of power and position, the enlightened and socially responsible moral integrity preached and practiced by Felix Holt. With an excellent sense of etymology Rufus commends Felix's radicalism as seventeenth-century “root and branch” perception of underlying principles,25 and this perception constitutes the radicalism of the novel. Cautiously gradualistic in outlook, Felix Holt is a radical novel in a precise though not in a popular sense.

But politics and society require institutions as well as principles. The era of “Reform” represented a phase of institutional adjustment, which was supposed to purify and preserve the principles of the great British Constitution derived from the seventeenth century and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The political propaganda of the 1830s claimed that the fourth William would complete the work of the third and that constitutional monarchy would come to rest on a surer foundation than before.26 The 1860s registered the same concern for innovation which would yet preserve eternal values and principles, and Matthew Arnold spoke for his contemporaries when he urged that “Human thought, which made all institutions, inevitably saps them, resting only in that which is absolute and eternal.”27

In Felix Holt the vision of the absolute and eternal, represented by the idea of fundamental Law, is not fully realised in the ephemeral antagonisms of Tory and Radical, Church and Dissent, vested interest and “Reform” whether in quack medicines or in politics. But it is part of Rufus Lyon's dream of heaven and Felix and Esther's agenda for the future. No existing institution, no present system of ideas could fully comprehend it. But Rufus Lyon has the heart of the matter in him, and the reader's small smile at his quaint idiosyncrasy is chastened by the warning that “none of our theories are quite large enough for all the disclosures of time”.28 The plot of the novel, like the march of history from the 1830s to the 1860s and beyond, has plenty of disclosures to make, and Rufus's ideas survive better than most people's in the book. Both Mrs Transome and he have unexpected past histories, but his love has been purer and more unselfish than hers and has ennobled rather than embittered him, and his human instincts are sounder than his Puritan theology as a result of it. He could not consign his beloved Annette, or Esther, or Felix Holt, to the limbo officially prepared for those who have not professed their faith in the Dissenting fashion, and in the court scene his praise for Felix despite his heterodoxy redounds to the credit of both men. George Eliot laconically notes that he is a greater little man than his church can appreciate: after his departure they appoint a successor “whose doctrine was rather higher”, for the “one law” is not yet written in their hearts.29

George Eliot makes a fundamental distinction between underlying Law and the law as it is actually used and abused by lawyer Jermyn, or by the Durfey cousin, also a lawyer, who originally purchased the entail from the Transomes and founded the line of Durfey-Transomes. This distinction is symptomatic of the reforming spirit of the 1860s, which extended to the law. New ideas about the law were abroad, even if there was little actual change. Frederic Harrison, a former pupil of the positivist Richard Congreve and himself a leading positivist and barrister, helped out with the legal complexities of the plot. It was Harrison who furnished George Eliot with the concepts of base fee and remainder man by which the Transome entail could be purchased and yet revert quite unexpectedly to someone outside the family more than a hundred years later.30 Harrison was a radical theorist and reformer by temperament, associated with two of the keenest legal minds of the day, Sir Henry Maine and Westbury the Lord Chancellor.

Harrison had been one of Maine's law-pupils in the 1850s, and had attended the lectures on jurisprudence in the Middle Temple which ultimately became Maine's epoch-making book Ancient Law (1861).31 Using the historical method and the techniques of comparative philology, Maine had put forward an evolutionary theory of law tracing continuities of the past and present as well as organic growth and development. In an address delivered in 1865, the very moment George Eliot was writing Felix Holt with the help of his pupil, Maine declared his conviction that

if indeed history be true, it must teach that which every other science teaches, continuous sequence, inflexible order, and eternal law.32

This extreme positivist assertiveness has been compared with the outlook of Herbert Spencer,33 and it seems likely that George Eliot's central image of underlying Law owes something to both thinkers. Both were among her luncheon guests.34 Harrison had a unique opportunity to put some of Maine's insights into the essential nature of law into practice when Westbury, a family friend and like Harrison a former Fellow of Wadham College Oxford, appointed him secretary to a Royal Commission for Digesting the Law in 1869.35 This was after the publication of Felix Holt, but the project had been close to Westbury's heart since the 1850s when he had begun his career as a legal reformer in the posts of solicitor-general and attorney-general, and the two men must often have discussed it. Westbury wanted nothing less than the codification of English law, and his Statute Law Revision Act of 1863 advocated the framing of a digest of laws which was finally attempted by the 1869 commission. In the nature of things, codification or a digest of existing laws draws attention to legal principle, the fundamental law on a given subject underlying the accumulated case-law. Land-law was a particularly complicated area of the law, and one of Westbury's special interests was in the simplification of the proof of title and conveyance of land.36 By consulting Westbury's friend Harrison about the land-law of Felix Holt George Eliot put herself in touch with some of the most important legal thought of the time, and her thematic deployment of the idea of fundamental Law can be seen as a metaphorical extension of contemporary ideas about legal principles.

There is an obvious conceptual difficulty with any unitary notion of underlying Law which attempts to be comprehensive, and the different uses of the term “law” in Felix Holt are perhaps a verbal device to hint at a greater unity than the novel actually achieves. Rufus Lyon's politically alert religion, Esther's sympathetic emotion, Felix's political and educational ideas all converge on the same word “law”, enshrining the eternal principle of moral order which alone can harmonise the discords of the Reform era. But this almost mystical veneration for a slightly nebulous comprehensive category described as “Law” can be traced back to the constitutional excitements of the seventeenth century.

It is no accident that Rufus Lyon constantly harks back to the religious controversies of this epoch, for these were political controversies as well: the inferior social and political status of Dissent, increasingly resented in the 1820s and 1830s, stemmed directly from seventeenth-century reactions to the successful assault on the Church and King of the Civil War period. George Eliot's positivist friends Harrison and Congreve were both interested in Cromwell and the “English Revolution” of the seventeenth century,37 and her favourite novelist Sir Walter Scott stimulated her imagination with his romantic vision of the politics of religion in Old Mortality and Woodstock. Almost her first juvenile exercise in fiction was a tale of the Civil War in England, partly derived from Scott, and in a sense it is Scott's sympathetically treated Puritans like Peter Poundtext and Ephraim McBriar in Old Mortality, or the worthy Holdenough in Woodstock, that provide the imaginative matrix of George Eliot's “rusty old Puritan” Rufus Lyon.38 At one point in Felix Holt the Debarry daughters vaguely describe Dissent as Holdenough and what happens in Woodstock.39 But Scott's seventeenth-century Puritans represented religion at its best for George Eliot: in a review of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Dred the highest praise she could bestow on its religious fervour was to claim it was reminiscent of the best bits of Old Mortality.40 Like George Eliot, Scott had been brought up in the shadow of an austere religious commitment he no longer fully shared, but like her he retained a generous sympathy and respect for the humanity, dignity and moral seriousness of old-fashioned religious notions he resisted intellectually. For George Eliot the “old-fashioned Puritan” Rufus Lyon was essentially no more ridiculous than his great predecessor “Mr. John Milton”.41

This fascination with Milton's century is entirely appropriate in a novel about the comparable political and religious excitements of a later century, and the parallel was often drawn in the 1830s. But seventeenth-century constitutional turmoil also stimulated interest in the law. Sir Edward Coke, James I's chief justice of the common pleas, challenged the royal prerogative on the grounds that it encroached upon the immemorial continuities of the English common law. Sir Matthew Hale, half a century later, compiled an epoch-making History of the Common Law of England critical of and yet in some sense stemming from Coke's pioneer work. Hale wrote after the Restoration, but he had collaborated with the Cromwellian regime “to steady the ship of the law through a tempest” as one commentator puts it, and this helped to give him a profound sense of the English common law as a vital principle of continuity in a changing world. Both he and Coke maintained that because of this “formal” continuity of the law from remote times even the disruptions of the Norman conquest need not be regarded as a constitutional break.42 There was an historical precedent for George Eliot's invocation of Law as a source of continuity and moral legitimacy in rapid social and political change, and Rufus Lyon provides the reader with a route back to it, but the imaginative metaphorical extension of the term “law” is idiosyncratic, a function of George Eliot's attempt to give unity to her novel.

At least one critic has complained that George Eliot loaded Rufus Lyon with too much significance, anachronistically making him both a seventeenth-century puritan and a political dissenter of the 1860s without due respect for the nature and concerns of Dissent in the late 1820s and early 1830s.43 But this is both to mis-state the nature of Dissent at the period of the novel and to misunderstand the role and function of Rufus Lyon. It is known that Rev. Francis Franklin, minister at Cow Lane Baptist Chapel in Coventry 1798-1852, provided a model for many aspects of Rufus Lyon and was very much an “old-fashioned Puritan” in the same mould. His lack of interest in the political questions which exercise Rufus Lyon might seem to suggest that George Eliot went beyond her historical evidence at this point, in the interests of strengthening the links between the political and Dissenting themes of her novel.44 This would be important in the 1860s as political Dissent and protest against the Established Church were particularly strong, spearheaded by Edward Miall's paper The Nonconformist which took its stand on “The Dissidence of Dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion”. The 1832 Reform Bill had given Dissenters a voice in parliament, which was one reason why in 1867 Arnold took exception to their manifest lack of sweetness and light in relation to parliamentary business such as a Bill to legitimize marriage to a deceased wife's sister. Miall of The Nonconformist is one of the villains of Culture and Anarchy. Lyon's political concerns do have this topicality for the 1860s, but they are closer to the concerns of the 1830s than has been realised, for in a sense political Dissent of the Miall variety grew out of the late 1820s and early 1830s when Dissenters worked for Catholic Emancipation.

It is perhaps a mistake to pay too much attention to specific models for Rufus Lyon. Francis Franklin obviously supplied some details, but Franklin was a Baptist, and George Eliot makes it clear that Rufus was an Independent, in a chapel built by the Presbyterians. Independents and Presbyterians were characteristically among the best educated and most enlightened of the Dissenters. Joseph Priestley, Presbyterian minister, pioneer scientist and Jacobinical radical had been a case in point thirty years before. Baptists like Franklin might well have been politically inert in 1832, but not so the Independents, for this was the year in which many of them decided to join together to form the Congregational Union as a better way of opposing the tyrannical monopoly of the Anglican State Church in which they had to marry and to which they had to pay Church rates. The campaign had begun about 1827, and had involved political action from the outset. Catholic Emancipation was in the air, and in this liberal climate of opinion Whigs and Dissenters formed a political alliance. In return for their support for Catholic Emancipation the Dissenters gained improved civil rights with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828.45

Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was the first major indication that things would never be quite the same again, that to be English was no longer to be either Anglican or some kind of second class citizen, which had been the case since the seventeenth century. In Scotland one Andrew Marshall, a Presbyterian minister, bitterly attacked church establishment as a “yoke of bondage” which the recently enfranchised Catholics could not be expected to tolerate or to support financially as the law required,46 and the controversy this sparked off had repercussions among the Dissenting clergy in England as well. Rufus Lyon's frustrated debate with the nervous Sherlock (the name ironically recalls a great Anglican divine of the seventeenth century47) was brilliantly topical for the 1830s as well as the 1860s and also self-consciously modelled on a seventeenth-century episode recounted in Daniel Neal's History of the Puritans.48 George Eliot hinted that the debate raised questions of universal principle and could even be seen as “part of the history of Protestantism”. Rufus wanted to inquire into the “constitution of the true church”, hinting fairly broadly that this was not the Church of England. In George Eliot's day Miall was robustly proclaiming “The Establishment a Counterfeit Church—An image carved with marvellous cunning”, but in 1832, with a quiet dignity and solemnity more like Lyon than like Miall, Rev. Thomas Binney affirmed that

It is with me, I confess, a matter of deep, serious religious conviction, that the Established church is a great national evil; that it is an obstacle to the progress of truth and godliness in the land …

Binney takes the highest ground, and so does Lyon, convinced that nothing less than the “welfare of England” is at stake.49 It has been argued that the political temper of Congregationalism in the 1830s was “conservative”, so that Lyon's support for Transome's radical politics and Felix Holt's would be unusual.50 But deep-seated hostility to Church Establishment is hardly conservative, and in any case the point is surely that George Eliot intends Rufus to be an unusual man, penetrating, original, learned and with human sympathies and instincts beyond the ordinary and well beyond his congregation. For them the debate with Sherlock is a social occasion and an opportunity for sectarian knockabout, but for Rufus it is an occasion of the utmost solemnity. Despite his disappointment when Sherlock fails to appear he offers to address some improving words to his flock, but his high seriousness is not for them. His politics take the same high ground, for the legitimacy of the State Church is but one aspect of the problem of the legitimacy of a political and religious Establishment closely connected with aristocracy and the land which had ruled the country since the Civil War. The highest Tory in the novel, Sir Maximus Debarry, who presides over an old-fashioned and inefficient household, is symbolically the brother of the beneficed clergyman with whom Lyon had sought to debate, and the failure of nerve of both Rev. Augustus Debarry and the tremulous Sherlock indicates that in religion as well as in society the old order has lost the initiative in the Reform era. It can no longer defend itself against the attack of Puritan and Dissenter which Rufus is aware has continued in an unbroken tradition of high principle and moral indignation almost since the Reformation. It is significant that Sherlock tries to nerve himself for the fray by aspiring to the polemical fame of a Philpotts,51 for Henry Philpotts, Bishop of Exeter, was one of the most notoriously conservative bishops on the bench. In October 1831 the Archbishop of Canterbury had claimed in the Lords that the Reform Bill, which could give many Dissenters the vote, was “mischievous in its tendency and dangerous to the fabric of the constitution”. The Bill was defeated partly by the hostility of the bishops, and when the Lord Chancellor criticised them it was Philpotts who complained that they were “vilified and insulted”.52

Rufus Lyon's function in the novel is to ask unanswerable fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the Church and the Establishment which included Philpotts and the Debarrys and to suggest that there might be a higher warrant than custom and tradition for the institutions of the age. His vision of one law transcending and harmonising present turmoil and division is founded in a cleverly presented religious politics imaginatively enriched by Sir Walter Scott, deriving from the seventeenth century yet closely relevant to the situation in the 1830s and of topical interest in the 1860s. Intellectually and imaginatively, this is a tour de force. This continuity of principle converges upon the idea of Law illustrated in the land-law which takes away the Transomes' title to their estate after a century. In religion as well as in society, among the disruptions and dislocations of the Reform Era, the way forward is located in an imperfectly realised underlying Law or moral order.

Unfortunately, this does not quite take care of the problem of the unity of the novel. The “message” that human beings must be enlightened moral beings before they can legitimately exercise political power is somehow a meagre response to the vividly presented confusions of 1832. Felix's educational programme is a perfectly legitimate response to the challenge of his times. Though it is essentially a positivist specific53, it has a radical pedigree in that it is strongly recommended by Samuel Bamford in Some Passages in the Life of a Radical, which George Eliot read in preparation for her novel.54 Bamford's essential gradualism and conservative caution as he reviews his early and less prudent career is reflected in the novel in Felix's respect for law and order. In fact, Felix's family background among Lancashire weavers (such as Bamford), his harking back to the ideas of Sir Francis Burdett whom Bamford met, and even his sense that peddling quack medicines is a poor advertisement for morally indignant radicalism all derive from Bamford.55

But this is not the real centre of interest in the novel. Felix himself is a pillar of uninteresting righteousness, with few crucial choices to make and almost nothing important to learn from experience. This makes him useless as a sympathetic unifying focus of the book's personal and social concerns. The radical politics, the election riot, the electoral malpractice and the legal plot are all conscientiously worked up from books, the files of The Times and childhood memory of a Reform Bill election in Nuneaton, but the histories of Esther, Rufus Lyon and Mrs Transome are the emotional and imaginative core of the book. It might much more appropriately be called Esther's Choice, for public and private themes coincide in her choice between the glittering but effete and compromised old world of Transome Court and marriage with Harold, and the prosaic self-denying high-thinking reformist world of her father and Felix Holt. The old and the new are most graphically presented not in terms of Debarrys and radicals but in the dignified desolation of Mrs Transome's tragedy and in Esther's moral education in sympathetic insight and social responsibility which liberates her from inane class-consciousness.

Sympathy and moral duty emerge as the real positives of the novel, domestic qualities applicable to but separable from the condition of society at large. The reader is more interested in Felix's affection for little Job Tudge, shared by his otherwise thoroughly tiresome mother, than in what Felix plans to teach him, and it is the affectionate rather than the severely didactic Felix that wins Esther's love. Philip Debarry, sophisticated scion of an old Tory family, contributes to the theme of massive social disruption by evincing a modern dissatisfaction which is to lead him out of the established church and into the Church of Rome,56 but he engages our momentary interest and respect chiefly because he tries hard to keep his word to Rufus Lyon, where his less scrupulous father and uncle would have arrogantly disregarded a Dissenter.

Felix Holt the Radical presents a comprehensive and authoritative picture of society in the throes of political and social change. With brilliant conceptual originality it deploys the intricate legal plot as an extended metaphor for the underlying Law of human sympathy and moral order which is the only possible source of social stability. The themes of moral and political warrant and legitimacy which convey the novelist's radical insight stem from this central image of Law and link the public and private worlds of the novel. But private emotion has an independent life which may leave the rest of the world to its own devices, and this is what tends to happen in Felix Holt. Sympathy and duty are the abiding moral imperatives in George Eliot's fiction, and it is only when these, rather than the condition of England, are her starting-point that full imaginative as well as conceptual unity is possible. Middlemarch, set in the same period, is a greater book because it is less self-consciously a history of the times. Both novels triumphantly vindicate George Eliot's quiet confidence in one of her letters seeking information from Frederic Harrison:

On a few moral points, which have been made clear to me by my experience, I feel sufficiently confident,—without such confidence I could not write at all.57


  1. See, e.g., Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, 1902, pp. 150, 155; Peter Coveney, ed., Felix Holt (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 629; G. J. Holyoake, Bygones worth Remembering, 2 vols., 1905, I, 92; David Craig, “Fiction and the Rising Industrial Classes”, Essays in Criticism XVII (1967), 64-74; F. C. Thomson, “The Genesis of Felix Holt”, P.M.L.A. LXXIV (Dec. 1959), 577.

  2. Blackwood's Magazine CII (January, 1868), 554-60; see Coveney op. cit., p. 607.

  3. Unlike the rest of the MS this is on unlined paper, and the leaves are separately numbered. See British Library Add. MS 34030, ff. 1-10.

  4. Felix Holt, “Introduction”.

  5. H. Martineau, History of England during the Thirty Years' Peace: 1816-1846, 2 vols., 1860, II, 6; “Locksley Hall” 1.182: see C. Ricks, ed., The Poems of Tennyson (1969), p. 699n.

  6. Examiner, 6 January-29 May 1831; extracts are reprinted in G. L. Williams, ed., John Stuart Mill on Politics and Society (1976), pp. 170-78.

  7. Ch. 3.

  8. W. Cobbet, Rural Rides (1830) (Harmondsworth, 1967), pp. 33f, 44.

  9. Letter to J. W. Croker, 1833, quoted in David M. Thompson, ed., Nonconformity in the Nineteenth Century (1972), p. 83f.

  10. R. H. Super, ed., Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, vol. II (Michigan, 1962), pp. 6, 15.

  11. G. H. Lewes, “Spencer's Social Statics”, The Leader, II (8 March 1851), 248-50.

  12. H. Spencer, Social Statics (1851), p. 122.

  13. J. W. Cross, ed., George Eliot's Life as Related in her Letters and Journals, 3 vols. (Edinburgh and London, 1885), II, 413.

  14. H. Fawcett, The Economic Position of the British Labourer (Cambridge and London, 1865), pp. 17-23.

  15. Op. cit., p. 14f.

  16. Op. cit., p. 17; Spencer, op. cit., p. 122.

  17. Specifically mentioned in the text, “Introduction”.

  18. Ch. 13.

  19. A. Comte, A General View of Positivism (1848 etc.), tr. J. H. Bridges, 1865, p. 47.

  20. Spencer, op. cit., p. 476.

  21. Ch. 46.

  22. Ch. 28.

  23. Ch. 27.

  24. Ch. 40.

  25. Ch. 27.

  26. See, e.g., “The Reformers of England” (ballad), Times, 11 March 1831, p. 3 col. c; 11 April 1831, p. 1 col. e (election report).

  27. The Popular Education of France, Super, op. cit., II, 29.

  28. Ch. 6.

  29. “Epilogue”.

  30. G. S. Haight, ed., The George Eliot Letters, 7 vols. (New Haven and London, 1954-55), IV, 215-40; see also F. Harrison, “Reminiscences of George Eliot”, Memories and Thoughts (1906), pp. 146-48. I am deeply indebted to Raymond Cock for his help with legal-historical matters in what follows.

  31. F. Harrison, Autobiographic Memoirs, 2 vols. (1911), I,152. Harrison enthusiastically reviewed both the 1861 and the 1906 (revised) editions of Maine's Ancient Law: see Memories and Thoughts, pp. 118-22.

  32. H. Maine, “Address to the University of Calcutta”, reprinted in Village Communities in the East and West (1871), p. 205f. Compare Ancient Law, 1906 ed., ch. 5, p. 119f. See G. Feaver, From Status to Contract. A Biography of Sir Henry Maine, 1822 - 1888 (1969), ch. 5.

  33. See J. Burrow, Evolution and Society (Cambridge, 1966), Ch. 5, esp. p. 165.

  34. Both men also attended her funeral. See G. S. Haight, George Eliot: a Biography (Oxford, 1968), pp. 463, 550.

  35. Who's Who, 1910 ed., s.c. “Harrison”. Oddly, there is no Harrison D.N.B. entry.

  36. W. Holdsworth, A History of English Law, 16 vols., XVI (1966 ed.), 74-86; D.N.B.

  37. Harrison wrote a popular biography of Cromwell (1888) and three articles reprinted in Memories and Thoughts. Congreve lectured on the seventeenth century and planned a book (never completed) to be called Cromwell, Milton and the English Revolution: [A] Positive or Positivist History of the English Revolution (c.1890). Bodleian Library MS Eng. Misc. d. 484, f.77v; MS Eng. Misc. d. 485, f.l.

  38. G. S. Haight, George Eliot, Appendix I, pp. 554-60. See also the rather sketchy pamphlet by A. J. Craig, Notes on the Influence of Sir Walter Scott on George Eliot (Edinburgh, 1923).

  39. Ch. 14.

  40. Westminster Review LXVI (October, 1865), 572f.

  41. Ch. 6.

  42. See C. M. Gray, in his introduction to Matthew Hale, The History of the Common Law of England (posthumously published 1713 etc.), (Chicago and London, 1971), esp. pp.xxxi, xxvi-xxix.

  43. V. D. Cunningham, Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent and the Victorian Novel (Oxford, 1975), pp. 182-89.

  44. Discussed in Cunningham, loc. cit.

  45. See H. S. Skeats, C. S. Miall, History of the Free Churches of England 1688-1891 (1891), ch. 10.

  46. In his 1829 “Voluntary Sermon” reprinted in J. D. Marshall, ed., Memoir of Andrew Marshall, D.D., LL.D. (Glasgow, 1889), pp. 125ff.

  47. William Sherlock, 1641?-1707, nonjuring Dean of St Paul's who opposed prayerbook alterations that might win back Dissenters. His son Thomas (1678-1761, Bishop of London) and Richard Sherlock (1612-1689, Royalist divine) were also prominent Anglican controversialists. D.N.B.

  48. Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans … an Account of their Principles (1732-38), 3 vols. (1837), I, 420-2, referred to implicitly in ch. 15; discussed by Coveney, op. cit., p. 661; Felix Holt, ch. 23.

  49. Miall quoted in Clyde Binfield, So Down to Prayers. Studies in English Noncomformity 1780-1920 (1977), p. 111; Binney quoted in Skeats and Miall, op. cit., p. 479; Felix Holt ch. 15.

  50. Cunningham, op. cit., p. 176.

  51. Ch. 23.

  52. See Rev. W. N. Molesworth, The History of the Reform Bill of 1832 (London and Manchester, 1865), pp. 257-65.

  53. A. Comte, A General View of Positivism, pp. 180-94.

  54. Cross, op. cit., II, 404; S. Bamford, Some Passages in the Life of a Radical, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (1843), I,12,29.

  55. Bamford, op. cit., I, ch. 1; I, ch. 5; I, pp. 47, 52; compare Felix Holt, ch. 5; ch. 30; ch. 3.

  56. Ch. 14.

  57. Cross, op. cit., II, 421.

Robin Sheets (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9699

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 Babel at Treby Magna: people already have trouble understanding one another's speech. In a society characterized by lies and secrets, George Eliot suggests that a fluent tongue is somewhat sinister. The narrator understands “why the saints should prefer candles to words” (p. 338), and the servants find Christian's clever puns “a little Satanic” (p. 91). The most articulate characters, like John Johnson and Matthew Jermyn, are mean-spirited and deceitful, while sincere speakers like the Rev. Rufus Lyon and Felix Holt are ineffective. Honest, direct discourse seems to have no place in the novel.

The listeners are often unable to formulate an intelligent response to the orations delivered in church, at the hustings, and in court. Some Trebians refuse to take a position for fear of adversely affecting their trade. More frequently, the audience cannot—or will not—understand what has been said. As Tommy Transome observes, “The more you tell 'em the truth, the more they'll niver believe you” (p. 235). Regardless of class, people try to avoid the point. Fashionable society, according to Felix, flourishes on “round-about euphuisms that dress up swindling till it looks as well as honesty” (p. 63); the dissenters prefer “a suitable periphrasis” to the naked use of a nonscriptural name (p. 302); drinkers at the Sugar Loaf enjoy “that peculiar edification which belongs to the inexplicable” (p. 112).

In George Eliot's novel, the moral and intellectual weaknesses of the characters are not the only barriers to communication; words themselves have become difficult to decipher. “Tory,” “Whig,” and “Radical” have no agreed upon meaning. As the narrator observes, “the names seemed to acquire so strong a stamp of honour or infamy, that definitions would only have weakened the impression” (p. 44). Rufus Lyon attempts to fix the meaning of “Radical” by invoking etymology: a Radical is a “Root-and-branch man.” Felix extends his definition to fundamental reforms, “some roots a good deal lower down than the franchise” (p. 226); Harold mocks the definition, calling himself “a Radical only in rooting out abuses” and promising to remove the rotten timbers and substitute fresh oak (p. 39). Chubb identifies a Radical as “a new and agreeable kind of lick-spittle who fawned on the poor” (p. 116), while Scales associates the word with excommunication, “a law term—speaking in a figurative sort of way” (p. 90). Parson Jack proclaims that Tory and Radical are one and the same, and an evening's talk among the Debarry servants shows Sircome's motto being construed as conservative, radical, and politically neutral.

The characters argue over written documents as well as words. Felix Holt contains a full panoply of readers who cite the authority of literary, legal, and biblical texts: Jack Lingon, who makes Latin allusions he does not understand to assert his social status; Mr. Lyon, who uses the Bible as evidence of God's design for man; and Mrs. Holt, who, like many students, maintains that “there's many and many a text” to prove her thesis—if only she could find them (p. 348). Of the many works the characters read—Bulwer Lytton's Eugene Aram, Scott's Woodstock, Byron's “The Dream”—the Bible is particularly important: it is the most frequently quoted—and the most controversial—text.2 The novel demonstrates the inadequacy of such forms as Byronic poetry and modern journalism, but it does not propose a new norm. In the end, books have little value for Felix and Esther.

For George Eliot, discourse—in speech or in writing—has become fraught with difficulty. People who address the public on religious, political, or legal issues lack ethics and understanding. Words provoke controversy because they yield a variety of meanings, and the community cannot agree upon strategies for interpretation. Such a breakdown in communication has obvious political implications. What kind of society develops when leaders cannot formulate honest public speech and their listeners are content with platitudes and circumlocutions? If the members of a community cannot agree upon the conventions of language, how can they uphold a social contract?

An argument George Eliot read about in Daniel Neal's History of the Puritans helps illustrate the problem. At the Long Parliament of 1640, the eminent royalist Lord George Digby rebuked the bishops for trying to impose an oath of allegiance on the doctrine, discipline, and government of the Church of England. The clergy's oath asserted “the plain and common sense and understanding of the same words,”3 but Digby charged that no two people could agree on its literal sense and complained about “the bottomless perjury of an et caetera.4 Subsequent parliamentary discussion also criticized the oath's ambiguity:

The ambiguity is further increased by that remarkable et caetera, inserted in the body of the oath; for whereas oaths ought to be explicit, and the sense of the words as clear and determined as possible, we are here to swear to we know not what, to something that is not expressed; by which means we are left to the arbitrary interpretation of the judge, and may be involved in the guilt of perjury before we are aware.5

If words are proliferating et ceteras, then speech does commit us to bottomless perjury. When expression is incomplete, when words are unclear, then interpretation becomes arbitrary.

Felix Holt analyzes the problematic nature of human communication by exposing the ill-will and incompetence of the speaker-authors, by showing the limited understanding of their listener-readers, and by demonstrating the uncertain meanings of the language-texts. George Eliot's careful attention to the way people read and speak helps to elucidate her own anxieties about authorship; to explain the significance of many minor characters and incidents; and to unify the two strains of narrative that scholars have traditionally seen as separate—the political plot and Mrs. Transome's personal tragedy. That characters like Matthew Jermyn and Mrs. Holt misuse language has always been recognized. But even those characters who are so earnestly committed to truth that they have been assumed to speak for the author herself—Felix, Esther, and Mr. Lyon—are eventually undermined: either their rhetoric is flawed or their speeches have little impact. Within the male world where discourse centers on questions of religion, law, and government, the most obvious speakers are the glib but treacherous Jermyn, the zealous sermonizer Rufus Lyon, and the professed truthteller Felix Holt. Their counterparts in the female world of personal relationships are Mrs. Transome, the refined mistress of polite conversation; Mrs. Holt, the indefatigable biblical interpreter; and Esther, the soft-spoken opponent of injustice. Outside this symmetrical structure stand two more speakers who seem to be morally and aesthetically opposed to one another, but who may in the end share some disturbing qualities: the narrator and that little-noticed professional liar, John Johnson.


The men engaged in political intrigue do not believe that language carries any social or moral obligation. Lurking in the background of the novel and working energetically to humiliate Felix is the author's apparent nemesis, the lawyer and political agent John Johnson. Johnson senses that a good agent is rather like a novelist: “omnipresent” (p. 254), invisible, and always plotting. Although the narrator believes that our slightest words can have “a sacramental efficacy” if we “cast our self-love behind us” (p. 134), Johnson insists that “words are wind” (p. 121). He earns his living by spreading lies, clichés, and obfuscations. He may call himself a plain speaker, but when he rouses the Sproxton miners on Harold's behalf, he builds his case on “uncomprehended words” (p. 119). From James Putty, a writer for the Times, Johnson has learned that “there are two ways of speaking an audience will always like: one is, to tell them what they don't understand; and the other is, to tell them what they're used to” (p. 165).

Verbal dexterity and deceit are also associated in Matthew Jermyn, the lawyer who retained Johnson to aid in Harold's campaign for Parliament. An intruder in Treby Magna, Jermyn “knew the dictionary by heart, and was probably an illegitimate son of somebody or the other” (p. 41). Although his knowledge of language, like his shadowy origins, initially seemed to set him outside society, Jermyn has used his “copious supply of words” (p. 34) to succeed—socially, economically, and sexually. As a young man he wrote poems to Mrs. Transome. At the height of his prosperity he can choose the style appropriate for the occasion: vulgar idioms for his enemies or Latin quotations for his daughter's birthday. The Latin commonplaces are, however, a superficial acquisition. As the narrator notes, “When Jermyn had the black cloud over his face, he never hesitated or drawled, and made no Latin quotations” (p. 281). Despite the veneer of social propriety, Jermyn regards words as “fangs to clutch this obstinate strength, and wring forth the blood and compel submission” (p. 382). He insists on documentation—a letter to Johnson, an opinion from the Attorney General, a written agreement with Harold—not because he assumes the validity of the text but because he believes in his own power to impose it on others.

Jermyn does not accept any absolute concepts, legal or moral. The epigraph to chapter 36 may suggest that virtue lives in the words of the law; Jermyn would insist that neither word nor act exists without specific determination of the court. When Felix accuses him of bribery, Jermyn challenges his use of the word: “there is not such a thing—a—in rerum natura—a—as unproved bribery” (p. 164). At some points, Jermyn cites the law as a matter of certainty; at others, the law is a mystery, a series of “complicated questions … subtleties, which are never—a—fully known even to the parties immediately interested” (p. 187). Jermyn interprets law the way Dr. John Cumming construes Scripture: harshly and literally when he wants to hurl insults against his adversaries, vaguely and effusively when the text presses too hard against his comfortable Victorian values.6

In direct opposition to the political opportunists stands the dissenting minister, Rufus Lyon. Although one might assume that George Eliot would have respected Mr. Lyon's attitude toward language, his abilities as orator and interpreter are repeatedly called into question. Preaching that universal suffrage is “agreeable to the will of God” (p. 226), Lyon challenges the power of the political and religious establishment while maintaining the sacred authority of Scripture—and indeed of all words. Unlike Jermyn, Rufus Lyon does not use language as an instrument of aggression or self-glorification. Unlike Harold Transome, he does not “enforce a submissive silence” on others (p. 59). As the narrator explains, “If he argued forcibly, he believed it to be simply because the truth was forcible” (p. 203). Insisting upon the integrity of language in a letter to Philip Debarry, Mr. Lyon rejects “words of courtesy … which are understood, by those amongst whom they are current, to have no precise meaning, and to constitute no bond or obligation” (p. 149). An “eager seeker for precision,” Rufus wants “language subtle enough to follow the utmost intricacies of the soul's pathways” (pp. 62-63). He believes that he can use language to achieve emotional truth, spiritual redemption, and political reform.

Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, Mr. Lyon fails to be an effective speaker. Alan Kennedy is quite wrong to see him as an embodiment of “the power of the word.”7 Although Rufus tries to assist Felix from the pulpit and the witness stand, his testimony has no effect on the trial, and his prayers for Felix actually antagonize the congregation. Eliot has prepared us for this final failure by describing Rufus Lyon's earlier difficulties in writing a sermon and undertaking a debate. When Rufus was preparing his sermon, he selected as his text the prosaic conclusion to David's great song giving thanks for the ark of the covenant: “And all the people said, Amen” (I Chron. 16:36).8 By omitting the rich poetry of the psalm itself, Rufus shows that he is insensitive to the beauty of the Bible and primarily interested in its moral application. His sermon calls attention to the declining significance of Scripture: instead of laying their souls “beneath the Word” (p. 48), his followers smother their souls in human gossip.

In fact, Rufus could have used the entire psalm as an ironic commentary on modern life—its laws, leaders, and language. In the Book of Chronicles, God's presence sanctifies the verbal expressions of law and song. The English laws determining ownership of the Transome property are intricate; their enforcement, muddled.9 God's law, “the word which he commanded to a thousand generations” (I Chron. 16:15), is a binding promise to his people. The political leaders in Treby Magna address unruly and argumentative crowds with lies and self-serving exhortations; the Old Testament King encourages his people to join with him in holy song. The narrator of Felix Holt promises to guide us through an eerily silent forest where “the power of unuttered cries dwells in the passionless-seeming branches” (p. 11). David asks that the sea roar, the fields rejoice, and “the trees of the woods sing out at the presence of the Lord” (I Chron. 16:32-33). But Mr. Lyon is not a royal lion of Judah. Despite his intense faith, his energetic commitment to the rules of oratory, and his sense of happy inspiration, he cannot achieve the eloquence of a Hebraic poet; he cannot make all the moral applications; he cannot do much with “a mere mustard-seed of a text” (p. 48).

Rufus's plans for a public debate on the constitution of the true church also reveal his flaws as a reader and speaker. In requesting such a debate with the Anglican divine Augustus Debarry, Mr. Lyon is modeling himself after “that man of God and exemplary Independent minister, Mr. Ainsworth” (p. 149). But according to George Eliot's source, Ainsworth did not get the opportunity to defend the chief mysteries of his faith from the arguments of the Jews; instead he was murdered by a jewel merchant.10 Once again, Rufus has omitted an important part of the narrative. Mr. Lyon calls for the confrontation because he believes in the power of “finely-dividing speech,” a weapon in the “Divine armoury” (p. 149) useful in eradicating “soul-destroying error” (p. 148). The preparations in chapters 23 and 24 recall past forms of religious controversy. Theodore Sherlock, the young curate whom the Rev. Augustus Debarry appoints to take his place in the debate, bears a distinguished name which links him with Richard Sherlock (1612-1689), a loyal supporter of the monarchy and zealous preacher in the Church of England; with William Sherlock (1641-1707), Dean of St. Paul's and vigorous polemicist in the campaign against dissenters; and with Thomas Sherlock (1678-1761), efficient bishop, popular preacher, and staunch defender of constitutional authority.11 Their nineteenth-century counterpart cannot face any controversy. Theodore Sherlock's frantic flight from Treby Magna brings to a ludicrous end the tradition of theological disputation and leaves the reader as frustrated as Rufus Lyon.

The cancellation of the debate comes, as Michael Edwards has observed, at the dead center of the novel.12 It leaves a curious gap that is rather like Harold Transome's “speech” in chapter 19. Although the author raises the reader's expectations by having Jack Lingon give Harold a lengthy introduction and by calling the speech “remarkable” and “eloquent,” she makes no attempt to depict the address itself. Instead, it is briefly conveyed in negatives: Harold's speech is “not of the glib-nonsensical sort, not ponderous, not hesitating” (p. 175). Its primary effect is to arouse controversy; as the narrator says, one speech gives a text to twenty speakers. Later, the cancellation of the debate provokes a similar response. Although Rufus refuses to comment on Sherlock's absence, his followers give vent to their anger. The speaker-listener relationship is reversed, and Mr. Lyon finds himself overwhelmed by “a many-voiced lecture from the members of his church” (p. 209).

As a reader, Rufus is an equally problematic figure. The values that George Eliot would seem to have shared with him—such as his eagerness to discover a text's meaning and moral purpose—are shown to be unattainable, perhaps even undesirable. In his study of the Bible, Lyon assumes that a commonly held meaning can eventually be determined. For him, the Bible is a living force: its characters are real; its words provide guidance, instruction, and consolation. In contrast to Mrs. Holt, who uses scriptural texts to justify her own needs, Mr. Lyon practices “the impersonal study of narrative” (p. 306). When Mrs. Holt insists that she can find “texts upon texts about ointment and medicine,” Lyon warns her against “giving a too private interpretation to the Scripture.” In his opinion, “The word of God has to satisfy the larger need of His people, like the rain and the sunshine—which no man must think to be meant for his own patch of seed-ground solely” (p. 51). Lyon respects the validity of the text, strives for broadly significant interpretations, and pursues moral patterns.

According to Rufus, the Book of Daniel has purpose and “prophetic explicitness.” In “the chronology of ‘the little horn,’” he sees “the resplendent lamp of an inspired symbol searching out the germinal growth of an antichristian power” (pp. 326-27). The “little horn” was Antiochus Epiphanes, one of the most ruthless tyrants of all time. Known as “the king with the fierce countenance” (Dan. 8:23), Antiochus usurped political power, denied the Jews the right to practice their religion, and then sought to challenge God himself. The “little horn” had “a mouth speaking great things,” “great words against the most High” (Dan. 7:8, 25). Antiochus was a double-talker, a blasphemer, a dealer in “dark sentences” (Dan. 8:23). For Rufus, God's intervention in human history, and His destruction of Antiochus must represent an end to evil speech, political tyranny, and religious oppression.

However, on occasion Rufus abandons his attempts at exegesis, discovering that the great passages from the Bible “seemed to get deeper as he tried to fathom them” (p. 47). Moreover, the novelist undermines his search for a meaningful pattern in Christian tradition, English politics, and family history. Rufus reads life in the same way he reads the Bible: in anticipation of “that crowning time of the millennial reign, when our daily prayer will be fulfilled, and one law shall be written on all hearts, and be the very structure of all thought, and be the principle of all action” (p. 131). In the same scene in which Lyon is studying the Book of Daniel, he tries to explain the significance of Esther's inheritance. When he concludes that the inheritance is like the defeat of the “little horn”—evidence of a “providential arrangement” (pp. 326-27)—he reminds the reader of characters like Mrs. Transome, Jack Lingon, and the Debarrys, who attribute to “heavenly design” everything from Tory government to cock-fighting. Esther eventually rejects the property and the Christian promise it was meant to fulfill; she marries a man who makes impossible the completion of her father's prophecy. Lyon errs in thinking that Esther's education and history have “coincided with a long train of events in making this family property a means of honouring and illustrating a purer form of Christianity” (pp. 328-29); he also errs in envisioning a Radical candidate who will act as a visible “instrument” of God's will (p. 226).

The narrator dismisses studies of Daniel as “mistaken criticism” (p. 326) and also mocks the addlepated belief in biblical prophecy through Mrs. Holt, who treats Felix's “sad history with a preference for edification above accuracy, and for mystery above relevance, worthy of a commentator on the Apocalypse” (p. 297). George Eliot's contempt for convoluted analyses of biblical prophecy is obvious in her 1855 essay, “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming.” Furthermore, an 1847 letter suggests that she identified more with the rebellious “little horn” than with the omniscient God whose triumph would result in an all-encompassing placidity. Writing to Sara Hennell, she said:

I am amusing myself with thinking of the prophecy of Daniel as a sort of allegory. All those monstrous, rumbustical beasts with their horns—the horn with eyes and a mouth speaking proud things and the little horn that waxed rebellious and stamped on the stars seem like my passions and vain fancies which are to be knocked down one after the other—until all is subdued into a universal kingdom over which the Ancient of Days presides—the spirit of love—the Catholicism of the Universe—if you can attach any meaning to such a phrase.13

George Eliot's radicalism may have moderated in other areas, but as woman, as artist, she remained an ambitious outcast with explosive energy; the Rev. Rufus Lyon would contain that energy, establish a pattern, and bring history to its ultimate conclusion. His earnest but inflexible approach to narrative could be as disconcerting to a novelist as the constant duplicity of Johnson and Jermyn. Whether Lyon's vision represents Puritan eschatology or the secular millenarianism of Comte and Spencer, it involves one plot, one law, one fixed and final ending.

Felix, who is much more uncertain about the outcome of history, initially appears to be a desirable alternative to deceitful speakers like Jermyn and Johnson and to the sincere but limited Mr. Lyon. Determined to render the absolute truth, Felix describes himself as “a demagogue of a new sort; an honest one, if possible, who will tell the people they are blind and foolish, and neither flatter them nor fatten on them” (p. 224). Felix becomes a secular preacher urging moral reform in both the public and private realms: the miners at Sproxton are his “congregation” (p. 65), and his talk to Esther is an “afternoon sermon” (p. 107). A vehement critic of other men's words, Felix scorns the figures used by Jermyn and Harold. “Give me a handful of generalities and analogies,” he demands, “and I'll undertake to justify Burke and Hare [two notorious murderers], and prove them benefactors of their species” (p. 160). Aligning himself with the common man, he rejects the Latin allusions of Jack Lingon and Matthew Jermyn. Like all “plain speakers” trying to illustrate a moral, he relies on concrete examples drawn from everyday experience. Felix has studied oratory, he likes to talk, he has “great confidence in his powers of appeal” (p. 114), and his presence has a riveting effect on a crowd.

Yet Felix is not only a flawed human being and inept leader, he is also a very clumsy rhetorician who consistently fails to carry his point in public. His faults are especially obvious in the nominating-day scene where he is contrasted with the forceful Chartist orator. Linda Bamber describes Felix as “an obfuscating pedagogue” whom Eliot unconsciously allows to speak in “slippery, silly parables”; David Craig charges that “the run of the speech, especially the prearranged syntax and linking of the sentences, does not suggest any kind of utterable English”; Ian Milner argues that Felix's Latinized vocabulary, abstract nouns, lengthy and involved sentence structure, and rhetorical flourishes “betray the author's desire to show how well-educated he is.”14 Because Felix is generally assumed to be the author's spokesman, his failings are ascribed to her ambivalence regarding reform movements. George Eliot did not in fact identify with her male protagonist. As a way of judging him, she formulates a comparison with Joseph, a sensitive, well-spoken, and politically astute figure from the Old Testament.

In Genesis 40-41, Joseph is perceptive, wise, courteous, yet forceful in speech, prudent in all circumstances—a model young man. He interprets human expressions and heavenly sent dreams. Felix is rash and intemperate. His attempts to persuade others—Harold, Esther, the men at Sproxton—often end with his abrupt and angry departure. Although he announces his allegiance to family and class, he manifests considerable hostility toward his audience. He compares the miners to cattle and amuses himself “by giving his mother answers that were unintelligible to her” (p. 192). Felix claims to be a man “warned by visions” (p. 224), yet he cannot make the future present to himself. Indeed, as Lenore Wisney Horowitz has said, his inability to predict “the future consequences of his actions” causes his downfall.15 When Felix tries to divert the mob, he does not foresee “the effect of misunderstanding as to himself” (p. 268). When he thinks about Esther's future, he predicts a marriage to Harold Transome.

Joseph was a man of action as well as an interpreter of dreams. He saved the kingdom from famine, became an effective administrator, achieved high rank and responsibility in Egyptian society, and accepted the Pharaoh's gifts: the ring of authority, vestures of fine linen, and a gold chain. Felix wants to reform his country, but he rejects the possibility of social advancement and material success. According to Mr. Lyon, the ring and robe of Joseph were “the signs of that credit which he won by his divinely-inspired skill, and which enabled him to act as a saviour to his brethren” (pp. 57-58). According to Felix, as Catherine Gallagher has shown, the objects are agents of corruption.16 When Felix declines to be a modern day Joseph, the role descends upon the enterprising and socially ambitious Mr. Chubb, who claims that his dreams are more extraordinary than Pharaoh's. Dreamer and interpreter, Chubb markets his dreams, using his entertaining stories to improve business at the public house (p. 112).

Joseph mastered the decorous arts of language; Felix denounces “gentlemanly speakers” (p. 63). The narrator of Felix Holt admits that the conventions of polite conversation restrain our deepest emotions (p. 320); Felix insists that they are absolute lies. In his opinion the niceties of language constitute a “system of make-believe” (p. 63). Felix thinks that he can pursue the social good without assuming social position. He also believes that he can articulate truth without confronting the complexities of language. He is bookish and obscure when he should be straightforward; when he needs a sophisticated legal defense, he chooses to be “perfectly simple and direct” (p. 300). Assuming that a “concise narrative” of his conduct and his own statement of motives will exonerate him, he promises to address the court “in as few words as I can” (p. 370). Felix does not try to persuade his listeners; he simply asks them to have faith in him.

As a result, he fails in the crucial scenes where he is matched against Johnson: at the Sugar Loaf, where he attempts to interrupt Johnson's appeal to the ignorant miners' self-interest (ch. 11); on nomination-day, when his speech degenerates into a personal attack on Johnson (ch. 30); on election day, when he lies unconscious with a bullet wound, while Johnson denounces him as a dangerous revolutionary (ch. 33); and at the trial, when he cannot counter the testimony of prosecution witnesses regarding his class hatred and propensity toward violence (ch. 46). In the latter scene, Johnson himself is silent. He has so completely manipulated the witnesses' perception and memory that he can adopt a detached pose in court and still control the proceedings. In contrast, Felix is carried to a defiant conclusion by “the sublime delight of truthful speech” (p. 370). This “peroration,” as Harold Transome observes, “has done him harm with the jury. … it has soured the judge” (p. 371).

As a speaker, Felix has his strongest impact on Esther. An analysis of their conversation indicates that George Eliot anticipated a greater possibility of genuine communication in the private sphere than in the public. Felix initially accosts Esther in chapter 10, demanding that she give up her favorite books, her interest in fashion, and her style of living. He is rude, self-righteous, and boorish. Esther is afraid to betray her emotion, but she finally accuses him of using “truth-telling” to wound others. His strong words, however, prove disconcerting, and in their next meeting she finds talking quite difficult. The “graceful, self-possessed Miss Lyon, whose phrases were usually so well turned,” lapses into silence (p. 193). A turning point occurs in chapter 27. For Esther, who is frightened of questioning Felix, the conversation involves real risk. But both show tenderness and a studied attention to one another's faces. The epigraph from Shakespeare's Sonnet 23 emphasizes the need for heightened sensitivity: “To hear with eyes is part of love's rare wit” (p. 218). Esther must look at Felix “to see whether his face would give some help to the interpretation of this novel speech” (p. 223). Together they achieve the intimacy of a mutual understanding; their words are “charged with a meaning dependent entirely on the secret consciousness of each” (p. 225).

In spite of this momentary closeness, Felix falters during their next encounter. He had not intended to speak of his love, yet he is moved by “some subtle, mysterious conjuncture of impressions and circumstances” (p. 263). Intensely vulnerable, he lacks self-possession and breaks off his speech. In the awkward silence that follows, Esther's quiet declaration of love becomes an act of self-realization. She simultaneously finds herself and her capacity to speak, not in the language of polite society, but in the language of the heart: “All the finest part of Esther's nature trembled in those words” (p. 262). Although Felix is strongly moved, he does not dare to continue the conversation or to take her hand. Their last talk before the trial is marred by Felix's mistaken belief that Esther is planning to marry Harold Transome. Too unhappy to speak, Esther tells her father, “There is no more to say.” This time it is Felix who speaks, with “an entreating cry” that culminates in an embrace (p. 365). In Felix Holt, as in Daniel Deronda, George Eliot implies that language is inadequate to convey our deepest and most sacred feelings and that more meaningful exchanges take place in gestures and glances. A breakdown in speech, however, often leads to a breakthrough in emotions, especially for her most admirable characters. Esther's development shows that language can and should be recovered.


Esther is framed like Felix: between a socially glib cynic and an eager commentator on Holy Scripture. With Esther and the two older women who come to see her as their surrogate daughter, Mrs. Transome and Mrs. Holt, the novel introduces the special problems of women speakers. The importance of women's speech is acknowledged, not only through these three characters but also through biblical references: to Delilah, who vexes her husband with words (p. 243), and to the wives of St. Peter's first Epistle, who can bring their husbands to God through their chaste conversation (p. 53).17 In Felix Holt women have little opportunity to participate in religious and political discourse. They have not been taught the language of law or the rhetoric of sermons; they have no podium, no platform. Instead, they constitute the audience for clergymen and politicians who try to use these disenfranchised listeners for their own purposes. Although Johnson and Jermyn think that wives goad their husbands into voting, the women of Treby Magna face almost as many constraints at home as in public. Rufus is unique in allowing garrulous women the right to talk. Dredge beats his wife when she lectures him, and on several occasions, Harold makes his mother stop talking. Neither Mrs. Transome nor Mrs. Holt can speak persuasively to her own son in spite of numerous appeals and constant attempts at manipulation. Both women fear for their economic well-being and resent their sons for taking control of the family income. Frustrated by their powerlessness and by the absence of a sympathetic audience, they never acquire the art of communication. Mrs. Transome chooses a life of silence, while Mrs. Holt remains loquacious in the midst of every disaster.

The elegant Mrs. Transome has had a fashionable education supervised by “a superior governess, who held that a woman should be able to write a good letter, and to express herself with propriety on general subjects” (p. 28). As a young girl she quoted Chateaubriand, laughed at the Lyrical Ballads, and took sinful delight in dangerous French writers. “She found ridicule of Biblical characters very amusing, and she was interested in stories of illicit passion” (p. 27). After she procures husband and social position, she finds quoting Burke as unnecessary as painting small watercolor figures. As a mature woman, Mrs. Transome reads nothing, preferring to construct her own narratives from bits and pieces of family scandal. She tells her entertaining stories “in that easy phrase, and with that refined high-bred tone and accent which she possessed in perfection” (p. 320).

Mrs. Transome's grandson astutely perceives the anger that her polite conversation is meant to conceal when he refuses to call her “Gamma” and renames her “Bite” (p. 319). Mrs. Transome blames her bitterness about life and language on the “too persuasive attorney” (p. 42). Years ago, Jermyn had involved her in “the ugly deed that made these ugly words”—to use the epigraph from Sophocles at the beginning of their final confrontation scene (p. 331). Now, like Jermyn, she would like to use words as implements of torture, “to scorch him [her former lover] with the words that were just the fit names for his doings” (p. 102). But because she dreads his retort, she will “never tell him what she saw him to be” (p. 101). Her sin has forced her to deny her past, repress her feelings, restrain her tongue.

Although Mrs. Transome seeks to rule through her son, she quickly discovers that she has “no power over him … none” (p. 101). Harold is as rude a conversationalist as his father: he refuses to listen to others, interrupts, interjects his own concerns. With women, his abruptness is deliberate. Calling himself an Oriental, he announces that he would “hate a woman who took up my opinions, and talked for me” (p. 95). Refusing to discuss business or politics with his mother, who has managed the estate during his absence, he directs the conversation to interior decorating. Silence becomes the only weapon for Mrs. Transome. Despite increasing cynicism and bitterness, despite outbursts of insult and recrimination as Jermyn becomes desperate to avoid a lawsuit, Mrs. Transome maintains her cold reserve to the end. When Jermyn asks her to speak to Harold on his behalf, she orders him to seal his lips. She sits immobile in court. At the crucial moment when Harold asks to know his father's name, she is absolutely mute. She has no recovery, no relief in words. Her death simply means that “there was silence about the past” throughout that neighborhood (p. 399).

In contrast, Mrs. Holt demands an opportunity to speak—again and again and again. She usually bases her arguments on the Bible. Although Felix says that she has been poisoned by the Bible and asks that she never open it again, Mrs. Holt contends that she has the authority to interpret the word of God. She cites Ecclesiasticus to prove that “grey hairs should speak” (p. 355), and she claims to know “texts upon texts” to justify the sale of ointment and medicine. “There's one as might have been made for a receipt of my husband's—it's just as if it was a riddle and Holt's Elixir was the answer” (p. 51). But the verses she quotes are often garbled beyond recognition and invariably twisted to her own purposes. Even when she seems to be using Scripture to explain her low place in the social structure, she is advancing her own interests: by describing herself as a “poor widow” or “wise servant,” she is trying to force obligations on those above her. Her petitions for assistance, like her prayers for divine intervention, show that she is fully committed to a maxim she has adapted from the New Testament: “Ask, and you shall have” (p. 348). Mrs. Holt trusts in the magical power of words to fulfill her wishes and vindicate her character. Proud to be a “well-spoken-on” woman, she looks forward to the day when “people's doings are spoke of on the house-tops, as the Bible says they will be” (p. 52). Sometimes her superstitious attitude toward language generates anxiety. She attributes the lonely prisoner's life that seems to lie ahead of Felix to his earlier threats to remain unmarried. He's been “took at his word” by “One above,” she cries (p. 299).

Unfortunately, whenever Felix is involved Mrs. Holt finds that words fail her. At the beginning of the novel she admits that she is unable to talk to her son. After his arrest she fears that her dire predictions have caused his downfall. Stymied by the legal processes, she seeks to exert personal influence on someone powerful enough to intercede with the King on Felix's behalf. In her ludicrous appeal to old Mr. Transome in chapter 43, several important themes coalesce: her belief in the literal authenticity of the Bible; her loyalty to the hierarchy—“a God above and a King below”; and her trust in words and proper rhetorical strategies. Mrs. Holt searches for the king with the kind countenance because she assumes “if there's any meaning in words, he'll do the right thing by me and my son, if he's asked proper” (p. 356). By greeting old Mr. Transome with her “deliberately prepared” speech, Mrs. Holt defies the advice of Felix and Mr. Lyon. She acts according to her own judgment, with “the feminine conviction that if she could ‘get to speak’ in the right quarter, things might be different” (p. 347). This speech occasions laughter; on other occasions, her self-pitying harangues are irritating and incoherent. Although Mrs. Holt could have given important information about Felix's state of mind and motives on the morning of the riot, Esther is relieved that she will not take part in the trial. Her testimony would have been a “farce” (p. 368).

Unlike Mrs. Holt and Mrs. Transome, Esther learns to speak honestly and effectively. By marrying Harold, she could have become another Mrs. Transome—morally as well as legally—but she resists such an emotionally stifling relationship. Instead, she struggles to express her admiration for Felix, first in private and then in public. Years ago, Mr. Lyon's attachment to Annette had destroyed his gift for preaching; at the trial, Esther's love for Felix gives her the “ardour which has flashed out and illuminated all poetry and history.” Esther acts from “inspired ignorance” (p. 375), because she has no training in oratory or exegesis. Without a classical education she cannot quote Pliny and Plautus. Having gone to a fashionable school, she has acquired a taste for Byronic literature, but once she discovers its inadequacy, she gives it up altogether. Rufus Lyon's incessant comments on the Bible have no effect on her, and when the aging minister gives her a treatise on church government, she neglects to read it. After her arrival at Transome Court, all reading becomes impossible: “her life was a book which she seemed herself to be constructing—trying to make character clear before her, and looking into the ways of destiny” (p. 322).

As the author and interpreter of her own life, Esther achieves considerably more success than Felix. She enters a stage of “highly-wrought” mental activity, “that large discourse, in which we seem to stand aloof from our own life—weighing impartially our own temptations and the weak desires that most habitually solicit us” (pp. 385-86). When she says she will soon see “strong visions,” she is not referring to the triumph of the true church or to the development of a perfect human community, but to her own destiny. Unlike Felix, she begins to understand her future courses of action and the way her choices might be construed by others. She imagines the “commentary” Felix would make on her conduct; she foresees her life with her father and its possible interpretations, “which five months ago she would have been incapable of seeing” (pp. 306-7).

By describing Felix's good character and his state of mind on the day of the riot, Esther hopes to make an impression on the jury's feelings. Divesting herself of “all personal considerations,” she earns the admiration of the court. Her voice is like “music that brought tears” (p. 376). Through Esther, the novel aligns eloquence and interpretive skill with the fullness and spontaneity of women's emotions rather than with the bookish and aggressive world of male intellectuality. Esther has the womanly power to break through “formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs” and to shatter “the stiffening crust of cautious experience” (p. 375). The heroine might declare her inferiority to Felix, as George Eliot did by inscribing the manuscript of Felix Holt to G. H. Lewes with “the deepening sense of her own imperfectness” (p. xxxvii), but Esther has a formidable effect on her audience. She is no longer the vain and aspiring Queen Esther of chapter 5. Instead, she has developed the independence and outspoken courage that Mr. Lyon must have hoped for when he selected her name.18 In the Old Testament, Esther defies laws that are written by men and invoked against rebellious wives and culturally alien Jews. She succeeds—and saves her own life—by persuading King Ahasuerus to reverse the death decree issued against Mordecai and his people. Esther Lyon also uses her strong personal presence to interrupt a judicial process administered by men and to rescue an innocent person from serious punishment. It seems as if George Eliot has found her spokeswoman. Although Felix fails as Joseph and Mr. Lyon flounders as King David, Esther is prepared to fulfill her biblical responsibilities.19

But however favorably Esther compares with the Queen, the consequences of her act are much less significant. The Book of Esther ends fortunately—for Esther, Mordecai, and the entire Jewish community. By petitioning King Ahasuerus, Esther does not just rescue her cousin Mordecai and prepare the way for his advancement at court; she also saves thousands of Jews from slaughter. Her actions become the basis of a feast known for its patriotic and religious fervor. When she writes letters authorizing the observance of Purim, her words become binding; her deeds are recorded in a sacred book that bears her name. Mordecai's story, like Joseph's, suggests that a man who is truthful to the king might be rewarded with social position and material prosperity. Through the power of King Ahasuerus, the intended victim of an unjust edict is exalted, while Haman, the grand vizier who had initiated the campaign against the Jews, is executed. In the exegetical tradition, this sudden reversal of fortune is regarded as the work of God, evidence of His favor toward His chosen people.

The individual triumphs, the communal celebration, and the sense of divine justice are absent from Felix Holt. The final distribution of rewards and punishments does not suggest the intervention of a just God. Unlike Haman, neither Jermyn nor Johnson is hanged. Jermyn was expelled from Treby Magna, but Johnson “continued blond and sufficiently prosperous till he got gray and rather more prosperous.” Felix and Esther's marriage left most Trebians believing in goodness and justice; Johnson's success is disconcerting—“not altogether creditable to the Divine Providence” (p. 399).

Felix and Esther are allotted personal happiness but no place in society. At the conclusion of Middlemarch, Dorothea and Will move to London, the new center of power, amidst hints that the silver-voiced heroine will provide her husband with the inspiration to continue in reform politics. At the conclusion of Felix Holt, Felix and Esther leave Treby Magna for an unnamed destination and an uncertain future. Esther renounces the wealth she has been offered; unlike Mordecai, Felix does not receive high rank. Earlier, Felix and Esther had laughingly suggested that he would set up a library and that she would teach; the novel, however, provides no evidence that either activity will be seriously pursued. Esther had once proposed an ethical norm based on Felix's conduct: because “his life was like his words,” he was able to teach her meaning and value (p. 351). With so little sense of Felix's future, it is difficult to imagine how their deeds might give substance to an empty language.

Political and religious discourse have come to an end. Although Felix and Esther have gained intuitive understanding of one another, their ability to communicate does not extend into the public sphere. Unlike Mordecai and the Queen, they are not granted the authority to rewrite the laws. The community of Treby Magna is not saved, so there is no ritual of celebration, no sacred scroll to commemorate the brave and eloquent heroine. Indeed, Esther's name does not appear in the title of the novel. Her influence has been only momentary. Her speech could not alter the “rigid necessities of legal procedure” or mitigate the judge's severity (pp. 376-77). George Eliot endorses a language based on feeling, but she questions whether feelings can alter institutions. Esther does have a somewhat “more permanent effect” on the magistrates and country gentlemen who sign Sir Maximus's petition to reduce Felix's sentence. None of these gentlemen, however, has undergone a moral or political conversion. Rather, the group of “just-spirited men and good fathers” has been raised “to a high pitch of emotion by Esther's maidenly fervour” (p. 378). Esther succeeds because an amiable old gentleman who has been moved to tears is able to rally his friends in a morning meeting. The elderly Sir Maximus is less sensual than King Ahasuerus, but equally impulsive and woefully ignorant of plots being put into effect in his own domain.

By giving Sir Maximus and his family such a prominent role in rescuing Felix, the plot upholds the social hierarchy in a manner oddly reminiscent of that eager orator and staunch defender of authority, Mrs. Holt. Although Mrs. Holt's search for a wise king who would grant justice and give meaning to words is ridiculed, the outcome of the story does support her point about political reality: great people can have a man freed. In the end, George Eliot allows power to remain in a family that wants to restrict speech and to deny others the right of independent judgment. The Debarrys are certainly not violent, like Antiochus and Haman, those bloodthirsty Old Testament tyrants who wanted to eliminate all dissidents from their realms. But the Debarrys would like to abolish political sermons and keep debate confined within a rigid framework. In personal terms, the Rev. Augustus Debarry criticizes Rufus for daring to interpret his brother's letter; in broader terms, he denounces men who “make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions” (p. 199). Instead, he insists that the instructed must act for the uninstructed. The crowd is consistently shown to be deficient in understanding, while the men who claim to constitute an interpretive community—who respond to Esther and exert the personal influence necessary to counteract the injustice carried through by the legal system—are a closed circle of sentimental fools.20 A good speaker has come forward, but she has not found a worthy audience.


The novel's central problems have been brilliantly anticipated in the Introduction. As the Introduction sweeps forward in its analysis of social, political, and economic development, the narrator makes several cryptic comments about the nature of communication. Here the sequence moves backwards from the problem of interpreting a text—in the anecdote about the preacher whose sermon divides his congregation (p. 9); to the process of constructing a narrative—in the account of Mr. Sampson and his “fine stories”; and finally to the source of art—in George Eliot's vision of a suffering humanity that seeks release through self-expression (p. 11).

The Introduction ends in a silent world of secret pain: there is “no cry,” “no sound,” “no writing” (p. 11). The author understands the intense power of silence, but she would prefer that the history of human sorrow be shared. As Esther discovers, cries should not go unuttered and passion should not be suppressed. George Eliot encourages our efforts to speak and to listen, although the Dantean allusion implies that she may have doubted their efficacy. In the seventh circle of hell, the tree that was once Piero delle Vigne will have to tell his story again and again, whenever a branch is broken.21

To move from the articulation of personal sorrow to the shaping of narrative presents more complicated problems. Despite being embittered by the dominance of the machine in modern life, Mr. Sampson, the coachman-storyteller, manages to immerse himself in the traditional concerns of English fiction: changing social and economic structures; family conflicts, especially over inheritance; problems with marriage and sex. However, his motives and the meaning of his narrative remain inscrutable. Mr. Sampson flails away with his whip, refuses to grapple with paradoxes, fixes his face in “a grimace expressive of entire neutrality,” and declines to elaborate on his “fine stories.” Of course the narrator of Felix Holt takes over the reins, promising to undo Sampson's ironies. According to the narrator, “stories not altogether creditable to the parties concerned” will come to be fine “in a sense that is not ironical” (p. 11). To which “non-ironical” meaning of the word does the narrator refer? Does the narrator intend a finished, perfected, and excellent story, or will it be a story free from impurities, clear and bright? (Felix Holt is generally not held to be “fine” in any of these senses.)22 George Eliot means to turn us away from the aimless gossip of the coachman and teach us the doctrine of consequences. But some of the stories, such as Mr. Johnson's, do not show the “woeful progeny” of vice. How, exactly, do stories “come to be fine”? Do events reveal their moral consequences in time, or must the novelist impose a moral scheme?

The interpretation of a text is even more difficult. Consider the incident of the preacher who bases his sermon on the Old Testament injunction: “Plough up the follow ground of your hearts.” In the silent forest of myth, emotion and life were painfully suppressed; in the nineteenth-century sermon, they have been entirely lost. The preacher cannot open the text to its applications, and the congregation cannot move beyond the literal meaning of the word “fallow.” Science, in the person of Sir Humphrey Davy, does not destroy faith; the moral significance of the Scriptures has been lost before he appears. In the world the reader is about to enter, sermons and texts only start arguments. Knowing how to read has simply exposed the villagers to “the excesses of Protestantism” (p. 6).23

I am suggesting, then, that George Eliot's well-known anxieties about Felix Holt did not result simply from her difficulties in mastering the precise details of property law but also from unresolved philosophical questions about the nature and use of language. Although she encourages men and women to work toward the verbal expression of their deepest feelings, she becomes profoundly troubled when she considers the process of making a novel and again when she anticipates its fate with readers. If a community cannot determine the purpose of a text, what is her fate as a novelist? If the meanings of words are unstable, how can she fulfill her responsibilities as truthteller?

The final sentence in the Introduction—which the novelist would use again in the famous pier-glass passage in Middlemarch—reveals her dilemma. Etymologically, “parable” is related to the Latin and Romance words for speech, discourse, and talk. When George Eliot calls “these things” a parable, she asks us to consider two different meanings. Either she has produced the kind of parable Rufus Lyon admires, a simple story from which a moral lesson may be drawn, or she has written something enigmatic, a dark saying that would align her with Johnson, Antiochus, and other devious agents of obscurity. She leaves us with paradoxes, which Mr. Sampson would have avoided “with all the discreetness of an experienced theologian or learned scholiast” (p. 10). Like Antiochus, she understands riddles. Like the pun-loving Mr. Christian, she plays with language, assumes a false identity, and signs a name other than her own. In contrast to the saints, George Eliot prefers words to candles. But as much as she might sympathize with the truthtelling aspirations of Rufus, Felix, and Esther, the novelist must in the end take her place with the successful men who have made money from lies, secrets, and stories: the methodical Mr. Chubb, who uses his Sunday night narratives to attract customers; the satanic Mr. Christian, who exhibits a “businesslike gift of speech” and earns £1,000 (p. 291); and the prosperous, ever-present Mr. Johnson, who has been “the secret worker of the apparent wonder” (p. 303).


  1. Felix Holt, the Radical, ed. Fred C. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 184. Further citations in the text are to this edition.

  2. George Eliot's use of political and economic materials in the preparation of Felix Holt has been extensively documented by Fred C. Thomson and other scholars. That she was also “Reading the Bible” (her emphasis) while writing the novel seems to have attracted little notice. See her journal entry for 16 November 1865 in The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight, 9 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954-78), IV, 209.

  3. The History of the Puritans, rev., corr., and enl., 3 vols. (London: T. Tegg, 1837), I, 630. According to Valentine Cunningham, Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 173, George Eliot's notes indicate that she had access to the original four-volume edition published in 1732-38.

  4. Neal, The History of the Puritans, II, 6. Philip Debarry quotes this phrase on p. 137 of Felix Holt. In addition to the Ainsworth incident mentioned on p. 153, George Eliot seems to have taken Lyon's definition of “Radical” from Neal; see Cunningham, Everywhere Spoken Against, pp. 172-74.

  5. Neal, The History of the Puritans, II, 11.

  6. “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming,” in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), p. 160. Jermyn has some of the other qualities George Eliot despised in Dr. Cumming: unscrupulosity of statement, absence of genuine charity, and perverted moral judgment.

  7. Meaning and Signs in Fiction (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), p. 110.

  8. I have used the King James Version of the Bible.

  9. For a detailed study of George Eliot's knowledge of nineteenth-century English law, see Norman Vance, “Law, Religion and the Unity of Felix Holt,” in George Eliot: Centenary Essays and an Unpublished Fragment, ed. Anne Smith (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1980), pp. 103-23. On the historical level Vance is quite helpful in explaining why the problem of land ownership was an important index of social change. When he moves to a metaphorical level and distinguishes between the legalism of everyday life and the absolute eternal Law that purportedly governed George Eliot's universe, his argument becomes much more tenuous. Vance takes Mr. Lyon's invocations of divine law very seriously without acknowledging the novelist's strategies for undermining the minister. He also sees the novel as projecting a positive future through sympathy and moral duty.

  10. Neal, The History of the Puritans, I, 421.

  11. Vance, “Law, Religion and the Unity of Felix Holt,” notes this Anglican heritage; see p. 117 and n. 47 on p. 123.

  12. “George Eliot and Negative Form,” Critical Quarterly, 17 (1975), 177. In this short but highly provocative essay, Edwards argues that the episode “isolates and projects the general movement of the narrative, from expectation to negation.”

  13. George Eliot to Sara Hennell, 27 Nov. 1847, Letters, I, 242.

  14. Linda Bamber, “Self-Defeating Politics in George Eliot's Felix Holt,Victorian Studies, 18 (1975), 424, 430; David Craig, “Fiction and the Rising Industrial Classes,” Essays in Criticism, 17 (1967), 68; Ian Milner, The Structure of Values in George Eliot (Prague: Universita Karlova, 1968), p. 49.

  15. “George Eliot's Vision of Society in Felix Holt the Radical,Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 17 (1975), 178-79.

  16. “The Failure of Realism: Felix Holt,NCF [Nineteenth-Century Fiction], 35 (1980), 381. For Gallagher, Felix and his plot represent an attack on the author's own realistic method of metonymic representation. Gallagher argues that George Eliot is revealing a new need for a transcendental realm of values and ultimate meaning which cannot be discovered by the mere delineation of appearances; I think that she is expressing profound skepticism about such a realm.

  17. The allusion to Delilah comes, as Fred C. Thomson has noted, in chapter 30 of Felix Holt. Here George Eliot quotes Judges 16:16 in order to show how a woman can torture a man with her words. Thomson has also identified Mr. Lyon's use of I Peter 3:7 at the end of chapter 4. Although Lyon stresses the honor due to the wife as weaker vessel, Peter's full text also shows how wives whose speech is pure can bring strength to their husbands (see Thomson, ed., Felix Holt, p. 243, n. 4, and p. 53, n. 1).

  18. Rufus Lyon's aversion to Antiochus is relevant here. Because of their mutual hatred for the Jews, Antiochus is often linked with Haman, the high official whose downfall Esther occasioned; some biblical commentators have even suggested that Haman is Antiochus in disguise. Thus, by naming his adopted daughter after the woman who vanquished Haman, Mr. Lyon is trying to make her his ally in the war against religious persecution.

  19. George Eliot might also have had The Eumenides in mind. Florence Sandler argues that Esther is modeled after Athena, who vindicated Orestes and upheld the moral superiority of the new order. See “The Unity of Felix Holt,” in George Eliot: A Centenary Tribute, ed. Gordon S. Haight and Rosemary T. VanArsdel (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982), pp. 149-50.

  20. The aggressive and unthinking behavior of the crowd is analyzed by Joseph Butwin, “The Pacification of the Crowd: From ‘Janet's Repentance’ to Felix Holt,NCF, 35 (1980), 366-70.

  21. Dante, Inferno, XIII.25-45. For detailed commentary on the Dantean allusions, see Peter Coveney, ed., Felix Holt, the Radical (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 9-10, 36, and p. 645, n. 16; p. 647, n. 22.

  22. From the first sentence, where elderly gentlemen nervously observe that “times were finely changed” (p. 5), the word “fine” reverberates throughout the novel in ironical and nonironical senses. It is associated with the appearances of gentility, as in Mrs. Transome's “finely formed” figure (p. 14) and the “fine” cigars Harold loves (p. 353). It also refers to pure and excellent ideals, as when Esther years for “fine ideas” (p. 358) and remarks that she could not see “the meaning of anything fine” until she met Felix (p. 351). The would-be debaters are both concerned that their words be “fine”: Sherlock wants to write “something rather fine” (p. 202), while Rufus relies on “finely-dividing speech” (p. 149).

  23. Butwin, “The Pacification of the Crowd,” p. 371, places George Eliot's reservations regarding the expansion of literary in a political context.

Florence Sandler (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6664

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 the action to entail a modern political analysis of the structure of personality and society. Such readers are likely to conclude that Felix is an ineffective radical and ineffective hero, and that the action falls apart from that defective centre.

Then there are those (the more self-consciously literary critics) who take their cue ultimately from F. R. Leavis. He vindicated the part of the book that comprised the ‘profoundly moving tragedy’ of Mrs Transome, and proceeded to damn the rest with faint praise. The elaboration of the main plot was perversely, if not desiccatingly, misdirected. The presentation of Felix himself (unbelievably ‘noble and courageous in act as in ideal’, ‘wholly endorsed by his creator’) supported the complaint against Eliot's intellectualism. Rufus Lyon, who occupied so much of the book, was ‘incredible and a bore’, and ‘Esther, the beautiful and elegant young lady passing as his daughter’, was ‘interesting only in relation to other feminine studies of the author's and to her treatment in general of feminine charm’!2 Apparently, that meant being hardly interesting at all. The lopsided view of the book inherited from Leavis was reinforced by Fred Thomson's judgement that the Transome tragedy, being the original material of the book, remained the intrinsic part, while the political theme, added later, seemed ‘adventitious’.3 More recently, we have been trying to put the pieces of the novel together, and my purpose in the present essay is to argue for its architectonic unity. The appreciation of this unity rests on three interrelated considerations: 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. Each of these will be considered in turn.

My contention at the outset is that it is Esther whose story gives the book a beginning, a middle and an end. In this symmetrical plot two sons, Harold Transome and Felix Holt, have returned home to North Loamshire to take charge of the fortunes of their families, both disappointing the expectations that their mothers have set on the event. But a daughter, Esther, has also returned home to North Loamshire. Both Harold and Felix become radical candidates for the parliamentary seat; both become suitors of Esther Lyon. Her marriage-choice (so George Eliot arranges things) will eventually depend on her recognition of the ethical quality of the two, and that quality will have become apparent in their attitude toward the electorate as well as in their attitude to Esther herself. Esther is in fact confronted not only with a choice of suitors but a choice of parents; she must choose to belong to the community of Harold and his mother on the one hand, or Felix and Rufus Lyon on the other.

We follow the progressive clarification of Esther's vision from comparative ignorance until she sees clearly the mediocrity of Harold and the self-destructiveness of his mother contrasted with the heroism to be found both in her father and Felix. She has her own moment of heroism at last, when she stands up to testify for Felix at his trial.4

The complaint of ineffectiveness against Felix, the ‘titular hero’ of the book, arises from a misunderstanding. There is a class of titles that derive not from the protagonist but from the person, or sometimes the entity, that has most effect upon the protagonist, presenting an attraction, an enigma or challenge that prompts him or her to self-exploration. Thus Coleridge's ‘Christabel’, Brontë's The Professor, Melville's ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, and Eliot's Daniel Deronda. In this class Felix Holt also belongs. As a character, Felix can no longer be written off as merely static since Eliot gives development to both his personality and philosophical position. Nevertheless, the presentation is unsatisfactory, for with the first interior monologue after he has met Esther we are promised access to his subjectivity, but through the book are often fobbed off with an exterior view, or given an account of his motives that is uncritical and therefore incredible. But Felix's frequent escape from the ironic scrutiny that controls other characters is not so serious a problem when he is not in fact the main protagonist.

As Felix tells Esther at one point, his own story was mostly over before he met her, but from that he has gained a certain vision which he hopes she too may come to share. Felix's problem now is to put together the two disparate parts of his life, so that his attraction to Esther no longer threatens his sense of mission. In the design of the book, where he is pitted against Harold, both men start off with their ‘illusions’ and a ‘too-confident self-reliance’, but Felix's illusions are based on an altruistic object, and Harold's on an egoistic one. In private life, as in politics, Harold's style is ‘the utmost enjoyment of his own advantages’. Both have their illusions shattered: Felix cannot control the riots, and Harold cannot control his own political agent and the facts of his birth. The experience of his own limitations leads Felix to a less ambitious form of service, and Harold to something like despair. (‘For the first time the iron had entered into his soul.’)

The same difference obtains between the two older people in each group, Rufus Lyon and Mrs Transome, who have absorbed their disappointment and taken account of their limitations before the present story begins. They are two contrasting kinds of sinners: she the self-absorbed one, for whom ‘the great story of this world’ was reduced ‘to the little tale of her own existence’, and who had no analysis of things that went beyond blood and family; he the one whom the ‘danger of absorption within the narrow bounds of self urged … the more towards action which had a wider bearing, and might tell on the welfare of England at large’.

In the symmetry of the plot, both Rufus and Mrs Transome are confronted with the problem of whether to tell a beloved child the secret of the child's paternity. In each case, the parent has a tenuous hold on the child's affections and is afraid that telling the secret will mean losing that affection altogether. Rufus makes a clean breast of his ‘fall’ and the circumstances of Esther's adoption and, to his surprise, wins more interest and affection from Esther than he has ever known. She is impressed by how much he must have loved her mother, and excited by her sudden ‘illumination’ that that must be ‘the very best life … where one bears and does everything because of some great and strong feeling—so that this and that in one's circumstances don't signify’.

Mrs Transome's refusal to tell Harold her secret is based on a double shame: not only did she fall once, but she hates the man who used her and turned her love into a good bargain, and she hates herself for having been used. Here too the son's discovery of his paternity is the occasion when he first looks at his mother for what she is in herself, but in pity, and on the basis of a common misery. Esther, who learned something of spiritual heroism from Rufus Lyon's confession, will learn at the end, from Mrs Transome's plea for comfort, the effect of spiritual desolation.

That last embrace between Esther and Mrs Transome is the climax of the movement which has brought them to see each other as, in a sense, mother and daughter. Esther had been presented at first as an elegant young woman (very much like the young Arabella Transome in her bearing and self-image), yet deprived because of never having known the mother whom she felt she could have loved better than her father. By the end, Esther has found her ‘mother’ in Mrs Transome and can treat her as a daughter would; but she has also transcended her need of this mother. When she folds Mrs Transome in her arms and leads her to bed, it is as if she, Esther, were the mother and Mrs Transome the child. Then Esther leaves Transome Court and returns to Rufus Lyon, the ‘father’ with whom she has discovered a deeper affinity.

I confess that I enjoy Rufus Lyon immensely. I enjoy even his casuistry, his long-windedness, his seventeenth-century idiom, and Eliot's loving reproduction and gentle satire of those long biblical conceits. The author presumably thought that Rufus's credit with the reader would sustain parody in Mrs Holt, for just as that formidable woman caricatures Mrs Transome in posing as the mother pushed aside by the son she dotes on, she caricatures Rufus and presents the Dissenting style at its worst with her interminable talk and her obsession with her own righteousness. But Rufus is not convinced of his own righteousness, let alone anxious to parade it, and there is always point in what he says. One comes to know his idiosyncrasy in language and thought so well as to share his vision of the world. Rufus is the comic counterweight of the tragic Mrs Transome in all senses of the word comic: he is often ludicrous; at the same time, he is the character whose values make for community and life, whereas hers make for isolation and death-in-life; and, in setting an example for Esther by his espousal of Felix's cause, he is instrumental in resolving the plot satisfactorily.

Granted that Rufus is restricted to the idiom of Milton and the seventeenth-century Dissenters, his strength lies in the fact that he has never lost the high vision of that time. Recognising a fellow-spirit in Felix, far more than anyone in his congregation, he challenges him to assume that heritage, not for the sake of glorifying the past but for shaping the future:

‘You will not deny that you glory in the name of Radical, or Root-and-branch man, as they said in the great times when Nonconformity was in its giant youth.’

‘A Radical—yes; but I want to go to some roots a good deal lower down than the franchise.’

‘Truly there is a work within which cannot be dispensed with; but it is our preliminary work to free men from the stifled life of political nullity, and bring them into what Milton calls “the liberal air,” wherein alone can be wrought the final triumphs of the Spirit.’

(27: 368-9)

It perfectly characterises Rufus Lyon that, given the opportunity to request a favour from the Debarrys, he should ask for a debate on, ‘first, the constitution of the true church; and secondly, the bearing thereupon of the English Reformation’. This is not at all the issue in the year of the national debate on the Reform Bill; and yet, in his own sectarian terms, Rufus is asking for consideration of the nature of human community and the bearing thereupon of a particular history, especially in this case the experience of the Reformation. On the one hand, the Reformation had given rise to the present ecclesiastical alignments and much of the arrangement of class, property and power, and on the other hand it had provided the precedent for the present Reform—all of which is very much the issue.

It is equally characteristic of the Church of England vicar, who enjoys the advantages of the political and social arrangements, that the last thing he wants to do is to participate in such a debate, where he is not at all sure of winning and where losing will bring the Church's tenure of advantages into question. The Reverend Augustus Debarry first of all tries demurrer, complaining that Lyon has put ‘non-natural strained sense on a promise’, and, when that will not do, offers up his curate as a lamb to the slaughter, reassuring the young man that this is one of the great opportunities of his career. When the poor curate in turn suffers a failure of nerve and slips out of town, the vicar's dignity is unperturbed: he is ‘sorry for poor Sherlock who wanted confidence’, but convinced that ‘for his own part he had taken the course which under the circumstances was the least compromising to the church’. Where intellectual substance is lacking, one needs a consummate gift for saving appearances; the opponent, who does have something to say and is not afraid to say it, is left embarrassed by the fact that there is only vacuum to say it to.

The outcome of the debate, or the lack of it, is prepared for by the original description of the lovely old rectory, with its bow window, deep-turfed lawn, and Virginia creeper, lying ‘close to the church of which it was the fitting companion’, with the author's mischievous comment that it was ‘one of those rectories which are among the bulwarks of our venerable institutions—which arrest disintegrating doubt, serve as a double embankment against Popery and Dissent, and rally feminine instinct and affection to reinforce the decisions of masculine thought’. Fortunately, the bulwark itself is so impressive in appearance that when ‘the decisions of masculine thought’ are dispensed with altogether, no one seems to notice the difference.

Contrary to those who see the abandonment of the debate as one of the ‘comic possibilities which are never in fact realized’,5 I find it an excellent comic effect as it stands. Moreover, it prepares for the final episode of the book, since Rufus's appearance to give testimony for Dissent in the debate is a prelude to his appearance to give testimony at Felix's trial. He is a faithful friend and pastor to the young man over the objections of his congregation, which sees no Christian principle involved because Felix is not one of them (so much for the Good Samaritan!), and blames Felix because it feels implicated in the riot which is bound to be discussed at the trial.

Rufus's heart is ‘bruised’ for his defence of Felix, but this is appropriate treatment from his sect for one who has transcended sectarianism, that egoism in the collective. Rufus lives heroically, not only by the criteria of the great Dissenters by which he measures himself, but also according to the Comtean criteria of George Eliot's world. When asked at the trial whether Felix is one of his congregation, his answer indicates that he has recognised the spiritual continuity that transcends particular historical traditions, even if, to Eliot's mind, he catches the continuity by the wrong end and thinks of Felix's modern, secular virtue as issuing into the historical church, instead of the other way round.

And so to the issue of Felix's radicalism. When Felix in the 1830s can discount the Chartist platform and declare that he is not interested in whether the Radical candidate gets elected, he is not the sort of person that a member of the Labour Party would want to count among the political ancestors. Felix's politics (and George Eliot's) suffer, it has been asserted, from the ‘tendency to value the purely moral above the merely social’, and to believe that ‘far-flung corporate matters can be solved by a “change of heart,” by starting from individual selves, or by setting up an abstraction the pursuit of which is supposed to be mankind's way of getting forward’.6

To defend Felix's radicalism in these circumstances is to become an exponent of George Eliot's political position, at least to the extent that this is necessary in describing the artistic unity of the novel. Without making the claim that George Eliot is a sophisticated political theorist or analyst of political structures, the literary critic can still give her credit for the coherent political viewpoint represented in Felix Holt as a character and in the action of the novel. Felix's iconoclastic style is epitomised in his treatment of the family patent medicines, something that his mother will never give over lamenting. ‘Are the pills good for people?’ was the only question that Felix asked; and since they were not, he threw them out, regardless of revenue, family piety, or the ‘dread of appearing ridiculous’ in admitting the fraud. Thereafter, through the novel, we see various characters put to the test in a situation comparable to that of Felix with the pills. In Harold's case, it is a matter of deciding whether electioneering by way of treating the miners is ‘good for people’. Does it do what it purports to do? If not, it is fraudulent. By the time that Harold gives evidence at the trial, he is in a position to see the element of fraud in his own campaign as a Reform candidate, dedicated to ‘rooting out abuses’. In the hands of the unreformed Jermyn and Johnson, it has led directly to the brutalisation of the electorate and to mob violence.

Harold's conclusion is presumably that, if one wants to be practical and get oneself into a position of more power, one must make some moral compromises, even as a Radical. Felix, who had put the picture together earlier and warned Harold about the likely consequences of the treating, had drawn the opposite conclusion: if one wants to maintain moral integrity, one had better not jockey for a position of power, even as a Radical leader. The two conclusions seem to be equally logical; and it is a matter of character as to whether it will seem more important to hold on to power or to moral integrity.

Felix's decision in favour of moral integrity makes him, as has been said, not a radical at all in the political sense. He is, as he says at one point, more ‘radical’ than that. What he has come up with is a radical critique of the political and economic process. He will stay out of the push and scramble, the buying and selling of people, in both spheres. Rather than a failed Francis Place, Felix might be regarded as a nineteenth-century version of the Lollard Piers Plowman (also an honest working man), or of those Egyptian hermits in late Antiquity so-called because they threw in their lot with the poor of the countryside as a social and moral protest. Felix himself, defining his radicalism as altogether secular, recognises nevertheless that the tradition includes Saint Theresa and Elizabeth Fry, and sends Esther a message from prison about espousing poverty as if he were a Franciscan. Trying to understand Esther's view of Felix, Harold suggests that Felix is ‘quite an apostolic sort of fellow’.

The ‘Gothic’ head of Felix brings another train of associations, and implies the affinity between Felix and Rufus Lyon. This is not Castle of Otranto Gothic, but the ‘Gothic’ of Milton and his contemporaries, invoking an original Germanic stock, strong, freedom loving and republican, a norm against which to judge the tyranny and servility of the present age, and by which to purge the Constitution of the abuses inherited from the invader William and his feudal lords. Felix asserts the ‘Gothic liberties’ and rights that Milton defended—liberties retrieved, so Whig orthodoxy insisted, in the Settlement of 1688, but older than that Settlement and capable of being invoked against it.7 Felix's perspective on privilege in the state is matched by Rufus's opinion of the privileged choir in the congregation:

[Their] special office it is to lead the singing, not because they are more disposed to the devout uplifting of praise, but because they are endowed with better vocal organs, and have attained more of the musician's art. For all office, unless it be accompanied by peculiar grace, becomes, as it were, a diseased organ, seeking to make itself too much of a centre. Singers, specially so called, are, it must be confessed, an anomaly among us who seek to reduce the Church to its primitive simplicity, and to cast away all that may obstruct the direct communion of spirit with spirit.

(13: 240)

Rufus has no less perspicacity than Felix into fallen man and his institutions, but he has more tolerance of the situation, having understood how far he himself is implicated in the fall.

It is not that Felix disapproves of Reform at Duffield. He says, ‘Hear, Hear’, emphatically to the proposition that ‘the greatest question in the world is, how to give every man a man's share in what goes on in life’. He disagrees, however, that the Reform platform (universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and so on) will achieve that without a reformation of the national character, and insists that voting for Transome is no means to reform. If the political process and political representative are corrupt, no reform worth the name will have been achieved. Accordingly, Felix's own speech at Duffield fixes for its most telling point on the character of Harold's political agents.

Felix's point is borne out in the action of the book not only when the mob riots, but when Harold himself discovers that the men whom he has employed as his agents are as capable of using him as he them, and that the candidacy which he had undertaken in order to gain more power has put him in the power of the political professionals. Jermyn and Johnson work by manipulation and blackmail, against the other candidates, against each other, against their employer if necessary—and they find the means to blackmail Harold by investigating his family's claim to Transome Court. Harold can outplay men like this only at the risk of losing his own integrity. In the last confrontation, when Harold is rendered powerless by Jermyn's last weapon, the assertion of his paternity, the horror for Harold consists in the realisation of how much like his father he has become.

The legal manoeuvrings in the nineteenth century reveal an earlier set of legal manoeuvrings in the eighteenth and so back, presumably, to infinity. As long as land, property, and power have been maintained, it has been by means of such manipulation—which is Felix's point about the pushing and scrambling. The critic who complains that ‘the law, which dominate[s] the plot, is never itself given any serious moral or historical consideration’, such as Dickens gave to the law in a similar situation in Bleak House,8 has failed to take account of the thematic ironies involved.

How far Felix is ‘ineffectual’ is a question that the book constantly reconsiders by new criteria and perspectives. The subject is taken up when Felix is awaiting trial for manslaughter in the course of the riot he had failed to control. Esther's mention of the prospect of failure is, he admits, a ‘dreadfully inspired’ temptation, but he has now seen through that word failure. One must simply do what one believes in and refuse to accept effect as the criterion of value: ‘I'd rather have the minimum of effect, if it's of the sort I care for, than the maximum of effect I don't care for’—a remark we recognise as a description of the differences between Felix's ‘ineffectualness’ and Harold's. All the same, Felix has decided to limit the possibilities of failure. He doesn't intend to be illustrious and shape a new era, but only to do small things, and those by way of proving a point of the utmost importance for the working classes: namely, that ‘there's some dignity and happiness for a man other than changing his station’.

The riot in Treby Magna has changed his mind about the most appropriate expression of his radical vision. Partly, he has been led to the scene of the riot by the desire to distract himself from the thought of Esther. The recognition of his motive and the comparative failure of his intervention in the riot point him now towards a quieter, more domestic version of radical activity and an acknowledgement of his love for Esther. He has accepted what might be called the Reformation version of the Franciscan style, where the counterculture begins not with the celibate lay friar but with the community of husband and wife. Felix's purging of motives, his undertaking of a full human life, even if obscure, need not be seen as an abdication from politics. In the long run, judging from the history of those who have been invoked, (Saint Francis, John the Baptist, and the original ‘apostolic sort of fellows’), such a life might prove to be the most powerful threat to the Jermyns and Johnsons and the politics of corruption. Milton in Paradise Regained and Bunyan in the episode of Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim's Progress had made this point; Eliot wants to leave it open as least as a possibility that the meek may inherit the earth.

Having described Felix's radicalism, one comes to the vexed question of whether its implications are carried through in Esther's decision, or whether that decision shows some unrelated ‘personal preference’ on Esther's part; whether, in short, the resolution is any resolution at all, and the novel can be said to continue to the end according to a unifying design. Felix's political judgement is more radical than most, because it goes beyond political labels to test the character of people and institutions, and Esther's judgement is similarly ‘radical’ in the deliberation of her marriage choice. The defect that Felix had observed in Harold's political campaign, Esther observes in Harold's dealings in his own family, even with his mother. The handsome, agreeable Harold invariably pursues his own objectives, using and discarding people like commodities. His most sincere attempt to commend his own sensibility constitutes the worst incrimination, when he assures Esther of the value he sets upon her, far beyond that other woman, Harry's mother, who ‘had been a slave—was bought, in fact’. Shades of the Giaour! Esther's insight is that it is Harold, the aristocrat, who is mercenary and ‘vulgar’, and Felix, the working man, who is ‘noble’. The words, with all their class connotation, are intended, I think, to be taken seriously. Esther's realisation of the moral corruption that obtains in Transome Court carries the implication that the class structure somehow subverts the true order of society. As the seventeenth-century radicals said, the world has been ‘turned upside down’.

She has arrived at this perception also in aesthetic terms. In court, she has noted the ‘striking contrast’ between Harold and Felix: Harold ‘like a handsome portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence’; Felix like a sculpture from ‘the later Roman period, when the plastic impulse was stirred by the grandeur of barbaric forms’. Her original notion of beauty had been satisfied by the elegant turn of her ankle, by her laces, gloves, and flattering blues, all of which would have qualified her to be the figure complementary to Harold in a Lawrence portrait. Now she has come to appreciate in Felix not merely the beautiful but the sublime. The ‘barbaric grandeur’ of Felix, his ‘massive frame’ and ‘Gothic head’, suggest that style (‘sublime’, ‘Gothic’, ‘Michaelangelesque’) which Blake had pitted against the Academy's beautiful and effete; and, as with Blake, the contrast has political reference. The Academy style flatters (and is supported by) the aristocracy that wields political power secured in the Settlement of 1688; the ‘sublime’, however, invokes the heroic, even godlike, man (Eliot, like Blake, uses the Miltonic phrase ‘Human Face Divine’), beyond class distinction and potentially subversive of it.

This new ‘vision of hers, which makes things hitherto great look mean’, had been confirmed by Felix in prison. When he talked of the need to do what one believes in, regardless of the ‘effect’ on the world, and declared that it would jar his nature to hold on to certain fine things ‘while the world is what it is’, his words ‘at last seemed strangely to fit her own experience’. What follows from this clarification of judgement is the courage to act upon it, first when she stands up to testify for Felix in court, and then when she decides that, whether or not Felix loves her, she will of her own accord leave Transome Court with its mercenariness, luxury, and misery, forget any claim upon the Bycliffe Transome estate, and go back to a poorer but more livable life with her father in Malthouse Yard.

Even V. S. Pritchett underestimates the self-realisation to which Eliot leads Esther Lyon, mistaking it for a kind of utilitarianism. Impressed by the Victorian analogy between moral and economic improvement, he finds Esther in her urge to ‘self-improvement’ to be ‘impelled by the competitive reforming ethic of an expanding society’; for ‘George Eliot writes at a time when Fortune has been torn down, when the earned increment of industry … has taken Fortune's place; and when character is tested not by hazard but, like the funds, by a measurable tendency to rise and fall’.9 What Pritchett overlooks is that Eliot deplores the tendency for the economy of money and character to coincide, and she is among the foremost critics of that commercialised version of the doctrine of Providence that expected prosperity in this world to be a sign of election. When Pritchett proceeds to generalise from Esther Lyon's case that ‘in all the mid-Victorian novels the characters are either going up in the world, in which case they are good; or they are going down in the world in which case they are bad’, he overlooks the fact that in the present novel Eliot's point was exactly the opposite; for, after much of the book has been given to the exposure of just what kind of character it takes for Jermyn and Johnson to ‘go up’ in the world, Esther does right to turn down that consummate ‘man of the world’, Harold Transome, and choose instead Felix Holt, who has decided not to ‘go up’ in the world on any terms but to remain a working man all his life.

Equally mistaken is the complaint that the resolution of the novel does not hold because ‘at the trial, as throughout almost all the latter part of the novel, the actual implications of Felix's Radicalism are lost sight of’, and that it is merely ‘to his “nobility” that Esther testifies at his trial, not his principles: what she gives him is a high-grade character-reference’.10 Partly, this comment underestimates the significance of Esther's giving Felix a ‘high-grade character-reference’, when most enterprises in the novel, personal and political, are shown to have foundered precisely on defect of character; partly, it fails to appreciate the nature of Felix's radical vision; and partly, it has not taken into account how far Esther, through her own experience, comes to share that vision.

One might test the claim for structural unity in the novel in another fashion, by picking up Fred Thomson's suggestion of reading it as a tragedy in Aeschylean style. In the Agamemnon and the Transome part of Felix Holt Thomson saw a similar ‘controlling theme of “hereditary, entailed Nemesis” that collides with “the peculiar individual lot”’, Mrs Transome and Harold being each one the victim but also the perpetuator of Nemesis. But since most of the novel could not be accounted for in terms of the Agamemnon, Thomson concluded that it was largely a failure.11 In the Oresteia, however, Eliot had a model not only for the impact of Nemesis in the Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, but also for the transcendence of Nemesis in The Eumenides, when Athena vindicates Orestes and upholds the superiority of the new order of Apollo over the old order represented by the Furies and Clytemnestra's ghost.

Mrs Transome will do very well for Clytemnestra, having taken the mediocre Jermyn (for Aegisthus) as her lover and the administrator of the estate, and killed her husband, at least in spirit. When her son, returning after many years of absence, treats her with a deadly indifference, she comes to wish that he had never been born. Like Clytemnestra's ghost, she lives in gloom, pounces on Jermyn like a Fury, and stalks the house at night seeking comfort.

Equally, Esther will do very well as Athena, her testimony for Felix in court providing the climax of the drama, as does Athena's judgement for Orestes. Like the goddess deciding between the two orders represented by Clytemnestra's Furies and Apollo, Esther chooses over the corruption of the Transomes the ‘Apollonian’ principle represented by Felix with his vision of a better humanity. Like Athena she qualifies to be the judge because she herself participates in both orders, being like Mrs Transome a woman, yet intellectually her father's child. Before she leaves Transome Court, however, she embraces Mrs Transome, lays her down to rest, and gives her the reconciliation with her son for which she longs—as Athena, having judged against the Furies, gives them rest and reverence within the new city.

In the Oresteia, the young women of the first two parts, Cassandra and Elektra, are the victims of Nemesis; they are succeeded in the third part by the goddess whose apotheosis means that the curse can be dispelled—or, to be more precise, can be contained and made innocuous within a wider experience. In the novel, Esther too is a potential victim, her initial values and self-image being very much like those of the young Mrs Transome. But it is the other possibility that triumphs when Esther finds the courage to be a witness for Felix at his trial, and thereafter the temptations offered by Harold and Transome Court are innocuous. Esther too has her apotheosis (when she stands up to give testimony, it is ‘as if a vibration, quick as light, had gone through the court’), but, being no goddess, she has come by her apotheosis and discernment only by experience and self-criticism.

This is not to imply that the Oresteia is the exclusive model for Eliot's novel, though the comparison points to the kind of structural unity that Eliot achieves in Felix Holt. A comparison with Paradise Lost would also hold, and one wonders why Thomson failed to consider the constructive influence of Shakespeare, whom Eliot was also reading in this period. Ultimately the unity of the novel is of the Shakespearean kind, where thematic and imagistic continuities run between plot and subplot, between tragic characters and comic ones, and where scenes of high drama among the principal characters may be offset by scenes in the tap room where lowly folk can comment on the issues in their own style.

In claiming a structural unity for Felix Holt, I am not assuming that the book is flawless. Most readers are dissatisfied with the ending and particularly with the cloying tone of those final passages where, in the courtroom, an ardour of spirit burns ‘in the bosom of sweet Esther Lyon’; where Esther and Felix hold hands and ‘look straight into each other's eyes, as angels do when they tell some truth’; or when she answers him ‘with a laugh as sweet as the morning thrush’. But an appreciation of the architectonic unity of the book suggests a different reason for this failure of tone. It is not that the book has fallen apart by this time and that Eliot has recourse to romantic stuffing. The problem is the opposite one. Plot and theme have come together all too well.

The heroine, once a denizen of Vanity Fair, has since become a pilgrim of the spirit, proceeding by the ‘illuminations’ that she gains from her father's life and Felix's, wrestling with the temptations of Transome Court and overcoming them to the point where she provides an illumination of her own in her appearance in court, and will accept nothing less in her life or her husband than a ‘high enthusiasm’. The problem is that the heroine now sees as the author sees—and the controlling irony is withdrawn. Eliot is as uncritical of Esther's final situation as is Esther herself. She has told us that Esther is one of those women ‘whose fulness of perfection must be in marriage’, and that her rightful choice is the man who is nobler than herself. Esther, doing better than Rufus Lyon or Arabella Transome, selects the marriage partner in whom her love and judgement concur. (‘In this, at least, her woman's lot was perfect: that the man she loved was her hero; that her woman's passion and her reverence for rarest goodness rushed together in an undivided current.’) The marriage-choice which gives unity to Esther's life also gives unity to the novel. But this is a phenomenon disconcerting to the reader who does not want a novel to be built like a morality play and prefers the ending that is problematic.

All one can say here is that Eliot is her own best critic. From Felix Holt she proceeded to Middlemarch, taking up the story of Dorothea Brooke, who believes that her spiritual fulfilment is to be found in giving herself in marriage to someone nobler than herself. Esther's ‘truth’ has become Dorothea's illusion. That marvellous irony of George Eliot's will not be stunned by any illumination for long.


  1. I am grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for the Fellowship that allowed me to write this paper. Quotations are taken from Felix Holt, ed. Peter Coveney (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972).

  2. F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (London: Chatto & Windus, 1948), 50-61.

  3. Fred C. Thomson, ‘The Genesis of Felix Holt’, PMLA, 74 (1959), 576-84.

  4. Arnold Kettle sees the initial symmetry of action between ‘the Transome area’ and ‘the Lyon-Holt area’, but considers that from about the twelfth chapter the novel deteriorates because it loses sight of the issue of Felix's radicalism. He assumes that Felix is the protagonist. (Arnold Kettle, ‘Felix Holt, the Radical’, Critical Essays on George Eliot, ed. Barbara Hardy [New York: Barnes & Noble; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970], pp. 99-115.) David Carroll, who carries through to the end of the novel the parallels between Harold and Felix and sees Esther placed in the position of choosing between them, is still so far bound to the conventional reading that he finds Esther's final choice of Felix an ‘anti-climax’ and considers that in the last third of the novel she has ‘usurped’ the ‘central position’ of the ‘titular hero’ and thrown the novel off balance! (David R. Carroll, ‘Felix Holt: Society as Protagonist’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 17 (1962), 237-52, rep. in George Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George R. Creeger [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970], pp. 124-40.)

    Writing more recently, Laura Emory asserts the centrality of Esther's role throughout the novel and the significance of her choice between Rufus Lyon and Mrs Transome as a parent, but Emory's doggedly Freudian interpretation causes her to underestimate, in particular, the constructive role of Rufus Lyon. (Laura Comer Emory, George Eliot's Creative Conflict: The Other Side of Silence [Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1976], 107 ff.)

    A balanced view of the structure of the novel had been presented by Jerome Thale in The Novels of George Eliot (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), and Peter Coveney in his Introduction to the Penguin edition has made a convincing case for the unity of Felix Holt in terms of Eliot's poetic and political vision.

  5. See, e.g. W. J. Harvey, The Art of George Eliot (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961), pp. 131-4.

  6. David Craig, ‘Fiction and the Rising Industrial Classes’, Essays in Criticism, 17 (1967), 64-75.

  7. For an account of the assertion of ‘Gothic liberties’, see Samuel Kliger, The Goths in England: A Study in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952).

  8. Kettle, op. cit., 107.

  9. V. S. Pritchett, The Living Novel (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), p. 90.

  10. Kettle, op. cit., pp. 108 ff.

  11. Fred C. Thomson, ‘Felix Holt and Classical Tragedy’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 16 (1961), 47-58.

Lyn Pykett (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6033

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 and Anarchy ‘in the task of redefining the relationship between what is and what ought to be’.1

Certainly George Eliot periodically strikes a distinctly Arnoldian note in letters written during the period of the gestation and writing of Felix Holt; for example, in the Arnoldian ennui which colours her thumbnail sketch of the ‘strange disease of modern life’ for Barbara Bodichon.

You will find the English world extremely like what it was when you left it—conversation more or less trivial and insincere, literature just now not much better, and politics worse than either.

(GEL [George Eliot Letters] IV, p. 236)2

The impatience with politics takes a particularly Arnoldian form in a speculation on the likely outcome of Mill's candidacy in the forthcoming General Election.

I am not anxious that Mill should be in Parliament: Thinkers can do more outside than inside the House. But it would have been a fine precedent and would have made an epoch, for such a man to have been asked for and elected solely on the ground of his mental eminence

(GEL, IV, 196, my emphasis).

The preference for thinking rather than doing, the suspicion of practical politics and the construction of a clerisy of persons of ‘mental eminence’ operating diffusely ‘outside the House’ are obviously all issues which Arnold developed in the essays which were to become Culture and Anarchy and they are all important themes in Felix Holt. Although the ‘politics’ of Felix Holt have been subjected to much discussion since the novel's publication its ultimate concerns, like Arnold's in Culture and Anarchy, are extra-political, even anti-political.

Catherine Gallagher has suggested that the Arnoldian project of Felix Holt, with its search for and assertion of a ‘transcendent realm of values and ultimate meanings’ demanded ‘major rhetorical shifts’ (p. 378). While Gallagher's interest is in the drift away from metonymic realism that results from these shifts, my concern is with another of the ‘formal consequences’ she lists:

certain imbalances and contradictions … abrupt changes in narrative tone … a large number of discursive passages that often resemble self-parodies.

(p. 379)3

On closer scrutiny these abrupt changes of narrative tone and the self-parodying discursive passages would appear to be not simply a consequence of the Arnoldian project of Felix Holt, but rather an integral part of that project; they are themselves Arnoldian strategies.

In his Times review E.S. Dallas noted that George Eliot's new novel was characteristically ‘full of mellow wisdom and … sharp incisive remarks’.4 Less characteristically, perhaps, in Felix Holt the narrator's ‘mellow wisdom’ and ‘sharp incisiveness’ are discontinuous; they are discrete modes of apprehension each with its own ‘voice’. The narrator of Felix Holt seems to lack that simple, unproblematic ‘warmth and immediacy’ that most contemporary readers and many subsequent critics have found in George Eliot's early novels, in which the narrator is held to have a unified personality, a single voice, ‘an active presence, imposing on us personal memories and nostalgia, moving physically into a scene’.5 Certainly this latter voice, or a transformed version of it, is resonantly present in Felix Holt and, as I hope to show, it gains in dominance as the narrative progresses. However, this voice of wisdom (mellow or otherwise) is not the only narratorial voice; it co-exists with, or more correctly, establishes itself against an alternative voice which enunciates a variety of shifting and conflicting points of view, and whose tones are more sharply incisive in the self-conscious manner of the essayist who satirised silly novels by lady novelists, or who castigated other-worldliness in the poet Young.

The sharply incisive voice dominates the first chapters of the novel; except when Rufus Lyon is the focus of attention, the predominant narratorial tone is archly ironic, as virtually every section of the community in the novel is subjected to ironic or satiric scrutiny. The narrator of the Introduction, for example, is urbane and witty—a chameleon, adopting now the persona of the elderly man with ‘his enviable memories’, now the eyes of a hypothetical stage-coach passenger, now the voice of Sampson the Coachman. The contemporary reviewer might eulogise at length the ‘charm’ of George Eliot's depiction of ‘the Midland homesteads’,6 but only by ignoring the disturbing effects of the abrupt changes of tone and point of view. The world ‘observed’ in the Introduction is one of division and potential conflict, unified only by the ‘Virgilian’ or ‘Wordsworthian’ storytelling of Sampson, or by the observing eye of the anonymous stage-coach passenger and the vision which the narrator projects onto him.

The passenger on the box could see that this was the district of protuberant optimists, sure that Old England was the best of all possible countries, and that if there were any facts which had not fallen under their own observation, they were facts not worth observing.7

Here a sleight of hand, which leaves the narrator's equanimity undisturbed and enables him to evade the problem of confronting directly the implications of what he says, translates the ‘trim cheerful villages’, described earlier, into repositories of Philistine Podsnappery, possessed of a potentially dangerous complacency when contrasted with the blackened industrial villages whose populace was ‘not convinced that Old England was as good as possible’ (p. 79).

The Midlands of the Introduction, like the England of Culture and Anarchy, is a divided society of self-enclosed groups of Barbarians, Philistines and Populace; it is ‘described’ by a narrator who is distanced from each of those groups by means of an Arnoldian magisterial tone, by the adoption of different points of view, and a self-conscious display of irony and erudition. A similar rhetorical strategy is employed in the brief ‘history’ of Treby in Chapter 3, where all sections and phases of Treby life are presented and undercut in tones of lofty amusement. The ‘Old-fashioned, grazing, brewing, wool-packing, cheese-loading life of Treby’ is presented as affable and uncomplicated but naive and mildly hypocritical, while modern Treby is much the same except more complicated and more muddled:

The Catholic Emancipation Bill opened the eyes of neighbours, and made them aware how very injurious they were to each other and to the welfare of mankind generally. Mr. Tiliot, the church spirit-merchant, knew now that Mr. Nuttwood, the obliging grocer, was one of those Dissenters, Deists, Socinians, Papists and Radicals, who were in league to destroy the constitution … Thus Treby Magna … began at last to know the higher pains of a dim political consciousness.

(pp. 127-8)

Here the tone resembles that superior voice of the ironic man of letters which George Eliot frequently employs in her essays, and both the tone and the substance echo the Arnoldian attack on muddled thinking found in the review of Lecky which she wrote while working on Felix Holt:

The general reader of the present day … likes an undefined Christianity which opposes itself to nothing in particular, an undefined education of the people, an undefined amelioration of all things: in fact he likes sound views … something between the excesses of the past and the excesses of the present … His only bigotry is a bigotry against any clearly defined opinion … The one thing he is staunch for is, the utmost liberty of private haziness.8

The ironic tone of the Arnoldian essayist is employed whenever the provincial world is anatomised, and it is usually the vehicle of an Arnoldian class analysis. No class is exempt from the narrator's ironic scrutiny: it can take the form of the anthropological superiority of the traveller into unknown England who describes the Cross Keys;

One way of getting an idea of our fellow-countrymen's miseries is to go and look at their pleasures.

(p. 373)

Alternatively, it is expressed in a studied rhetorical symmetry;

It was generally understood that ‘these brave fellows’ representing the fine institution of benefit clubs, and holding aloft the motto, ‘Let brotherly love continue’, were a civil force calculated to encourage voters of sound opinions and keep up their spirits. But a considerable number of unadorned heavy navvies, colliers, and stone-pit men, who used their freedom as British subjects to be present in Treby on this great occasion, looked like a possibly uncivil force. …

(p. 408)

As in the Treby riots, this passage raises the Arnoldian spectre of the Great British Public not simply exercising ‘that freedom of conjecture which is one of our inalienable privileges as Britons’, which the narrator has already ironically invoked, but rather demonstrating that dangerously anarchic tendency of the working class to,

assert an Englishman's heaven-born privilege of doing as he likes, which is beginning to perplex us by marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling where it likes, breaking what it likes.9

When the Barbarians are the target the ironic narrator aspires to a metaphoric vigour which owes a great deal to the Dickens of Bleak House:

a man of Sir Maximus's rank is like those antediluvian animals whom the system of things condemned to carry such a huge bulk that they really could not inspect their bodily appurtenance, and had no conception of their own tails; their parasites doubtless had a merry time of it, and often did extremely well when the high-bred saurian himself was ill at ease … Sir Maximus, as everyone said, was a gentleman of the right sort … willing to endure some personal inconvenience in order to keep up the institutions of the country, to maintain his hereditary establishment, and to do his duty in that station of life—the station of the long-tailed saurian—to which it had pleased Providence to call him.

(pp. 182-3)

Here the narrator adopts first the perspective of the natural historian, then that of the social commentator who participates in a consensus as to what constitutes ‘a gentleman of the right sort’, and finally the natural historian and the social commentator merge to establish an ironic perspective which undercuts both the consensus and Sir Magnus's self-image. The shifting perspectives and the highly mannered tones of the ironic narratorial voice enable the narrator to proclaim his own superiority to, and distance from, the class-divided world he describes; his tones lay claim to a privileged impartiality, an Arnoldian disinterestedness. In taking up this superior rhetorical position which places him outside of society the narrator occupies a position very similar to that of Arnold's class alien who is ‘led, not by … class spirit, but by a general humane spirit’ (C & A p. 109) who, by implication, sees things ‘as in themselves they really are’ and sees them steadily and whole. This particular form of narratorial privilege is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than when the narrator claims the privilege of hindsight and the authority of history to undercut the reforming zeal of ‘our Liberal practitioners’,

At that time, when faith in the efficacy of political change was at fever-heat in ardent Reformers, many measures which men are still discussing with little confidence on either side, were talked about and disposed of like property in near reversion. Crying abuses … had to be fought against and slain. Such a time is a time of hope. Afterwards when the corpses of those monsters have been held up to the public wonder and abhorrence and yet wisdom and happiness do not follow … comes a time of doubt and despondency.

(p. 271)

The privileged ironic voice and its shifting viewpoints work to expose the warts of all sections of society and to undermine the reader's stock responses, those responses of class or habit which Arnold so disparages. This universal scepticism about the practices and aspirations of all sections of society is presumably one reason for Blackwood's admiration of the novel's politics: ‘Her politics are excellent and it will attract all parties’ (GEL, IV, 247). Lewes also saw the ability to ‘attract all parties’ as one of the novel's great strengths, when recommending it to Blackwood:

The political tone is as dramatic and impartial as her tone has been in all her writings, and the fact of the story moving in political scenes … will only render it more interesting to all parties.

(GEL, VIII, p. 373)

While Frederic Harrison claimed to have evidence that the novel could not only interest all parties but that it could please them and even be appropriated by any number of distinct interest groups:

public, critics, and people of sense have come to agree … that this is the most complete delightful and abiding thing they have yet had and each party and school are determined to see their own side in it—the religious people, the non-religious people, the various sections of religious people, the educated, the simple, the radicals, the Tories, the socialists, the intellectual reformers, the domestic circle, the critics, the metaphysicians, the artists, the Positivists, the squires, are all quite convinced that it has been conceived from their own point of view.

(GEL, IV, p. 285)

Harrison's analysis suggests a text of almost disabling pluralism. It is, to say the least, difficult to conceive of a ‘politics’, particularly a practical politics, which could be so comprehensive as to be acceptable to all the groups Harrison lists. Although the emphasis which these three readers place on impartiality and consensus is in one sense no more than the classic pluralism of liberal humanism, it also has a particular contemporary significance. Parties and factions were among the most serious enemies of Arnold's Culture, and it was in an Arnoldian spirit of anti-factionalism that the Fortnightly Review was established in 1865. Lewes's prospectus for the Fortnightly, published in March 1865 just as George Eliot had begun work on her new novel, throws interesting light on the impartial politics of Felix Holt.

It will address the cultivated readers of all classes … and it is hoped that the latitude which will be given to the expression of individual opinion may render it acceptable to a very various public … In discussing … questions that have an agitating influence, and admit diversity of aspects—questions upon which men feel deeply and think variously—two courses are open to an effective journal: either to become the organ of a Party … or to withdraw itself from all such limitations, and rely on the extensive force to be gained from a wide and liberal range … the purpose will be that of aiding Progress in all directions. The REVIEW will be liberal, and its liberalism so thorough as to include great diversity of individual opinion within its catholic unity of purpose. This is avowedly an experiment. National culture and public improvement really take place through very various means … we shall endeavour to further the cause of Progress by illumination from many minds … satisfied if we can secure the higher uniformity which results from the constant presence of sincerity and talent.

(GEL, VIII, pp. 335-6)

The Fortnightly Review was thus a self-proclaimed intervention in a criticism which had become, as Terry Eagleton suggests, ‘a locus of political contention rather than a terrain of critical consensus’. Lewes's privileging of ‘diversity’, ‘liberalism’ ‘Progress’ and ‘National culture’ can be seen as part of a mid-century ‘attempt to rescue criticism and literature from … squalid political infighting … constituting them instead as transcendental forms of knowledge’.10 The project of Felix Holt would seem to be very similar to that of the Fortnightly; indeed, Eagleton's analysis of George Eliot's realism could suggest that her whole realist enterprise involves the same ideological project as the Fortnightly,

Realism, as Eliot conceives of it, involves the tactful unravelling of interlaced processes, the equitable distribution of authorial sympathies, the holding of competing values in precarious equipoise. the ‘general’ ideological correlative of this textual ideology is, naturally, liberal reformism.11

In Felix Holt the sharply incisive tones of the ironic narratorial voice strike against factional interest, and provide some of the ‘diversity’ and ‘latitude’ which ‘may render it acceptable to a very various public’. At the same time Felix Holt seeks to further ‘culture’ and ‘public improvement’ and to aid ‘Progress in all directions’. One of the vehicles of this latter enterprise is a second narratorial voice which accompanies and displaces the ironic voice; this second voice is the voice of the class alien perfected, the voice of wisdom, of culture, of the ‘best self’—‘united, impersonal at harmony’ (C & A p. 95), a voice motivated by ‘that religious and moral sympathy with the historical life of man which is the larger half of culture’ (GEL, IV, 97). This voice seeks to articulate a unified set of values to fill the vacuum created by the disparate points of view of the ironic voice and by the anarchy of Treby (and national) social life; it is a voice from which irony is self-consciously expunged.

The voice of culture or the best self is first heard introducing Rufus Lyon, who is described with affection and who is required by the narrative to suffer but not to change.

At the first glance, everyone thought him a very odd-looking rusty old man; the free-school boys often hooted after him, and called him ‘Revelations’; and to many respectable church people, old Lyon's little legs and large head seemed to make dissent additionally preposterous. But he was too short-sighted to notice those who tittered at him—too absent from the world of small facts and petty impulses in which titterers live.

(p. 131)

The slight hint of irony attached to Rufus is displaced on to others, notably the young and the trivial, while Rufus and the narrator are sublimely above the pettiness which could find the minister amusing. In a later passage irony is explicitly dismissed as an entirely inappropriate mode of apprehending ‘the good Rufus’; the narrator self-consciously banishes the ‘cynical sprite’ who,

may have made himself merry at the illusions of the little minister … I confess to smiling myself … but I never smiled at Mr. Lyon's trustful energy without falling to penitence and veneration immediately after. For what we call illusions are often, in truth, a wider vision of past and present realities—a willing movement of a man's soul with the larger sweep of the world's forces—a movement towards a more assured end than the chances of a single life.

(p. 276)

I quote this well-known passage at length because its rhetorical strategies bear fresh scrutiny. The narrator moves from the possibility of irony to a self-proclaimed and self-validated ‘reverence’ for a particular individual and from thence to an authoritative pronouncement about life in general. This authoritative or gnomic force is a persistent feature of the voice of the best self and it confers an even greater privilege on the narrator than did those ironic strategies I discussed earlier. This authority is partly a matter of tone, for example: ‘It is terrible—the keen bright eye of a woman’ (p. 529), or, ‘When a woman feels purely and nobly …’ (p. 571), which rely for their force on the formula of the universally acknowledged human truth. Sometimes the authority of tone and the formula of the universally acknowledged human truth are accompanied by the suggestion of a validating traditional wisdom or a religious tradition:

Like all youthful creatures, Esther felt as if the present conditions of choice were final … It is only in that freshness of our time that the choice is possible which gives unity to life and makes the memory a temple where all relics and all votive offerings, all worship and all grateful joy, are an unbroken history sanctified by one religion.

(p. 551)

Sometimes the authority of tradition is converted, by the citing of chapter and verse, into the authority of history and the eternal vertities of ‘human nature’:

Even the patriarch Job, if he had been a gentleman of the modern West, would have avoided picturesque disorder and poetical laments … The harder problems of our life have changed less than our manners; we wrestle with the old sorrows but more decorously.

(p. 495)

On other occasions, as Arnold knew well, a lofty vagueness gives a greater rhetorical power,

Very slight words and deeds may have a sacramental efficacy, if we can cast our self-love behind us, in order to say or do them. And it has been well-believed through many ages that the beginning of compunction is the beginning of a new life.

(p. 246)

Here the general rhetorical force of the narrator and the employment of a quasi-religious language, which lead Frederic Harrison to compare the novel with In Memoriam (GEL, IV, p. 285), endows the rather weak formula ‘And it has been well-believed through many ages’, with all the authority of an historical tradition.

Clearly the ‘wise and tender sayings’, of George Eliot's narrators are always an important part of her novels' meanings. However, in Felix Holt the tones and ethos of the narrator are particularly important precisely because they are so intriguingly complex and shifting. A further reason for paying particularly close attention to the narratorial voice of Felix Holt might be to correct the distortions which have arisen from the critical tendency to regard Felix as the voice of the novel. Certainly Felix has a loud and powerful voice (more powerful, for example, than the ‘high and not strong voice’ of the radical speaker who precedes him on the hustings, and whose speech is equally impressive), however, Felix's is only one among the many voices in the novel that constitute the ‘present debate’.12 Blackwood's seduction of George Eliot into the political punditry of ‘The Address’13 has retrospectively conferred a perhaps exaggerated importance on Felix's political analysis; in the context of the whole novel, which foregrounds electoral corruption as endemic and epidemic, Felix's views on the undesirability of the extension of the franchise are made to appear to be of no great moment—as John Burrow has observed of the ‘disinterested’ philosophic legislators of British India, ‘when government is dirty it is easy to believe that to make it clean will virtually inaugurate the millennium’.14 The focus of this novel's analysis of contemporary society is primarily not political but moral; its interest is ultimately in personal not social relations, and Felix's major role is as a moral even a religious force. This view receives the full weight of the narrator's authority:

The first religious experience of Esther's life—the first self-questioning, the first voluntary subjection, the first longing to acquire the strength of greater motives and obey the more strenuous rule—had come to her through Felix Holt.

(p. 369)

Felix's voice has received a disproportionate attention, and he has been regarded simply as the author's mouthpiece, not only because of the ‘Address’, but also perhaps because he seems to speak only in a public voice. Felix addresses everyone, especially Esther, like a public meeting; he seems to lack a private voice and a personal perspective.

We seem to see almost nothing in this novel through Felix's eyes. The narrator takes up the perspective of almost every other major character. Felix we are repeatedly told, has a ‘high’ view of things; it is too high, apparently, for the narrator to reach.15

This is for the most part true, however, the narrator's occasional reporting of Felix's inner deliberations is worth examining; for example ‘the brief history’ Felix would have given of his relation with Esther:

He had thought a great deal of Esther with a mixture of strong disapproval and strong liking, which both together made a feeling the reverse of indifference; but he was not going to let her have any influence on his life … He was accustomed to observe himself. But very close and diligent looking at living creatures; even through the best microscope, will leave room for new and contradictory discoveries.

(p. 327)

The narrator's refusal to take Felix at his own valuation suggests that this character is not, in fact, ‘too high … for the narrator to reach’, and also raises questions as to whether Felix is, as some critics have suggested, a totally uncriticised figure ‘without struggle’, who ‘neither acknowledges complexity nor questions his own values’.16 Indeed one might argue that a character who failed to acknowledge complexity, and who lacked struggle and self-questioning would inevitably be criticised (Adam Bede) or marginalised (Caleb Garth) in a George Eliot novel, since complexity and struggle are integral to that ‘higher consciousness’ which the novels seek to promulgate. Certainly this novel and its narrator acknowledge complexity and subject Felix and his values to critical scrutiny; the history of Felix's relationship with Esther dramatises the struggle produced by the conflict of his ascetic other-worldliness and excessive reliance on rationality with an enlarging emotional experience. Moreover, in a novel which ultimately questions the adequacy of philosophic radicalism, Felix is criticised as a philosophic radical. His disregard for forms and traditions and his faith in the saving power of reason and education mark him as close kin to those heirs of the Enlightenment who, in John Burrow's slight caricature, believed that

man, freed at last from unreflecting subservience to immemorial customs and institutions, is about to take his future into his own hands and shape it, guided and instructed by science, in the image of rationality and justice17

The social plot of the novel serves to curtail Felix's optimism on these matters, while the love story plot demonstrates the inadequacy of his criteria.

In the passage quoted above, the narrator's taking up of Felix's perspective is primarily a means of taking up a perspective on Felix; it is an important distinction and one which does not apply in quite the same way in the case of Rufus and Esther Lyon where there is a tendency for the character's and the narrator's perspective to fuse. For example, while the narrator remains distanced from Rufus's manner and slightly absurd physical presence, he does not distance himself from Rufus's perspective on events or on the world at large. There is indeed some degree of conflation of the sagacious narrator's point of view with that of Rufus, as when Rufus responds in religious terms to Esther's new sympathy towards him:

Mr. Lyon regarded his narrative as … a revelation … of his own miserable weakness … But to Esther it seemed a revelation of another sort: her mind seemed suddenly enlarged by a vision of passion and struggle … Esther felt herself exalted … In that moment of supreme complex emotion one ray of the minister's joy was the thought, ‘Surely the work of grace is begun, in her—surely here is a heart that the lord hath touched.

(p. 354)

Rufus's, Esther's and the narrator's views of the nature and significance of what is happening coincide and the narrator speaks Rufus's language of spirituality. Indeed a few pages later the narrator uses the same language in propria persona.18

If, in the case of Rufus, it might be argued that the character appropriates the narrator to his own perspective, in Esther's case the process seems to be reversed. The narrator consistently slips from a dramatised version of Esther's consciousness into the reverential portentous tones of the narrator as best self. For example, when Esther is presented reflecting on her disturbing Sunday interview with Felix the narrator moves from reporting Esther's consciousness: ‘Had he yet reflected that he had behaved very rudely to her on Sunday … Did he want her to be heroic?’; through a transitional stage where the character's and the narrator's perspectives begin to coincide: ‘Her life was a heap of fragments, and so were her thoughts’: until Esther's point of view is completely appropriated by the narrator who pronounces:

Esther was beginning to lose her complacency at her own wit and criticism; to lose the sense of superiority in an awakening need for reliance on one whose vision was wider.


A more extreme example occurs following Esther's conciliatory visit to Felix in chapter 22. Esther's thoughts are given at some length in direct speech, after which the narrator slips briefly into reported consciousness before the final movement to authoritative interpretative pronouncement:

So fast does a little leaven spread within us—so incalculable is the effect of one personality on another.

(p. 327)

In both cases the narrator registers and endorses Esther's response not to Felix's particular beliefs but to the way in which he holds them; it is a response to a moral aura, summed up in the concept of ‘the highest gentlemanliness’ (p. 326), rather than an evaluation of a body of doctrine. In the last analysis the reader is required to respond to Felix in similar terms. Either directly, or through Rufus or Esther, the narrator solicits our approval of Felix's general moral force, whatever we might be inclined to think of his views on particular subjects. The ultimate source of authority in the novel is thus not the voice in which Felix speaks but the voices which speak Felix. These voices, as I have suggested, are the sharp, incisive, diagnostic voice of Arnoldian criticism revealing a world that is ‘separate, personal, at war’ (C & A p. 95); and the alternative ‘sage’ voice of the best self, speaking the language of the feelings, simultaneously evoking and invoking a shared moral and religious tradition. Together these voices work to depoliticise the novel; the first by marginalising, the second by moralising politics.

Terry Eagleton has argued that Felix Holt is a ‘self-contradictory’ work because it ‘centres’ an ideologically impotent pastoral image, Felix, ‘in an urban context which can only enforce its effective displacement’, and consequently,

The novel's ‘official’ project is in conflict with what it reveals:

Felix's ‘progressive’ political critique is no more than the idealist project of traditionalist values against the political itself.19

Eagleton's dismissive ‘no more than’ proceeds, of course, from his analysis of such a traditionalist liberal idealist ideology as historically doomed. On the contrary, Felix Holt, like other of George Eliot's novels, offers evidence of the elastic power of that ideology. The different voices and tones of this novel may disconcert the reader who comes to Felix Holt from Eliot's earlier novels, but its project is self-consistent. Felix Holt does not await an obliging twentieth century critic to perform the task of decentring, the novel itself decentres Felix and politics. Against the corrupt, ‘artificial’ constructs of the political the novel offers, largely through the mediation of the narrator, a naturalised cultural heritage of duty, vision, imagination, individual choice etc. which finds its most succinct expression in the Epigraph to chapter 41:

                                                  the soul can grow,
As embryos, that live and move but blindly,
Burst from the dark, emerge regenerate,
And lead a life of vision and of choice.

(p. 503)

The marginalisation of politics is central to the Arnoldian project of Felix Holt which, like Culture and Anarchy, suggests that ‘everything in our political life tends to hide from us that there is anything wiser than our ordinary selves’ (C & A pp. 117-8). The shifting narratorial voice of George Eliot's novel serves, on the one hand, to expose by means of irony the limitations of the ordinary self while, on the other hand, it seeks to reveal a higher wisdom through the poetic, sagacious voice of the best self. The abrupt changes of narrative tone can thus be seen not as stylistic infelicities or signs of ideological fracture,20 but as part of a complex process in which the social negativity of the ironic voice is juxtaposed with and ultimately displaced by the apparently more inclusive and positive social vision of the best self. In this respect George Eliot made a common cause with the other Victorian ‘sages’ who, as Terry Eagleton has recently suggested, made a ‘moral virtue out of historical necessity’ by turning to a concept (and a practice) of Literature which ‘sheds all political instrumentality to become the repository of a common human wisdom beyond the … historical’.21 It has been argued that this process involved George Eliot in the rejection of inductive realism which was to be continued by, among others, D.H. Lawrence.22 Similarly, George Eliot's moral and religious rhetoric leads her, as it was to lead Lawrence, towards the development of a complex narratorial voice with a disconcerting range of tones but dominated by the tone of visionary pronouncement grounded in a lost, vanishing or yet to be discovered spiritual tradition. For Arnold the guardian of this tradition, the ultimate arbiter of cultural authority, was the critic; for George Eliot, as for Lawrence, cultural authority derives in large measure from the authority of the authorial voice which speaks, ‘not idiomatically but universally, not in class accents but in human tones, which turns scornfully from an actual “mass” public and addresses itself instead to the People, to the future, to some potential mass political movement, to the Poetic Genius buried in every breast, to a community of transcendental subjects spectrally inscribed within the given social order’.23


  1. Catherine Gallagher, ‘The Failure of Realism: Felix Holt’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, 35 (1980), 372-84 p. 378 (subsequent page references to this article are usually given in the text). Arnold Kettle also compares Felix Holt and Culture and Anarchy as works which ‘make an illuminating example of the strengths and weaknesses of the high-minded mid-victorian intellectual’, in his essay in Critical Essays on George Eliot, ed. B. Hardy (London, 1970).

  2. All references to the letters are to Gordon Haight's edition [George Eliot Letters, 9 vols. (New Haven, Ct. and London, 1954-78).]

  3. In the essay referred to above (note 1.), Arnold Kettle notes an interesting example of an abrupt change of narrative tone at the end of the Introduction, where there is a ‘shift into an emotionally-charged tone aptly generalizing upon the secret sufferings of human kind’. he suggests that this shift is susceptible of various interpretation and that it indicates either that the narrator has moved ‘from the relative superficies of material development to the deeper mysteries of the human heart and its sorrow’ or ‘from a controlled objectivity to a vaguer and perhaps self-indulgent expression of an attitude of mind not altogether free of abstract generalization and the preacher's tone of voice’ (105-6).

  4. E. S. Dallas, The Times, (26 June, 1866), p. 6 quoted in George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, ed. David Carroll, (London 1971), p. 27.

  5. G. R. Stange, ‘The Voices of the Essayist’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, 35 (1980), 312-30, p. 328.

  6. John Morley, Saturday Review (16 June, 1866), quoted in George Eliot: the Critical Heritage, p. 722.

  7. Felix Holt, The Radical, ed. Peter Coveney (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 78. All subsequent page references are given in the text.

  8. The Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (London, 1963), p. 398.

  9. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. John Dover Wilson, (London, 1932 and 1960), p. 105. Subsequent references are given in the text.

  10. Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism (London, 1984), p. 39.

  11. Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (London, 1976), p. 114.

  12. John Blackwood, GEL [George Eliot Letters] IV p. 247.

  13. Essays of George Eliot pp. 415-30.

  14. J. W. Burrow, Evolution and Society: A Study of Victorian Social Theory, (Cambridge), 1966, p. 41.

  15. Catherine Gallagher, op. cit., p. 384.

  16. Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science (Cambridge, 1984), p. 116.

  17. J. W. Burrow, op. cit. p. 214.

  18. I refer to the passage already quoted ‘The first religious experience of her life …’ (p. 269). It is significant that the source of Esther's religious experience is unmistakably human; the narrator translates Rufus's language of spirituality into the Feuerbachian language of the religion of humanity.

  19. Criticism and Ideology, p. 116.

  20. The main sign of fracture in Felix Holt occurs, as so often in the nineteenth century novel, in its closure. The afterhistory with which the novel provides Felix, Esther and Rufus is a variation of that ‘functional emigration’ which Raymond Williams describes in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (London, 1970) which involves ‘the guiding of loved characters to a simpler and happier land’ (p. 89). The nature of the novel's resolution suggests the limitations of the means of its resolution; the narrator's refusal to name the place where the central trio make their new life is symptomatic of a radical discontinuity between the novel's dramatic present and the amorphous future it envisions. George Eliot is unable to place her characters in a recognizable form of social practice.

  21. The Function of Criticism, p. 41.

  22. Catherine Gallagher, op. cit., p. 384.

  23. The Function of Criticism, p. 43.

Philip Rogers (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6961

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 I was very stupid [he was then writing War and Peace], and I had completely forgotten it. It's a thing that needs to be translated, if it hasn't been translated. … I haven't finished it yet, and I'm afraid the ending will spoil it. My brother Seryozha gave it to me. Tell him that it's all true what he told me about the book—it has everything.”2

Plausible explanations of Tolstoj's admiration of Felix Holt and speculation as to Eliot's possible influence on Tolstoj have been advanced by Shoshana Knapp in her recent article on Tolstoj and Eliot.3 Although the novel deals with numerous topics relevant to the moral preoccupations of the converted Tolstoj, the primary basis of Tolstoj's enthusiastic response appears to have been Eliot's criticism of the coquetry and materialism of middle-class women, what Felix Holt terms “fine-ladyism.”4 Tolstoj's markings in his personal copy of the novel are almost exclusively confined to chapter 10, in which Felix scolds Esther Lyon in an attempt to convert her to a more serious outlook on life.5 (See Appendix.) Was Felix Holt a source of Tolstoj's ideas about the role of women? Tolstoj's markings provide a basis for discussing the possibility of Eliot's influence on Tolstoj as well as the broader subject of the nature, extent and origin of their apparent affinity.

Tolstoj's interest in Felix is not surprising; the vehement radical resembles the writer in many ways, both in his opinions and experience. He is, first of all, a radical by conversion from a life of debauchery. In revulsion from “making a hog of” himself in Glasgow, he looks “life fairly in the face to see what was to be done with it” (56). “The spawning of vice and hunger” in the slums convinces him that the purpose of life is “to help some one who needed it” (221-22). Skeptical of formal religions and conventional piety, he nonetheless accepts the truths to be found in the Bible and sees the relevance of religious belief to political action: “Teach any truth you can,” he tells Mr. Lyon, a dissenting minister, “whether it's in the Testament or out of it. It's little enough anybody can … drive into the skulls of a pence-counting, parcel-tying generation, such as mostly fill your chapels” (59). He wants to become “a demagogue of a new sort” (224), and conducts a school for the children of the poor. Critical of the hypocrisy and materialism of the middle classes, he refuses both to continue running the family business and to seek employment suited to his considerable education, preferring the simple labor, dress, and diet of the working man: “As for me, I can live on bran porridge. I have the stomach of a rhinoceros. … I'll take no employment that obliges me to prop up my chin with a high cravat, and wear straps, and pass the livelong day with a set of fellows who spend their spare money on shirt-pins. That sort of work is really lower than many handicrafts; it only happens to be paid out of proportion” (56-57).

Felix also has views on language and literature. He prides himself on his plain-spoken honesty and scorns evasion of unpleasant realities: “O, your niceties—I know what they are. … They all go on your system of make-believe. ‘Rottenness’ may suggest what is unpleasant, so you'd better say ‘sugar-plums,’ or something else such a long way off the fact that nobody is obliged to think of it. Those are your roundabout euphuisms that dress up swindling till it looks as well as honesty, and shoot with boiled pease instead of bullets. I hate your gentlemanly speakers” (63). Felix's scornful rejection of Esther's favorite writers—Byron (“A misanthropic debauchee … whose notion of a hero was that he should disorder his stomach and despise mankind” [62]) and Chateaubriand (“Your dunce who can't do his sums always has a taste for the infinite” [108]) would not have been disputed by Tolstoj, who long before What is Art? had judged both to be inferior and boring.6

Finally, and perhaps most important to Tolstoj in his 1885 reading of the novel, Felix foresees that the needs and desires of a wife and family will inevitably compromise the aims of his idealistic mission. He thus anticipates the predicament from which Tolstoj suffered almost constantly after his conversion:7

I'll never marry. … I'll never look back and say, “I had a fine purpose once—I meant to keep my hands clean, and my soul upright, and to look truth in the face; but pray excuse me, I have a wife and children—I must lie and simper a little, else they'll starve”; or, “My wife is nice, she must have her bread well buttered, and her feelings will be hurt if she is not thought genteel.”


Rather than marry, Felix vows to “live on raw turnip to subdue [his] flesh” (66). The notion of controlling the passions by means of a vegetarian diet would not have seemed bizarre at Jasnaja Poljana in the late 1880s.

Felix's criticism of fine-ladyism may, as Knapp suggests, have influenced Tolstoj's comments on women in chapter 40 of What Then Must Be Done,8 but the similarity of the two writers' attitudes is, I think, more evident in The Kreutzer Sonata.9 Like Felix, Pozdnyšev is converted from a life of “swinish” debauchery: “I too lived like a pig of that sort” (190), he explains. Tolstoj's repentant wife-killer is, by his own admission “a sort of lunatic” (195) and more extreme in word and deed than Felix. But Felix nonetheless resembles him both in the manner and the motive of his preaching. As Felix admits to Mr. Lyon, he is “perhaps a little too fond of banging and smashing” (60). He speaks always “in fortissimo” (63) and his conversation (invariably preaching, as Esther notes, even to audiences of one) consists mostly of angry denunciations. Because Felix is “too ready at contempt and reprobation,” Mr. Lyon feels obliged to warn him that “the scornful nostril and the high head gather not the odours that lie on the track of truth” (59). Felix's ideological passions, like Pozdnyšev's, always seem to arise from his relationships with women. References to his conversion focus on the angry, fallen women of Glasgow; he recalls “women breathing gin as they passed me on the stairs” (56) and the dark alleys “where there was little more than a chink of daylight to show the hatred in women's faces” (220).

Having spurred his conversion, women also evoke his angriest preaching. Relatively restrained in his talk with men, he makes no attempt to conceal his scorn for his mother and Esther.10 Eliot ironically notes that Felix “often amused himself and kept good-humoured by giving his mother answers that were unintelligible to her” (192). At Felix's first meeting with Esther he evinces sadistic delight in discovering a fine lady to torment and dominate:11

“Ho, ho!” thought Felix, “her father is frightened at her. How came he to have such a nice-stepping, long-necked peacock for his daughter? But she shall see that I am not frightened” (62). … “A peacock! … I should like to come and scold her every day, and make her cry and cut her fine hair off.”


Felix's eagerness to scold the peacock (every day) transparently disguises his attraction to fine hair and long necks.

Their susceptibility to women leads Felix and Pozdnyšev to markedly similar views of love and marriage as slavery. Both see men as helpless victims of female enticement; they “can't help loving them,” Felix tells Esther, “and so they make themselves slaves to the petty desires of petty creatures” (109). To Pozdnyšev, marriage is “just a trap”:

Woman acts on Man's sensuality, and through his sensuality subdues him so that he only chooses formally, when in reality it is she who chooses. And once she has obtained these means she abuses them and acquires a terrible power over people. “Ah, you want us to be merely objects of sensuality—all right, as objects of sensuality we will enslave you,” say the women.


Esther Lyon is less calculating in her use of sensuality than Pozdnyšev's hypothetical woman, but she is fully conscious of its effects, especially when she confronts a man who feigns immunity:

Felix always opposed and criticized her; and besides that, he looked at her as if he never saw a single detail about her person—quite as if she were a middle-aged woman in a cap. She did not believe that he had ever admired her hands, or her long neck or her graceful movements, which had made all the girls at school call her Calypso. … Felix ought properly to have been a little in love with her. …


Eliot's allusion to Calypso makes it clear that Esther is thinking about control of Felix and not merely his admiration.

Both Eliot and Tolstoj show that because sensual attractiveness is women's only source of power over men, they come to value dress and good looks above all else. The argument between Felix and Esther in chapter 10 arises from her admitting to him that she does not “mind about people having right opinions so that they had good taste” (107). Felix attempts to persuade her of the triviality and uselessness of “taste”: “A fine-lady is a squirrel-headed thing, with small airs and small notions, about as applicable to the business of life as a pair of tweezers to the clearing of a forest. Ask your father what those old persecuted emigrant Puritans would have done with fine-lady wives and daughters.” Esther is not disposed to be interested in the “business of life”: “O there is no danger of such misalliances,” she replies, “men who are unpleasant companions and make frights of themselves, are sure to get wives tasteless enough to suit them” (64). The same priority of taste prevails among women in Pozdnyšev's world:

It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness. A handsome woman talks nonsense, you listen and hear not nonsense but cleverness. She says and does horrid things, you at once persuade yourself that she is wonderfully clever and moral. … You see it is only we men who don't know (because we don't wish to know) what women know very well, that the most exalted poetic love, as we call it, depends not on moral qualities but on physical nearness and on the coiffure, and the color and cut of the dress. Ask an expert coquette who has set herself the task of captivating a man, which she would prefer to risk: to be convicted in his presence of lying, of cruelty, or even of dissoluteness, or to appear before him in an ugly and badly made dress—she will always prefer the first.


While Tolstoj and George Eliot differ in many of their views on fine-ladies,12 they seem fully to agree that love relationships motivated by sensual attraction and superficial tastes are far more than merely a domestic problem. Society as a whole has been perverted by the false values of fine-ladyism. To Pozdnyšev, women's domination by sensuality is pervasive:

Where is it? Why everywhere, in everything! Go round the shops in any big town. There are goods worth millions and you cannot estimate the human labor expended on them, and look whether in nine-tenths of these shops there is anything for the use of men. All these luxuries of life are demanded and maintained by women.

Count all the factories. An enormous proportion of them produce useless ornaments, carriages, furniture, and trinkets, for women. Millions of people, generations of slaves perish at hard labor in factories merely to satisfy women's caprice. Women, like queens, keep nine-tenths of mankind in bondage to heavy labor.


To Felix, the fine-lady poses a special threat for those visionary men (i.e., himself) who might contribute to the well-being of mankind but are instead reduced, like the enslaved workers of Pozdnyšev's diatribe, to toiling for trivia. Because of the “petty desires of petty creatures … those who might do better spend their lives for nought—get checked in every great effort—toil with brain and limb for things that have no more to do with a manly life than tarts and confectionary. That's what makes women a curse; all life is stunted to suit their littleness. That's why I'll never love, if I can help it; and if I love, I'll bear it, and never marry” (109).

Eliot's and Tolstoj's embittered personae see the whole world—“all life,” “nine-tenths of mankind”—as suffering from their problems. The hyperbolical rantings of these pariah-prophets function similarly in the two works, contributing an ironical leaven which lightens the burden of overt didactic intent without diminishing the force of its thought. The reader of Felix Holt and The Kreutzer Sonata is not compelled to assent to the preachings of Felix and Pozdnyšev; the denunciations of madman and radical are aspects of characterization, thoughts to be experienced rather than ideologies to be believed.

Unlike The Kreutzer Sonata, Felix Holt ends on an optimistic note, with the marriage of a chastened Felix and the converted Esther (the conclusion, one suspects, that Tolstoj feared would spoil the novel for him). Eliot solves the problem of the fine-lady by harnessing for constructive purposes her ability to motivate men: Calypso becomes Penelope. Felix succeeds in changing Esther, but she in turn also influences him for the better. Felix's hopes no less than his fears are related to his sense of women's influence. Anticipating the happy ending in store for him, he challenges Esther by wondering “whether the subtle measuring of forces will ever come to measure the force there would be in one beautiful woman whose mind was as noble as her face was beautiful—who made a man's passion for her rush in one current with all the great aims of his life” (223).

Nothing resembling the hopeful ending of Felix Holt can be found in The Kreutzer Sonata, but in What Then Must We Do? Tolstoj defines an inspirational role for women that closely resembles Felix's idea of woman's force:13

Oh, if these women comprehended their significance and their strength, and used it in the work of saving their husbands, brothers, and children, in saving all men!

Women, mothers, of the wealthy classes! The salvation of the men of our class from the evils they suffer from is only in your hands! Not women who are busy with their waists, bustles, hair dressing, and fascination for men … but those in whose hands, more than in those of anybody else, lies the salvation of the men of our class from the calamities which are overwhelming them.14

The numerous similarities between Felix Holt and The Kreutzer Sonata would appear to justify the conclusion that Eliot's novel influenced Tolstoj's later work; however, the equally marked resemblances of Felix Holt to Tolstoj's Family Happiness, which he wrote more than five years before the publication of Felix Holt, call this assumption into question. Tolstoj's interest in Felix Holt was probably piqued by the similarity of Felix's courtship of Esther Lyon to Tolstoj's own wooing of Valerija Arsen'eva, the autobiographical basis of Family Happiness. Tolstoj's diary comments on Valerija show the same mixture of attraction and repulsion that Felix feels for Esther:15

June 18, 1856. Valérya chattered about clothes and the coronation. Frivolity with her appears to be not transient, but an enduring passion.
June 28. Valérya is extremely badly educated, and ignorant if not stupid.
July 1. Spent the whole day with Valérya. She had a white dress on and bare arms, and hers are not shapely. This upset me. I began to pinch her morally and so cruelly that she did not complete her smiles. There were tears in her smile.
July 2. Valérya was writing in a dark room, and again wore a horrid showy morning-gown. She was cold and self-reliant, showed me a letter to her sister in which she says I am an egoist, and so on.
July 12. Valérya was nicer than ever, but her frivolity and absence of care for anything serious is terrifying. … However I spent the day very pleasantly.
July 13. I am afraid of marriage as well as of baseness, i.e. of amusing myself with her. But to marry, much would have to be changed, and I have still much work to do on myself.
July 30. Valérya quite in negligee. I disliked her very much and I made stupid remarks about David Copperfield who had much to put up with.(16)
Aug. 10. Valérya and I talked about marriage. She is not stupid and is remarkably kind.

Tolstoj's letters to Valerija consist largely of exhortations to improve herself so as to become worthy of him. As he explained, “I so ardently wish to love you that I'm teaching you how to make me love you.”17 For the most part, this teaching comprises a catalogue of her deficiencies. Like Felix, he is insultingly blunt:

Please don't waste your evenings. Take yourself in hand. Not simply so that the evening's occupations will be useful to you, but so as to teach yourself to overcome bad tendencies and laziness. I stopped here and thought for a long time about your character. Your principal defect is weakness of character, and all the other minor defects come from it. Cultivate strength of will. Take yourself in hand and fight persistently against your bad habits.18

He tries to elevate her taste in reading: “How is it that you say nothing about Dickens and Thackeray? Is it possible you find them boring? And what's this nonsense you've been reading: Notice sur les opéras?”19 One day, but not soon, he thinks, she may be able to share his literary tastes: “It's impossible for you to understand (perhaps you'll understand in time) the indescribably great pleasure one feels from understanding and loving poetry. …”20 Tolstoj's attempts to discover good qualities in Valerija are even more devastating than the criticisms: “I know many women more intelligent than you, but I've never met one more honest.”21 “Do write for goodness sake, as quickly and as fully and as incoherently and clumsily—and therefore as sincerely—as you can.”22 At times, Tolstoj is as much “babuška” as “papa”: “Please go for a walk every day whatever the weather. It's excellent, any doctor will tell you. And wear a corset, and put on your stockings yourself. …”23 But the primary theme of his letters to Valerija is always “the path of perfection”: “The main thing is—live in such a way that when you go to bed you can say to yourself: today (1) I did good to someone and (2) I became a little better myself. Please, please try to plan the day's occupations in advance and to check up on yourself in the evening.”24 Their love, or rather her love for him, is measured in terms of her successful compliance to his plan of renovating her character: “Nothing else matters as long as you love me and are as I wish, i.e. perfect; and from your letter it seemed to me that you both loved me and were beginning to understand life more seriously and to love the good and to find pleasure in watching yourself and going forward along the path of perfection.”25 It is difficult to believe that when he wrote these letters Tolstoj was only twenty-eight, Valerija twenty.

None of Valerija's replies to Tolstoj's letters has survived. One can imagine, however, that her reaction to them might well have resembled Esther's response to Felix's moral hectoring:26

It is difficult for a woman to try to be anything good when she is not believed in—when it is always supposed that she must be contemptible. … I have great faults. I know I am selfish, and think too much of my own small tastes and too little of what affects others. But I am not stupid. I am not unfeeling. … You talk to me like an angry pedagogue. Were you always wise?


Family Happiness, written three years after Tolstoj broke off his pedagogical project with Valerija, explores the courtship and marriage of a similarly ill-matched pair.27 In contrast to the bitterness of his diary entries, Tolstoj's fictional treatment of the relationship is objective—the story is told from the woman's point of view—and ironical. The dynamics of the love between young and flighty Maša (Valerija) and morally serious Sergej Mixajlovič (Tolstoj) is markedly similar to the pedagogue-ingénue relationship of Felix and Esther. Both men are introduced to the younger women through their fathers and consequently assume a paternal tone in dealing with the daughters. Sergej is Maša's legal guardian, literally a substitute father; Felix appeals to Mr. Lyon's moral standards, goading Esther to ask herself “whether life is not as solemn a thing as your father takes it to be” (108). Both Sergej and Felix are moralists whose interest in women expresses itself in the desire to form their character. Their lessons are essentially the same; both recommend a simple, ascetic life devoted to helping others. The effectiveness of their teaching is, however, undermined by sour dispositions and a sanctimonious, condescending manner. If the young women are vain, their teacher-lovers are no less afflicted with spiritual pride. In addition to their concern for serious matters (the welfare of the serfs, extension of the franchise) both chide their lovers about trivia and, as Maša complains, cast their youth and beauty in their teeth (468). Like Felix, Sergej is sharply critical of women's preoccupation with looks and dress: Maša notes “his complete indifference and even contempt for my personal appearance. Never by word or look did he imply that I was pretty; on the contrary, he frowned and laughed, whenever the word was applied to me in his presence. … On special days Katya liked to dress me out in fine clothes and to arrange my hair effectively; but my finery met only with mockery from him …” (19).

But for both men, scolding fine ladies is the first step in wooing them. As their interest deepens, both announce vows never to marry (perverse undeclarations of love), and justify their decisions with reasons flattering to their sense of moral rectitude. Felix: Women will distract me from my noble aims; Sergej: She is young, life is a may-game to her. She wants amusement, I want something different (40). Both, of course, are posing—spreading the feathers in courtship displays of moral earnestness and emotional loftiness. In effect, the vows not to marry are challenges to the women to make themselves worthy of such sober and virtuous men. The final irony of this egregious posturing is that both men are obviously attracted to the very peacock charms they denounce. Again in this instance Eliot's and Tolstoj's irony complicates and enriches the development of the fine-lady theme.

The women's response to Felix and Sergej is likewise similar. Maša and Esther resent the criticism and scolding and see their men as assuming an unwarranted religious authority over their lives. Maša feels that she is “obliged to tell” Sergej “in detail and with perfect frankness, all my good actions, and to confess, as if I were in church, all that he might disapprove of” (16). Esther too recognizes that Felix's criticism of her is a quasi-religious bullying: “You really should found a sect. Preaching is your vocation. It is a pity you should ever have an audience of only one” (110). On the other hand, both women are at first flattered by their lovers' scolding, because such concern for their behavior represents a serious interest in them. Esther knows Felix's “indignant words were a tribute to her: he thought she was worth more pains than the women of whom he took no notice. … But did he love her one little bit, and was that the reason why he wanted her to change?” (110). Maša puts up with Sergej's patronizing for the same reason: “He spoke to me like a father or an uncle and I felt he kept a constant check upon himself in order to keep on my level. Though I was hurt that he considered me as inferior to himself, I was pleased that for me alone he thought it necessary to try to be different” (12-13). Neither woman is deceived as to the real meaning of the vow never to marry.

Both Maša and Esther accept their lovers' beliefs and are obliged to admit to themselves that they are better women for doing so. In this self-improvement, however, they are conscious of painful restrictions. Esther comes to feel “an unacknowledged yet constraining presence,” knowing that with Felix's love “her life would be exalted into something quite new—into a sort of difficult blessedness, such as one may imagine in beings who are conscious of painfully growing into the possession of higher powers” (197). Maša's acceptance of Sergej's beliefs and tastes is accompanied by an uneasy sense of misrepresentation and deception. To please him she must falsify herself:

I valued his love; I felt that he thought me better than all other young women in the world and I could not help wishing him to go on being deceived about me. Without wishing to deceive him, I did deceive, and I became better myself while deceiving him. … All my thoughts and feelings of that time were not really mine; they were his thoughts and feelings, which had suddenly become mine. …


Maša's acquiescence is, of course, temporary, and in fact becomes a source of their misunderstanding one another after marriage, when the happiness of their simple rural life of good works is spoiled by the flowering of Maša's suppressed individuality in St. Petersburg. Neither heroine passively submits to having her character formed; in both works the strength of the final relationship results not merely from the woman's acceptance of her lover's serious values; the achievement of mature love is a mutual process in which the women play a crucial role in chastening the spiritual pride of their formerly condescending lovers. Felix's release from jail is brought about by Esther's testimony; it is Maša's plain speaking to Sergej at the end of Family Happiness that restores honesty to their marriage.

While the marked similarity of Eliot's and Tolstoj's treatment of their lovers in Felix Holt and Family Happiness is not the result of Tolstoj's reading Felix Holt, it does suggest that Tolstoj's admiration of Felix Holt can be attributed to his discovering in George Eliot the sympathetic voice of a kindred spirit. Eliot wrote about a kind of love that had long interested him, corroborating and perhaps augmenting beliefs and prejudices which, in the post-conversion years, were distilled in the inspired ravings of The Kreutzer Sonata. The similarity in the pedagogic love relationships in Eliot and Tolstoj is not, however, merely a consequence of contemporaneity, an affinity resulting from common cultural influences. In depicting these relationships both writers draw from the same source—Rousseau's La nouvelle Héloïse.

For both Eliot and Tolstoj, Rousseau is more than merely a source of ideas; the importance of his role in their development is unique. In response to Emerson's asking George Eliot “what had first awakened her to deep reflection, she answered Rousseau's Confessions.28 She thought it was “worthwhile to undertake all the labour of learning French if it resulted in nothing more” than reading the Confessions.29 “Rousseau's genius,” she wrote to a friend, “has sent that electric thrill through my intellectual and moral frame which has awakened me to new perceptions, which has made man and nature a fresh world of thought and feeling to me. …”30 Tolstoj's estimation of Rousseau verges on idolatry: “I read all of Rousseau, all twenty volumes, including A Dictionary of Music. I was more than delighted with him—I idolized him. At 15 I wore a medallion with his portrait around my neck instead of a cross. Many of his pages are so close to me that it seems to me I wrote them myself.”31

The correspondence of Julie and her tutor-lover, Saint-Preux, in La nouvelle Héloïse anticipates in its didactic digressions the social criticism implicit in the courtship of Eliot's and Tolstoj's lovers. For Saint-Preux and Julie, love is a problem to solve and loving a process of mutual analysis and criticism, an unfolding passionate debate. For them, the questions of how to love and how to live are inseparable. In Saint-Preux's billets-doux sighs alternate with lists of recommended reading and programs of self-improvement for Julie.32 The coquetry and hypocrisy of Parisian fine-ladies provoke his denunciation. In judging women, his primary criterion is their suitability for marriage, in Felix Holt's words, “the real business of life” (64). A Parisian woman might be a friend, but never a wife or mother. He vows never to marry one.33

Anticipating the views of Pozdnyšev and Felix Holt, Rousseau stresses the vast power of women's love over men: “Les hommes seront toujours ce qu'il plaira aux femmes; si vous voulez donc qu'ils deviennent grands et vertueux, apprenez aux femmes ce que c'est que grandeur d'âme et vertu.”34 In his study of Rousseau's influence on Tolstoj, Milan Markovitch summarizes their shared views on the subject of women's power: “Rousseau et Tolstoi, conscients de la puissance de l'amour sur les hommes, font dans le monde une part très large et même prépondérante à l'influence de la femme. Ils lui attribuent tout le bien et tout le mal qui se fait sur la terre et croient en somme que d'elle dépend le salut ou la perte de l'humanité entière.”35 As Markovitch notes, Rousseau's and Tolstoj's view of women's power is dualistic; as wives and mothers behaving in accordance with the divine law of Nature, they are potential saviors of husbands and sons.36 Indeed, for Rousseau, women's ultimate role is to save mankind: “La femme doit s'employer à régénérer l'humanité. …”37 But corrupted by the luxury and idleness fostered by false social values, their influence (especially as represented by Tolstoj) is altogether malign. Felix Holt's view of women expresses the same dualism: because “men can't help loving them and … make themselves slaves,” women have the power to be “either a blessing or a curse,” to inspire men to fulfill “great aims” or, on the other hand, to stunt all life to suit their littleness (109).

To the modern reader, however, the value of Eliot's and Tolstoj's novels has little to do with their opinions—or Rousseau's—about women. We read Tolstoj not because he champions breast-feeding or chastity, but for the experience of his fiction, the life and world of his characters.38 Abstracted from the railway carriage of his life, Pozdnyšev's ideas would either bore or infuriate. Felix's pronouncements on Byron and the pilgrims are merely banal until his desire to cut off Esther's pretty hair deepens our insight into his motives.39 In the rendering of ideology as a function of character Rousseau once again provided the model; his most significant influence on Eliot and Tolstoj lies less in his particular opinions than in his representation of opinion—in the broadest sense, belief—as inseparable from personality and experience, as much a function of the inner life as jealousy and desire. The intense, subjective experience of Rousseau's maturing worldview in The Confessions, his representation of the complex dynamics of love and responsibility in La nouvelle Héloïse are far more important influences on the fiction of Eliot and Tolstoj than his prejudices about city and country. Eliot's account of Rousseau's effect on her stresses not his beliefs, but rather the breadth and comprehensiveness of his influence: “His genius sent that electric thrill through my intellectual and moral frame, made man and nature a fresh world of thought and feeling to me” (my emphasis).40

The ultimate similarity of Pozdnyšev and Sergej to Felix, and of Maša to Esther lies in the identity of their “thought and feeling.” Their opinions of love, marriage, and fine-ladies are deeply felt motives in their lives and influential ideas of their age, but they are never offered to the reader as simply right or wrong. In Eliot and Tolstoj at their best, belief is experienced and lived so fully that it stands beyond simplistic ideological judgment.


  1. Tolstoj's personal copy of Felix Holt was the Tauchnitz edition (Leipzig, 1867). Because Tolstoj neglected his diary while occupied with writing War and Peace, the record of his reading during this period is incomplete. His usual practice, however, was to read new works by English writers he admired soon after they were published by Tauchnitz. For example, he read Eliot's Adam Bede, published in February 1859, in October 1859; Thackery's The Newcomes (1855) he read in 1856; Dickens's Bleak House (1853) in 1854, Our Mutual Friend (1865) in 1865, and Little Dorrit (1856) he read as it was issued in serial volumes. For chronology see N.N. Gusev, Letopis' žizni i tvorčestva L.N. Tolstogo, ed. L.D. Opul'skaja, vol. 1 (M.: GIXL, 1958).

  2. Tolstoy's Letters, ed. and trans. R.F. Christian (2 vols.; N.Y.: Scribner's, 1978), II, 377.

  3. “Tolstoj's Reading of George Eliot,” SEEJ [Slavic and East European Journal] 27 (1983), 318-26 presents useful material regarding the relationship of the two writers and notes previous studies of the subject; consequently I do not repeat that information here. Tolstoj's appreciation for George Eliot generally is also surveyed by W. Gareth Jones, “George Eliot's Adam Bede and Tolstoy's Conception of Anna Karenina,Modern Language Review 61, no. 2 (1966), 473-81.

  4. George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical, ed. Fred C. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 64. Further citations in the text refer to this edition.

  5. I am preparing a study of his other annotation of Felix Holt for separate publication.

  6. Tolstoj told V.F. Lazurskij that he had tried many times to read Chateaubriand but could never get through either René or Le génie du christianisme (Literaturnoe nasledstvo 37-38 [M.: AN SSSR, 1939], 482). In a letter to Fet (May 1866) he praises Victor Hugo at the expense of “the Byrons and Walterscotts [sic],” whom he finds unmemorable (Letters, I, 206).

  7. The incompatibility of his beliefs and family life is a constant theme of his letters during this period. See especially his letter to his wife of 15-18 December 1885 (Letters, II, 393-99).

  8. Knapp, 324.

  9. Trans. Aylmer Maude (N.Y.: Signet, 1960). All quotations are from this edition and noted in the text.

  10. Squelched in debate among the miners at Sproxton (121), Felix departs quickly and quietly.

  11. Cf. Pozdnyšev's pleasure in antagonizing the liberated woman, whose idealistic view of love provokes the telling of his tale (163-64).

  12. Tolstoj, for example, is much more concerned with woman's role as mother. My comparison of their views is limited here to ideas suggested by his markings in Felix Holt.

  13. This, I think, is the main evidence in support of Knapp's view that Felix Holt influenced chapter 40 of What Then Must We Do?.

  14. The Complete Works of Count Tolstoy, trans. Leo Wiener (24 vols.; London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1904-1905), XVII, 333.

  15. The Private Diary of Leo Tolstoy 1853-1857, ed. and trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Heinemann, 1927), 161-91 passim.

  16. Dickens's David Copperfield is the perfect example of one who succumbs to girlish charm and discovers too late that he is bound to a “child-wife.” In much the same way that Tolstoj tries to change Valerija, David attempts to form Dora's character. He fails. Dora, who wishes to play a part in the creative life of her novelist husband (a second point of identification for Tolstoj) ends up pathetically holding his pens as he writes. Dickens explains in chap. 41 of David Copperfield that Dora's upbringing had made her into a house pet, a fact obviously appreciated by Tolstoj, who named his favorite setter “Dora” in her honor (Literaturnoe nasledstvo 37-38 [M.: AN SSSR, 1939], 584).

  17. Nov. 9, 1856, Letters, I, 70.

  18. Nov. 19, Ibid., 74.

  19. Dec. 7, Ibid., 86.

  20. Nov. 23-24, Ibid., 80.

  21. Nov. 9, Ibid., 70.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Nov. 2, Ibid., 66.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Nov. 23-24, Ibid, 78.

  26. That her replies were not always docile can be inferred from Tolstoj's letter of Dec. 12: “You're angry that I'm only able to give lectures. But don't you see, I write to you about my plans for the future, my ideas as to how one should live … I write about them almost with tears in my eyes (believe me); but to you it's all lecturing and boredom” (Ibid., 86).

  27. Trans. J.D. Duff (N. Y.: Signet, 196). All quotations are from this edition and noted in the text.

  28. Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot (N.Y.: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), 65.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Haight, 60.

  31. Boris Eikhenbaum, The Young Tolstoi, trans. Gary Kern (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1972), 51 n. Milan Markovitch treats the subject exhaustively in Jean-Jacques Rousseau et Tolstoi (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1928).

  32. Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, ed. René Pomeau (Paris: Garnier, 1960), 33-34.

  33. Ibid., 242-56.

  34. Premier discours, quoted in Markovitch, 268.

  35. Markovitch, 268. See also Boris Eikhenbaum, Tolstoi in the Seventies (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1982), 94-106 for discussion of other influences on Tolstoj's ideas about women.

  36. Ibid., 269.

  37. Deuxième discours, quoted in Markovitch, 269.

  38. Edward Wasiolek's defense of Family Happiness from this point of view is a necessary corrective to critical preoccupation with over thematic content; see his Tolstoy's Major Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), 39-50.

  39. Felix's meditation on the cropping of Esther is, as Laurence Lerner points out, one of the novel's most persuasive characterizations (The Truth-tellers [N.Y.: Schocken, 1967], 47-52).

  40. Haight, 60.


The following markings are found in vol. 1, pp. 173-75 of Tolstoj's copy of Felix Holt, the Radical (Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1867), 2 vols. oct., kept in the archive of the Estate-Museum, Jasnaja Poljana. Tolstoj marked his books in several ways: with black pencil (underlining and occasionally bracketing individual words and sentences; with marginal lines, check marks and x's), fingernail impressions, and turned-back page corners. His markings in Felix Holt are all full-sentence underlinings. In the following text I have included several unmarked sentences to clarify the context of his underlinings, which are bracketed.

“Why do you read this mawkish stuff on a Sunday, for example?” he said, snatching up “René,” and running his eye over the pages.

“Why don't you always go to chapel, Mr. Holt, and read Howe's ‘Living Temple,’ and join the Church?”

“There's just the difference between us,—I know why I don't do those things. I distinctly see that I can do something better. I have other principles, and should sink myself by doing what I don't recognize as best.”

“I understand,” said Esther, as lightly as she could, to conceal her bitterness. “I am a lower kind of being, and could not so easily sink myself.”

[“Not by entering into your father's ideas. If a woman really believes herself to be a lower kind of being, she should place herself in subjection; she should be ruled by the thoughts of her father or husband. If not, let her show her power of choosing something better. You must know that your father's principles are greater and worthier than what guides your life. You have no reason but idle fancy and selfish inclination for shirking his teaching and giving your soul up to trifles.”]

“How am I to oblige you? By joining the Church?”

[“No; but by asking yourself whether life is not as solemn a thing as your father takes it to be—in which you may be either a blessing or a curse to many.] You know you have never done that. You don't care to be better than a bird trimming its feathers and pecking about after what pleases it. [You are discontented with the world because you can't get just the small things that suit your pleasure, not because it's a world where myriads of men and women are ground by wrong and misery, and tainted with pollution.”]

“Pray go on, Mr. Holt. Relieve yourself of these burning truths. I am sure they must be troublesome to carry unuttered.”

[“Yes, they are,” said Felix, pausing, and standing not far off her. “I can't bear to see you going the way of the foolish women who spoil men's lives. Men can't help loving them, and so they make themselves slaves to the petty desires of petty creatures. That's the way those who might do better spend their lives for nought,—get checked in every great effort,—toil with brain and limb for things that have no more to do with a manly life than tarts and confectionary. That's what makes women a curse; all life is stunted to suit their littleness. That's why I'll never love, if I can help it; and if I love, I'll bear it, and never marry.”]

“I ought to be very much obliged to you for giving me your confidence so freely.”

[“Ah! now you are offended with me, and disgusted with me. I expected it would be so. A woman doesn't like a man who tells her the truth.”

“I think you boast a little too much of your truth-telling, Mr. Holt,” said Esther, flashing out at last. “That virtue is apt to be easy to people when they only wound others and not themselves. Telling the truth often means no more than taking a liberty.”

“Yes, I suppose I should have been taking a liberty if I had tried to drag you back by the skirt when I saw you running into a pit.”

“You should really found a sect. Preaching is your vocation. It is a pity you should ever have an audience of only one.”]

L. R. Leavis (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9624

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 even her best novels, labelling her as an infuriatingly emotional Victorian encumbered with a heavy pedantic style and often breaking into the sustained didacticism of the self-educated. Robert Liddell's The Novels of George Eliot (London, 1977) would appear to exemplify much of the previous account of an extreme hostility to her art, and while the present writer would not endorse the spirit of his book, when faced with the mass of her oeuvre the roots of his charge are perhaps more understandable than the uncritical acceptance of pure adulation. Among those who care for literature rather than for literary theory, it does seem an accepted view of sanity that George Eliot's art contains disturbing extremes of quality.

A survey of the complete novels shows a uniquely distinguished writer who was highly intellectual but who developed a creative expression that easily transcended mere Westminster Review intellectuality, whose habits were towards pungent irony in analysis, but who could be anti-critical in her descents into self-indulgence and cloying emotionalism. It is significant that before her late-development into great art, her earlier works tended to seek refuge in a conventional melodramatic form. In George Eliot, Her Beliefs and her Art (London, 1975), a study attempting to relate George Eliot's intellectual thought and beliefs to her art,2 Neil Roberts was not the first to make the valid point that from early on in the creative writing characteristics can be observed that foreshadow lapses of her maturity.

In fact the great creative writer who mastered a profound realism was even at the height of her powers a victim of Victorian pressures combined with her private vulnerability, so that her considerable intelligence could be defeated. A distinction must be continually made in her writings between what is ‘felt’ and what is schematic, and in a definition of what is ‘felt’ the true and profound has to be separated from the emotionally spurious. Dickens seems more in control and healthier in his melodrama (excepting certain excesses) than George Eliot in hers. An example of the discrepancies in her personality taken from outside her art are these extracts from two letters (from the forbiddingly large body of her collected letters) both written in 1874. The first is from a letter to the Hon. Mrs. Henry Ponsonby, and argues a case against moral paralysis induced by the discoveries of science, with the force and cogency of a great novelist's intelligence, the intelligence that understood the grounds of human behaviour in Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda:

As to the necessary combinations through which life is manifested, and which seem to present themselves to you as a hideous fatalism, which ought logically to petrify your volition—have they, in fact, any such influence on your ordinary course of action in the primary affairs of your existence as a human, social, domestic creature? And if they don't hinder you from taking measures for a bath, without which you know you cannot secure the delicate cleanliness which is your second nature, why should they hinder you from a line of resolve in a higher strain of duty to your ideal, both for yourself and others? But the consideration of molecular physics is not the direct ground of human love and moral action, any more than it is the direct means of composing a noble picture or of enjoying great music. One might as well hope to dissect one's own body and be merry doing it, as take molecular physics (in which you must banish from your field of view what is specifically human) to be your dominant guide, your determiner of motives, in what is solely human. That every study has its bearing on every other is true; but pain and relief, love and sorrow, have their peculiar history which make an experience and knowledge over and above the swing of atoms.

The second is to James Thomson on reading his poem full of the squalors of urban industrialism, The City of Dreadful Night, and presumably is an expression of an aspect of her idealism that inspired her to write the weakest parts of Daniel Deronda or the conclusion of Middlemarch. Perhaps this was her way of coping with the horror of the problems of the Victorian present; her novels are set in the past. Certainly it is recognisably Victorian in its religious stress on the unity of social order and on human good, and (alas!) is more characteristic of the letters than the previous example:

Dear Poet

I cannot rest satisfied without telling you that my mind responds with admiration to the distinct vision and grand utterance in the poem which you have been so good as to send me.

Also, I trust that an intellect informed by so much passionate energy as yours will soon give us more heroic strains with a wider embrace of human fellowship in them—such as will be to the labourers of the world what the odes of Tyrtaeus were to the Spartans, thrilling them with the sublimity of the social order and the courage of resistance to all that would dissolve it. To accept life and write much fine poetry, is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the manifold willing labours which have made such a lot possible.

However, the main interest of this study of George Eliot's novels is not on an investigation of the unevenness of her writing (readers can find ample illustration of this elsewhere) but on an attempt in outlining her progress as a novelist to explain the abrupt change in the order of her art after the publication of Felix Holt.

George Eliot first tried creative writing3 as a change from her Westminster Review work, in an experiment for Lewes to see if she could succeed with conversation between characters. This was done at the advanced age for a creative writer (usually the start comes much earlier) of 36, and judging from ‘Amos Barton’ and the rest of the sketches in Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) she adhered to the style and ambition of Mrs. Gaskell for her model. ‘Amos Barton’ and ‘Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story’ are half-comic and quaint depictions of situations characteristically set in the past, reeking of Mrs. Gaskell's literary mannerisms, and the more ambitious ‘Janet's Repentance’ is marked by a heavy emotionalism, allied to the explicit diagnostic commentary of a confirmed intellectual. In a letter of 11 November 1859 replying to a tribute paid to her by Mrs. Gaskell, she expresses gratitude for her indebtedness to that writer:

I had indulged the idea that if my books turned out to be worth much, you would be among my willing readers; for I was conscious, while the question of my power was still undecided for me, that my feeling towards Life and Art had some affinity with the feeling which had inspired Cranford and the earlier chapters of Mary Barton. That idea was brought the nearer to me, because I had the pleasure of reading Cranford for the first time in 1857, when I was writing the Scenes of Clerical Life, and going up the Rhine one dim wet day in the spring of the next year, when I was writing Adam Bede, I satisfied myself for the lack of a prospect by reading over again the earlier chapters of Mary Barton.

That critics may take this as evidence that Cranford has the structure and moral framework of the mature George Eliot is surely a mistaken view, and a case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’. Immature George Eliot, who could only find her mature identity with great effort entailing many false directions, has her beginnings in a feminine literary genre of mannered social observation and melodrama.

Neil Roberts has interestingly suggested that especially in ‘Janet's Repentance’ lie traces of the interest of the later George Eliot. Episodic and schematic attempts at a concentration on a diagnosis of society these ‘traces’ certainly are, for their nature is literary, and they are not fleshed out in sustained art. So this passage from ‘Janet's Repentance’ on the medical profession in Milby may point to an interest that is finally expressed in the study of the doctors in Middlemarch, but is here only a local episode that lacks the scale and three-dimensional concreteness of the mature novel:

Pratt was middle-sized, insinuating, and silvery-voiced; Pilgrim was tall, heavy, rough-mannered, and spluttering. Both were considered to have great powers of conversation, but Pratt's anecdotes were of the fine old crusty quality to be procured only of Joe Miller; Pilgrim's had the full fruity flavour of the most recent scandal. Pratt elegantly referred all diseases to debility, and, with a proper contempt for symptomatic treatment, went to the root of the matter with port-wine and bark; Pilgrim was persuaded that the evil principle in the human system was plethora, and he made war against it with cupping, blistering, and cathartics. They had both been long established in Milby, and as each had a sufficient practice, there was no very malignant rivalry between them; on the contrary, they had that sort of friendly contempt for each other which is always conducive to a good understanding between professional men; and when any new surgeon attempted, in an ill-advised hour, to settle himself in the town, it was strikingly demonstrated how slight and trivial are theoretic differences compared with the broad basis of common human feeling. There was the most perfect unanimity between Pratt and Pilgrim in the determination to drive away the obnoxious and too probably qualified intruder as soon as possible. Whether the first wonderful cure he effected was on a patient of Pratt's or Pilgrim's, one was as ready as the other to pull the interloper by the nose, and both alike directed their remarkable powers of conversation towards making the town too hot for him …

In Middlemarch one can see the parallel situation of the established doctors resenting Lydgate, the idealistic intruder, but the earlier publications up to and including Felix Holt all miss the essential ingredient of a created background of the full workings of practical reality of society which eludes simple irony or a politically tinged commentary.

On the other hand Scenes of Clerical Life illustrates a persistent weakness of the emerging novelist. The emotionalism of ‘Janet's Repentance’, with its death-bed scene, previews George Eliot's emotional excesses. The lack of self-knowledge that classes the feelings with which Janet Dempster grasps the dying Mr. Tryan's hand, and kisses him, under a religious category without recognising the profane thrill is typical both of George Eliot and so many other Victorian writers, especially female ones:

‘No … no … I shall be there … God will not forsake me.’

She could hardly utter the words, though she was not weeping. She was waiting with trembling eagerness for anything else he might have to say.

‘Let us kiss each other before we part.’

She lifted up her face to his, and the full life-breathing lips met the wasted dying ones in a sacred kiss of promise.

Whatever can be said against Scenes of Clerical Life, one must be grateful that both G. H. Lewes and the reading-public gave the novelist the confidence to continue writing. However, had the writer died shortly after the publication of her first creative work, one could only have concluded that she was a minor talent in the Gaskell ‘emotional’ school.

Elements of melodrama are present in Scenes of Clerical Life, such as the picture of Tryan's sudden conversion through encountering the body of the woman that he had set on the path to ruin, but this could be seen as natural in a Victorian writer finding her feet. The pastoral Adam Bede (1859), the first full-length novel, clearly continues her process of finding her feet, and contains much powerfully melodramatic stuff obviously inspired both by her adaptation of her reading of Greek tragedy and of Hawthorne. The Donnithorne-Dimmesdale correspondence shows her use of Hawthorne, her admiration of the American writer producing more results with the Reverend Rufus Lyon in Felix Holt.4 The strengths of the dialect spoken in the novel and the characterisation of the Poysers, or the treatment of the Methodist Dinah Morris or of Adam himself, admired by favourable critics, do not appeal to this reader. The writer's nostalgic treatment of the past plunges her into meandering characterisation which causes irritation through its attention-drawing nature, and the novel revolves round a ‘moral drama’ amounting to melodrama. These early works all have a purely emotional basis and so lack any coherent intellectual centre. The world of St. Ogg's of The Mill on the Floss (1860) lacks subtlety and spontaneity, though her analysis of the Dodson spirit at least embodies a desire to depict the impulses behind Victorian assumptions. A main characteristic of The Mill on the Floss has been defined so often, in the autobiographical aspect of George Eliot's involvement; her memories of her childhood, and the curious refraction of her guilt at living with Lewes in the situation of Maggie Tulliver with her ‘soul-hunger’. F. R. Leavis's analysis in The Great Tradition signals the pressures behind George Eliot's writing which led to the wrong kind of involvement:

To understand immaturity would be to ‘place’ it, with however subtle an implication, by relating it to mature experience. But when George Eliot touches on these given intensities of Maggie's inner life the vibration comes directly and simply from the novelist, precluding the presence of a maturer intelligence than Maggie's own. It is in these places that we are most likely to make with conscious critical intent the comment that in George Eliot's presentment of Maggie there is an element of self-idealization. The criticism sharpens itself when we say that with the self-idealization there goes an element of self-pity. George Eliot's attitude to her own immaturity as represented by Maggie is the reverse of a mature one.

Maggie Tulliver, in fact, represents an immaturity that George Eliot never leaves safely behind her.

Silas Marner (1861) is the most successful novel of her formative period. Its relative success rests on the work being contained within a restricted form, a poetic ‘moral fable’, depending on literary influences drawn from Wordsworth and from Bunyan. Within this limited scale of art the history of Silas Marner's emotional development is impressively affecting, and the climactic confrontation scene of Chapter 19 between Silas and Eppie on the one hand and Godfrey Cass and Nancy on the other is powerful and unsentimental. For those wishing to trace aspects of the great George Eliot of the two last novels in the earlier works, there appears to be more substantial evidence in this novel, where for instance this insight of the delineation of Godfrey Cass's weak character does point forward to a dramatic competence which one takes for granted in the great artist:

Godfrey was too painfully preoccupied to feel a twinge of self-reproach at this undeserved praise. He walked up and down, unconscious that he was plunging ankle-deep in snow, unconscious of everything but the trembling suspense about what was going on in the cottage, and the effect of each alternative on his future lot. No, not quite unconscious of everything else. Deeper down, and half smothered by passionate desire and dread, there was the sense that he ought not to be waiting on these alternatives; that he ought to accept the consequences of his deeds, own the miserable wife, and fulfil the claims of the helpless child. But he had not moral courage enough to contemplate that active renunciation of Nancy as possible for him: he had only conscience and heart enough to make him for ever uneasy under the weakness that forbade the renunciation. And at this moment his mind leaped away from all restraint toward the sudden prospect of deliverance from his long bondage.

The scene that follows where the baby looks momentarily at its natural father;

The wide-open blue eyes looked up at Godfrey's without any uneasiness or sign of recognition: the child could make no visible audible claim on its father; and the father felt a strange mixture of feelings, a conflict of regret and joy, that the pulse of that little heart had no response for the half-jealous yearning in his own, when the blue eyes turned away from him slowly, and fixed themselves on the weaver's queer face …

contains a depth of psychological insight that is free of mechanical plotting though clearly controlled within an artistic whole.

However, it must be repeated that the success of the book is within a limited allegorical framework which makes one read it quite differently from the greatness of Middlemarch, which is rooted in a grasp of the reality of everyday lives and general behaviour. While George Eliot does not omit to hint at the narrowness of village conventions (we see, for example, the village desire to blame a passing pedlar for the theft of Silas's gold, and the hope for a warrant against him merely because he is ‘odd’), there is a sense that the village community especially in their talk in the Rainbow is several degrees less stimulating than the writer appreciates. Compared with the miners' talk of Chubb's in Felix Holt, which was obviously intended as an industrial version of the village-scenes of Silas Marner, the earlier novel is far superior, but Joseph Conrad made a valid corrective when he deliberately adapted Silas Marner to produce his short story Amy Foster. Conrad's story portrays the brutal stifling side of (admittedly a far less attractive) village life in the drama of the rejection and destruction of the alien Yanko ‘Goorall’, an Austrian castaway. The tale demonstrates that in a hostile environment the outsider is driven to invest all his emotions in his child, causing the final tragedy of his own death. Yanko is too ‘far-sighted’ (a mountaineer) for the claustrophobic villagers, in contrast with the short-sighted Silas. Yanko dies utterly deserted (unlike Silas, who comes to adapt to his environment), and Conrad uses a sardonic echo5 of the allegory in Silas Marner in the narration of his tragic history:

I had often explained to him that there is no place on earth where true gold can be found lying ready to be got for the trouble of picking up … But sometimes, cocking his hat with a little conquering air, he would defy my wisdom. He had found his true gold. That was Amy Foster's heart; which was ‘a golden heart, and soft to people's misery’, he would say in the accents of overwhelming conviction.

The simple Amy acting on her primitive instincts turns against her husband and behaves in accordance with the village prejudices which have been instilled in her.

If one ignores Romola (1863) as a step in a false direction, being an attempt to create a dramatic historical novel exploring moral issues set in a past (of a foreign country) very remote from the pre-industrial past of her childhood, so inevitably suffering from a schematic moral didacticism and the labours of B. M. research, then the direct connection in the development of her art (rather than her thought) is between Silas Marner and Felix Holt (1866). 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. In Silas Marner the allegory followed the story of a man cut off from human contact redeemed by a violent change in his situation. After the theft of his gold the agent for the reawakening of his sympathies was a foundling baby-girl. The girl, Eppie, later resisted a claim by her natural father and chose to remain with her foster parent, and marries below the class of her ‘real’ parent. In the would-be realism of the plot of Felix Holt a foster child is treated as a subject of emotional and moral development in a position distantly relating to Silas's. Esther Lyon who has been transplanted into an alien environment learns to love her foster-father (Mr. Lyon) and chooses to resist the claims of marriage to the landed class. Renouncing her newly-revealed position as an heiress, she marries (well below the class suggested by her possibilities) into poverty. Eppie to her credit (unlike Esther) did not marry a so-called radical militant, but an unaffected village boy, while she exhibited in her behaviour no inherited characteristics. Eppie is dignified and natural after the manner of the Shakespearian heroine Perdita of The Winter's Tale without bearing her stamp of royalty.

George Eliot has reconsidered the theme of the adopted child transplanted out of her environment, but in a muddled way characteristic of Felix Holt clearly has not decided on the question of hereditary behaviour in her heroine, especially as the case in the novel of Harold Transome does involve inherited qualities. In the ‘superior melodrama’ of his dealings with his real father, Jermyn, we are meant to see a reflection of some of the father's traits in the son. Esther Lyon's mother was a French Catholic lady (‘daughter of a French officer of considerable rank, who had fallen in the Russian campaign’). Some of Esther's upper-class ‘affectations’ may come from her mother's side, though what we see of Annette Ledru (the mother) is ‘one of those angelic-faced helpless women who take all things as manna from heaven’, a woman not prone to frivolous French Catholic vanity. However Esther as a child was sent by Mr. Lyon to a French Protestant school where she picked up bad habits:

It was understood that Esther would contract no papistical superstitions, and this was perfectly true; but she contracted, as we see, a good deal of non-papistical vanity.

Her subsequent vanities of behaviour seem to be ascribed to school-girl posturing and to her short period as a governess ‘witnessing the habits of a well-born and wealthy family’. She is potentially more interesting than Rosamond Vincy of Middlemarch who comes from a lower-middle-class background and has been transformed as a star pupil of a finishing-school into a finicky piece of man-catching egotism. One charge against Felix Holt is that the possibilities of Esther's situation and behaviour (for she is a girl of refined inherited sensibilities caught up in the dull life in the house of a Dissenting minister) are negated. In place of a novelistic study of the clash of refinement and education with an alien environment, we find merely a crude moralistic diagram. The diagnosis is of a girl of frivolous anti-puritanical tendencies whose wit and liveliness are not to be admired, and who becomes mortified by Felix Holt's gibes at her follies. She has to choose between two suitors, one a landed gentleman who will confirm her in her social superiority, and the other whom if she chooses, we are made to understand will lead her to a better self.

A Rosamond Vincy would never have had any problem with this decision (would never have been interested in Felix in the first place!), and George Eliot has to delineate a side of Esther's character that tends to self-renunciation and towards ‘truth’—a solution as given in the terms of the novel that is unacceptable on a moment's consideration. It is as if a clumsy simplification of Dorothea Brooke and a variant of Rosamond Vincy were to exist in the same character, an absurd combination bearing no connection with any reality. The established complexity of the terms of Gwendolen Harleth's treatment in Daniel Deronda would be needed to realise the enterprise.

The opening sketch of Esther Lyon's position follows the pattern of Margaret Hale's situation in Mrs. Gaskell's North and South (1854-5):

But she was not contented with her life: she seemed to herself to be surrounded with ignoble, uninteresting conditions, from which there was no issue; for even if she had been unamiable enough to give her father pain deliberately, it would have been no satisfaction to her to go to Treby church, and visibly turn her back on Dissent. It was not religious differences, but social differences, that Esther was concerned about, and her ambitious taste would have been no more gratified in the society of the Waces than in that of the Muscats. The Waces spoke imperfect English and played whist; the Muscats spoke the same dialect and took in the Evangelical Magazine. Esther liked neither of these amusements. She had one of those exceptional organisations which are quick and sensitive without being in the least morbid; she was alive to the finest shades of manner, to the nicest distinctions of tone and accent; she had a little code of her own about scents and colours, textures and behaviour, by which she secretly condemned or sanctioned all things and persons.

However, unlike Margaret Hale's dissatisfaction with the industrial North there is no sympathy for Esther's sense of difference, which is dismissed as sheer snobbery. Her frustrated generosity towards her step-father is only to foreshadow a later change towards him, and is not part of any analytic investigation of behaviour. Her undisguised sense of superiority is resented by the community of Treby Magna:

Wise Dissenting matrons were divided between fear lest their sons should want to marry her and resentment that she should treat those ‘undeniable’ young men with a distant scorn which was hardly to be tolerated in a minister's daughter …

Felix Holt's boorish assaults on her dignity and his mockery of her love of Byron's poetry reduce her to a more satisfactory condition in the eyes both of George Eliot and of the community:

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 happy-looking Mr. Wace was, who observed to his wife, as they walked from under the churchyard chestnuts, ‘It's wonderful how things go through you—you don't know how. I feel somehow as if I believed more in everything that's good’.

If in North and South the reader feels suspicious of Margaret Hale's marriage to Mr. Thornton, then Esther's acceptance of the role of dutiful wife looking up to Felix ‘as a husband greater and nobler’ than she is, is the outrageous result of a programme depending only on contrivances.

The ‘Dorothea Brooke’ aspect of Esther's components emerges through her desire to appear better in Felix's eyes, and is first marked by her softening towards Mr. Lyon. Here the momentous stress of the writing can be contrasted with the quite different level of the substantial dramatisation of Dorothea's enlargement of sympathies through marital sufferings:

When Esther was lying down that night, she felt as if the little incidents between herself and her father on this Sunday had made it an epoch. Very slight words and deeds may have a sacramental efficacy, if we can cast our self-love behind us, in order to say or do them. And it has been well believed through many ages that the beginning of compunction is the beginning of a new life; that the mind which sees itself blameless may be called dead in trespasses—in trespasses on the love of others, in trespasses on their weakness, in trespasses on all those great claims which are the image of our own need.

(Felix Holt, Chapter 13)


‘I think it is time for us to dress,’ he added, looking at his watch. They both rose, and there was never any further allusion between them to what had passed on this day.

But Dorothea remembered it to the last with the vividness with which we all remember epochs in our experience when some dear expectation dies, or some new motive is born. To-day she had begun to see that she had been under a wild illusion in expecting a response to her feeling from Mr. Casaubon, and she had felt the waking of a presentiment that there might be a sad consciousness in his life which made as great a need on his side as on her own.

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling—an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects—that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.

(Middlemarch, Chapter 20)

Esther Lyon, then, is conditioned by George Eliot's designs on the novel using Felix Holt. She is not the only character to be compared with him, and to suffer in the workings of the plot. Harold Transome is a character of potentially more interest than Esther herself (an interest that has nothing to do with the discovery of his true father), but is intended to be viewed in a disreputable light when the ‘gothic’ Felix looms in his direction. The opposition between the suitors is a black and white one, demanding that social polish and the mastery of practical affairs in politics bear the taint of moral dubiousness. Harold's attitude to women, in his overbearing behaviour to his mother and the history of his choice of a wife—the presence of his son is like an albatross round his neck—reveal the tyranny of a male egotist. The wooden plot of the novel has him come to admire Esther, a girl of a different stamp from his previous conception of women, too late in his doomed career for a possible reversal of it. The reader may feel that Felix is no valid alternative, but even more telling is the dishonesty of the author in her picture of Harold's values in life.

The political side of the novel is offered as a refutation of Disraeli's kind of political thinking in Coningsby and Sybil where a new Toryism accepts the new conditions of society but assimilates them to the old traditions. Hence George Eliot is consistently hostile in depicting the beliefs of a man with political instincts who has to work practically using the mechanics of a political system with its abuses. Harold's view is that as a man of ambition who could use power for some good, he must choose the most suitable party to advance his career in politics. This view of a man with clearly-defined political aims is seen by Felix and the author as morally reprehensible. Felix's response is to opt out of reform politics altogether and to join the author in a Romantic conservatism, where the working-class should never be allowed under the present conditions to get the vote.

While the function of the character of Felix Holt is sinister in affecting the treatment of Esther and Harold, the presentation of Felix's character only evokes embarrassment and disbelief in the reader. That the miners in the scene where Felix harangues them are seen as a hopelessly uneducated mass, ready like sheep to be led by any plausible argument, has offended some critics. What is more important is that neither they nor Felix exist.

While the issues attempted in Felix Holt are wider than in Silas Marner, it cannot compare with the earlier novel. Yet we have seen that George Eliot attempted to re-use certain themes from the allegorical form in a more realistic mode of writing. Unfortunately the conclusion must be that the mode of Felix Holt with its riot and trial scenes and rival suitors lies firmly within the conventions of Victorian melodrama. It is interesting that in her progress up to Middlemarch the writer has produced so many different varieties of minor novel; from the pastoral melodrama of Adam Bede to the melodramatic ‘political’ Felix Holt which pretends to be a ‘social problem’ novel.

Middlemarch (1871-2) achieves a new level of art on a scale unattempted by any of her earlier novels, and in contrast to them has its roots in an apprehension of the real, being undogmatic and unschematic in its moral seriousness. It seems a justified conclusion to view this revolutionary undertaking and the fruition of her art as the result of a conscious decision by George Eliot. The enormous gap between Felix Holt and Middlemarch does not however appear to be discussed in any surviving material from her various ‘quarries’, notebooks, or letters; the workings of her mind can only be inferred. It is known that the Lydgate story formed the basis of the beginnings of Middlemarch. This strand of the novel must have been prompted by a reconsideration of the relationships between Esther Lyon and Felix Holt, and between Esther and Harold Transome. The character and professional dedication of Lydgate provides a study of a convincing practical idealism to be valued by the reader; exactly that which Felix Holt did without. The obvious re-working of the terms of Felix Holt results in the ideals of a gifted man being thwarted by his lack of a grasp of practical reality in his life outside his professional interests and by his choice of a highly unsuitable wife. In this way the novel is a rebuff to the terms of the composition of Felix and Harold, Felix being the admired impractical idealist and Harold the corrupt realist. Lydgate during his unwilling involvement in the voting for the choice of hospital chaplain shows his contempt for ‘other people's practical affairs’, but unlike Felix in his impatience at other people's failings, he is to be criticised. His is the arrogance of immaturity, for he cannot hide his contempt for mediocrity, understandably antagonising Ned Plymdale (a rival suitor) and also his medical competitors in Middlemarch. Mr. Farebrother exhibits a wisdom and modesty through his ability to learn from experience which Lydgate finds hard to understand.

Rosamond Vincy is a successful clarification of a side of Esther Lyon, and is consistent without being a cliché for a puritan Victorian reading-public. She represents conventional bad taste in forming an ideal of feminine behaviour, and is seen by the men of the neighbourhood as an ideal wife; even the intelligent Farebrother does not see through her. While some of the mothers resent her for being ‘too big for her boots’, she is a social representation of values in her society that Esther is not in Treby. Her natural egotism is reinforced by her bourgeoise assumptions and her finishing-school training, and her abilities are concentrated on social performance:

Rosamond played admirably. Her master at Mrs. Lemon's school (close to a county town with a memorable history that had its relics in church and castle) was one of those excellent musicians here and there to be found in our provinces, worthy to compare with many a noted Kapellmeister in a country which offers more plentiful conditions of musical celebrity. Rosamond, with her executant's instinct, had seized his manner of playing, and gave forth his large rendering of noble music with the precision of an echo. It was almost startling, heard for the first time. A hidden soul seemed to be flowing forth from Rosamond's fingers; and so indeed it was, since souls live on in perpetual echoes, and to all fine expression there goes somewhere an originating activity, if it be only that of an interpreter.

She is a gifted mimic who has an actress's sense of what an audience expects. Her piano-playing and singing are tasteless because she can only reflect other people's tastes, having none of her own. Here we enter a discussion by the novelist of the nature of artistic accomplishment (which is developed in Daniel Deronda) to which Felix Holt in its treatment of Esther was unaccommodatingly hostile.

Unlike Esther, Rosamond cannot be changed significantly by any breakdown in her defences; her moment of openness with Dorothea is only short-lived; she is a ruthless egotist rather than a ‘delicate plant’ to be reformed by a good man, the grace of her swan-neck and her delicate ‘infantine blondness’ making her a tropical man-eating flower.

The second story George Eliot also began independently, that of Dorothea Brooke, which she soon connected to that of Lydgate. She reverts to a period of her own life as she had done in The Mill on the Floss, but it is a history written with a new mastery. The dangers of self-identification with her heroine reveal themselves in Middlemarch as in the earlier novel; the sympathetic dramatisation combined with the diagnosis of a representative case are new. This study of a girl emotionally maturing during a time of crucial social change in English life dwarfs any social-historical interest in the earlier works. Dorothea may reflect George Eliot's own period of Evangelicalism, but the opening chapters of the novel are part of an investigation into religious beliefs which form the values of her own society. Dorothea has a puritan inheritance which affects the expression of her desire to be different from the norm for girls of her station, causing her to be regarded by her society as a freak. Puritanism entails a lack of self-knowledge and a theoretic rejection of physical and aesthetic enjoyment. The contrast with her phlegmatic and conventional sister Celia exhibits the effects of her puritan repressions; she reacts to what can be called affection or love with violent disgust:

‘But you have been so pleased with him since then; he has begun to feel quite sure that you are fond of him’.

‘Fond of him, Celia! How can you choose such odious expressions?’ said Dorothea passionately. ‘Dear me, Dorothea, I suppose it would be right for you to be fond of a man whom you accepted for a husband’.

‘It is offensive to me to say that Sir James could think I was fond of him. Besides, it is not the right word for the feeling I must have towards the man I would accept as a husband’.

This last definition of the feeling that Dorothea must have in order to marry a man is reached here through a negative reaction; her adoration of Casaubon is the positive result of the puritanism of her ideal to prove superior to the social norm for women. The analysis in the picture of her marriage-motives and of the consequences reverses the self-sacrificing ideal of Esther Lyon, who was praised for looking up to her husband.6

Nevertheless, Dorothea's ambition to help in social reform and charity, embodied in her model cottage plans, is a serious portrayal of her ideals in an examination that introduces the question of art as a factor in the education of human feelings. Her Evangelicalism directs her to charitable idealism, but also is responsible for the cultural bankruptcy of her education. In Middlemarch the formation of aesthetic taste affects an individual's perceptions of humane and moral considerations, a drastic change from the crude terms of Felix Holt. Dorothea as a young bride has her honeymoon in Rome, the Catholic capital of European art and culture. The traumas of her marriage-experiences are explicitly linked by George Eliot to Dorothea's being overwhelmed by an alien environment:

To those who have looked at Rome with the quickening power of a knowledge which breathes a growing soul into all historic shapes, and traces out the suppressed traditions which unite all contrasts, Rome may still be the spiritual centre and interpreter of the world. But let them conceive one more historical contrast: the gigantic broken revelations of that Imperial and Papal city thrust abruptly on the notions of a girl who had been brought up in English and Swiss Puritanism, fed on meagre Protestant histories and on art chiefly of the hand-screen sort; a girl whose ardent nature turned all her small allowance of knowledge into principles, fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick emotions gave the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or a pain; a girl who had lately become a wife, and from the enthusiastic acceptance of untried duty found herself plunged in tumultuous preoccupation with her personal lot. The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions.

Naumann, the distinguished German artist (whom Dorothea meets in Rome), is a brief sketch to be taken up more convincingly with the musical genius Klesmer of Daniel Deronda, and Will Ladislaw functions as an ambassador from the world of culture, a dilettante who can act as a guide to an area that has been a blank to Dorothea. On any other level it is hard to find much interest in Ladislaw.

It has already been stated that Middlemarch is rooted in the world of the concrete, and that society and the individual are conveyed with an immediacy that transcends any moral reduction. Local politics in Middlemarch may have its Hawleys and other unsavouries, the practical politics of doctors, lawyers and clergymen may be abrasive, but the vividness of the world of action is not repellent. The lives of the individuals are involved in a felt texture that eludes prescriptive generalisations, and in this sense Middlemarch is ‘a study of provincial life’! Lydgate's ambition is destroyed by his involvement in Middlemarch society, which is as much his fault as that of the society he enters—critics are wrong who wish to ascribe to the author a purely negative view of society. Mrs. Cadwallader with her highly eccentric aristocratic behaviour is treated affectionately as an enriching presence—we are a long way from the socially and politically slanted commentaries of Silas Marner and Felix Holt.

Lastly, the nature of tragedy in the lives of her characters is at best divorced from the melodramatic scenes of Felix Holt (however inwardly drawn the suffering may be, as with Mrs. Transome), and is depicted on a muted level, linked with a self-effacing pathos. Casaubon's plight is an ‘ordinary’ one,7 sub-heroic but not the less affecting for being so:

In Mr. Casaubon's ear, Dorothea's voice gave loud emphatic iteration to those muffled suggestions of consciousness which it was possible to explain as mere fancy, the illusion of exaggerated sensitiveness: always when such suggestions are unmistakably repeated from without, they are resisted as cruel and unjust. We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions—how much more by hearing in hard distinct syllables from the lips of a near observer, those confused murmurs which we try to call morbid, and strive against as if they were the oncoming of numbness! And this cruel outward accuser was there in the shape of a wife—nay, of a young bride, who, instead of observing his abundant pen-scratches and amplitude of paper with the uncritical awe of an elegant-minded canary-bird, seemed to present herself as a spy watching everything with a malign power of inference. Here, towards this particular point of the compass, Mr. Casaubon had a sensitiveness to match Dorothea's, and an equal quickness to imagine more than the fact. He had formerly observed with approbation her capacity for worshipping the right object; he now foresaw with sudden terror that this capacity might be replaced by presumption, this worship by the most exasperating of all criticism,—that which sees vaguely a great many fine ends, and has not the least notion what it costs to reach them.

We come finally to the rarified atmosphere of the last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876). The real centre of the novel is set in upper-class society and concentrates on Gwendolen Harleth. She is a victim of her wilful vanity and of the laziness in her use of her abilities to glitter socially, yet she is vivacious, intelligent, and highly sensitive—in some ways morbidly so, despite the egoistic control she exerts on herself. The sense of the ‘real’ comes to her through Herr Klesmer and Daniel Deronda, and despite herself she can never be contented with less than ‘the real thing’. Against her moral instincts, her own vanity and resentment at her failure trap her into marriage to Grandcourt, a malignant social nullity. She finds herself paralysed by the menace of a husband she fears and loathes. Gwendolen has no false idealism to misdirect her as Dorothea has, and is educated into an awareness of real values through her ability to respond to them, as much as by her humiliation by figures whom she can't keep from respecting.

The line of interest that started with the botched attempt of Esther Lyon has reached a peak of refinement. After Middlemarch and its discovery of art as a corrective to moralistic theory we come with Klesmer to a dedication to the values of artistic self-criticism as a corrective to superficiality in a highly social society, and perhaps to a stage nearer ‘art for art's sake’:

‘You are a beautiful young lady—you have been brought up in ease—you have done what you would—you have not said to yourself, “I must know this exactly”, “I must understand this exactly”, “I must do this exactly”’—in uttering these three terrible musts, Klesmer lifted up three long fingers in succession. ‘In sum, you have not been called upon to be anything but a charming young lady, whom it is an impoliteness to find fault with’.

He paused an instant; then resting his fingers on his hips again, and thrusting out his powerful chin, he said—

‘Well, then, with that preparation, you wish to try the life of the artist; you wish to try a life of arduous, unceasing work, and—uncertain praise. Your praise would have to be earned, like your bread; and both would come slowly, scantily—what do I say?—they might hardly come at all’.

This tone of discouragement, which Klesmer half hoped might suffice without anything more unpleasant, roused some resistance in Gwendolen. With a slight turn of her head away from him, and an air of pique, she said—

‘I thought that you, being an artist, would consider the life one of the most honourable and delightful. And if I can do nothing better?—I suppose I can put up with the same risks as other people do’.

‘Do nothing better?’ said Klesmer, a little fired. ‘No, my dear Miss Harleth, you could do nothing better—neither man nor woman could do anything better—if you could do what was best or good of its kind. I am not decrying the life of the true artist. I am exalting it. I say, it is out of the reach of any but choice organisations—natures framed to love perfection and to labour for it; ready, like all true lovers, to endure, to wait, to say, I am not yet worthy, but she—Art, my mistress—is worthy, and I will live to merit her. An honourable life? Yes. But the honour comes from the inward vocation and the hard-won achievement: there is no honour in donning the life as a livery’.

When one appreciates the delicacy of the novel in its structure round the definition of social and artistic values, and sees the organised patterns of thematic treatment so different from the heavier authorial pointing of Middlemarch, it seems entirely natural that it should have suggested so much to Henry James for his The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Daniel Deronda seems in places almost Jamesian, and not only because James made use of congenial material from it. The archery contest where Gwendolen beats her arch-rival Miss Arrowpoint without in fact winning the contest (Juliet Fenn, a ‘middling’ ugly girl, wins it on consistency), is a stylized symbolic heightening of the issues that involve our heroine.8 Archery is an amateur social sport for upperclass young ladies, and her defeat of ‘the insignificant-looking’ Miss Arrowpoint (whose name has a charged meaning) is a hollow victory, because the latter opts out of social competition by rejecting it in her subsequent engagement to Klesmer.

Already in the opening of Chapter 6 of Book I Miss Arrowpoint makes a telling impression on Gwendolen:

She would not have chosen to confess how unfortunate she thought herself in not having had Miss Arrowpoint's musical advantages, so as to be able to question Herr Klesmer's taste with the confidence of thorough knowledge; still less, to admit even to herself that Miss Arrowpoint each time they met raised an unwonted feeling of jealousy in her: not in the least because she was an heiress, but because it was really provoking that a girl whose appearance you could not characterise except by saying that her figure was slight and of middle stature, her features small, her eyes tolerable and her complexion sallow, had nevertheless a certain mental superiority which could not be explained away—an exasperating thoroughness in her musical accomplishment, a fastidious discrimination in her general tastes, which made it impossible to force her admiration and kept you in awe of her standard. This insignificant-looking young lady of four-and-twenty, whom any one's eyes would have passed over negligently if she had not been Miss Arrowpoint, might be suspected of a secret opinion that Miss Harleth's acquirements were rather of a common order; and such an opinion was not made agreeable to think of by being always veiled under a perfect kindness of manner.

In art the ‘middling’ never comes near distinction, as Klesmer makes it painfully plain to Gwendolen in disabusing her of her ambitions to enter the world of music or drama. Here he uses values that oppose those of the archery contest:

You would have to bear what I may call glaring insignificance: any success must be won by the utmost patience. You would have to keep your place in a crowd, and after all it is likely you would lose it and get out of sight. If you determine to face these hardships and still try, you will have the dignity of a high purpose, even though you may have chosen unfortunately. You will have some merit, though you may win no prize. You have asked my judgment on your chances of winning. I don't pretend to speak absolutely; but measuring probabilities, my judgment is:—you will hardly achieve more than mediocrity.

James in calling his heroine of The Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer suggests that he has responded directly to this section of the novel.

Through Daniel Deronda, who is successful in the role of an observer and as the agent of moral values affecting Gwendolen Harleth, we can connect up her developing moral values with her recognition of aesthetic values. The skill and intelligence George Eliot employs in this psychological drama of a wilful girl facing a growing dissatisfaction remedies in great art what has been unacceptable in Felix Holt's bullying of Esther Lyon. In fact George Eliot in her discussion of morality and art in Daniel Deronda makes an attempt to include politics within her frame of reference; the conversation in Chapter 33 of Book 4 between Deronda and Sir Hugo Mallinger seems a curious backward glance at Felix Holt:

‘I am sorry not to do what would gratify you, sir’, said Deronda. ‘But I cannot persuade myself to look at politics as a profession’.

‘Why not? If a man is not born into public life by his position in the country, there's no way for him but to embrace it by his own efforts. The business of the country must be done—her Majesty's Government carried on, as the old Duke said. And it never could be, my boy, if everybody looked at politics as if they were prophecy, and demanded an inspired vocation. If you are to get into Parliament, it won't do to sit still and wait for a call either from heaven or constituents’.

‘I don't want to make a living out of opinions’, said Deronda; ‘especially out of borrowed opinions. Not that I mean to blame other men, I daresay many better fellows than I don't mind getting on to a platform praising themselves, and giving their word of honour for a party’.

‘I'll tell you what, Dan’, said Sir Hugo, ‘a man who sets his face against every sort of humbug is simply a three-cornered, impracticable fellow. There's a bad style of humbug, but there is also a good style—one that oils the wheels and makes progress possible. If you are to rule men, you must rule them through their own ideas; and I agree with the Archbishop at Naples who had a St. Januarius procession against the plague. It's no use having an Order in Council against popular shallowness. There is no action possible without a little acting’.

‘One may be obliged to give way to an occasional necessity’, said Deronda. ‘But it is one thing to say, “In this particular case I am forced to put on this foolscap and grin”, and another to buy a pocket foolscap and practise myself in grinning. I can't see any real public expediency that does not keep an ideal before it which makes a limit of deviation from the direct path. But if I were to set up for a public man I might mistake my own success for public expediency’.

One is happier with the background of the reality of life in Middlemarch.


  1. Professor G. S. Haight in making his one volume Selections from George Eliot's Letters (New Haven, 1985) as an authority on her writings felt safe to remark in his introduction to his section on Daniel Deronda (p. 421); ‘Letters of fervent gratitude came to G. E. from Jews all over the world, including the Chief Rabbi, for her depiction of Jewish life. For others this was “the bad part” of the book; as late as 1948 F. R. Leavis wrote “there is nothing to do but cut it away”. Sounder critics soon showed the unity of G. E.'s novel. Some rank it higher than Middlemarch’.

  2. In dealing with the influences of thinkers such as Comte and Feuerbach on George Eliot, Dr. Roberts demonstrates—perhaps even more than he recognises—that their creeds and philosophies are too simplistic to be included in the terms established by the greatness of her art.

  3. Other than an earlier introductory chapter to a novel describing a Staffordshire village and the life of neighbouring farm houses, mentioned in the entry for 6 December 1857 of her Journal.

  4. The history of Mr. Lyon's attachment to the Catholic Annette Ledru which interferes with his Congregationalist duties stands out as being written in another style from the rest of the novel, and surely derives from George Eliot's reading of The Scarlet Letter, with perhaps the influence of congenial Scott.

  5. Conrad also follows George Eliot's interests in a clash of religious cultures between Silas and the villagers by showing in his version the Catholic Yanko's blankness in the face of Protestant institutions: ‘He became aware of social differences, but remained for a long time surprised at the base poverty of the churches among so much wealth. He couldn't understand why they were shut up on weekdays. There was nothing to steal in them. Was it to keep people from praying too often? The rectory took much notice of him about that time, and I believe the young ladies attempted to prepare the ground for his conversion. They could not, however, break him of his habit of crossing himself, but he went so far as to take off the string with a couple of brass medals the size of a sixpence, a tiny metal cross, and a square sort of scapulary which he wore round his neck. He hung them on the wall by the side of his bed, and he was still to be heard every evening reciting the Lord's Prayer, in incomprehensible words and in a slow, fervent tone, as he had heard his old father do at the head of all the kneeling family, big and little, on every evening of his life’.

  6. Dorothea after the death of her husband cannot bring herself to dedicate the rest of her life to the futility of working on his research, showing that she has grown out of Victorian self-sacrificial conceptions.

  7. Adam Bede showed George Eliot clearly applying a formula of tragedy that while deriving from her knowledge of Greek tragedy, expressed itself in melodrama in the emotional emphasis of the novel. This heightened dramatic expression we meet at best in the theatrical projection of Mrs. Transome in Felix Holt. Certainly no writer can work satisfactorily through an application of mere formulae, and the formula of a drama of the ordinary and unheroic does not in itself ensure automatic success in Middlemarch. It is only a more suitable conceptual starting point for the artist.

  8. In Chapter 13 of Book 2 when Gwendolen tours the grounds of Diplow with Grandcourt, or the scene of the acting disturbed by the opening panel in Chapter 6 of Book I, a comparison can be made with scenes in Mansfield Park, demonstrating how George Eliot in her intellectual handling of psychological interest has developed the art of novel-writing to a stylized dramatic extreme. The ponderous emphases in parts of the novel on the thematic use of ‘gambling’ or ‘ghosts’ are the less admirable side of this undertaking.

Andrew Thompson (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8009

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 create ‘an atmosphere of hopeless suffering caused by Mrs Transome's sins’, in which she is tortured by her ex-lover, Jermyn, and her son, Harold.1 Wiesenfarth also notes how in the novel ‘growth through suffering … seems peculiarly susceptible to presentation in terms of Dantean imagery’ (Notebook, p. xxxviii). In this article, I shall examine these observations and argue that Eliot's use of Dante was rather more extensive, yet at the same time more specific, than the outline given by Wiesenfarth suggests.

George Eliot makes specific reference to Dante on three occasions within Felix Holt, the Radical, and uses lines from the Divina Commedia as epigraphs to two chapters.2 The first reference comes in the introduction, and likens Sampson, the driver of the coach on which the author imagines us to be travelling through the English countryside, to Dante's Virgil: ‘The coachman was an excellent travelling companion and commentator on the landscape; he could tell the names of sites and persons, and explained the meanings of groups, as well as the shade of Virgil in a more memorable journey’ (Felix, p. 6).3 The second reference to Dante, also in the introduction, and the one Wiesenfarth gives in full, is the allusion to Canto xiii:

The poets have told us of a dolorous enchanted forest in the under world. The thorn bushes there, and the thick-barked stems, have human histories hidden in them; the power of unuttered cries dwells in the passionless-seeming branches, and the red warm blood is darkly feeding the quivering nerves of a sleepless memory that watches through all dreams. These things are a parable.

(Felix, p. 8)

Wiesenfarth gives a useful gloss on the above passage, which will serve as a starting-point for further analysis:

The parable is evident in the novel when Eliot presents Mrs Transome as one of the ‘passionless-seeming branches’ living with the power of ‘unuttered cries’ in the hell of Transome Court; there she suffers the fate of a sinful queen who has failed to achieve happiness. …

She took Jermyn as her lover, and he fathered Harold whom she loves. Now it is Jermyn and Harold who torture her most cruelly. Harold sits down beside her with ‘the unmanageable strength of a great bird’ (ch. 1), and Jermyn turns ‘tenderness into calculation’.

(Notebook, pp. xxxi-xxxii)

Wiesenfarth picks up the reference to the harpies in Harold's ‘unmanageable strength of a great bird’, and the savage image of Jermyn's words to Mrs Transome being ‘as pleasant to her as if it had been cut into her bared arm’, which echoes the character of Dante's injury to the tree from which he snaps a twig at the behest of Virgil. Transome Court, hidden behind a thick belt of trees, is strongly reminiscent of Dante's Hell, in which a monotonous cycle of events repeats itself. Eliot uses the Wood of the Suicides as a metaphor for Mrs Transome's attenuated existence. ‘She had contracted small rigid habits of thinking and acting’ (Felix, p. 21), and ‘she objects to changes’ (p. 37). Her husband spends his life in the fruitless occupation of repeatedly rearranging his collection of insects. In a Dantean contrappasso, he is defined by his choice, and comes to resemble that which he has chosen. ‘Your father has slept there for years. He will be like a distracted insect, and never know where to go, if you alter the track he has to walk in’ (Felix, p. 17). Yet it is perhaps too easy to equate the hell of Transome Court with Dante's Wood of the Suicides in Canto xiii, and to assume that Eliot employs the Dantean imagery simply as an objective correlative for Mrs Transome's mental life, or to elicit pity for her. The references to Dante are very specific and function in various ways at different levels of the text to support Eliot's own moral universe. For, as in the Divina Commedia, there is a strong element of judgement present in Eliot's novel. Piero delle Vigne, to whom Dante speaks in Canto xiii, is a paradigm of intransigence. Unable to tolerate an image of himself created by those who accused him of treason, he commits suicide. Mrs Transome's oppressive dread is, in part, a fear of any such altered image of herself. She, too, finds herself powerless to stop the revelation of the truth of her own past conduct, while her failure to give any meaning to her suffering, to make it a vehicle for repentance and forgiveness, makes her, like Piero, an ‘imprisoned spirit’ (Inferno, xiii. 87).4

The third of the direct references to the Divina Commedia comes late on in Felix Holt: ‘There is heroism even in the circles of hell for fellow-sinners who cling to each other in the fiery whirlwind and never recriminate’ (Felix, p. 372). Wiesenfarth comments that Jermyn ‘does nothing but recriminate’ (Notebook, p. xxxii). The passage is a direct reference to Canto v of the Inferno, where in the circle of the lustful Dante meets the souls of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, who, in Wiesenfarth's opinion, are evoked by Eliot as ‘an ideal’ in comparison with Jermyn and Mrs Transome (Notebook, p. 170). In the notebook edited by Wiesenfarth, there are two quotations from Inferno, v.5 The first of these reads:

A vizio di lussuria fu sì rotta,
                    che libito fè licito in sua legge
                    per tòrre il biasmo in che era condotta.

(l. 55)

(With the vice of luxury was she so broken, that she made lust and law alike in her decree, to take away the blame she had incurred.)

These words, spoken by Virgil, refer to Semiramis, legendary queen of Assyria (Inferno, v. 58), and in Felix Holt we read of Mrs Transome that ‘unlike the Semiramis who made laws to suit her practical licence, she loved, poor soul in the midst of desecrated sanctities, and of honours that look tarnished in the light of monotonous and weary suns’. This comment prefigures the reference to the ‘fellow-sinners who cling to each other’, in the way that Semiramis comes before Paolo and Francesca (‘quei due che 'nsieme vanno’ (‘these two that go together’) Inferno, v. 74) in the procession of souls blown on the winds of passion, the ‘bufera infernal’. Canto v is of particular importance thematically. It acts as a subtext with direct bearing not only on the stories of Mrs Transome and Jermyn but also on those of each of the other major characters.

The most obvious connexion between the stories of Mrs Transome and Jermyn and Francesca and Paolo is that both pairs were lovers. Dante's lovers were discovered and killed in the very act of sinning, whereas the sins of Eliot's lovers emerge years after, and much of Mrs Transome's tragedy happens in the interval between the deed and its discovery. The parallels between Mrs Transome and Francesca are quite specific, however.

In the character of Francesca, Dante shows the power of literature to affect and influence the reader, and in particular the effect of the Rime of the dolce stil nuovo, which Dante had himself practised earlier in life. It becomes evident that Francesca is steeped in such romantic literature when she attempts to justify her actions using the erroneous ideologies embodied in this poetry, and in language which, in its obsession with amor, imitates the poetry of the Stilnovisti:

Amor, ch'al cor gentil ratto s'apprende,
                    prese costui della bella persona
                    che mi fu tolta; e 'l modo ancor m'offende.
Amor, ch'a nullo amato amar perdona,
                    mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
                    che, come vedi, ancor non m'abbandona.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.

(Inferno, v. 100)

(Love, which quickly lays its claim to tender hearts, seized hold of him through the beauty that was later taken from me; and the way in which it happened still afflicts me. Love, which will not permit one who is loved not to love in turn, seized hold of me through the pleasures I had from him, so that, as you can see, it still has not left me. Love led us to a single death.)

In a similar fashion, Mrs Transome has herself been the victim both of an inadequate education and of morally questionable literature which nurtures an inherent tendency in her character towards egoism:

When she was young she had been thought wonderfully clever and accomplished, and had been rather ambitious of intellectual superiority—had secretly picked out for private reading the lighter parts of dangerous French authors—and in company had been able to talk of Mr. Burke's style, or of Chateaubriand's eloquence—had laughed at the Lyrical Ballads and admired Mr. Southey's ‘Thalaba’. She always thought that the dangerous French writers were wicked, and that her reading of them was a sin; but many sinful things were highly agreeable to her, and many things which she did not doubt to be good and true were dull and meaningless. She found ridicule of Biblical characters very amusing, and she was interested in stories of illicit passion … the notion that what is true and, in general, good for mankind, is stupid and drug-like, is not a safe theoretic basis in circumstances of temptation and difficulty.

(Felix, pp. 25-26)

Words must constantly be analysed, and neither Francesca nor Mrs Transome does this. Each allows literature to provide a structure for her emotions, and to impose an order on her own experience.

Like Francesca, Mrs Transome is living in a state in which the past is for ever reasserting itself, or eternally present. Both are irrevocably linked to the choices they have made (‘questi, che mai da me non fia diviso’ (‘this man who never shall be parted from me’) Inferno, v. 135). Eliot leaves us in no doubt that this choice stems ultimately from character. Throughout Mrs Transome's life ‘there had vibrated the maiden need to have her hand kissed and be the object of chivalry’ (Felix, p. 106), and Jermyn, with ‘a selfishness which then took the form of homage to her’, fulfilled this need (p. 368).

As Francesca is condemned to remain always with Paolo, so Mrs Transome is for ever united with Jermyn through her son, Harold. Though they have been estranged as lovers for twenty years when the novel begins, there is a symbolic acknowledgement of their indivisibility when the past is suddenly made present:

After a few moments' silence she said, in a gentle and almost tremulous voice—

‘Let me take your arm.’

He gave it immediately, putting on his hat and wondering. For more than twenty years Mrs. Transome had never chosen to take his arm.

(Felix, p. 107)6

Part of Mrs Transome's tragedy lies in her inability to understand the nature of her sin, resulting, in Dante's and Eliot's terms, in failure as a moral being. Francesca's words apply again in the case of Mrs Transome:

Nessun maggior dolore
          che ricordarsi del tempo felice
          nella miseria.

(Inferno, v. 121)

(There is no greater sadness than recalling a happy time when in the throes of misery.)

Although she is bitter towards Jermyn in her misery, Mrs Transome's own ‘happy time’ is only indicated as the time before Harold was born:

‘Denner,’ she said, in a low tone, ‘if I could choose at this moment, I would choose that Harold should never have been born.’

‘Nay, my dear … it was a happiness to you then.’

‘I don't believe I felt the happiness then as I feel the misery now.’

(Felix, p. 347)

We find that Mrs Transome ‘was not penitent. She had borne too hard a punishment’ (Felix, p. 434). She feels remorse, it is true, but her refusal to acknowledge her own transgression, or to see the bearing of moral law upon her own circumstances, precludes all possibility of moral growth.

Eliot is concerned with Dante's pity, and refers to it in her notebook, in a note on Canto xiii:

To balance Dante's severity, there are many instances of tenderness and compassion: e.g. in the wood of suicides Canto xiii, 84, he begs Virgil to ask questions for him of Pietro de' Vigni—‘Ch' io non potrei: tanta pietà m'accora.’—Again, in C. xiv at the beginning, he cannot go away from the Florentine transfixed as a tree without gathering up the scattered leaves & giving them back to the poor trunk.

(Notebook, p. 43)

and again: ‘Throughout the Inferno I find only three instances of what can be called cruelty in Dante. Everywhere else the sufferings of the damned fill him with pity’ (p. 44).

Within Felix Holt, George Eliot is concerned to balance her own severity in assigning Mrs Transome to the hell of the author's own creating, with tenderness and compassion. This becomes clear from a particularly ‘Dantesque’ passage in the novel, which comes soon after the discovery of Mrs Transome's past relationship with Jermyn, and Harold's true parentage:

All had been stillness hitherto, except the fitful wind outside. But her ears now caught a sound within—slight, but sudden. She moved near the door, and heard the sweep of something on the matting outside. It came closer and paused. Then it began again, and seemed to sweep away from her. Then it approached, and paused as it had done before. Esther listened, wondering. The same thing happened again and again, till she could bear it no longer. She opened her door, and in the dim light of the corridor, where the glass above seemed to make a glimmering sky, she saw Mrs Transome's tall figure pacing slowly, with her cheek upon her hand.

(Felix, p. 432)

The ‘fitful wind’, with its connotations of spent or curbed passion, the sound of the repeated sweeping past of Mrs Transome in the confined space of the corridor, and the monotony and loneliness of her life are all strongly suggestive of Dante's vision. Mrs Transome is, in fact, coming to Esther for comfort in her sorrow. Her own isolating pride is beginning to melt, and she wishes for compassion and love from Esther. Yet, as in Inferno, v, where the souls do not appear to be able to come of their own accord, Mrs Transome ‘might have gone on pacing the corridor like an uneasy spirit without a goal, if Esther's thought, leaping towards her, had not saved her from the need to ask admission’ (Felix, p. 435). In Inferno, v, Dante describes the effect of his call to the sinners in the following terms:

Quali colombe, dal disio chiamate,
                    con l'ali alzate e ferme al dolce nido
                    vengon per l'aere dal voler portate;
cotali uscir della schiera ov' è Dido,
                    a noi venendo per l'aere maligno,
                    sì forte fu l'affetuoso grido.

(l. 82)

(Just like doves, called by desire, guided by instinct return to their nests gliding through the air on outstretched, motionless wings, they left the squad where Dido is coming towards us on the malignant air; such was the power of my loving cry.)

In the upper circles of Dante's Inferno, we still sense the essential humanity of the sinners. We are made aware of the common problems of the human condition, of the ties which link the damned to other human beings and often to Dante himself. In Canto v, the image of Dante's call bridging the spatial distance between himself and the sinners is symbolic of this partial identification with them. Eliot uses a similar image when she describes Esther's ‘thought leaping towards’ Mrs Transome saving her ‘from the need to ask admission’ (Felix, p. 435). Both authors are concerned to show the effect of pity in binding human beings together. This powerful, altruistic emotion is the converse of that selfish passion by means of which both Dante's and Eliot's characters were brought to the ‘doloroso passo’.7 Esther has ‘a passionate desire to soothe this suffering woman’. Here however, the passion and desire are constructive, healing qualities, and this contrast highlights the Dantean precept that the sins of incontinence (those of the flesh) are essentially an excess of perversion of some good human quality.

Both the character Dante, within the Inferno, and Esther in Felix Holt show extreme emotional reactions in the face of the suffering of the sinners. Of Dante we are told

                                                  sì che di pietade
                    io venni men così com'io morisse;
e caddi come corpo morto cade.

(Inferno, v. 140)8

(so that out of pity I grew faint as though I was dying, and I fell like a dead body falls.)

The reason for Dante's reaction here may be the knowledge that he was himself implicated in the sin of Paolo and Francesca, through his writings in the dolce stil nuovo, which were similar in content to the literature of romance which contributed to their damnation. Esther ‘found it difficult to speak. The dimly-suggested tragedy of this woman's life, the dreary waste of years empty of sweet trust and affection, afflicted her even to horror’ (Felix, p. 436).

Her ‘horror’ arises, I think, partly from the realization that she, too, might easily have suffered the same fate as Mrs Transome. Like her, Esther was fond of morally questionable literature. Felix Holt acts as Eliot's commentator on Esther's reading-matter. Byron's heroes are the ‘most paltry puppets that were ever pulled by the strings of lust and pride’ (Felix, p. 64), and Réné ‘is idiotic immorality dressed up to look fine’ (p. 113). The reading (and writing) of such literature is associated by Eliot with moral irresponsibility, and with the dissipation of intelligence. Esther is accused of giving her ‘soul up to trifles’ (p. 113), and of being happy only when she can ‘get rid of any judgement that must carry grave action after it’ (p. 114). It is in the context of moral choice that Esther is described in terms of the bird imagery, which, in Dante's fifth Canto, is associated with the moral lightness of sin (Inferno, v, 74-75). On her arrival at Transome Court Esther appears to little Harry like ‘a new sort of bird’ (Felix, p. 348) and Felix tells her ‘You don't care to be better than a bird trimming its feathers, and pecking about after what pleases it’ (p. 114). There is a deliberate note of ambiguity in Eliot's choice of image, however. For whilst it is intended by Felix as a criticism of Esther's moral seriousness, it also has a predictive quality. Dante uses the same image in Purgatorio, ii:

Come quando, cogliendo biado e loglio,
                    li colombi adunati alla pastura,
                    quieti sanza mostrar l'usato orgoglio,
se cosa appare ond'elli abbian paura,
                    subitamente lasciano star l'esca,
                    perch'assaliti son da maggior cura;
così vid'io quella masnada fresca
                    lasciar lo canto, e gire inver la costa,
                    com'uom che va, nè sa dove riesca:
nè la nostra partita fu men tosta.

(l. 124)

(As when doves are feeding together, picking up corn and tares, quietly, with none of their usual proud strutting; if then something appears which scares them, they abandon their feed at once because assailed by a greater care; thus I saw the band which had just arrived leave their song and move off towards the slope, like people who go not knowing where they will end up: nor was our own departure any less speedy than theirs.)

Esther, too, will shortly be ‘assailed by a greater care’, and ‘leave the song’ of rejected literature behind. Eliot then links the bird image directly with Esther's moment of moral choice, in a deliberate echo of lines from Dante's fifth Canto of Inferno: ‘That young presence which had flitted like a white new-winged dove over all the saddening relics of Transome Court, could not find its home there. Harold heard … that she loved some one else, and that she resigned all claim to the Transome estates’ (Felix, p. 437). Esther is herself ‘called by desire’, but unlike the sinners in Canto v, in her the image is reinstated in its proper context. Dante had used the dove, Christian symbol of peace, love, and gentleness, in the incongruous setting of the Inferno to heighten the pathos of the sinners' plight once we realize that, although condemned for their sin, they too partake of those valuable qualities conveyed by the dove image.

George Eliot creates a ‘moral landscape’ in Felix Holt, the Radical, which sometimes closely parallels that of Dante in the Divina Commedia, and indeed, Esther's own journey echoes that of the Dante-character. Towards the end of the novel several references to this journey reinforce the opening allusion to Sampson the coachman. Esther ‘had come to a new stage in her journey … and her young, untired spirit was full of curiosity’ (Felix, p. 342). Her father tells her that she has been ‘led by a peculiar path, and into experiences which are not the ordinary lot of those who are seated in high places’ (p. 359). Her stay at Transome Court becomes a ‘moral descent’ (p. 397), and she comes to feel that ‘in accepting Harold Transome she left the high mountain air, the passionate serenity of perfect love forever behind her’ (p. 394). She stood ‘at the first and last parting of the ways’ (an image reminiscent of the geography of Virgil's underworld), facing the choice which would give unity and definition to her life, and her reflections at this point are strongly evocative of the seventh Canto of Dante's Purgatorio, where the sinners are constrained to submit their own desire to progress upwards to a higher will, which rules that they may not move on by night, but must wait and watch in darkness:

A supreme love, a motive that gives a sublime rhythm to a woman's life and exalts habit into partnership with the soul's highest needs, is not to be had where and how she wills: to know that high initiation, she must often tread where it is hard to tread, and feel the chill air, and watch through darkness. It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult.

(Felix, p. 431)9

We get confirmation of her decision only at the very end of the novel, but in terms of the Dantean moral landscape, the choice has been made earlier. Esther's own journey echoes Dante's when he emerges from Hell and reaches the foot of Mount Purgatory. For Esther, Felix was ‘like the return of morning’ (p. 400) after her stay at Transome Court. She breaks down in tears (‘it was an unspeakable relief to her after all the pent-up stifling experience’ (p. 396)) at the thought that she might never see Felix again after his trial, and finally dries her own and then her father's eyes, in a gesture echoing Virgil's tenderness towards Dante when he washes the poet's tear-stained cheeks (‘guance lacrimose’, Purgatorio, i. 124-27) when they emerge from Hell.

Felix himself takes on some of the characteristics of a Virgil figure. Esther's relationship to Felix has rightly annoyed some feminist critics.10 I believe, though, that Eliot was trying to parallel the Virgil-Dante relationship in her portrayal of the humble disciple Esther and the enlightened mentor Felix. Eliot comments that Esther ‘went towards him with the swift movement of a frightened child towards its protector’ (Felix, p. 403) in a deliberate evocation of the attitude of the Dante-character towards his own guide, teacher, and protector, Virgil, in the lower regions of Hell.11 Several times in Inferno Dante relies on Virgil for protection. Eliot chooses a similar image to the one used by Dante in Purgatorio xxx:

volsimi alla sinistra col rispitto
                    col quale il fantolin corre alla mamma
                    quando ha paura o quando elli è afflitto,
per dicere a Virgilio

(l. 43)

(I turned round to my left with that trust with which a small child runs to its mother when afraid or distressed, to say to Virgil.)

One critic has noted that ‘the novels of George Eliot's maturity re-enact her own emancipation’.12 This implies a strong autobiographical content, and raises the problem of the relationship of the author to the characters in her novels: in this case between George Eliot and Esther in Felix Holt. I believe the relationship is a particularly close one in a number of ways. Esther experiences many of the same emotional crises and problems as her author, choosing as she does to disappoint expectation and flout convention by rejecting social advantage in marriage for a socially far less acceptable alternative, Felix. The strongly present father-figure in the novel does not, however, appear to relate closely to the facts of George Eliot's own life: she quarrelled with her own father over her loss of religious faith, and the breach between them was never fully repaired. Along with Felix Holt, Esther's stepfather, Mr Lyon, takes on something of the qualities of a Virgil figure. Like Virgil, whose journey to the underworld Dante repeats in the Inferno, Mr Lyon has already completed the journey which Esther is now taking. (His story of moral choice and resistance to social convention, which prefigures Esther's own, is recounted as a narrative in Chapter 6 of the novel.) The father-figure appears here to be fully integrated into the pattern of the Dantean analogy in a kind of wish-fulfilment (‘she wished to go back to her father (Felix, p. 437)) rather than, as in Eliot's life, as a source of conflict, regret, and sorrow.

In Felix Holt, the Radical Eliot is, I suggest, recasting her own experience. By the time she wrote Felix Holt she had come through a period of turmoil and struggle, to achieve both equanimity and security in her own life. Marian Evans-Lewes had the same conviction about her own life as her narrator in Felix Holt had about Esther's: ‘I will only say that Esther has never repented’ (Felix, p. 443). The heroine's choices are seen to be the right ones: she achieves a ‘difficult blessedness’ (p. 213), thereby completing the pre-existing pattern of Dante's Commedia. Through Esther (and Esther's identification with the Dante-character), the text presents us with a justification of the author's own course of action, though the elements of her struggle are, I believe, distanced sufficiently for the explanatory and justificatory functions of the text to remain on a subliminal level.

Eliot gives us a further Dantean ‘vision’ of the hell from which Esther escapes in the scene where Jermyn reveals his true relationship to Harold:

‘Mr. Transome, I must speak to you in private.’ …

He started and looked round into Jermyn's eyes. For an instant which seemed long, there was no sound between them, but only angry hatred gathering in the two faces. Harold felt himself going to crush this insolence: Jermyn felt that he had words within him that were fangs to clutch this obstinate strength, and wring forth the blood and compel submission. He said in a tone that was rather lower, but yet harder and more biting—

‘You will repent else—for your mother's sake.’

At that sound, quick as a leaping flame, Harold had struck Jermyn across the face with his whip. The brim of his hat had been a defence. Jermyn, a powerful man, had instantly thrust out his hand and clutched Harold hard by his clothes just below the throat, pushing him slightly so as to make him stagger. …

‘Let me go, you scoundrel! or I'll be the death of you’

‘Do,’ said Jermyn, in a grating voice; ‘I am your father.’ …

The two men had got very near the long mirror. They were both white; both had anger and hatred in their faces; the hands of both were upraised. As Harold heard the last terrible words he started at a leaping throb that went through him, and in the start turned his eyes away from Jermyn's face. He turned them on the same face in the glass with his own beside it, and saw the hated fatherhood reasserted.

(Felix, pp. 422-23)

This passage brings together allusions to and images from two Cantos of the Inferno (xxxii and xxxiii), those of the betrayers in Lake Cocytus. The description of hatred and rage in Jermyn's words, which become ‘fangs to clutch’ evokes Dante's description of Count Ugolino encased in the ice of the lake:

la bocca solevò dal fiero pasto
                    quel peccator, forbendola a' capelli
                    del capo ch'elli avea di retro guasto.

(xxxiii. 1)

(That sinner raised his mouth from his savage meal, wiping it on the hair of that head, the back of which he had destroyed.)

In Dante's account Ugolino, who betrayed his own city of Pisa, and was in turn betrayed by his accomplice, Archbishop Ruggiero, whose head he now gnaws in Cocytus, was imprisoned in a tower with his children, and was driven by hunger to eat their flesh after their deaths. The Dantean echo in Felix Holt serves to point up, and to focus our attention on, the nature of the ‘crimes’ of betrayal involved. The reference is even more specific, however, for Jermyn, too, has been feeding off the estate of his own child for years, and it is this which has induced Harold to ‘set the dogs on’ him (Felix, p. 178).13 Eliot's use of the mirror in the confrontation scene between father and son is an interesting reworking of elements from Dante's Canto xxxii:

Per ch'io mi volsi, e vidimi davanti
                    e sotto i piedi un lago che per gelo
                    avea di vetro e non d'acqua sembiante.

(Inferno xxxii. 22)

(And so I turned round, and saw before me, beneath my feet, a lake which was so frozen over that it looked more like glass than water.)

The betrayers are compelled to look upon their own reflections, which expose to them the truth of their sins in the ice eternally. One of them asks Dante, ‘Perchè cotanto in noi ti specchi?’ (‘Why do you stare at us so hard?’) (xxxii. 54) and he, in turn, asks to know the names of the two sinners who are pressed so close together in the ice that the hair of their heads intermingles:

                    E quei piegaro i colli;
                    e poi ch'ebber li visi a me eretti,
li occhi lor, ch'eran pria pur dentro molli,
                    gocciar su per le labbra, e 'l gelo strinse
                    le lacrime tra essi e riserrolli.
Con legno legno spranga mai non cinse
                    forte così; ond'ei come due becchi
                    cozzaro insieme, tanta ira li vinse.

(xxxii. 44)

(And they craned their necks, and when they had lifted their faces towards me, their eyes, which till then had contained their tears, dripped them down onto their lips, and the cold froze those tears in their eyes and sealed them up once more. No bolt ever fastened wood to wood more firmly; and so it was that in their fury they butted their heads together like a pair of goats.)

The two are unable to speak, but their rage finds expression in frozen tears and animal aggression towards each other. As with Ugolino, blood relations are involved. These two sons of a Tuscan nobleman disputed their inheritance and subsequently killed each other. Eliot re-creates Dante's visual image of blood relatives locked in struggle. Jermyn ‘was suffering the torment of a compressed rage, which, if not impotent to inflict pain on another, was impotent to avert evil from himself’ (Felix, p. 421). Like the sinners in Cocytus, who cannot wait to betray each other to Dante, we are aware that Jermyn is himself something of a habitual betrayer, who has previously betrayed Bycliffe, Esther's true father. He has been condemned and imprisoned by his own actions, and is reduced to the state of brute desperation and anger of the sinners in Dante's Lake Cocytus.14 Eliot uses these parallel scenes to highlight the betrayal by Jermyn, but also that by Harold, who according to the Dantean scheme of Inferno is guilty of betraying a guest, Esther, in that he uses the human affections as an instrument to achieve his own advantage.15 Eliot uses Dante to provide paradigms of the crimes of which her characters are guilty. If we are sensitive to these concealed allusions, they serve to remind us of the issues and to clarify them in a world where, in its multiplicity and multiformity of relations, perspective and moral resolve can easily be eroded by currents of action. For ‘these things which are easy to discern when they are painted for us on the large canvas of poetic story become confused and obscure even for well-read gentlemen when their affection for themselves is alarmed by pressing details of actual experience’ (Felix, p. 372). Eliot's reworking of elements and themes present in Dante's Cocytus represents her own rejection of the sterile ‘waste-land’ of Transome Court. The theme cannot be pursued any further, and as for Dante, there is nowhere left for Esther to go, but to follow the road through to the other side: ‘She resigned all claim to the Transome estates. She wished to go back to her father’ (p. 437). Like Dante, George Eliot is a determinist, and this facilitates her integration of the Dantean elements into her novel. For Dante, it was the heavens which determined the character of a man, whereas for Eliot it was the sum of past experiences, actions, and reflections upon experience. Yet both acknowledge man's power to influence his own destiny: Dante through man's free will, and Eliot through the determinist position that a man is himself one of the causes of what he becomes.16 Thus freedom becomes the freedom to obey a higher law: Divine Law for Dante, and a commonly agreed moral code, justifiable in purely human terms, for Eliot. The consequences of transgressing this code are made abundantly clear in the moral world of Felix Holt. Jermyn ‘had sinned for the sake of particular concrete things, and particular concrete consequences were likely to follow’ (Felix, p. 109). This comment by Eliot might also be allowed to stand for the whole of Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio.

Both writers acknowledge that the will is often swayed by the passions and often extend their pity to those who fail in the struggle. Yet the full realization of man's humanity remains inextricably linked to the possession of freedom as they defined it, and upon knowledge of the higher laws. In Felix Holt this is the crux of the matter. For Esther ‘made a deliberate choice’ (p. 439). Mrs Transome and Jermyn, however, ‘had seen no reason why they should not indulge their passion and their vanity’ and ‘the reasons had gradually been unfolding themselves ever since’ (p. 205). For both Dante and Eliot, the mind must be an active agent operating at the crucial moments of decision. The passivity of Dante's Francesca, whose special pleading consists of the assertion that she was powerless in the face of forces which were too strong for her, becomes merely a means of abdicating responsibility. This passivity is present in Eliot's characters too. Mrs Transome ‘must put up with all things as they are determined for me’ (p. 320) and believes herself to be ‘too old to learn to call bitter sweet and sweet bitter’ (p. 108), and Jermyn reflects that ‘perhaps if he had not allowed himself to be determined (chiefly, of course, by the feelings of others, for of what effect would his own feelings have been without them?) into the road he actually took, he might have done better for himself’ (p. 366).17 The two Dantean scenes in Felix Holt, the encounters between Esther and Mrs Transome and between Jermyn and Harold, reflect Dante's division in Inferno between the sins of the flesh (incontinence) and those of the fraudulent, who abuse the intellect. In the lower region of Inferno, the emphasis is thrown upon the use and abuse of language, and the theme of the status of language itself (a recurrent one for Dante throughout the Commedia), is particularly clearly focused in the Cantos of the betrayers, where there is a strong contrast between the use of language for the lowest moral purposes, and Dante's own insistence on truth:

‘Omai' diss'io ‘nonvo’ che tu favelle,
                    malvagio traditor: ch'alla tua onta
                    io porterò di te vere novelle.’

(Inferno, xxxii. 109)

(‘Now [I know your name]’ I said, ‘I don't want you to speak, you filthy traitor, for to your shame I'll take back with me real news about you.’)

The same theme also runs through Eliot's novel. She comments near the beginning of the book that ‘there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life’ (Felix, p. 45). Language acts as a mediator between the private and public spheres in the novel, and, as the means by which the individual may be judged by society, it tends to sanction the established moral code. Mrs Transome's dread is essentially fear of exposure through language, and the consequences of such an exposure. We repeatedly witness various degrees of the perversion of language. In the election campaign, Felix finds his ‘own serious phrases, [his] own rooted beliefs, caricatured’ by the political agent Johnson (p. 127), who then accuses Felix of misrepresenting his words: ‘I call it a poor-spirited thing to take up a man's straight-forward words and twist them. What I meant to say was plain enough’ (p. 128). Harold uses language to conceal his motives in courting Esther, and Jermyn betrays Mrs Transome to her son. Within the novel, those who transgress the moral code thereby choose alienation, become isolated from society, and as in the Divina Commedia, are shown as regressing into an animal state.18 Language, for George Eliot, is an essential instrument in allowing access to accepted moral truths—in Felix's words, ‘the ruling belief in society about what is right and what is wrong, what is honourable and what is shameful’ (p. 274). Felix insists that Mr Lyon should ‘teach any truth you can, whether it's in the Testament or out of it. It's little enough anybody can get hold of, and still less what he can drive into a pence-counting, parcel-tying generation, such as mostly fill your chapels’ (p. 60). In other words, the already fragile higher moral truths, which for Eliot were justifiable in purely human terms and upon which any truly ‘human’ organization must depend, were made more vulnerable by the fact that they must be filtered through the medium of language, which, as we see in the novel, easily distorts. For the author, as for her character Felix, language assumes even greater importance in a world in which morality is threatened by emerging economic, social, and political forces, by the breakdown of established religion and by the human implications of Darwin's theory. For Eliot, then, truthfulness in her own use of language becomes a moral imperative. As a novelist, mediating between her own private and the ‘wider public life’, it became incumbent on her to use language constructively to safeguard morality through sustained effort and continual striving to achieve clarity of expression in the representation of her own vision of truth without distortion. There was a constant need to guard against the possibility that fiction might become merely deceit. Eliot, like Dante, realized the difficulties involved in working with a fallible medium. ‘Speech’, she said, ‘is but broken light upon the depth ❙ Of the unspoken.’19 Yet with Eliot, I believe, such an acknowledgement merely serves to underline her own moral imperative in the use of language.

We can look to George Eliot's essays for further evidence of her moral outlook and for the strong affinities which, as Eliot herself realized, her moral vision had with that of Dante. In a ‘godless’ society, where the only sanctions are those of human morality: ‘Our civilisation, considered as a splendid material fabric, is helplessly in peril without the spiritual police of sentiments or ideal feelings. And it is this invisible police which we had need, as a community, strive to maintain in efficient force.’20 It was with this sense of moral responsibility that Eliot wrote her novels, for she, like Dante, saw literature as a force either for truth or lies, good or evil.21 She implicitly links her own activity in writing with Dante's:

I respect the horsewhip when applied to the back of Cruelty, and think that he who applies it is a more perfect human being because his outleap of indignation is not checked by too curious reflection on the nature of guilt—a more perfect human being because he more completely incorporates the best social life of the race, which can never be constituted by ideas that nullify action. This is the essence of Dante's sentiment (it is painful to think that he applies it so cruelly)—

‘E cortesia fù, lui esser villano.’

and it is undeniable that a too intense consciousness of one's kinship with all frailties and vices undermines the active heroism which battles against wrong.

Eliot, like Dante, passes judgement on her characters within her own moral framework, and her conception of character is very Dantean:

When we come to examine in detail what is the sane mind in the sane body, the final test of completeness seems to be a security of distinction between what we have professed and what we have done; what we have aimed at and what we have achieved; what we have invented and what we have witnessed or had evidenced to us; what we think and feel in the present and what we thought and felt in the past.

(‘How We Come to Give Ourselves False Testimonials and Believe in Them’ (Theophrastus Such, pp. 122-23, 125))

Dante is used as a ‘moral touchstone’, providing parallels and contrasts with the content of Felix Holt. Eliot uses the concrete, physical landscape of Dante's moral universe to point and direct our judgements as well as our sympathies. She could have expected a good proportion of her readers to be familiar with the Divina Commedia, and thus to pick up the buried allusions within the text, especially those to the great love and the great hatred of Francesca and Ugolino respectively, but also perhaps those to the Purgatorio and Paradiso. There is, too, a strong suggestion that Dante is there to counter any tendency towards ‘a too curious reflection of the nature of guilt’ and Eliot's own ‘intense consciousness of … kinship with all frailties and human vices’.


  1. Joseph Wiesenfarth, A Writer's Notebook 1854-1879 (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1981), p. xxxi. (Hereafter cited as Notebook).

  2. Eliot loosely translates lines from Dante as the epigraphs to Chapters 15 and 22 of Felix Holt. The epigraph to Chapter 15 reads: ‘And doubt shall be as lead upon the feet ❙ Of thy most anxious will.’ The source for this is Paradiso, xiii. 112-14:

    E questo ti fia sempre piombo a' piedi,
                        per farti muover lento, con' uom lasso,
                        E al sì e al no, che tu non vedi;

    The epigraph to Chapter 22 reads: ‘Her gentle looks shot arrows, piercing him ❙ As gods are pierced, with poison of sweet pity.’ Here, the source is Inferno, xxix. 43-44: ‘Lamenti saettaron me diversi, ❙ che di pietà ferrati avean gli strali’ (see Notebook, pp. 43, 46, 171, and 173).

  3. George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical (first published 1866) (London, 1909; reprinted 1983). (Hereafter cited as Felix).

  4. I have provided my own translation of the Divina Commedia throughout, except where Eliot has translated lines herself (see note 2).

  5. See also note 7.

  6. Jermyn, too, finds the past returning upon him. He mistakenly identifies the figure of his daughter with Mrs Transome, ‘another tall white-wrapped figure which had sometimes set his heart beating quickly more than thirty years before’ (Felix, p. 205).

  7. George Eliot transcribed Dante's comment on the sinners in Canto v into her notebook: ‘Oh, lasso, ❙ Quanti dolci pensier, quanto disio ❙ Menò costoro al doloroso passo!’ (l. 112). (Oh, the pity of it, that such sweet thoughts, such desires, should lead them to that grievous step!) (see Notebook, p. 43).

  8. See also note 2, on Eliot's epigraph to Chapter 22 of Felix.

  9. See Divina Commedia, Purgatorio, vii. 40-60.

  10. See, for example, B. Zimmermann, ‘Felix Holt and the True Power of Womanhood’, ELH, 46 (1979), 432-51.

  11. See also Inferno, viii. 97-102; x. 29-30; xvii. 85-99, and Purgatorio, viii. 40-42. The relationship between Felix and Esther cannot always be fixed in this way however. At times, Esther assumes some of the qualities of Dante's Beatrice. She is associated with the Dantean symbols of light and the rose of Paradiso, albeit in a disguised form, even before she appears: ‘There was a delicate scent of dried rose-leaves; the light … was a wax-candle in a white earthenware candlestick, and the table on the opposite side of the fireplace held a dainty work-basket frilled with blue satin’ (Felix, p. 54), and at the close of the novel, she ‘mean[s] to go on teaching’ Felix. Esther is shown as moving towards a ‘difficult blessedness’ (p. 213) which for George Eliot consists in an inner moral growth along with ‘the mutual subjection of soul’ between a man and a woman (George Eliot, Letter to Emily Davis, 8 August 1868, The George Eliot Letters, edited by G. S. Haight, 9 vols (New Haven, Connecticut, and London, 1954-78), iv, 468), and her progress is marked by an increasing physical beauty. She becomes transfigured by the knowledge and expression of truth. Here, Eliot may be attempting to give physical embodiment to a moral vision in the same way that Beatrice becomes transfigured for Dante in the Vita Nuova. As with Beatrice, Esther's humility, which is beyond doubt by the later stages of the novel, is given expression through her physical poise (Felix, pp. 329, 386, and 415).

  12. Quentin Anderson, ‘George Eliot in Middlemarch’, in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, Volume 6: From Dickens to Hardy, edited by B. Ford (London, 1958); reprinted in George Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by George R. Creeger (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970), p. 159.

  13. An echo of Inferno, xiii. 109-29; see also note 14.

  14. ‘And a man may reach a point in his life in which his impulses are not distinguished from those of a hunted brute by any capability of scruples’ (Felix, p. 421).

  15. In retrospect, and in the light of the Cocytus allusion, Eliot's comment on Mrs Transome that ‘a woman's love is always freezing into fear’ (Felix, p. 345) has a predictive quality, for it associates her with both her own betrayal of her husband and that by Jermyn, of which she herself will be the victim. Eliot's ‘love freezing into fear’ parallels Dante's frozen tears, for both negate or deny basic human qualities.

  16. See George Levine, ‘Determinism and Responsibility’, PMLA, 77 (1962), 268-79.

  17. Of his betrayal of Esther's true father, Bycliffe, Jermyn says: ‘I should never have done it if I had not been under an infatuation such as makes a man do anything’ (Felix, p. 369).

  18. A further indication of this dehumanization is given in Eliot's use of the embrace or the failed embrace, again drawn from Virgil and Dante. In the Underworld of Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas tries three times to embrace his father Anchises; similarly, Dante tries three times to embrace Casella in Purgatory (ii. 76-81). George Eliot uses the failure to embrace her son as a measure of Mrs Transome's isolation. She had expected to ‘clasp her son again’ but was prevented by the realization that ‘this son who had come back to her was a stranger’ (Felix, p. 13). By contrast, Eliot uses the device to point to the power of human love and compassion binding individuals together on four occasions. Esther embraces her father, Felix, and Mrs Transome at moments of deep emotion.

  19. George Eliot, ‘The Spanish Gypsy’, Works of George Eliot, 12 vols (Edinburgh and London, 1901), xi, 82.

  20. George Eliot, ‘Debasing the Moral Currency’, in Impressions of Theophrastus Such; Essays and Leaves from a Note-Book (Edinburgh and London, 1901), p. 100. (Hereafter cited as Theophrastus Such.)

  21. Eliot saw in much contemporary literature a lowering of ‘the value of every inspiring fact and tradition so that it will command less and less of the spiritual products, the generous motives which sustain the charm and elevation of our social existence’. This, she thought, was often achieved through a ‘greedy buffoonery’ which ‘debases all historical beauty, majesty, and pathos’ (Theophrastus Such, p. 98).

Judith Wilt (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9766

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 engaged, perhaps more than most, in that “blackmail,” “the management and exploitation of secrets,” which Alexander Welsh has identified as fundamental to George Eliot's novels (George Eliot 4).

Three of the secrets in Felix Holt have to do with births, and behind that, of course, with sexual passion; one has to do with religious, and the other with political, conversions. We learn that the eagerly awaited second son of the house of Durfey-Transome, who returns the first of September 1832 to Transome Court to take over the property and stand for a Reformed Parliament as a Radical on the death of the imbecile, vice-ridden, and mother-hated oldest son, is in fact the illegitimate son of Mrs. Transome and the sleek lawyer Matthew Jermyn. In 1798 Matthew Jermyn wooed the dashingly liberated matron of Transome Court, who was well read in Tom Paine, and since then Jermyn has been using his hold on that outwardly “eagle-faced” but inwardly stricken lady to bleed the estate dry (14).

We also learn that young Harold Transome's gypsy-like son Harry, who on arrival fastens his teeth in his grandmother's arm as a harbinger of much worse agenbite of inwit to come, was born of a Greek slave mother bought by the epicurean Harold as the first fruit of a merchant fortune amassed during fifteen years in Smyrna—he expects the Treby seat in Parliament to be the second fruit. And we learn that the lively and fastidious Esther Lyon, who is apparently, if incongruously, the daughter of the “rusty old Puritan” preacher of Treby (61), Rufus Lyon, is actually the child of gentlefolk secretly married during the French wars, and as such, the true heir-at-law of Transome Court.

We learn that the intellectually gifted and articulate minister had in 1810 taken up the impoverished and apparently abandoned widow, Annette Ledru, and the baby she carried, as an act of charity, and then found his ministerial gifts immediately “paralyzed” by a fell rushing together of long-held-off religious doubts and newly awakened sexual passion (71). He resigned his ministry and supported his new, ultimately legitimized family on a craftsman's wages as a printer's reader, returning to his more genteel calling only after Annette had died. This four-year “fall,” as Rufus saw it, was actually a conversion as the narrative sees it, a conversion to that supreme religious value in George Eliot narrative, “life in another” (79).

And we learn, quite parenthetically, since the dark illuminations of private life have increasingly taken over the ostensibly political center of the narrative, that the secret of which Radical will win the seat for Treby in the 1832 Reform Election—Peter Garsten the mining magnate or Harold Transome the returned merchant landowner—is easily answered. Neither one. Philip DeBarry, the intelligent and Catholic-leaning Tory, takes the seat because no Radical worth the name exists, or can exist, to “convert” the society, unless it be the voteless working man, Felix Holt the Radical.

Felix is true heir in narrative to this title, as Esther is in law to that of Transome Court. As readers, we would not be surprised to find, in fact we are impatient to discover, some mysterious and noble origin for Felix too. We expect something to buttress the hints of the narrative that this shaggy head is in fact Coriolanean, this workman's stick actually a gentleman's steel, this “roughly written page” legible (54).1

There is no mystery about Felix's maternal origin. Mrs. Holt, an insightful if comic dame who believes Felix's radical reversal of her expectations about his “rising” into the genteel middle-class respectability of doctorhood has fundamentally to do with a wish “to abuse his mother,” is solidly of Loamshire earth (51). Felix's paternal origins seem at first more promising. Mr. Holt was a fortuneless stranger from “the north” with a gift for speech and a powerful desire to see his son move beyond his own class origins as a weaver's son. He has been dead for more than seven years: what may not be done in narrative with a dead man?

But no: the novel's first revelations about Holt père are its last. He came from Lancashire with no craft but his tongue, put together out of miscellaneous herbs some quack remedies, Holt's Cathartic Lozenges, Holt's Restorative Elixir, and the Cancer Cure, and made a good enough living by them to set aside money for his son's apprenticeship to a country apothecary and subsequent university medical studies.

We do learn that the twenty-six-year-old Felix Holt returned to Treby in April of 1832 after five years' apprenticeship and an undetermined period of university study in Glasgow to put into brusque and surely obsessive reversal all the plans and works of his father (49). He had discovered during his apprenticeship that Holt's pills, cure, and elixir were fakes, possibly dangerous ones, but allowed his mother to continue the business for several years while he moved along the path toward professional gentility at the Scottish university most hospitable to working- and middle-class ambitions.2

His “conversion” happened there. “I was converted by six weeks' debauchery,” Felix Holt tells his mother's minister, Rufus Lyon; “if I had not seen that I was making a hog of myself very fast, and that pigwash, even if I could have got plenty of it, was a poor sort of thing, I should never have looked life fairly in the face to see what was to be done with it” (55-56). Reminded in the same conversation of the verdict of a Glasgow phrenologist he consulted (why?), he admits: “I am perhaps a little too fond of banging and smashing” (60).

What debauchery? What pigwash? What banging and smashing? That's as much as we know, directly, of the conversion events of that Glasgow spring.3

What do we know indirectly, and how do we know it? I believe George Eliot dramatizes origins here, as she often does, in aftermaths, and by the accumulation of parallel stories in other characters' lives which glancingly reflect upon the origin she keeps hidden (I have pursued this kind of argument in an essay proposing an unnarrated assault relationship between Gwendolyn Harleth and her stepfather; see Wilt, “‘He Would Come Back’”). We see that, “looking life in the face,” Felix returned to Treby full of ruthless virtue. He put an end to Holt père's pills and cures, took up the crafts of watch and clock repairing to replace classics and medicine, and poured steady contempt upon all political, educational, and religious institutions which in any way abetted or accommodated the tendency of the spirit of the age to promote material, social, or aesthetic “rising.” Minister Lyon, no fool despite his engrossment in heavenly matters, recognizes “but a weedy resemblance to Christian unworldliness” in young Holt's violent spate of rejections, warning him, in a metaphor which will become all too appropriate later in the novel, that a mind “too ready at contempt and reprobation is … as a clenched fist that can give blows” (57, 59).

Meanwhile another young man comes home ready to reverse the doings of his genteel putative father, and, as he does not yet know, those of his “rising” real father too. Harold Transome is no clenched fist; his manner of mastery is subtle and genial. Yet his mother is from the novel's opening frozen in “dim terror about the future,” a terror she spells out only toward the end: “It seemed as if murder might come between you” (34, 338).

Murder between sons and fathers, between men and their patrimony, stalks the novel from beginning to end, in all its parallel, mutually commenting stories of public and private life. Only once is murder actually accomplished, and even here the act itself, like much else about Felix Holt, is unrepresented and unrepresentable.4 In a carefully wrought, dimly lit scene of public violence structured around the first Reform Election at Treby in November 1832, a clenched fist strikes down an officer of the law, killing him, and in his place rises “a man with a sabre in his hand”—a symbolic figure, a “flag” of radical mobilization (269, 268).

In this act the real Felix, we are told, is only pretending, like Hamlet, to be mad, to be revolutionary. In his proper mind he is the glass of that Victorian fashion, the mold of that Victorian form, “Culture.” But the pat emergence of an Anarchic alter-ego might, if closely examined, take us imaginatively back to Glasgow in the spring of 1832, to the originating scenes that made Felix Holt the Doctor into Felix Holt the Radical. As Laure the actress was to say to another doctor in Middlemarch, the role of killer is neither consciously chosen nor utterly accidental; rather, “it came to me in the play” (114). The script of “the killer radical” was abroad in culture before Felix Holt, or Felix Holt. But Felix Holt, and George Eliot, chose the part.

Indeed, Eliot handled the script memorably, if briefly, in her first outing as a novelist, where her working-class hero strikes down the figure of erring law and order in just such a complex matrix of politico-Oedipal rage and repressed sexual fury as I shall argue operates here. Adam Bede, “robbed” of pretty Hetty Sorel by the military, the aristocratic, the magistrate's nephew, Arthur Donnithorne, calls him to account in words bitterly aflame with sexual politics, political sexuality: “Won't you fight me like a man? … No, you don't want to fight me. You think I'm a common man, as you can injure without answering for it.”5 A moment later the two are fighting in the woods like “panthers,” until the much stronger working man's blow breaks the aristocrat “as a steel rod is broken by an iron bar” (290-91).

The chapter ends with Adam, his sexual and political arousal shrinking, “sickened … at the thought of his own strength” bent over the prone body “like an image of despair gazing at an image of death” (291). This is the alpha and omega nightmare of Eliot's strong protagonists, of Gwendolen Harleth as of Adam Bede. This, I shall argue, must surely have been Felix Holt's Glasgow moment of conversion. It may be that in Glasgow, as in the Loamshire woods, the “image” rose up, alive, in the next chapter: in Treby Magna, the “image” takes flesh in two figures killed by the protagonist's sickening strength.


In chapter seventeen of Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel of working-class misery and mob violence, North and South, the dying Methodist factory lass, Bessie Higgins, meditates about the pure and compassionate, the honest and cultured protagonist, Margaret Hale: “I wonder how she'll sin. All on us must sin” (188). The equivalent memory/prophecy in Felix Holt is offered by the protagonist himself. “I am a man warned by visions,” he tells Esther Lyon, in a sincere but unconsciously duplicitous effort to shift the focus from the memory of his own Glasgow trauma to the imminent fall of the “fine lady” female protagonist; “some charm or other will be flung about you … and nothing but a good strong terrible vision will save you” (224).

Felix clearly had his terrible vision in Glasgow in the early spring of 1832; its elements, and the likely quantum of real action in the experience, “sin,” are the subject of this essay. Mrs. Gaskell's narrative accomplishes the fall of the virtuous female protagonist in two linked actions which resonate for the male protagonist of Felix Holt as well. In both novels the virtuous and cultured figure tries to stop mob violence and instead precipitates it: s/he renounces sexual passion and yet, through a complicated series of displacements, expresses sexual passion in/as a related crime. The “sins” seem gendered too. Margaret Hale lies. Felix Holt kills.

We know that, despite his evasive association of his debauchery with “pigwash,” political rage and sublimated sexual passion will be, we surmise it has been, part of the debauchery from which Felix Holt was “converted” early in the novel. Or it would be more correct to say that the act of debauched drinking, swallowing pigwash, metonymically pulls into itself all the vices that haunt the narrative of Felix Holt and drive its plots. Drinking becomes medicine, potions and pills; bad medicine becomes Reform politics, “notions” and Bills: the cure is really a kill, violence to the individual body and the body politic. For Eliot, as for Carlyle, greedy and heedless swallowing is the prescription of a corrupt medical and political profession for a credulous age in a hurry. And a surprising number of the evildoers in this novel, in a metaphoric slide by which the narrative stands behind Felix's repudiation of his/his father's profession, are at some level “doctors.”6

Even the profession of religion is afflicted in this way. Rufus Lyon berates himself for an intellectual tendency to “examine and sift the medicine of the soul rather than to apply it.” This calls forth from Felix, the bitter ex-doctor, his habitual contempt for the profession: “When a man sees his livelihood in a pill or a proposition … he likes to have orders for the dose and not curious inquiries” (61).

On the other side of the novel, the Lady of Transome Court, rigid with fear and self-loathing after thirty-four years of knuckling under to the lawyer who holds her honor, and increasingly her estate, in pawn, after thirty-four years of eager waiting for his own vices to kill her “dissolute” elder (and only legitimate) son Durfey before her hatred of him erupts in a murderous deed—that Lady keeps a cabinet of neatly arranged “drugs” next to the embroidery basket and account books with which she fills her empty days. Mrs. Transome is a doctor too: the potions she clearly wishes she dared use with finality upon her vicious son she uses instead on those who must bend to her will. She “found the opiate for her discontent in the exertion of her will about smaller things,” says the narrator (28); she “insisted on medicines for infirm cottagers,” and “she liked to change a labourer's medicine fetched from the doctor, and substitute a prescription of her own” (23, 28-29).

Mrs. Transome strikes her neighbor, Lady DeBarry, as a woman driven to the edge of her strength by sudden turns of fortune, someone in need of a doctor's prescription of digitalis for her heart, could she only overcome her pride long enough to consult any doctor but herself (81). But this proud, self-medicining woman is already under a fell doctor's “care.” The man who is slick Lawyer Jermyn to the rest of the world comes into the breakfast parlor at Transome Court displaying “very much the air of a lady's physician” (33); it is some hateful feline certainty in the movements of his hands that strikes this simile out of Harold Transome.

As a dashing young matron in the heady 1790s, Arabella Lingon Transome had read “the dangerous French writers” while projecting an aristocratic imperiousness “which would have marked her as an object of hatred and reviling by a revolutionary mob” (27). She had tried to live on both sides of the political fence, marrying the landed Transome and making dangerous, liberated love to the rising young lawyer. But the lawyer was too calculating to deliver on his passion even after he had fathered her child, and the woman was too proud to dismiss him, face the scandal and the emotional truth, that her lawyer had become her lover in order to “pick her pocket” (337). After that Jermyn could make her swallow anything. Her only victory is that that “lady's physician” cannot deceive her about the taste of her daily draught: “I am too old to learn to call bitter sweet and sweet bitter” (103).

Curiously enough the fall of Jermyn and the linking of the novel's many plots begin with the swallowing of another poisonous medicine, opium. Strangely ubiquitous in George Eliot's narratives, opium seems the bottom of some slippery slope of swallowing pigwash, an obligatory moment of “debauchery” in the lives of independent young gentlemen: Will Ladislaw tries it, and Tertius Lydgate, and Daniel Deronda's friend Hans Meyrick. And, likely as not, Felix Holt. Felix's alter ego, Harold Transome, brings the addiction back in oriental form: on the morning of his return he is making plans for the proper setting up of his “hookah” before he even sits down in his drawing room. The plebeian wife of Godfrey Cass, in her embittered abandonment, moves from vice to vice, sexual license to alcoholism to opium drinking, and dies of an overdose before the cottage of Silas Marner.

Another alter ego to the hero in Felix Holt is an opium addict too, an enigmatic man who goes in Treby by the name of Maurice Christian. “The amazing Christian,” “the questionable Christian” (92), now serving Sir Philip DeBarry as “factotum,” is actually a middle-class rogue named Henry Scaddon who knew Esther Lyon's real father, Maurice Christian Bycliff, and changed names and destinies with him while both were held prisoner during the French wars. He takes opium both for bodily suffering and because of the “nervous pains” that result from a lifetime of not-quite-successful attempts, first by over-spending and forgery, then in the “Christian” masquerade, to leave the “pence-counting, parcel tying” environs of trading fathers for the ego gratifications of gentility (59).

Felix never comes to know Scaddon/Christian, but that class-crossing “harlequin” (92) certainly represents to the reader one of the futures which lay ahead of the young man at Glasgow who was trying to become an aristocratic debauchee in a Scotch garret on a shilling or two (56). Scaddon/Christian is a warning figure in that “terrible vision”: in him we see how the young man ambitious to rise gains a precarious outward success but radically destabilizes his own identity.

Concealing his real identity, his illness and his opium addiction/cure, Christian carries his dose with him at all times, ready to commit suicide if his life becomes intolerable. On a certain Sunday evening he comes accidentally closer than he intended to that end. Carrying money and papers for Sir Philip DeBarry, as well as items from (the real) Maurice Christian Bycliff's personal history, he sits down to relieve himself of pain for a moment with a dose of opium, overdrinks, and wakes up several hours later minus the papers and items. While he was drowsing on opium, an enemy cut off this cock's coattail for a joke: the DeBarry papers and the Bycliff letters and locket fall into the grass, where Felix Holt, passing by later, picks them up. Knowing they belong to the Manor, “too proud a man” to return them himself (129), Felix hands them on for return to Rufus Lyon who, recognizing the Bycliff items, tremulously begins the work of uncovering the past of Esther's father, and, eventually, of her claim to the Transome estate.

The Felix Holt who stumbled across the Bycliff articles while crossing the DeBarry Manor Park was in a towering rage that Sunday. He had just come from a confrontation in which the man who becomes his real nemesis had worsted him in political debate before his “congregation” of miners in the Sugar Loaf pub (65), and he had twice been moved nearly to physical violence against him. Where Scaddon/Christian represents the self-destructive aspect of the “terrible vision” at Glasgow, the fey, rootless, shrunken De Quinceylike possibility in “pigswill,” John Johnson represents the destroyer, the soulless, purely sensual, violent, and revolutionary potential of it, the self as a “clenched fist.”

The strong confident Johnson is election agent under Matthew Jermyn for the Radical candidacy of Harold Transome. He handles, among other things, what we would now call the “dirty tricks” branch of the campaign, which in 1832 means he offers free liquor to voteless workers in exchange for their drunk-and-disorderly presence on the Transome side during the public nomination and voting processes in Treby.

Like Christian, like Harold, like Felix Holt's father, Johnson is a man on the rise, “not a high-flyer but a mere climbing-bird” (304), one of those servants who intends ultimately to be master. As with the elder Holt, John Johnson's fortune is in his insinuating tongue; it is the false promises he makes of an instant Radical parliamentary “cure” to the poverty of the working classes that makes the angry Felix “feel the sharp lower edge of his tin pint-measure, and to think it a tempting missile” during their debate in the pub (119). Rather than come to blows with the older, stouter “charlatan” (119) who is pouring beer down the throats of the miners as if it were Holt's elixir, Felix leaves the pub. But he walks slowly along the main road to Treby in conscious hope that Johnson will overtake him, so that he might “have the pleasure of quarrelling with him … and perhaps end by thrashing him” (128). This is the first indication we have not only that Felix is prone to, has very likely engaged in, violence, but that he knows this about himself, and has made efforts to “convert” himself from it. For he turns out of the main road along the “blind path” (129) which eventually carries him through the Manor park specifically to avoid this “temptation” as soon as he becomes fully conscious of it, reminding himself that his tendency to rage “is drunkenness without wine” (128).

These confusedly political Oedipal rages are not the only source of Felix's kind of “drunkenness,” however. Christian/Johnson, the “climbing bird,” is not his only nemesis/rival/model. The other is the poet “whose books embodied the faith and ritual of many young ladies and gentlemen,” especially brooding young would-be gentlemen at universities, the very blueprint for the “misanthropic debauchee” that Felix surely was in Glasgow: Byron (62). It is Esther Lyon's defense of Byron that arouses his most violently “denunciatory and pedagogic intention” at their first meeting, an intention which issues in the ambiguously sado-erotic desire to “come and scold her every day, and make her cry and cut her fine hair off” (62, 65).

One brief flash of Glasgow memory sheds some light on the curious way in which sexuality and fury, women and social misery, are knotted in Felix Holt's mind. Walking alone for the first time with Esther, contemptuously arguing once again about the Byronic hero's tendency to evade the call of finite social duties by projecting a soul sensitive only to “the infinite” (221), Felix contrasts the rather robustly English and quite masculine misery he is trying to alleviate in the mining hamlet of Sproxton with the much more terrible and futile poverty he saw in the wynds of Glasgow, “where there was little more than a chink of daylight to show the hatred in women's faces” (220).

Whether we imagine these damaged and hating women as impoverished prostitutes competing for the last shillings of the young Englishman practicing dissipation, or impoverished mothers dying in the garret across the hall from him, it is clear that they played a significant part in the conversion of Felix Holt the Doctor to Felix Holt the Radical. The damaged and hating women of the Glasgow wynds are one of the two “pictures” that have lodged in Felix's mind “like a splinter” (222), a dyptich that makes up the terrible vision which converted him from debauchery. One picture is of masculine, ultimately Oedipal, violence, associated with sociopathic climbing birds like Christian and Johnson, “the picture of what I should hate to be” (222). The other picture, “the life of the miserable—the spawning life of vice and hunger,” seems most deeply to have been female (222).

Paradoxically and brutally enough, it is out of this experienced material of male aggression and female misery that Felix projects the fantasy figure of the “fine lady” whose aggressive desire to climb into the middle class makes for male misery, for the blunted purpose and corrupted ideals of such as Felix Holt might have been. He has been “grinding his teeth” at this figure since Glasgow, well before he meets Esther Lyon (66). He has two exactly opposite desires with respect to her, as he has to that “world” which she represents. On the one hand, he rejects her/it: “I'll never marry, though I should have to live on raw turnips to subdue my flesh” (66). On the other hand, he desires to remake her/it: “I want you to see. … I want you to see. … I want you to change,” Felix “thunders” at Esther on very short acquaintance (107, 108).

The rage to change the (masculine) world with a clenched fist is self-blocked by the terrible vision of potential (or wasn't it, in Glasgow, actual?) physical violence, manslaughter. Felix will channel that rage instead upon the world of women and children. He becomes the “angry pedagogue” (224) whose words affect to hurt only to heal, supplying/projecting onto Esther the terrible vision of the woman who could do moral manslaughter, as a prelude to transforming her (the world) into an object of perfection, so that his desire for her “may rush in one current with all the great aims of his life” (223).

Felix's spiritual aim, poignant and impossible, is to make all his humanly contradictory desires—to be greatly good, to be powerfully wise, to be wedded to a fleshless ideal while living on turnips—rush in one current. It was clearly in Scotland, in university life, in urban life, that he was forced to look these contradictions in the face, and to accommodate the fury that comes from the failure to unite them. He had swallowed “pigswill” and found himself still a “hungry, discontented fellow,” “a very ambitious fellow with very hungry passions” (221, 222). And the Byronic model, to act forever in proud and amoral defiance of (and imitation of) a universe in which man's desires always contradicted each other, and to carry a female alter ego into that whirlwind, had surely tempted him.

We are not made narratively present at this crisis, or the conversion that followed it, the “turning back” at the edge of the moral abyss of Byronic and empty freedom that Rosemarie Bodenheimer has identified as the key action in Eliot's plots. But in recompense, in mimesis, as one of those “present causes of past events” which Cynthia Chase has proposed was part of Eliot's elliptic narrativity (217), Felix Holt builds toward a climactic scene of political and sexual mob violence in which the hidden Felix Holt, misanthropic debauchee of the Glasgow streets, Byronic gentleman adventurer, is seen once (again?) trying by force of egoistic will to make all his desires rush in one current, and failing.


English novels of the mid-nineteenth century often worked toward a climactic scene of mob violence. This scene typically both clarified and exacerbated the sexual tensions in the romance plot while it affected to clarify and purge the class tensions in the political plot, pulling back from the ambiguous zone of conflict to the safe parameter of debate and liberal compromise. In defiance of the historical facts (constables were occasionally injured, but more often it was working-class demonstrators who were cut down by constables), middle-class novelists most often created scenes where the hand of working-class violence fell on those in, or allied with, authority. But the violence falls by accident, as if, in their mixed political and human sympathies, or even in their brief conscious recognition of their own complicity in narratives of violence, the novelists wished to deliberately blur the issue of responsibility.

But the crowd violence scenes of Mary Barton or Shirley or North and South or Sybil are not the only ones in George Eliot's mind as she designs chapters thirty-one and thirty-two of Felix Holt. That she has international history in mind is signified by the already mentioned reference to Mrs. Transome as having the sort of arrogant bearing which infuriated the Jacquerie of the French Revolution. The sacred history of Paradise Lost, with its drama of Satanic/Byronic revolution reversed by the self-sacrifice of the Son of God, is never far from Victorian minds either. The Biblical hope for “right” communal action is signified by the Old Testament text Rufus Lyon is contemplating when the novel opens: “And all the people said, Amen.” And by the politicized Miltonic sermon he drafts about it:

“My brethren, do you think that great shout was raised in Israel by each man's waiting to say ‘Amen’ till his neighbor had said ‘Amen’? Do you think there will ever be a great shout for the right—the shout of a nation as of one man, rounded and whole … if every Christian of you peeps round to see what his neighbors in good coats are doing, or else puts his hat before his face that he may shout and never be heard?”


The closer literary ancestor Eliot has in mind, here as so often elsewhere, is Walter Scott. English youths are often depicted in nineteenth-century novels as getting what superficial knowledge they have of dissenters like Rufus Lyon from the novels of Walter Scott, as is the case in Felix Holt, where the DeBarry daughters learned about “people of that sort” from Woodstock (136). A still deeper and more ubiquitous plot scheme inherited from Scott is the journey of the privately virtuous and brave but communally alienated and thwarted young man who is swept up only half unwillingly in the public movements of his time, and creates himself anew not only as a fighter but as a leader.

This happens to young Waverley in Scott's first novel, and in Rob Roy and, preeminently, in Old Mortality, all novels of Oedipal tension where the possible inheritance of brutality or dishonesty from a dead father paralyzes the hero until a clear call to righteous violence validates his manhood. Curiously enough, as Alexander Welsh pointed out, while the finally liberated hero wields weapons and leads other men into death and the meting out of death, he himself is never actually seen to kill another man, a narratological diffidence we will note in Felix Holt as well (Hero 223; I have discussed the Oedipal tension and licensed killing in Scott's novels in Secret Leaves).

All of these transformed Scott protagonists deliver violence as military men, with and upon armies. But in one novel, the most beloved of all in Victorian times, the violence is that of a Scottish urban mob. The man killed in The Heart of Midlothian is an officer of the law, as in Felix Holt. In the aftermath of the emphatically male violence in both novels, as a kind of answer to it, a woman's “influence” penetrates the law's justice and wins a pardon for a guilty person.

In looking closely at the election-day riot scene in Felix Holt I want to spotlight three things: 1) the role of Johnson, the man Felix Holt wished not to become, in the general violence and especially in the particular death of the man whose demise opens the way to Esther Lyon's claim on the Transome estate; 2) the role of Esther and the conversion of sexual tension into political rage; and 3) the many paradoxes involved in the half-willing, Scott-like transformation of Felix Holt from working man with a stick to gentleman with a sword, “knight,” “man with a sabre.”

“A capable agent makes himself omnipresent” is the maxim that brings John Johnson to Treby on election day (254), but he is present everywhere else in the narrative too. As Jermyn's longtime agent he did all the research which uncovered the whereabouts of Maurice Christian Bycliff years before; it was he who had Bycliff thrown into prison for the misdeeds of the man, Henry Scaddon, who now bears Christian's name. He had discovered old Tommy Trounsem, “the last representative of a pawned inheritance” (241), and he understands that Tommy's death will open the way for a Bycliff heir, should there be one, to claim the Transome estate. “Johnson” is also the name under which Jermyn holds moneys he stole from the Transome estate, and the big man dealing out Transome sixpences for drink to the Sproxton miners, who bested Felix in debate and roused his murderous rage, is Johnson.

On the eve of the election the plot brings together Johnson, who knows the Bycliff story, and Christian, who knows there is a Bycliff heiress. And, neatly enough, the agents of their coming to know each other, and each other's facts, are Tommy Trounsem, whose life is surely forfeit according to the principles of Victorian melodrama as soon as these facts come to light, and Felix Holt, who is unconsciously seeking a target for his suppressed fury at Johnson.

Seeing Jermyn's star about to fall, the ubiquitous Johnson has become a double agent for the Whig Garsten, writing a damaging handbill linking Harold Transome with some of the less savory rumors about Jermyn's embezzlement. At the same time the equally ubiquitous Christian, also in the political dirty tricks business for a lark, finds the drunken billsticker Tommy Trounsem employed by Johnson to paste up handbills for “the family.” He substitutes, on behalf of a Tory printer friend, the anti-Jermyn/Transome bills.

Reading these bills gives Christian his first clear idea that his knowledge of Esther's background might be coined into money, if he can find the knowledgeable Johnson Tommy Trounsem tells him of. He finds him by the unwitting agency of Felix Holt, who has at last seized an opportunity to do some public speaking on a street corner, excoriating Johnson as a master of “dirty work” beneath his “innocent pink and white skin” (251). The listening Christian has the listening Johnson pointed out to him, and makes a cautious approach: Johnson learns that a Bycliff heir exists, and the stage is set for the clearly necessary death of Tommy Trounsem. Inevitable scapegoat and repressed killer pass without recognition in narrative daylight, but narrative darkness is arranging another, deadlier meeting.

Just how dirty were Johnson's “dirty tricks” in this respect? Tommy Trounsem's death during the riots is in fact less accidental than would appear. His trampled body is discovered “doubtless where he fell drunkenly, near the entrance of the Seven Stars” (272), the Garsten pub where the most dangerous part of the election-day riot began. It was Johnson who originally paid the Sproxton miners to raise drunken hell with Garsten and DeBarry supporters the day of the election. But he did more than that. Tommy Trounsem received an “astonishing” amount of silver from Johnson on election day to put to his favorite use. If this is the first time in a George Eliot plot that a man got rid of an inconvenient life by giving a drunkard enough money to drink himself to death, it isn't the last, as Middlemarch's John Raffles was to discover. And in the crowd that stormed the Seven Stars, trampling Tommy Trounsem to death, was Felix Holt, the Radical.

By all the many strands of his desire “Felix had at last been willingly urged on to this spot” (266). He has walked away from violence all through the novel, ever since he left the Sugar Loaf pub in Sproxton to stop himself from flinging his tankard at the infuriating Johnson. Now at last his desires “flow” in the same current: as George Eliot designs the riot scene Felix's walk toward violence begins with sexual desire, with a walk toward Esther Lyon.

Weeks before, when they had “walked out together”—a quasi-formal social commitment, as Esther is aware—the two had made a virtual declaration of love, Esther replying “yes I can” to Felix's sudden eager question whether she could “imagine choosing hardship as the better lot” (225). Yet that was also the conversation in which Felix revealed the “good strong terrible vision” which had “converted” him, the vision of man's probable destruction by the “fine lady,” and of woman's vice/misery as somehow linked with man's “debauchery.” This conversation made it clear that his lack of “faith” in Esther's capacity to make a heroic moral choice is a projection of his fear of his own failure, surely the memory of his own failures (before his conversion) in Glasgow and before.

This lack of faith makes him see Esther's proferred fulfillment of his desire as a temptation, a “lying promise” exactly equivalent on the erotic level to the lying promise of the vote, as he sees it, on the political level. So Felix had ruthlessly checked his desire, proud of his capacity to bear the pain of renunciation, and oblivious, in that scene, to the pain he caused Esther, the renunciation he forced on her.

In this state of suppressed desire, Felix Holt sits repairing a tiny watch on election day, “vibrating” to the growing noise of popular violence outside. Political passion, like erotic passion, has been wrought up, then checked, the better to overflow barriers in the end. Chapter thirty-one's depiction of the election-morning mob action quelled by a strong but weaponless show of force by the authorities matches Felix's rejection of “temptation” in chapter twenty-seven. In chapter thirty-two Felix rushes out to the noisy marketplace in an ambiguously excited fashion, consciously to try to reduce or divert that violence, subconsciously to be a part of it. The magistrates have turned the crowd back, but at some level Felix cannot accept that, believe it, be turned back himself. He returns to his mother and his home only very briefly; his desire to be “in the midst of the danger” (261) makes him walk to the one remaining scene of potential passion.

His knock on Esther's door “had shaken the small dwelling” (260). He believes he has come only to reassure her that the crowd violence outside has abated, but his insistent “I wish I could be sure that you see things just as I do” (261) precipitates declarations of love from both. A rising passion is “converted” immediately to renunciatory fervor, but that fervor itself will fuel the political passion that in fact is still beating outside Esther's door.

In his conscious mind, the renounced Esther, the loving temptation, is dead, she is “dear as the beloved dead are dear” (263). In his conscious mind the spectres of futility, failure, compromise, and “debauchery” remaining from the Glasgow experience have been wiped out by the explosion of love and renunciation in him, and a new Felix Holt has been born: “This thing can never come to me twice over. It is my knighthood. That was always a business of great cost” (262).

Yet matter is not so patly shaped by metaphor, body by mind, collective destiny by individual will. The new Felix who rushes away from Esther out to the re-gathering election-day mob will experience again, twice over, the debauchery of his own violence. This time (and the imagination is irresistibly carried back to the blank space of Glasgow—perhaps last time too) there will be a non-metaphorical death in it.

Felix is abroad on election day at eleven in the morning against his conscious judgement because he could not forbear going to Esther. He is still in the streets at three in the afternoon because he could neither stay with her nor return home. Roaming the streets with his new knighthood, he is at first pushed by the mob from the marketplace toward the Seven Stars pub—“he went where he was obliged to go” (263). Then, “at last willingly urged on to this spot” (266), he becomes the very image of Scott's heroes, kidnapped by circumstances and made to be what he secretly desires to be. His knightly new (debauched old) role only dimly comes to his mind as the mob breaks into the pub: “he went in with a miscellaneous set … he might save someone” (266). It is after “being guided by the screams of women” to a scene of attempted rape on the upper floors that his political and erotic frustrations, sanctioned by his “knighthood,” make him Felix Holt the Radical Mob Leader: “Assuming the tone of a mob-leader, he cried out, ‘Here, boys, here's better fun this way’” (266).7

Emboldened by the success of this masquerade, Felix tries a still bolder rescue: he pushes to the front of the more politically aroused part of the mob who are manhandling the hated colliery foreman Spratt, with a view to taking him in charge, pretending to the crowd he has a specific plan for Spratt's disposal. But, dreamlike, the mask he (thinks he) wears becomes progressively less able to be dislodged. In his drifting progress Felix has abandoned his workingman's stick for a rioter's bludgeon (267). Now, as he approaches a constable who has a sword in his hands, the last man between himself and his object of rescue (Spratt), Felix makes a deadly choice, irrational but at some level irresistible. He believes that he alone, not the constables, has the power to lead the mob away from the more dangerous paths of its rage. Still more irrationally, though he is by far the biggest and strongest man on the scene, the most “massive” physical presence in the novel, and though earlier he had avoided the nomination scenes because “he had a terrible arm: he knew he was dangerous” when aroused (243), he believes he can use violence on a determined officer of the law and do no damage. What he knows now, sanctioned by metaphorical knighthood, is only that there is a deed of rescue to be done, a sword to be won. So he strikes down constable Tucker, and “started up with the bare sabre in his hand” (267).

So the good strong terrible vision is fulfilled. Tucker is dead, but Felix “did not imagine” that possibility because “he had chiefly before his imagination the horrors that might come if the mass of wild chaotic desires and impulses around him were not diverted” (268). Around him, and, one might surely say, in him.

At least once before, in Glasgow, Felix had started down the road to “debauchery,” his mind, like the mob, a mass of wild chaotic desires and impulses, political and erotic ideals shadowed by Oedipal anger and poverty into Byronic misanthropy. He had “diverted” these impulses then, opting for the hidden life of a kind of monk, wedded to poverty, mortifying the flesh by eating turnips, mortifying the ambition of his “climbing bird” side by eschewing all corrupting forms of leadership. Now the flesh and the ambition seem to strike back, his arm, undiverted, doing manslaughter without his conscious knowledge, and, more important, in narrative darkness. The narrative leaves the constable prone on the ground for five pages, until the “mistaken” soldiers have shot the “innocent” Radical, before uncovering the constable's death and Felix's guilt.

This interval provides time and narrative space for the crowd, abandoning Spratt according to Felix's saving plan, to turn unerringly toward that other focus of Felix's ire, the Manor of the DeBarrys, home of “fine ladies,” which the angry workman was unable to approach when he discovered the Bycliff mementos lost by Christian. Up to the last possible minute Felix declines to leave the mob, unconsciously drawn to its licensing of his rage, consciously hoping, by pretence of mob leadership, to divert the worst—the worst is specifically connected with possible violence to the women of the Manor, the “fine ladies.” So he is still present, brandishing a gentleman's steel, a revolutionary leader's sabre, when the rescuing soldiers arrive and fire a bullet through the unidentified “shoulder of the arm that held the naked weapon which shone in the light from the window” (271).

The riot scene began at the end of chapter thirty when Felix unwittingly identifies Johnson, his alter ego and nemesis, to Christian as the man who knew the facts about Esther's claim to Transome Court. With nice symmetry the riot scene ends in chapter thirty-three with Johnson's malicious identification of “the man with the sabre” as Felix Holt, “a dangerous character—quite revolutionary” (271). And with the revelation, saved for the last sentence, that the man with the sabre and the mob he led have done Johnson's business for him. Tommy Trounsome is dead, and the way is open for Johnson to bring down Jermyn, for Christian to pass the now saleable information of Esther's claim on to Harold Transome, and Esther to become in earnest the “fine lady” of Felix's most dividedly erotic and misogynistic terrible vision.

Shot down, imprisoned, tried, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison, Felix Holt the Killer Revolutionary was a spectre, pure “figure” (the arm that held the naked weapon) in the “ground” of political turmoil the novel explores. He emerged from Felix Holt the Good (ex) Doctor, did a job in the public and the private plot, and disappeared again—like the angry Adam Bede who would have killed Arthur Donnithorne and half-consciously wished that “thorn in his side” dead, as he shortly was; like the Gwendolen Harleth who did kill Grandcourt in her mind as the last in a series of assaulting males whose first was her stepfather; like Dr. Jekyll's Mr. Hyde, whose prime murder was also that of a powerful patriarch.8 That figure of male aggression/punishment takes its place for the rest of the novel in the mind of Esther Lyon, one-half of the good strong terrible vision, “the vision of consequences” which is George Eliot's fundamental condition of right moral choice (306). The other half of the vision, the female half, is supplied almost twenty chapters later by Mrs. Transome, when Esther goes to Transome Court to try out the reality of her early dream of fine ladyhood.

As the weeks go by Mrs. Transome displays before Esther the beauty, the power—even, now that she has come to love Esther, the virtue—that can surely exist in the high places as well as in the low. The weeks at Transome Court, “rising” toward the material, social, and emotional security which are not undeservedly Esther's, are the equivalent of the time of Felix's studies in Glasgow: this is her patrimony, but it is also, at some level, “debauchery.” Like Felix in Glasgow, when the anticipation becomes the reality, she finds herself “arrested and painfully grasped by the means through which the ladyhood was to be obtained” (305), morally repelled by the fact, thrust before all George Eliot's protagonists from Adam Bede through Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda, that our gain is always another's loss. Though she is not herself guilty of the means, any more than Felix had invented the “pigswill” from which he had profited, yet the means are guilty. The conditions of gentility, power, eminence are corrupt at origin, obtained by greed, fraud, even manslaughter, maintained by pride.

Esther does not know of the moment of near Oedipal murder when Harold Transome learned Jermyn was his father, or of the “slow distinctness” with which Mrs. Transome, “an Eve gone grey with bitter memories” (385), has pronounced her fate to her maid, the only creature she trusts: “I am not at rest!” (317). But a “rapid flash” of divination of all these conditions of ladyhood comes to Esther as she sees Mrs. Transome pacing the corridors of Transome Court in tragic, even Gothic, anguish, “like an uneasy spirit without a goal” (393).9 And this terrible vision of consequences drives Esther from her “debauchery” to a renunciatory conversion: she rejects her inheritance to make a defiantly working-class life with Felix Holt.

The Scott novels which did so much to form the political imagination of the Victorians also tend to depict birthrights as fouled, all authority as usurped by violence somewhere along the line. The spectral Felix Holt who seized authority's sabre and made it the radical's leadership beacon, ingenuously surprised that the death of “the father” is the consequence, is in fact in the main tradition of British politics: today's radical is tomorrow's constable.

To renounce brutal “power” for subtle “influence” is, however, to opt for means not much less corrupt. In Felix Holt as in Scott's The Heart of Midlothian the final third of the narrative moves beyond the stalemated actions of power and justice to effect the release of a guilty but beloved protagonist through the actions of influence and mercy. But in both novels others even less guilty, but not under the narrative protection of a female protagonist's “influence,” suffer. Jeannie Deans saves her sister Effie but cannot save Madge Wildfire; Esther saves Felix but not Tommy Trounsem or Constable Tucker.

Eliot's unease over this accommodation, over her (storyteller's) patrimony, reflects Scott's unease, always in view as a melancholic edge to the inevitable success of the mild-mannered and tolerant descendents of the original violent usurpers. This may be one of the reasons why her narrator hides the “present” whereabouts of the happily married, fertile, relentlessly thriving, inevitably rising Mr. and Mrs. Felix Holt in the novel's last paragraphs.

At the end of perhaps his most important and influential novel, Old Mortality (1816), Scott pictures the reunited and victorious lovers gazing not at each other but at two dead rivals, a disturbed ending evocative of Adam Bede's “image of despair gazing at the image of death,” of the deadly and despairing final confrontations between Harold Transome and Jermyn, between Esther and Mrs. Transome, which seem somehow generated by Felix Holt's (and Felix Holt's) murderous blow to the “patriarchs,” Constable Tucker and Tommy Trounsem. Striving, like all the Victorian novelists, to emerge from the nightmare of their stories, to break from that “image of despair gazing at the image of death” which seems the inevitable posture of an ending, Eliot turns to the smallest possible happy ending compatible with this desire: two renunciations of money and position equal one working-class marriage.

But the fruit of all these renunciations, it turns out, is not only happiness but, ironically, success. The town of Treby Magna has stood still, is returning Tory, not Radical members to parliament, but no such stasis attaches to the unnamed town where Felix Holt the Radical has, by his own admission, all but turned into a “sleek dog” (399). More significantly still, Felix Holt the almost doctor had considerably more “science” than his quack father, and Felix and Esther's son, we are told, “has a great deal more science than his father,” and more money too, if “not much more” (399). Were we to visit the older Holts in their unnamed town I bet we would find a young Felix Holt the doctor. To quote Esther's last words in the novel, to somewhat different effect: “I call that retribution” (398).


  1. Eliot uses two headnotes from Coriolanus to suggest this analogue (see chapters twenty-seven and thirty). Sally Shuttleworth argues, correctly I think, that Eliot has consciously only the “noble” Coriolanus's resistance to “the mob” in mind in her choice, whereas Charlotte Brontë in a chapter of Shirley comparing her own man-against-the-mob figure, Robert Moore, to Coriolanus, has also in mind the ignoble, violent, and dangerous traits that make Shakespeare's tragic hero so ambiguously compelling (132-33).

  2. In the first chapter of Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland, R. D. Anderson describes “the Scottish tradition” of universities “open to anyone who could scrape together a little Latin and mathematics, and this included men who decided to change course in adult life.” Both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities had important medical faculties, but “it was at Glasgow if anywhere, with its high proportion of working-class students, that one would expect the appearance of those ‘organic’ intellectuals described by Gramsci, who remain in sympathetic communion with their class of origin” (330). Anderson is here talking about university life in Glasgow several generations later than the time of Eliot's novel, yet the tradition was already alive in Felix Holt's time.

  3. Alexander Welsh, puzzling like all of us over the blank narrative space of the “six weeks' debauchery,” suggests that Felix's quick opening and shutting of the door upon his Glasgow “secret” constitutes “a perpetual blackmail of the self. … By threatening [himself] to tell about it, he forces himself to behave perhaps” (George Eliot 25). Philip Fisher, speaking for the many who find Felix a “straw hero,” complains that both hero and narrator “give no moral analysis” of either the Glasgow debauchery or the killing which ends the novel (153), a silence that I will argue suggests connection. For Sally Shuttleworth as for many other readers Felix is “an unproblematic Christ figure” because he is “without struggle” (116). This essay aspires to take more seriously the ultimately murderous, if barely visible, struggles of this problematic Christ figure.

  4. In the most significant and influential recent reading of Felix Holt, Catherine Gallagher traces both the narrative detail and the philosophical imperative by which George Eliot evades the realistic “representation” of her hero (see especially 222-45). Eliot does this, Gallagher argues, in order to deny the utilitarian political proposition that mere mirror-like “representation” of all competing classes and points of view in a Reformed Parliament would produce a body genuinely representative of that “best self” which lies, invisible to all but the eye of “culture,” in “the people.” For this reason “there is not, nor can there be, any social explanation for his development,” for “he represents a realm that is not at all given but is, rather, in the process of being created by books like Felix Holt” (244, 245). An extension of this argument is Daniel Cottom's meditation on the trope of violence. For Cottom both “culture” and “violence” are pure “figure” without possibility of realistic detail in a politico-Romantic middle-class discourse of transcendence (“culture” diverts “violence” into “feeling”) (see 38-42).

  5. Following up connections between the two novels, one might also note the presence of Oedipal rage in the hardworking Adam toward his feckless and drunkard father, a rage whose proximity to the accidental death of that father causes Adam dread (ch. 4), and the political cast to the admiration the novel's quasi-narrating “traveller” of chapter two feels about the young man he sees: “We want such fellows as he to lick the French” (18).

  6. The link between rural landlords—keepers of pigs and growers of profitably distillable grains—and the brewing and pub interests, and Tory political interests, is explored by Brian Harrison, as is the link between doctors, drinking, and drugs (see 57, 286ff, and 334ff). In the 1830s teetotaling doctors “were the dissenters of the medical world, threatening its established Church, the College of Physicians,” who preferred to prescribe both pills and alcohol or opium-laced drinks partly because of outmoded medical theories and partly because, as Felix will say, they were paid for prescribing things (161-62). The argument that political reform was simply another expensive placebo prescribed by self-seeking politicians was a familiar one on both the Radical and the Tory hustings during the late 1820s and early 1830s, and achieved memorable form in Carlyle's contempt for the “Morrison's Pill” philosophy of reform in Past and Present (1843).

  7. The interweaving of sexual and political violence on the part of the “have nots” that George Eliot hints at here was (and is) a commonplace of riot behavior, both in art and life. J. E. King describes an assault upon a “master's” house in the 1878 cotton strikes in North Lancashire as harboring the same elements as the election-day riot scene in Felix Holt—a mob leader with a sword, property destruction, triumphant drinking and attempted rape amidst an almost “carnival atmosphere.”

  8. Stevenson's novel, published in 1886, is of course not a source for Felix Holt but an echo of a common Victorian trope. A key scene in the novel finds the freed Hyde popping up out of nowhere and beating to death an innocent and “beautiful” old man, Sir Danvers Carew, who is not only aristocratic but also a figure of the law's authority. William Veeder has offered an extended reading of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a Victorian fantasy of “father killing” in his “Children of the Night: Stevenson and Patriarchy.”

  9. Fred C. Thompson has elaborated the evidence for believing that Eliot's thought about this novel began with the Mrs. Transome story, and that her readings in Aeschylus and Aristotle at this time, as well as the on-and-off writing of her drama “The Spanish Gypsy,” suggest that Mrs. Transome was to be a tragic heroine in the Greek mold. Gillian Beer thinks the classical analogue might be Medea, who killed her children (144). I think there is also a hint of Clytemnaestra, who killed her betraying husband and was in turn done to death through the revenge plan of her daughter Elektra, in the vision Mrs. Transome has of Esther as “a daughter who had no impulse to punish and to strike her whom fate had stricken” (Felix Holt 596). Chapter forty-two of Felix Holt has a headnote from Elektra. Beer, like many readers, feels that the Transome (the Medea) tragedy “makes the Oedipus story comparatively unimportant” (144). This essay has tried to establish the importance of the Oedipus story by seeing it as Felix's as well as Harold's.

Works Cited

Anderson, R. D. Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. “Mary Ann Evans's Holy War: An Essay in Letter Reading.” Nineteenth Century Literature 44 (1989): 335-63.

Chase, Cynthia. “The Decomposition of Elephants: Double-Reading Daniel Deronda.PMLA 93 (1978): 215-27.

Cottom, Daniel. Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History and Literary Representation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede. 1859. New York: Dutton, 1960.

———. Felix Holt, The Radical. Ed. Fred C. Carpenter. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

———. Middlemarch. 1871-72. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1956.

Fisher, Philip. Making Up Society: The Novels of George Eliot. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1981.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. 1855. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Harrison, Brian. Drink and the Victorians. London: Faber, 1971.

King, J. E. “‘We Could Eat the Police’: Popular Violence in the North Lancashire Cotton Strike of 1878.” Victorian Studies 28 (1985): 439-71.

Shuttleworth, Sally. George Eliot and Nineteenth Century Science: The Make Believe of a Beginning. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Thompson, Fred C. “Felix Holt and Classical Tragedy.” Nineteenth Century Fiction 16 (1961): 47-58.

Veeder, William. “Children of the Night: Stevenson and Patriarchy.” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after One Hundred Years. Ed. Veeder and Gordon Hirsch. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. 107-60.

Welsh, Alexander. George Eliot and Blackmail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985.

———. The Hero of the Waverley Novels. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1963.

Wilt, Judith. “‘He Would Come Back’: The Fathers of Daughters in Daniel Deronda.Nineteenth Century Literature 42 (1987): 313-38.

———. Secret Leaves: The Novels of Walter Scott. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Alison Booth (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8694

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 been when she vindicated the fallen, strong-minded woman, Marian Evans “Lewes,” in the wise reminiscences of the clerical George Eliot. That gentleman had now been promoted to the position of Victorian sage, which could easily take the fun out of the novelist's job. Yet while she was expected to teach, she was still expected to dazzle; overt preaching was taboo in the Victorian almost as much as in the modern aesthetic code. Further, her now public womanhood burdened her; the suspicion cast on any woman not minding her domestic business could poison a political novel by a woman, not to mention a novel recklessly broaching the “woman question.” In Felix Holt, the Radical, Eliot veers close to feminist special pleading, yet the novel has always appeared to be political only in the traditional sense (and her traditional politics have irritated many); she can “pass” as a male historical novelist of a superior order, experimenting in artful form and allusion, avoiding Scott's anachronism, elevating her readers' understanding and taste. Yet it is important to see, behind the mask of the great novelist, a writer politically situated, one who recognized the interdependence of the public and private spheres and who, perhaps more than she realized, indicted the injustices of patriarchy in a drama of class and gender in a small Midlands town in the Reform Era.

In Felix Holt (1866) Eliot disguised her arguments about gender and class in an apparently impartial history of everyday life; she in effect responded to an immediate political threat, the second Reform Bill, by advocating gradual amelioration of private life and, above all, of women's lot. Like her friends and associates who campaigned in the 1850s and 1860s for such things as women's higher education and the right for married women to own property, she adhered to an ideology of influence, a belief in women's vocation for sympathy as a basis for social reform.1 She hoped to foster feminine influence but entertained no political ambitions of remaking woman in man's image—and still less of eliminating class along with sexual differences.2 Eliot mistrusted partisan politics as a kind of institutionalization of unfeminine egocentrism and competition, and while she, like so many of her contemporaries, perceived an affinity between women and oppressed classes and peoples, the bonds of the common life as she portrays them are uneasy at best. In particular, she suggests an ingrained antagonism between imperious men and all “others,” redefining “radical” to mean, one who repudiates his ties to the past, to family life, and to the feminine.

Eliot's evident constraints in dealing with the electoral conflicts compressed in the subtitle “the Radical” become more intelligible and even excusable when seen in light of her feminist politics, which affirm what the self-promoting vote-mongers would like to leave behind. In the epigraph to chapter 21, an unidentified opportunist (perhaps lawyer Jermyn or his informer Christian) complains, “’Tis grievous, that with all amplification of travel both by sea and land, a man can never separate himself from his past history.”3 Eliot might simply be echoing the platitude that there are no shortcuts in moral life and illustrating it with alarming scenes of social upheaval, but she is applying these conservative brakes because men who desire mobility have generally stored their women at home as too heavy to carry along. Thus Mrs. Transome's lover, Jermyn, has left her behind in his own career of reputable villainy, like Jason believing that he is “not at all obliged to” his Medea, only to face the vengeance of consequences (512-13). Eliot's consequential world, in which there can be no revolutions or magical escapes from the past, also gives voice to Medea's rage, a disturbance of the peace more truly radical, in the usual sense, than any riot on election day.

The feminism of Felix Holt for the most part is sealed off from the public political action of committees or votes, while its ladies are perceived as under siege not only by patriarchs but also by the masses. Eliot begs her social questions: Which misogynist “radical” is Esther Lyon to marry? Which fate is better for the workers in the short run, brute subjection or brute rebellion? But she seeks to appease the classes and the sexes within the tradition of the novel of manners, through a slightly eccentric marriage in which the heiress marries the poor man (forfeiting her wealth) and seems prepared to help him run a kind of workers' institute.4 Uneasy about pressing too political a message in her novel, she preferred to publish a more explicit statement about class and electoral politics (but not the “woman question”) as a nonfictional appendix: “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt” (1867). Felix Holt may be seen as an attempt to subsume the agitation for women's suffrage in the 1860s under scenes of “masculine” political life from the 1830s, in the locale and period of Eliot's youth, working within literary and social traditions.5 Perhaps it is no wonder, given the complexity of its aims, that this is one of the least read of Eliot's novels.

In outline these aims are very much those of Middlemarch, another study of the English Midlands in the 1830s with interwoven masculine and feminine histories. Although the two novels differ enormously in power and design, many of the elements of the acknowledged masterpiece appear in the preceding work, with an almost inverted emphasis. Such inversion makes Felix Holt the more revealing articulation of a hushed politics. Eliot's earlier novel leaves the political issues of class and gender surprisingly exposed and unresolved, whereas the “greater” novel marginalizes scenes of political life and feminist protest as minor episodes or as hints in the prelude and finale. Is it partly the dictum that great art is not political that has devalued Felix Holt and that hampered Eliot as she wrote it?6Felix Holt, almost in spite of Eliot, seems an overtly radical text, even as it repudiates masculine “radicalism.” The bitter protests of Mrs. Transome in particular arrest our attention (and readers from the beginning have found her the most compelling feature of the novel). That ailing woman, before being put to bed and “soothe[d] … with a daughter's tendance” by Esther, says, “Men are selfish … and cruel. What they care for is their own pleasure and their own pride.” “Not all,” is Esther's rather inadequate response to these “painful” words (597).

In Felix Holt, Eliot appears to reconcile interdependent spheres, the private and the public, much as though she would justify patriarchal society as the natural order modeled on the family, yet she alters the scale of values: the private, associated with women, the powerless, and personal relations, becomes the predominant factor in human history. Thus the novel implies that social progress relies on some form of fellow-feeling and on the sympathy that women are conditioned to extend rather than on practical measures or on the active pursuit of change usually reserved for young men. Eliot's narrator declares, “[T]his history is chiefly concerned with the private lot of a few men and women; but there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life” (129). By implication, one cannot understand public life without reading the history of private lots.

Most critics of the novel address a perceived strain between these political and “personal” strands, some accounting for it in terms of conflicting generic intentions. During composition, Eliot does seem to have been doubly concerned with the accuracy of a historical-political novel on the Reform Era and with the effectiveness of a tragedy in novel form.7 According to Fred C. Thomson, Eliot's notebooks indicate that Felix Holt originated in Eliot's study of classical tragedy as she worked on The Spanish Gypsy and that the interest in electioneering politics was worked up later.8 Like the tendency to suppress “the Radical,” the subtitle on the original title page, this view that the story of the Transomes takes precedence over the depiction of changing social conditions is suspect (part of a bias toward timeless, apolitical art?), but it is hard to deny that the circumstances of the election, the legal machinery that conveys Esther to Transome Court, and the reconciliation and marriage of Esther and Felix lack Mrs. Transome's fire.9 Arnold Kettle, reversing Thomson's ordering, claims that the original study of two kinds of radical was deflected by Eliot's interest in “the position of woman” and “moral responsibility” (106).10 Whatever Eliot's process of creation, it seems that critics resist the idea that the plots centering on Mrs. Transome, Esther, Felix, and Harold might be more than incidentally related; in other words, they presume that the plots centering on men's politics and on women's relationships are disparate if not rivalrous, that private and public spheres remain alien to each other. In spite of the manifest analogies in the novel between the politics of the drawing room and of the hustings, the accounts of Eliot's having been distracted from one sphere into the other persist. Even in light of these analogies, it is impossible to make a fully coherent novel out of Felix Holt. There is, especially, a surplus of feminist protest—surplus because narrator, characters, and plot largely ignore it.

The tragedy of Mrs. Transome is that of a woman who is unable to renounce her personal desires and who finds no wider calling; she is a pettier prototype of the Alcharisi, the dark double of the great woman of letters. Female ambition without voluntary self-sacrifice is always a disturbing force in Eliot's work. As though to contain this force, the novel shows a more dispassionate interest in things as they were: the history of the Reform Era as it opened and quickly closed the possibility of extending political rights to workers and women.11 In addition to tragic form and historical accuracy, Eliot juggled the conventions of plot and plausibility, consulting the Comtean lawyer Frederic Harrison on the legal details of her plot.12 Harrison's and John Blackwood's praise of the “politics” of the first two volumes dispelled Eliot's “depression as to [the novel's] practical effectiveness,” though she remained “in that state of utter distrust and anxiety about my work which is usually the painful accompaniment of authorship with me.”13 She was not, of course, discouraged from attempting a similar synthesis of diverse elements again: Eliot assured Harrison that she would “keep the great possibility (or impossibility)” of creating an effective microcosm of social relations “perpetually in my mind,” and we may speculate that Middlemarch developed as a result. Eliot acknowledged the risk she had taken in attempting political art. After the publication of Felix Holt, she noted “the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate”; “aesthetic teaching,” she now maintained, would necessarily become offensive when “it lapses … from the picture to the diagram.”14 The artful world of Felix Holt at times seems reduced to a two-dimensional tract, but it does not disintegrate into unrelated private and public narratives.15

The conservative tenor of this novel may be primarily attributed to a resistance to such disintegration of the gendered spheres. Felix Holt offers radical insight into the correspondence between the lots of English ladies and the fate of all citizens of the Empire, between historical events and moments in the domestic interior; and the insight is occluded by the enfranchised actors in the drama. Mrs. Transome's battle with her son is more than coincidentally linked with the battle between ancient right and the rioting rabble on election day. In addition, while the novel dramatizes the possibility of gradual progress in obscure lives—in a realistic historical framework—it also invokes a spiritual counterhistory, cyclical rather than teleological, perpetuating hidden conflicts in gender relations. Mrs. Transome's and Esther's complementary stories have a mythical quality, as though like Demeter and Persephone they enact the recurring seasons, while Mrs. Transome recognizes that home is a Dantesque hell. The complex structure of the novel—shifting between plots, households, times, points of view—draws analogies between the private choices of women and men and the transitional epochs in which they live, implying, for instance, that there is more promise in Esther's growing awareness than in any extension of the franchise or triumph of a politically enlightened faction.

The power of Felix Holt derives from irreconcilable differences between men and women and their respective fields of power and influence in English society. What cannot be put asunder, according to the outlook of this novel, also cannot be joined without masking the rough margins. Familiar forms have been twisted out of shape; emphasis falls unexpectedly. There are dark family secrets, musty wills, lovers' lockets, but nothing more sensational arises than an anticlimactic riot. To most readers, Mrs. Transome and Matthew Jermyn broadcast their secret affair long before their son Harold knows of it, while the dispute between the Transomes, Durfeys, and Bycliffes—all the legal matter of base fees and remainder-men that Frederic Harrison supplied—remains hardly more than it appears to Esther, a muddle of prerogatives magically invoked to change lives.16 Even the title raises doubts, not only as to the sense in which “Radical” applies to a man who opposes what would become the Chartist program (395-403) but also as to the centrality of the fortunate and faith-upholding Felix Holt to the moral drama of the novel. Happy is he who holds on by the roots, the title seems to say, yet Felix must undo his father's errors and resist his mother, while Esther must escape her inheritance.17 The patriarch is rather shabbily represented on the one hand by imbecile Mr. Transome and dotty Mr. Lyon, who fail in biological fathering, and on the other by devious Lawyer Jermyn and his illegitimate son, Harold, who marries a slave.

If the male line of succession is doubtful, the novel seems reluctant to let matriarchy stand in its stead. E. S. Dallas observed in 1866 that a male author would have named the book after Esther.18 Indeed, most of the novel centers on the metamorphoses of the heroine, whose namesakes, Dickens's Esther Summerson and Queen Esther, are likewise poor foster daughters who find favor with powerful men. Eliot's Esther earns her moral crown by refusing a luxurious place as chief concubine, but she uses her influence to help her lover and her father, just as Queen Esther saves her cousin and adoptive father, Mordecai. The tragic Vashti, a famous actress in Villette (1853), in this novel has become the defeated Mrs. Transome, almost as though Eliot, like another King Ahasuerus, wished to make an example of the rebellious woman.19 Precedent and tradition are subtly modified, but without overt challenge to patriarchal order.

For all her strong didactic aim, the woman of letters seems more than usually reluctant to commit herself to any particular doctrine; the monologues of the eccentric Rufus Lyon suggest that the preacher must be a kind of outsider. Political activity is shown to be corrupt, idealistic, ineffectual, or irrelevant. Only Felix, manly and dignified, is allowed to seize the author's podium for a time, but he is jailed for his part in civil disorder, while his misguided enthusiasm seems subordinate to the question of his education in the femininity he initially despised. The treatment of class conflict is even more unsatisfactory; the human animals of the Sproxton mines are noted but are offered no real help: only a future relief through the evolutionary enlightenment of the race. Given these evasions, in what sense does Eliot integrate the private with the public life?

To answer this question, we must concentrate on the “woman question” in nineteenth-century England. It seems to have been impossible to cover up the gap between the historic lot of Englishwomen and their potential. Eliot shows how women are denied their due influence, but any protest is rigidly controlled, primarily as the bitter censured outcry of a sinning woman. In the process of writing this novel, I would suggest, Eliot tempered her feminist argument, deflecting attention from female characters onto male and deploying impersonal descriptive passages and a title that subordinated the perspective of the women. Mrs. Transome and Transome Court are only part of the story of 1832, and a less timely part; Esther, similarly, remains outside public life, more like Maggie Tulliver than Romola. The struggles of Harold, Jermyn, Rufus, and Felix, in contrast, appear almost identical with the historical crisis of the novel. It is as though the implied author concurs with at least the first part of Harold's sweeping exclusion of women from historical mobility: “women keep to the notions in which they have been brought up. It doesn't signify what they think—they are not called upon to judge or act” (117). In Eliot's world of course it does signify what ladies think and how they judge and act, but they scarcely show signs of the times. In response to the grand political turmoil of the Reform Era, Eliot offers two private pacifications: Harold, a Byronic colonialist, misogynist, and cynic, is finally swayed by Esther and reconciled with his mother, while Esther adapts herself to (and begins to influence) her romantic hero of the working classes.

These pacifications obey the central principle of Felix Holt: that “we” are each one among many, parts of a general pattern of interdependent private and public lives that foil our egotistical plans; hence the impersonal overview of the narrator, particularly in the “Author's Introduction” and in the epigraphs to each chapter, added late to the manuscript. A close look at the way we are conducted into the novel and at the subtle politics of certain unobtrusive scenes will help us uncover the unacknowledged propaganda in the work. A tendency to universalize a Victorian, masculine norm is tempered by a critique of particular manly egotists and radicals of all walks of life.

Eliot's narrator is kin to DeQuincey (“The English Mail-Coach”), Thackeray's showman (chapter 7 in Vanity Fair) and the future Theophrastus Such: “Five-and-thirty years ago the glory had not yet departed from the old coach roads,” he begins in a comradely tone, savoring a lost era of conservative immobility (75-76). The departed glory must be seen through ever-receding frames of nostalgic retrospect, since elderly gentlemen of 1831 resent the coach itself as an innovation going beyond “packhorses” (20). Then, on a narrated coach ride through the Midlands that is also a chronological history, the traveler “passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another,” from pastoral harmony to market towns to manufacturing districts where miners and weavers turn day to night (76-79). Our narrator, like the coachman another “Virgil,” will lead us into the Dantesque inferno of untold “human histories,” such as the hereditary tragedies lurking on estates like Transome Court that try to resist social change (81-84). Thus we pass through changing social conditions to enter Mrs. Transome's hell in chapter I—from the public and diachronic to the private and perpetual. At once we focus on a particular yet typical scene, a woman restlessly waiting in her drawing room for a man to return from his affairs in the world outside and to fulfill her ambitions. Mrs. Transome will bitterly learn that her son means to rule at home as he did abroad. The novel, then, opens with a wide-circling bird's-eye view, only to perch in a gilded cage with sexual and social politics coming home to roost. Two chapters later the novel reverses this move and examines surrounding conditions, so-called men's affairs of business and politics, in light of such domestic tragedy.

The action of Felix Holt is compressed into a brief period of gestation, the nine months from Harold's arrival to Esther's wedding, as though mimicking dramatic unities.20 This compression, while it implausibly hastens Esther's metamorphosis from a creature of Byronic sensibility to one of Wordsworthian duty, calls attention to the formal design of the work. Each of the main characters undergoes a crisis essential to Eliot's view of tragedy and of society: an “irreparable collision between the individual and the general,” that is, between “our individual needs” and “the dire necessities of our lot.”21 Such tragic unity as Eliot might have found in the Transome story alone is subordinate to an inclusive study of society; all the varied lots meet their necessity and discover their interdependence. When we turn in chapter 3 to the humorous history of Treby Magna as though on a layover on another introductory coach ride, or when we abandon Mrs. Transome or Felix for long passages until Esther comes to them in their prisons, we should perceive the pattern in a larger web than the fate of one hero or heroine. Just before Felix, Mrs. Holt, and Rufus Lyon are introduced as analogues to Harold, Mrs. Transome, and Matthew Jermyn, we are asked to attend to the process of the common life:

And the lives we are about to look back upon … are rooted in the common earth, having to endure all the ordinary chances of past and present weather. As to the weather of 1832, the Zadkiel of that time had predicted … unusual perturbations in organic existence … that mutual influence of dissimilar destinies which we shall see unfolding itself.


Social history evolves naturally and, as a rule, unpredictably, this suggests, regardless of individual will or perspective. Such a vision may make the “universal custom” of the “subjection of women to men” appear “natural” rather than merely customary, as John Stuart Mill observed in The Subjection of Women (1869), a work that like Felix Holt elaborated a response to the 1867 Reform Bill.22 But Eliot's emphasis on organically interdependent social development is aimed not at mystifying class and gender hierarchies—these are exposed as awkward customs in Felix Holt—but rather at chastening the egotism of the individual who does not acknowledge “mutual influence” and who denies his subjection to a collective historical plan. Women, the novel shows, may be egotists, “selfish and cruel,” but they perforce acknowledge mutual influence.

As the novel unfolds, however, the law of consequences that the novel enforces against the male radicals, upstarts and opportunists like Harold or Jermyn and their various hired guns, seems to lose its power. Social life may be metaphorically an organism “rooted in the common earth,” or it may be as random as stormy weather; disparate elements of the social microcosm and of the narrative that creates it are uprooted and blown out of place. Many of the episodes seem to lack clear relevance; the pretext of a revelatory plot, with its punitive consequences, is often inadequate to account for the amplitude of Eliot's history. At times it seems that Eliot's historical curiosity about the detail of English common life undermines her respect for the public priorities of traditional political history. Perhaps the novel is designed to “denature” the customary and to displace the scene of political progress from the market square to the home.

In the domestic interior it is perhaps easier—and less regressive—to dramatize the ethical imperative of memory, of fidelity to the past, because historically the women's sphere has been forgotten. In Eliot's own conscientious, public-spirited act of memory, she precisely records the detail of past domestic life in order to retrieve evidence of women's experience. She perpetuates the tradition of the apparently apolitical novel that offers a realistic social history, including indisputably political events. Simply to note the trivial matters of lives of the obscure can be, of course, a form of protest. If women have been consigned to lives of repetitive domestic detail, it is time the history of such detail were related. No details of women's lives should be dismissed as “small airs and small notions,” as Felix calls them. On the contrary, the key to the history of nineteenth-century parliamentary reform was kept in the work-baskets of mothers, daughters, wives. Yet the novelist saw no solution in women's rivaling men: Mrs. Transome's cold lust for power seems a sign of the self-wounding that comes of angry confrontation with men, as well as a forerunner of hostile images of suffragettes and women's-libbers. Eliot's narrator remains more sympathetic than hostile, of course, in keeping with her unbiased humanist persona. The novel suggests that the sexes will be reconciled only if men and women are able to change, but they must not fruitlessly resist inevitable sexual differences. These differences, for Eliot, have some positive value in the exclusion of women from power and ownership, which are sources of violence and exploitation. The influence of Esther is presented as the feminine alternative to the corruption of masculine power. Indicting the treatment of women, the novel then, in the forgiving form of Esther, softens the judgment when the case comes to trial. Men are brought to acknowledge women's claims on them. As Harold must accept his dependence on others, Felix must accommodate his idealism to the fact of a wife.

To highlight the false division between the domestic circle and the outside world, women are depicted indoors, looking out; home becomes sanctuary or prison, while life outside beckons as well as threatens. At Transome Court, Esther opens the blinds to see the river and the trees: “She wanted the largeness of the world to help her thought.” To Mrs. Transome, the same vista only reflects “boundary” and “line,” “the loneliness and monotony of her life” (590, 596). (Compare Dorothea's view from the boudoir at Lowick in Middlemarch.) In the end, Esther rejects “a silken bondage” as a lady at the manor in favor of “the dim life of the back street, the contact with sordid vulgarity” (591-92). It appears that the social order itself is founded on the clear demarcation of domestic interior and public exterior, and on the liminal status of women who must pay if they cross the boundary.

In 1832, ladies depend on gentlemen's protection; during the riot, Felix reassures Esther in her home before he tries to lead the mob, only to find himself swept along in its rampage toward Treby Manor. There, as earlier in an inn, his knightly impulse is to rescue the women, but ironically he is forced to pose as the aggressor, brandishing his “sabre” in a lighted window before “a group of women clinging together in terror,” frightened as much by him as by the pillagers he is preoccupied in turning away. The soldiers shoot him as though he were the leader of the rabble, wounding “the shoulder of the arm that held the naked weapon which shone in the light of the window.” The phallic image of the man who has entered the women's interior remains indelible evidence against him at the trial, in spite of his chivalrous intentions (432). He appears to be another literary martyr to the cause of humbling and reforming men, like Rochester in Jane Eyre and Romney in Aurora Leigh.

Eliot's political analysis of separate spheres takes the form not only of showing what happens when the threshold is violated but also of examining the significance of domestic details; female characters are represented in relation to household trappings. Esther is first introduced as the minister's daughter who objects to the smell of ale and tallow candles. Her fastidiousness sets her apart from the vulgar, “weak sisters” who pester their minister Rufus (133), yet she herself threatens her father's and Felix's vocations. Felix sneers at Esther's indulgence in wax candles: “I thank Heaven I am not a mouse to have a nose that takes note of wax or tallow” (140). Catherine Gallagher points out here the conflict of Felix's contempt for such material “signs” and the narrator's realistic method;23 misogyny and contempt for detail coincide in Felix with an egotistical denial of humanity's common interdependence. Female sensibility is animal-like to Felix: “A fine lady is a squirrel-headed thing, with small airs and small notions, about as applicable to the business of life as a pair of tweezers to the clearing of a forest” (153). He will have to refine his sense of scale in order to learn how the sexes might collaborate in domestic and public life, while Esther will learn that wax candles may come at the price of a woman's freedom.

As though her self-indulgent wish for refinement were granted, Esther is invited to choose a new home that has all the amenities lacking in Malthouse Yard. Transome Court seems like “Paradise” until she recognizes the role of the woman in it; it is “haunted by an Eve gone grey with bitter memories of an Adam who had complained, ‘The woman … she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’” (585). In contrast with Felix, Harold prefers the decoration to the life, asking Esther to pose in finery like one of the Transome portraits. She refuses, however, to adopt a fixed, false image (498). The portrait of Mrs. Transome in young and hopeful days seems to admonish her to “put out the wax lights that she might get rid of the oppressive urgency of walls and upholstery,” and thus to reject her first vanity for a higher vision (47, 586). She is not to be the “doll-Madonna in her shrine” that Eliot criticized in “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft,” an essay in which the heroic feminists, certainly not doll-like, are praised for retaining domestic loyalties as well as for not overvaluing women who have been degraded by decorous captivity.24

Although like so many heroines Esther faces a choice personified by two lovers, she more clearly dreads two kinds of disempowerment. Both the man who sneers at domestic detail and the man who wants to pile it up around his women are dangerous suitors for a woman who likes self-definition, just as they are distressing sons to their willful mothers.25 Harold, like Felix, eagerly repudiates female claims on him. Harold's “busy thoughts were imperiously determined by habits which had no reference to any woman's feeling,” and he is incapable either of imagining “what his mother's feeling was” or of swaying from his own imperious purpose (93). The radical who repudiates the past, the man who cannot be domesticated, is the man trying to his mother's will; thus Mrs. Holt and Mrs. Transome, “women who appear … to have a masculine decisiveness … and force of mind,” have “come into severe collision with sons arrived at the masterful stage” (535). Whereas Felix is a kind of hippie (his mother grieves that he wears no stock), Harold is no genuine radical but a composite of all the prejudices of the privileged European male: he is imperialist, racist, classist, and sexist. As Esther senses, “to Harold Transome, Felix Holt was one of the common people who could come into question in no other than a public light. She had a native capability for discerning that the sense of ranks and degrees has its repulsions corresponding to the repulsions dependent on difference of race and colour” (522-23). Thus, accepting the power of prejudice, Esther shrinks from telling Harold that she has been intimate with Felix. Yet her repulsion when she hears that Harold's first wife “had been a slave—was bought, in fact” (541) is more than dread of vicarious contact with the alien; it is also dread of the sexually abusive master. Esther's “native” discernment has everything to do with her having been socialized as a woman; she may play along with ranks and degrees, but she begins to find them repulsive in themselves, since race and gender remain, like class, the registers on which the patriarch marks his supremacy.

Somewhat like Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda, Esther resists the surrender implied in accepting a man: “The homage of a man may be delightful until he asks straight for love, by which a woman renders homage.” Harold's love “seemed to threaten her with a stifling oppression,” almost as though she intuits the opinion he declared when he first returned from Smyrna as a widower: “I hate English wives; they want to give their opinion about everything” (94). Perhaps less ominously, after having kissed Felix, “she felt as if she had vowed herself away, as if memory lay on her lips like a seal of possession” (592); he at least has taken the trouble to argue with her opinions. Crudely, she must choose between the radical who sees women as useless delights and the radical who sees women as temptations unless useful. With more conscience and foresight than Mrs. Transome, Esther chooses duty rather than pleasure (524), the man who scolds rather than the man who flatters her.

In outline, Eliot's novel promises little for women. While Esther seemingly must submit to Felix in the end, for her adultery Mrs. Transome must endure a living hell, dependent on Harold's belated understanding. Yet, as to the necessity for such sacrifices, the narrator offers contradictory commentary, generated especially by the figure of Mrs. Transome. Having married an imbecile, chosen a lover, and with him managed her failing estate, Mrs. Transome is now told she must become “grandmama on satin cushions” (95). Her power has not gained her love, and her illicit affair has rendered her powerless. The narrator can only advise resigned silence: “half the sorrows of women would be averted if they could repress the speech they know to be useless; nay, the speech they have resolved not to utter” (117). It is advice that Eliot herself, in the powerful voice of the narrator, does not follow. Observing Harold's bulldozing egotism, the narrator offers this rebuke:

It is a fact kept a little too much in the background, that mothers have a self larger than their maternity, and that when their sons have become taller than themselves, and are gone from them to college or into the world, there are wide spaces of their time which are not filled with praying for their boys, reading old letters, and envying yet blessing those who are attending to their shirt-buttons. Mrs. Transome was certainly not one of those bland, adoring, and gently tearful women.


It may make us uneasy to be told that there are such bland women, but they seem to be relegated to the world of unrealistic fiction. Esther, too, is certainly not one of the quiescent type, but lacking power she can only hope for the less demeaning love that recognizes her as a “woman whose mind was as noble as her face was beautiful.” She complains of the injustice to Felix: “It is difficult for a woman ever to try to be anything good … when it is always supposed that she must be contemptible.” Men may choose “hard” and “great” lots, but women, apart from the rare “Saint Theresas,” “must take meaner things, because only meaner things are within [their] reach” (364-67). Esther's growing humility and desire for a truly great lot in life excuse this complaint. She will grow to embody some of a saint's grand calling, but she is a woman, not a saint—that is, she is not destined, as George Eliot was, to join in the vanguard of public historical movements.

For some time it seems likely that Esther will take Harold, a meaner thing within her reach. Mrs. Transome predicts Esther's sacrifice to Harold with the bitterness of one of the damned:

“This girl has a fine spirit—plenty of fire and pride and wit. Men like such captives, as they like horses that champ the bit. … What is the use of a woman's will?—if she tries she doesn't get it, and she ceases to be loved. God was cruel when he made women.”


The narrator understands such bitterness without forgiving it or offering women any recourse. In complaints or reproaches, “poor women, whose power lies solely in their influence, make themselves like music out of tune, and only move men to run away” (437). Pointing out the selfish, cowardly response of men, however, is not the surest way to recommend women's submission. Though the sexes mirror each other unflatteringly, ultimately women appear less base than men. Mrs. Transome's servant Denner comically declares: “I shouldn't like to be a man—to cough so loud, and stand straddling about on a wet day, and be so wasteful with meat and drink. They're a coarse lot, I think” (488). Mrs. Transome tells Jermyn, “I would not lose the misery of being a woman, now I see what can be the baseness of a man” (519).

To all appearances, Harold is the opposite of coarse, but the narrator, like Mrs. Transome and eventually Esther, detects the flaws of egotism beneath his veneer:

“A woman ought never to have any trouble. There should always be a man to guard her from it.” (Harold Transome was masculine and fallible; he had incautiously sat down this morning to pay his addresses by talk about nothing in particular; and, clever experienced man that he was, he fell into nonsense.)


The corollary of Harold's gallantry is that women should protect men from wounded vanity, much as the narrator does by this backhanded parenthetical excuse. In practice, Victorian gender ideology depends on mutual blindness; thus Harold is uneasy when he suspects that Esther has a mind as well as a beautiful face:

She was clearly a woman that could be governed. … Yet there was a lightning that shot out of her now and then, which seemed the sign of a dangerous judgment; as if she inwardly saw something more admirable than Harold Transome. Now, to be perfectly charming, a woman should not see this.


The final caustic comment belongs to the wise and, in spite of the counsel of resignation, feminist narrator (the voice seems that of the unguarded Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey).

There are signs that the narrator realizes the unsatisfactory compromise in the romantic ending supposedly so devoutly to be wished. Really, Esther cannot do better than to marry, the narrator, in Shakespearean guise, maintains: “she was intensely of the feminine type, verging neither towards the saint nor the angel. She was ‘a fair divided excellence, whose fulness of perfection' must be in marriage” (551).26 Characteristically, Eliot presents feminine independence as the exception to the common order, a possibility for rare spirits like St. Theresa or Romola. Yet an inert and ignorant Angel in the House will spread a curse as much as any demonic Mrs. Transome. Esther must retain her will and aspiration. At her great moment, she assumes the role of a heroine of history:

When a woman feels purely and nobly, that ardour which breaks through formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs, makes one of her most precious influences. … Her inspired ignorance gives a sublimity to actions … that otherwise … would make men smile. Some of that ardour which has … illuminated all poetry and history was burning to-day in the bosom of sweet Esther Lyon. In this, at least, her woman's lot was perfect: that the man she loved was her hero; that her woman's passion and her reverence for rarest goodness rushed together in an undivided current.


The “divided excellence” finds a rare undivided opportunity to act. There could hardly be a more explicit image of the compensations of influence, yet Esther does not consume her life in obeisance to her manly hero. Like another Elizabeth Bennet, she could only be happy with a man “greater and nobler than I am,” but she reserves a little of her wealth and, playfully, of her power: “You don't know how clever I am. I mean to go on teaching a great many things”—including Felix—“and you will not attribute stupid thoughts to me before I've uttered them.” She will enjoy the “retribution” of demanding that he be worthy of her sacrifice (602-3).27

Eliot has captured perfectly the strange balance of power in the ideology of influence; she would later present a more convincing portrait of such a relationship in that of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, where the man learns virtue by living up to the woman's standard for him. Felix must play the part of Esther's mentor, but it is a role she creates and makes him worthy of. Significantly, the union is cleansed of any hint of sexual mastery. Felix and Esther unite rather as though Maggie and Tom Tulliver were able to prolong their last moment outside of gender difference, like children or angels:

He smiled, and took her two hands between his, pressed together as children hold them up in prayer. Both of them felt too solemnly to be bashful. They looked straight into each other's eyes, as angels do when they tell some truth.


Male and female lots have been shown to be separate though tensely intertwined; the fusion at the end belies the instructive disunity of the novel. Felix and Esther leap out of history and out of gendered sexuality in order to unite as novelistic closure demands.

The comments on women's lot in Felix Holt are remarkably outspoken, more so than in Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda. Here lovers and mothers and sons openly negotiate power and ownership, and, in spite of the plot of reconciliation, the sexes seem to glare at each other unappeased. Eliot's drama of 1832 remains a puzzle in which the pieces of private and public life seem to fit and yet do not. Social divisions are exposed along the fault lines of class as well as gender. As in Romola, Eliot represents the common people as both the medium of continuity and as a volatile force for change; common people and upper-class women are implicitly linked in their shared exclusion from corrupt modes of power. As before, the novel exalts less the crowd or the suffering masses than individual, uncommon, but obscure beings such as Felix Holt and Rufus Lyon who are willing instruments of progress; the radicalism of their visions is tempered by fellow-feeling, love of tradition, and domestic sentiments. Their influence may be narrow and unsteady, but it is the ingredient heretofore missing from public life, where all men do appear selfish and cruel. Ladies at times are able to collaborate with such decent meliorists as Felix and Rufus, as when Esther rises in court in defense of Felix, “break[ing] through” the rigid systems of men (571). Felix holds an article of faith that “there's some dignity and happiness for a man other than changing his station” (557), but the spirit of the age is against him (as well as his own rejection of vulgar parents). The challenge to inherited station during the Reform Era jarred the Treby Magnas of England out of an apparent slumber of centuries. Eliot appears to dramatize the crisis of her times primarily in terms of class politics, but public events are upstaged by the skirmishes between men and women, which the novel suggests more profoundly determine the course of human history.

In a commentary on the disjunction between those interlocked spheres, private and public life, Eliot's narrator analyzes a society ostensibly governed by men whose public personae deceive everyone, including themselves—though perhaps not the women who know them in private life. “Under the stimulus of small many-mixed motives … a great deal of business has been done in the world by well-clad, and, in 1833, clean-shaven men, whose names are on charity-lists, and who do not know that they are base” (471-72). Certainly, young men who learn to integrate public forms and private relations offer some hope for change. Felix refuses to join the fashionable parade of self-deceiving educated men, but he must also learn to value the trivia of domestic life and to respect as a fellow human being what he mistook for “a squirrel-headed thing.” Influential young women such as Esther were beginning in the 1830s to step out of the house and not only to put their own names on the charity lists but also to organize widespread reforms aimed at reconciling public and private morality. The novelist herself was such a reformer, urging that the business of the world be conducted in a less deceptive, impersonal manner, so that signs of authority—upper-class English manhood—could not be mistaken for signs of virtue or merit. The feminist political message is certainly muted, especially by Mrs. Transome's heartlessness and the forced concluding marriage. But such muting, like the moderation of Victorian feminism in general, enabled the very real advances that women like Eliot were able to make. The disjunctions of Felix Holt can be attributed largely to the strains on a writer sustaining the position of a great women of letters, wishing to affirm a continuous tradition yet to integrate the different voices that had been silenced, wishing to narrate a political history of pre-Victorian society that incorporated the private experience of middle-class women, and finally wishing to expose bias and false consciousness while herself appearing impartially human and omniscient. These diverse wishes are impossible to fulfill entirely, of course. Whatever the “many-mixed motives” of the author herself, however, her text makes the most of these contradictions by not resolving them, exposing an unassimilated feminist argument.


  1. Suzanne Graver, George Eliot and Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 176-78. Eliot offers a good example of what Naomi Black calls “social feminism.” See Social Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 1-3.

  2. See, for example, The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon Haight, 9 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-1978), 4:364-65, 467-68.

  3. George Eliot, Felix Holt: The Radical, ed. Peter Coveney (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 310. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page number. We are reminded of the warning in the “Author's Introduction” that progress has its price as well as its benefits: “Posterity may be shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle: that is a fine result to have among our hopes; but the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory” (75).

  4. Esther Lyon, like Emma Woodhouse, is the spoiled darling of a widower, but she learns to reject the lord of the manor for the yeoman, the Robert Martin figure, Felix Holt. Ellen Moers has pointed out Eliot's alteration of Austen's class scale. See Literary Women: The Great Writers (1976; repr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 50.

  5. Bonnie Zimmerman, “Felix Holt and the True Power of Womanhood,” English Literary History 46 (1979): 432-37.

  6. Obviously, many “great” novels have political themes, and many even stage battle or election scenes (War and Peace, The Red and the Black, Waverley, Vanity Fair, and Middlemarch come to mind). But it seems that the arbiters of the canon prefer not to be reminded that the implied author is also politically situated and that the novel, much like the tract, takes sides.

  7. Early critics of Felix Holt, while generally admiring, laid out two lines of attack: against the political novel of the Reform era and against the moral drama of the Transomes, Lyons, and Holts. See David Carroll, George Eliot: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), 251-70; and Florence Sandler, “The Unity of Felix Holt,” in George Eliot: A Centenary Tribute, ed. Gordon S. Haight and Rosemary T. VanArsdel (London: Macmillan, 1982), 137. Felix Holt was more a critical than popular success (Gordon Haight, George Eliot: A Biography [New York: Oxford University Press, 1968], 387). Though it appears to belong in the company of political novels such as Disraeli's Sybil or of multiplot social-problem novels such as Bleak House, it defies generic expectation. See Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 103.

  8. Fred C. Thomson, “Felix Holt as Classic Tragedy,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 16 (1961): 47; “The Genesis of Felix Holt,PMLA 74 (1959): 576.

  9. Norman Vance, “Law, Religion, and the Unity of Felix Holt,” in George Eliot: Centenary Essays and an Unpublished Fragment, ed. Anne Smith (London: Vision, 1980), 103-20.

  10. “‘Felix Holt the Radical,’” Critical Essays on George Eliot, ed. Barbara Hardy (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970), 106. David Carroll diagrams the novel's “spheres of politics, religion, and love” as deliberately interrelated, yet he claims that Esther has “usurped Felix's central position” (“Felix Holt: Society as Protagonist,” in George Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George R. Creeger [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970], 134, 140). See also Michael Edwards, “George Eliot and Negative Form,” Critical Quarterly 17 (1975): 171; and Joseph Wiesenfarth, “Felix qui non potuit,” in George Eliot's Mythmaking (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1977), 170-85.

  11. Eliot's journal and notebooks record extensive research on the economic and political contexts of 1832 in the Times, the Annual Register, the House of Commons's Report from the Select Committee on Bribery at Elections (1835), Mill's Principles of Political Economy, Samuel Bamford's Passages From the Life of a Radical, and Daniel Neals's History of the Puritans, among other sources. See Haight, George Eliot, 381; and Thomson, “The Genesis of Felix Holt,” 577-83, and the introduction to his edition of Felix Holt (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), xiii-xlii.

  12. His suggestion for the statement by the attorney-general was inserted in chapter 35. See Appendix B, 629-37, in Coveney's edition of Felix Holt, and the introduction, xxii-xxv, to Thomson's edition. The collaboration was unusual for her (George Eliot Letters 4:214-302).

  13. George Eliot Letters, 4:258.

  14. George Eliot Letters, 4:300-301.

  15. Catherine Gallagher sees Felix Holt as a crisis in Eliot's “inductive” method of “metonymic realism,” when the social tension of the 1860s made “the discontinuity between facts and values” impossible to ignore (The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985], 237-43). The righteous eponymous hero, generally seen as “too good to be true,” tries to deny his affiliation with domestic life (see Laurence Lerner, The Truthtellers [New York: Schocken, 1967], 49). He has been condemned as a spokesman for Eliot's dread of public upheavel, in line with Arnold's response to the Hyde Park Riots in Culture and Anarchy (1869), but he is also the common man “feminized” and elevated by fellow-feeling. Williams, Culture and Society, 109, reproaches Eliot for excluding the common people from her vision of the interdependence of public and private life. See W. F. T. Myers, “Politics and Personality in Felix Holt,Renaissance and Modern Studies 10 (1966): 27; David Craig, “Fiction and the Rising Industrial Classes,” Essays in Criticism 17 (1967): 64-74; and Linda Bamber, “Self-Defeating Politics in George Eliot's Felix Holt,Victorian Studies 18 (1975): 419-35.

  16. The Lyons receive the news of Esther's inheritance as “magic”; Felix says her fitness for ladyship gives “chance sanction to that musty law … the appropriate conditions are come at last” (557).

  17. Wiesenfarth, “Felix qui non potuit,” 177-78.

  18. Carroll, Critical Heritage, 267. Compare Little Dorrit, in which Arthur Clennam undergoes a more dramatic development than the eponymous guiding light; a woman might have named it Arthur Clennam.

  19. The Book of Esther sets the context of Felix Holt, but the heroine's role as political savior of her people has been privatized. Lawyer Jermyn is Haman the villainous minister; Felix, like Mordecai, is an unruly outsider yet a guide for Esther inside the palace. See Zimmerman, “Felix Holt,” 441n.11. Charlotte Brontë's “Vashti” is judged as a woman rather than as an artist, suggesting a precedent for Eliot's defiant Alcharisi in Daniel Deronda.

  20. Thomson, “Felix Holt as Classic Tragedy,” 54.

  21. Eliot, “Notes on ‘The Spanish Gypsy,’” George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, ed. John W. Cross, 3 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, n.d.), 31-32.

  22. John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (New York: D. Appleton, 1870), 22-23.

  23. Gallagher, Industrial Reformation, 237-43.

  24. “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft,” Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), 201-5.

  25. Felix rejects the dishonest occupation of his dead, mountebank father, thus distressing his mother; Harold repudiates his Tory lineage, neglects his imbecile “father,” and almost kills Jermyn, his real father, all in a contest of wills with his mother.

  26. The quotation is from King John 2:1.

  27. Coveney points out that Esther's “laugh as sweet as the morning thrush” in this concluding scene echoes the scene in prison when Esther, “like a thrush … a messenger of darkness,” warns Felix of failure (chapter 45, n. 1; chapter 51, n. 2).

Adapted from Alison Booth, Greatness Engendered: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Copyright 1992 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

Shifra Hockberg (essay date 1993)

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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 potential savior of her people.1 In a similar vein, Donald D. Stone notes the Byronic reference in Harold Transome's first name, as well as the novel's satire of Esther's romantic obsession with Byronic heroes.2 Nonetheless, the full implications and relevance of the names of the main male characters in Felix Holt—Felix himself, Harold Transome, and Matthew Jermyn—are far more extensive. Each of these names is used by Eliot to encode deliberate references to historical figures and to literary history in order to create allusional subtexts and ironic undercurrents in the novel, undercurrents which are, on occasion, augmented by the etymological derivations of these very names. Indeed, Eliot's assertion in chapter three of Felix Holt that “there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider, public life” (43) applies not merely to the general historical tenor of her novel and its political backdrop, the Reform Bill of 1832, but to the thematic function of her characters' names, names which incorporate a wider historical and literary resonance.

Both Felix Holt's given name and surname are, in this regard, multi-referential. While “Felix” itself derives from the Latin word meaning “happy” and applies in general fashion to his character, and while Eliot may have intended her lay clerical hero's name to allude to Saint Felix of East Anglia (died 647) and Saint Felix of Valois (1127-1212), both known for proselytizing and works of mercy, there is a more compelling reason for Eliot's choice of nomenclature.3 Significantly, Felix's given name incorporates a literary allusion that underscores his paternalistic and patronizing attitude toward Esther Lyon, the woman to whom he offers moral guidance and whom he ultimately marries. The allusion in question is to Felix Vaughan, the hero of Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House and perhaps the best known fictional “Felix” in nineteenth-century English literature. Patmore's book-length poem was first published in two separate parts as The Betrothal (1854) and The Espousals (1856) and later reissued in 1858, in one volume, thus predating the publication of Eliot's novel in 1866. While no concrete references to Patmore's work appear in any of Eliot's letters, in view of the immense popularity of the poem at the time of its publication, it can be assumed that Eliot had either read it or had at least heard of it. As Kate Flint writes, “The Angel in the House sold better in Victorian England and America than any other work apart from Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1862).”4

Patmore's poem depicts the courtship and wedding of Felix Vaughan, a poet and gentleman,5 and Honoria Churchill, daughter of a cleric, the Dean of the cathedral at Sarum Close. It is a love story that depicts “scenes of middle-class domesticity,” as J. C. Reid suggests,6 and a mystical idealization of married love in the union of the allegorically named characters, “happiness and honor.”7 Of significance for the intertextual connection between The Angel in the House and Felix Holt, Patmore's poem suggests that women are naturally inferior to men, that “Man must be pleased, but him to please / Is woman's pleasure …” (Book I, Canto IX, ll. 1-2).8 In fact, E. J. Oliver, one of Patmore's biographers, contends that “Patmore was so little in sympathy with equality between men and women that he could only discuss their relations in terms of slavery and captivity. …”9

Thus, by encoding an allusion to The Angel in the House into Felix Holt through nomenclature, Eliot adds an important subtext to the depiction of her working class Felix and his relationship to Esther Lyon. Like Honoria Churchill, Esther Lyon is also the daughter of a cleric and is a submissive wife. She is not only turned into what Donald D. Stone terms “an adoring slave-maiden straight out of Byron's poems,” but into a domestic angel in a village house at the end of the novel.10 The name “Felix” thus has a rich allusional resonance and thematic implications for Eliot's representation of the titular figure of her novel and his relationship to gender politics.

Of further interest regarding nomenclature in Felix Holt, the surname “Holt” has an etymological derivation pertinent to the novel and, moreover, incorporates a literary model. The Old English derivation of “holt” links Felix to the woods, to wooded hills, and to groves,11 establishing him as a natural rather than artificial figure or creature of society, as are Harold and his mother. As an almost pastoral name, evocative of the countryside, “Holt” likewise bears out Eliot's declaration early in the novel that “the lives we are about to look back upon do not belong to those conservatory species; they are rooted in the common earth …” (43).12

Eliot, however, incorporates a literary ancestor from Thackeray's Henry Esmond into Felix Holt through onomastics. Moreover, because this reinscription of a literary forbear calls attention to Thackeray's novel, it also suggests a link between several melodramatic plot elements common to both works. Given the popularity of Henry Esmond at the time of its publication in 1852, the educated Victorian reader would very likely have recognized this reference. Indeed, Eliot herself reacted strongly to Thackeray's novel, criticizing, for example, the improbable marriage of Esmond and Rachel. As she wrote in a letter to Charles and Caroline Bray, on 13 November 1852, “‘Esmond’ is the most uncomfortable book you can imagine. … The hero is in love with the daughter all through the book, and marries the mother at the end.”13

The literary model derived from Thackeray is Henry Holt, a Jesuit priest who helps care for Esmond as a child and attempts to indoctrinate him in the Catholic faith. Throughout the novel, Father Holt is involved in political intrigues in the struggle over the succession to Queen Anne. As a master dissembler, he has a large wardrobe of disguises and a variety of alternate identities and pseudonyms, appearing on one occasion as “Captain Holton” (96)14 and, on another, as “Captain von Holtz,” a German officer in the service of the Bavarian Elector, on a secret mission to the Prince of Savoy (310). As Holt says of himself and of Jesuits in general: “You see what deceivers we are, Harry” (81).15 Despite all efforts, however, his plot to restore the Pretender to the throne of England fails, and he is forced to applaud when George of Hanover is named king.

Several of Thackeray's descriptions of Father Holt not only demean his character, but provide a contrastive, polarizing allusion and context for Eliot's own Holt figure, who, as noted earlier, functions as a lay clerical figure in the novel that bears his name. Henry Holt, we are told, “had a vast power of subjecting those who came near him” (69), a trait reinscribed in Felix's enormous influence on Esther—an influence which, however, has a clearly physical or sexual component.16 Likewise, as Thackeray writes of the Jesuit priest, “in every point he here professed to know, he was nearly right, but not quite …” (311), and “he never played a game but he lost it; or engaged in a conspiracy but 'twas certain to end in defeat” (511). These characteristics are refigured in Felix, who is almost rigidly opinionated and whose well-intentioned attempts, for instance, to stop the mob from attacking Treby Manor end in his own incarceration. In Henry Esmond, Holt himself is imprisoned for conspiracy, but is later released for lack of evidence and banished from England.17 The reference to Thackeray's Holt thus has a dual implication: Felix may be, in contrast to Thackeray's clerical intriguer, a good and sincere “apostolic sort of fellow” (350), or Eliot may be providing an ironic context for Felix Holt, who, after all, like his literary model, the other Holt, never accomplishes anything concrete, beyond marrying Esther and retiring to an unspecified village at the end of the novel.18 For those critics who dislike Felix or who would deconstruct Eliot's novel, the Henry Holt subtext questions and undermines Felix's probity.19

The reference to Henry Esmond, however, is of further interest, apart from the allusion to Henry Holt and his failed intrigues, for it also provides a possible analogue for the sensational plot elements associated with Esther Lyon's mother, Annette Ledru. Annette's melodramatic fortunes are reminiscent of Gertrude Maes and her secret marriage to Thomas Esmond, and the resemblance between Esther and Henry's respective discoveries of genteel or aristocratic birth and heritage is likewise striking. Moreover, both Esther and Henry, out of love for others, surrender the inheritance or titles that would otherwise be theirs. The nomenclature in Eliot's novel suggests, then, the possibility of an intertextual connection with Henry Esmond as a whole.

Like Felix's name, that of Matthew Jermyn is equally complex in its referentiality to historical figures and their personal and public lives. The name Jermyn itself derives from that of Henry Jermyn, Earl of Saint Albans (1604-1684). His name may have initially caught Eliot's attention because it is mentioned on several occasions in Henry Esmond, particularly in tandem with that of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a well-known Restoration rake (248). Thus, if Eliot had not already known of Jermyn through her readings of British history, she would certainly have known of him through Thackeray's novel.

Jermyn began his colorful political career as a member of parliament for Bodmin in 1625 and for Liverpool in 1628. He was later appointed vice-chamberlain to Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and accompanied her when she escaped to France in 1644. In fact, his intimacy with the Queen was so marked that members of the court assumed and gossiped that they were lovers. In 1645 Jermyn was named Lord Chamberlain, and in April of 1660 was created Earl of St. Albans by Charles II. Jermyn was involved in numerous political intrigues, and his reputation as a glutton and a gambler was such that he was even satirized by Andrew Marvell in “The Last Instructions to a Painter” (ll. 29-48) as being “full of soup and gold.”20

The surname Jermyn, which not only refers to the “glib-tongued” lawyer (30) who embezzles money from the Transome estate, is, however, also the true surname of Harold Transome. Thus it functions further, as subtext and historical model, to link the two men and to conflate the political aspirations of Harold as a Radical candidate for Parliament with the more sinister aspects of Matthew Jermyn's machinations as Harold's election agent. Moreover, the gluttony of the original, historical Jermyn is incorporated into the fat hands of both Harold Transome and Matthew Jermyn, his father, providing a textual clue to Harold's paternity which incorporates, at the same time, a link with adultery and illegitimate birth.21 Like the historical Jermyn, both men indulge themselves sexually. Matthew Jermyn has conducted an adulterous liaison with Arabella Transome, and Harold, who is “fond of sensual pleasures” (93), has “brought with him from the East” a “slow-witted large-eyed woman, silent and affectionate, with a load of black hair weighing much more heavily than her brains” (290). Thus, by selecting the surname Jermyn for the unscrupulous lawyer in Felix Holt, Eliot is able to encode associations with both political and sexual intrigue.

That Henry Jermyn was Earl of Saint Albans is significant as well. St. Albans, now a cathedral city, was famous, historically, for several reasons. It was there that the first draft of the Magna Carta was read to a group of clergymen and nobles, and it was there that a famous prison stood. During the 18th century St. Albans became notorious for irregularities, bribery, and illegal practices during parliamentary elections, and sustained this reputation as late as 1851, prompting Charles Dickens, for example, to allude to electoral corruption in St. Albans in Bleak House.22 Thus, the historical background of St. Albans, encoded into the novel through the allusion to the first Earl of St. Albans, creates a subtle thematic undercurrent in a novel which depicts both the political pretensions of Harold Transome, the ethical issues that arise during his electoral campaign, and Felix Holt's own quest for civil rights and freedom for the working class.

In addition to the deliberate thematic implications of his surname, Matthew Jermyn's given name is likewise appropriate in its reference to the apostle Matthew, who had been a tax collector before his conversion and whose gospel stresses the public appeal of Jesus' ministry.23 Thus it echoes, thematically and ironically, the implied lay ministry of Felix and contrasts with the corruption of Matthew Jermyn, who not only pockets rents and tenant fees from the Transome estate, but who is responsible, ultimately, for the death of Maurice Christian Bycliffe, Esther Lyon's biological father. Clearly, Eliot is reinscribing the New Testament association of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew, 9:10-11) into her novel through Matthew Jermyn's given name.24

One more onomastic connection remains to be examined regarding the themes of moral corruption and intrigue in Eliot's novel, and that is the ironic implication of the surname Transome, the family name Harold bears, since both he and others are unaware, initially, that Matthew Jermyn is his real father. A “transom,” in its lexical meaning, not only denotes a crossbar or crossbeam, but specifically refers to the horizontal beam of a gallows.25 Thus the surname by which Harold is known undercuts both the veneer of genteel respectability that his mother tries so desperately to preserve and his aspirations to political power. The moral ambiguity inherent in the reference to the historical Henry Jermyn thus finds an echo in the etymological derivation of the surname by which Harold is known.

In Felix Holt, then, a character by any other name would lack the multi-referential complexity that Eliot gives the male figures examined above. The cumulative effect of nomenclature in the novel thus gives rise to an even greater unsavoriness in the portrayal of Matthew Jermyn and Harold Transome and to a possibly negative treatment of Felix Holt himself. Given the unquestioned extent of Eliot's general scholarship and her broad knowledge of history and literature, these parallels and analogues can hardly be coincidental. An examination of the nomenclature in Felix Holt thus not only points to Eliot's learnedness, but adumbrates the richness of her intertextual engagement with other Victorian writers, such as Patmore and Thackeray. Through the subtextual intricacies encoded by onomastics, Eliot is able to create an allusive narrative texture that is, at once, surprisingly accessible, yet erudite and profound.


  1. See Hidden Rivalries in the Victorian Novel. Dickens, Realism, and Revaluation (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987) 18. Meckier also suggests that Felix Holt rewrites Bleak House, with its criticism of lawyers and the legal process which ultimately drains the Jarndyce estate. Esther Summerson, however, never becomes a potential savior of her people, as does Eliot's Esther. See 3-4 and 13-26.

  2. See Donald D. Stone, The Romantic Impulse in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press, 1980) 229, regarding the Byronic ambience that colors Harold's entry into the narrative. All page references to Eliot's novel are from Felix Holt, ed. and introd. Fred C. Thomson (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

  3. For the lexical meaning of “Felix,” see The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971) 1321.

    Given Eliot's extensive historical knowledge and her interest in hagiology, evidenced by her use of prototypes based on saints' lives elsewhere in her fiction—most notably in Middlemarch—it is entirely possible that Eliot wished to encode a subtext to Felix's role as lay cleric and social activist through an onomastic allusion to these canonized historical models. For a summary of these saints' lives see The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1966) Vol. 9: 158.

    Eliot's repeated creation of lay clerical figures is by now a critical commonplace. In Felix Holt itself, see, for example, the following: Harold Transome terms Felix “an apostolic sort of fellow” (350); Esther tells Felix, “You should really found a sect. Preaching is your vocation” (165); Eliot writes of Esther that “The first religious experience of her life … had come to her through Felix Holt” (255); Felix mentions his “conversion from debauchery” (53), almost as if he is being called to sainthood or apostolic vocation; and Felix speaks of vocation united to the love of a “woman whose beauty makes a great task easier to men instead of turning them away from it” (222). The conflict between Rufus Lyon's “ministerial vocation” (143) and his love for Annette Ledru forms a suitable contrast.

  4. Kate Flint, Dickens (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1986) 114-15.

  5. Frederick Page writes that Vaughan's poetic vocation parallels that of Patmore himself or possibly Tennyson. See Patmore. A Study in Poetry (New York: Archon Books, 1970) 48. I suggest that the name Vaughan is probably another onomastic code, an allusion to the seventeenth-century devotional poet Henry Vaughan (1621-95), since Felix speaks of love in sacramental fashion in The Angel in the House.

  6. J. C. Reid, The Mind and Art of Coventry Patmore (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957) 255.

  7. See Wendell Stacy Johnson, Sex and Marriage in Victorian Poetry (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) 75.

  8. For the text of Patmore's poem see The Angel in the House together with the Victories of Love, ed. Alice Meynell (London: George Routledge and Sons, and New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., n.d.). John Wilson Bowyer and John Lee Brooks quote Patmore as having said that “No right-minded woman would care a straw for her lover's adoration if she did not know that he knew that after all he was the true divinity.” See The Victorian Age. Prose, Poetry, and Drama, ed. John Wilson Bowyer and John Lee Brooks, Second Edition (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1954) 608.

  9. Coventry Patmore (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956) 186.

  10. Stone 226. Stone also suggests that Felix “enunciates the Comtist position on woman as an ennobling influence—a Madonna in the house—who makes ‘man's passion for her rush in one current with all the great aims of his life’ (II, 39)” (227). Given, however, the significance of nomenclature in the novel, I suggest that Patmore's angel is yet another influence or subtext, and does not, in any event, exclude Stone's contention.

  11. Webster's 670 and The Compact OED 1321.

  12. It should not be surprising that Eliot deliberately encoded etymologies into her works, since, clearly, she is punning on the Latin derivation of “Radical,” from the word “radix” or “root,” in the title of her novel. See Webster's 1171, and The Compact OED, Vol. 2, 2574. Felix is “rooted in the common soil” (43), and in response to Rufus Lyon's query as to whether he is a “Radical, or Root-and-branch man,” Felix replies that he wants “to go to some roots a good deal lower down than the franchise” (224). Harold, the other Radical in the novel, says, “I am a Radical only in rooting out abuses” (38), and “I belong by my birth to the classes that have their roots in tradition and all the old loyalties” (152).

    Jerome Meckier writes that Eliot redefines Radicalism “to mean change continuing organically via careful evolution from the root, center or fundamental source of life, an energy perceived as positive and good” (21).

  13. See The George Eliot Letters, Vol. 2, ed. Gordon S. Haight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954) 67. Other references to Henry Esmond in Eliot's letters include: Vol. 2:80, 157; and Vol. 4 (1955) 79, 90-91.

  14. The History of Henry Esmond, ed. John Sutherland and Michael Greenfield, introd. John Sutherland (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972). All page references are to this edition.

  15. Thackeray also writes: “The moral of the Jesuits' story I think as wholesome a one as ever was writ: the artfullest, the wisest, the most toilsome, and dextrous plot-builders in the world …” (232).

  16. See, for example, the continual references to Felix's gaze, his “large clear grey eyes” (58), which seem to overmaster Esther, and the massive “barbaric” grandeur of his form (371). Felix's own sensuality is made clear in the mention of his “six weeks of debauchery” (53) and in his declaration that “I'll never marry, though I should have to live on raw turnips to subdue my flesh” (63). Stone notes that “the most interesting aspect of Eliot's treatment of Felix Holt is the linking of his mesmeric hold over others with his sexual magnetism” (226).

  17. Other instances of imprisonment in Thackeray's novel include that of Esmond himself and Isabella, Viscountess of Castlewood (202 ff. and 98 ff., respectively).

  18. Henry Holt ends his career in America, buried in an unnamed location somewhere in Maryland (511).

  19. Fred C. Thomson, for example, asserts, in a different context, 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 motivation, weaken his effectiveness as a spokesman for George Eliot” (“Introduction,” xii). Similarly, Stone terms Felix “the most insufferable of Eliot's Rousseauesque heroes” (225-26).

  20. See David Williamson, Debrett's Kings and Queens of Britain (Exeter, Devon: Will and Bower, 1986) 141; The Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 10, ed. Sir Leslie Stephens and Sir Sidney Lee (London: Humphrey Milford and Oxford University Press, 1917) 779-81; and Charles Carlton, Charles I. The Personal Monarch (London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) 253, regarding the possibility of Jermyn's adultery with Henrietta Maria. In his other book on the period of Charles I, Archbishop William Laud (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), Carlton describes Jermyn as “the queen's pet” (182). For the full text of “The Last Instructions to a Painter” see The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, Vol. 1, ed. H. M. Margoliouth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963) 141-165, ll. 29-48. Marvell's satire emphasizes Jermyn's greed, gluttony, massive corporeality, and his taste for gambling:

    “Paint then St. Albans full of soup and gold,
    The new Courts pattern, Stallion of the old.
    Him neither Wit nor Courage did exalt,
    But Fortune chose him for her pleasure salt.
    Paint him with Drayman's Shoulders, butchers Mien,
    Member'd like Mules, with Elephantine chine.
    Well he the Title of St. Albans bore,
    For new Bacon study'd Nature more.
    But Age, allaying now that youthful heat
    Fits him in France to play at Cards and treat.”

    (ll. 29-38)

  21. The textual clues to Harold's paternity are numerous, but the fat hands of both men constitute one of Eliot's more subtle touches, especially in light of Mrs. Transome's fear, regarding Harold's appearance, that “though the likeness to herself was no longer striking, the years had overlaid it with another likeness which would have arrested her” (17). This likeness includes Harold's “plump hand” and his having grown stout in Greece (17). Jermyn, too, is “fat,” and his hands are described as “white, fat, but beautifully shaped” (30). The hints at a physical resemblance between father and son culminate at the end of the novel, when Harold looks in the mirror at his own reflection and that of Jermyn and sees “the hated fatherhood reasserted” (381). Felicia Bonaparte points out the general plumpness of both men as a textual clue to Harold's biological father in Will and Destiny. Morality and Tragedy in George Eliot's Novels (New York: New York University Press, 1975) 73. Also see Dorothea Barrett, Vocation and Desire. George Eliot's Heroines (London and New York: Routledge, 1989). Barrett writes that “Harold also has fat hands, which he habitually rubs together in the mercantile manner of his natural father …” (109).

  22. Britannica (1966) Vol. 19: 888-89. Electoral corruption in St. Albans was a topical subject even at the time Dickens wrote Bleak House in 1853. As Susan Shatto writes in The Companion to Bleak House (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), “The town had featured prominently in the press and in Punch since the spring of 1851, when a parliamentary election disclosed the existence of widespread and long-standing bribery and corruption in the borough” (65). Dickens refers to St. Albans in Chapter 6 of his novel. See Bleak House, ed. Norman Page, introd. J. Hillis Miller (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985) 111.

  23. Matthew 9:9-11, Luke 5:27, and Mark 2:14.

  24. A. E. Harvey, in Companion to the New Testament (Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1970), writes that the profession of tax collecting “invariably involved extortion and dishonesty …” (275).

  25. Webster's 1511, and The Compact OED, Vol. 2: 3383.

Rita Bode (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9036

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, freedom and curtailment, assertion and compromise, then George Eliot's “political” novel moves beyond the sphere of public affairs and systems of government to encompass the dynamics of human interaction at every turn. From the steward's room at Treby Magna, where Scales and Christian engage in their battle of “wits,” through the questionable maneuverings to captivate an audience that occur at the Sugar Loaf, to the precarious relationships of parents and children, husbands, wives, and lovers, the question of who will gain ascendancy is a constant. The novel rings with the words and the enactments of “mastery” and “power,” “subjection,” “bondage,” and “powerlessness.”1 The personal destinies of Felix Holt's female characters are particularly embroiled in the power struggles. The alienated, sufferings Mrs. Transome, once “‘chief bailiff’” (p. 20), bespeaks female powerlessness as much in her silence as in her embittered words, but it is Esther Lyon who articulates most directly the restrictions with which women grapple. In response to Felix's words on what he hopes to accomplish with his life, she tells him: “‘A woman can hardly ever choose in that way; she is dependent on what happens to her. She must take meaner things, because only meaner things are within her reach’” (p. 225). Yet Esther herself is fortunate enough to be confronted by a higher and lower choice, and her decision to commit herself to a life of “difficult blessedness” (p. 197) with Felix rather than one of “‘moral mediocrity’” (p. 341) with Harold affirms her newly found awareness of a more noble and fulfilling existence than any she had known before.

Esther grows both spiritually and emotionally in the course of the novel. Felix is the right choice—morally and emotionally—if for no other reason than because she loves him and does not love Harold. Her choice of Felix seems also intricately tied to her submission to him. He is her mentor. “‘My husband must be greater and nobler than I am’” (p. 397), she tells him unequivocally. Even Bonnie Zimmerman, who addresses the issue of sexual politics in “Felix Holt and the True Power of Womanhood,” accepts this view of Esther's submission when she concludes that “George Eliot does not reject political consciousness; rather, she suggests even through language that powerlessness and subjection, when accompanied by love, can be woman's proper sphere.”2 Jennifer Uglow also accepts Esther's deference to Felix when she argues that George Eliot sees “feminine submissiveness” as the “genderless ideal of a harmonious society;”3 most recently, Alison Booth, in “Not All Men Are Selfish and Cruel: Felix Holt as a Feminist Novel,” praises George Eliot's recognition that, through “the interdependence of the public and private spheres,” women as well as men determine the course of human history, but she nonetheless interprets Esther's two lovers as a choice between “two kinds of disempowerment;”4 and Kristin Brady's study argues that the novel ends with “a traditional patriarchal marriage,” in which, as Esther and Felix's courtship would suggest, “her sense of identity is based entirely on him.”5 But George Eliot's text, in a number of ways, seems to demand a reassessment of Esther and Felix's relationship. My purpose in this paper is to question Esther's submission and Felix's influence, and to explore the possibility that Esther yields to gain greater control over her life. Like her biblical namesake, Esther appears to embrace submission only to triumph over a society that tries to restrict her kind. Without denying Esther's growth or her hero worship of Felix, I wish to suggest that her choice of Felix over Harold is something of a “political” decision, for whether consciously or instinctively, she chooses the person over whom she can exercise some authority. She chooses Felix because, in contrast to Harold, he shows himself susceptible to her control.

The restrictions on womankind in Felix Holt are many, and Harold Transome seems to be the spokesperson for them all. His easy dismissal of his mother as a thinking and feeling being is brutal in its thoughtlessness and provides some of the novel's most vivid and memorable scenes. Harold's habitual mode of living with “no reference to any woman's feeling” (p. 19), and his general view of women as “slight things” that occupy him “in the intervals of business” (p. 153), indicate that he looks for no substance at all in women. His attitude seems particularly pervasive because, again and again, George Eliot ties it in with a modified Benthamite attitude toward culture. Art and women are appendages to Harold's life; he views both as possessions, and their purpose in his estimation is to be pleasing, decorative, and when necessary, functional. Hugh Witemeyer has effectively shown the significance of the visual arts in George Eliot's work.6 In Felix Holt, paintings, specifically portraits, figure strongly in defining Harold's relationship both with his mother and Esther, for he seems to want his women to function like portraits in a gallery, which are to be enjoyed when one comes to look at them or has some use for them, but otherwise may be forgotten. Harold's view of women in terms of art is no tribute to them, but rather a means of subordinating them to his powerful will whose influence is often destructive.

Harold expects his mother to live as if she were quite literally sitting for her own portrait. “‘You shall have nothing to do now but to be grandmamma on satin cushions’” (p. 20), he tells her with total disregard for her own needs and desires. When he first sees Esther, he reacts to her as he does to his mother, mentally providing her with an appropriate setting: “It was a pity the room was so small, Harold Transome thought: this girl ought to walk in a house where there were halls and corridors” (p. 154). Later at Transome Court when Harold comes upon Esther studying the portrait of Lady Betty Transome, he asks her not to move because, as he observes, “‘you look as if you were standing for your own portrait’” (p. 323). Their ensuing conversation begins as the cheerful banter between unavowed lovers, but the scene also points in a different, more threatening direction. Esther, as another portrait among the likenesses of Transome women, anticipates both her legal right to Transome Court and the possibility of her becoming its mistress as Harold's wife, but the scene also implies the dangers of such a future. Esther comments critically on the “‘conscious, affected attitude’” of the portraits: “‘That fair Lady Betty looks as if she had been drilled into that posture, and had not will enough of her own ever to move again unless she had a little push given to her … One would certainly think that she had just been unpacked from silver paper’” (p. 323). Harold's response to Lady Betty's portrait reflects Sir Peter Lely's formal style, but his judgment, according to the impression of her outward form, remains significant, and he focuses, characteristically, on the degree of pleasure that he might derive from her:7 “‘She brightens up that panel well with her long satin skirt,’ said Harold, as he followed Esther, ‘but alive I dare say she would have been less cheerful company’” (p. 323).

Harold's attitudes toward women as art objects pose a particular threat for Esther, since, in some ways, she sees herself similarly. The ambiguity concerning the state of her soul does not extend to her physical appearance. Esther is admired by all who see her, and from her choice of dress in shades of flattering blue to the careful management of her sweeping curls, she consciously cultivates her beauty. Her awareness of admirers encourages her to pose as if she were participating in a tableau vivant. “She was fond of netting,” relates the narrator, “because it showed to advantage both her hand and her foot” (p. 152). Felix's admonishment of the importance that she attaches to “‘dress, behaviour, amusements, ornaments’” at the expense of more noble interests (p. 107) expresses well-founded fears for her future. In a novel in which parents and children are constantly and often unwittingly reflecting each other, Mr. Lyon's mistaken belief that Philip Debarry's man, Christian, might possibly be Esther's real father has more than legal significance; there is similarity between them, for Christian seems to be the dark side of Esther Lyon. Her emphasis on physical and social charms in herself as well as in others reflects, in a sense, Christian's refined and foppish exterior. He seems to represent the outcome of following Esther's ways without cultivating a corresponding inner life. With his hair always “arranged with so much taste” (p. 88) and his consistently splendid attire, Christian is more show than substance, which is exactly what Harold desires in a wife. Esther could easily be the kind of entertaining wife whom Harold would appreciate, not as he appreciated his silent, dark-eyed slave wife, but as he appreciates the striking, majestic figure who still appears from time to time in his mother. Esther's emphasis on appearances would make her a fitting wife for an English gentleman like Harold Transome and a fitting mistress of Transome Court. Whatever finer thoughts have begun to stir in her by the time she goes to Transome Court, Esther delights in Harold Transome's homage and Mrs. Transome's gifts of jewelry and clothes, which heighten her beauty. In her tendency to show off her ladylike charms, she is particularly susceptible to being “drilled” into another portrait of a Transome lady and kept there.

In the context of Harold's attitudes and Esther's susceptibility, and with the spirit of Mrs. Transome's sorrow presiding over the family home, Harold's wish that Esther remain posed when he finds her in the drawing room is a chilling proposition. The scene echoes Browning's poem, “My Last Duchess.”8 Like Browning's Duke, Harold, with his desire to control his women, could very well end up preferring the portrait of the beloved to the beloved herself. Browning's Duke does what Harold's attitudes are tending toward: the one deprives his wife of life itself; the other takes from his women self-determination and hence autonomous lives of their own. To different degrees, both these men use art to deny life, or more accurately, they misuse art, for they deny the intense, emotional dimension that for George Eliot is an inseparable part of both life and art. The echoes of Browning's poem impart a further markedly sinister aspect to the scene, for the final image of “My Last Duchess”—that of Neptune taming a seahorse—hearkens back uneasily to Mrs. Transome's comparison in the previous chapter between men's preference for spirited horses and their liking for spirited women. She confides to Denner about Esther and Harold that it is “‘[n]ot true that she will ever master him. No woman ever will … This girl has a fine spirit—plenty of fire and pride and wit. Men like such captives, as they like horses that champ the bit and paw the ground: they feel more triumph in their mastery’” (p. 316).

Esther longs for an inspired life, a life whose intensity draws it close to the experience of art. Her wishes become clearer to her in the course of the novel, but the real change comes in her perception of the way to realize her longings. In their walk along the river towards Little Treby in chapter 27, Felix, inspired by Esther's beauty, catches a glimpse of life's possibilities, which, with his usual bluntness, he expresses at once: “‘I wonder … whether the subtle measuring of forces will ever come to measuring the force there would be in one beautiful woman whose mind was as noble as her face was beautiful—who made a man's passion for her rush in one current with all the great aims of his life’” (p. 223). Here is a view of woman as a different kind of art object; indeed, not as an art object at all in Harold Transome's static sense, but as an expression of beauty and moral taste. Felix's ideal woman enters his life fully, making it one with her own art forms and creating an inspired life for him. Esther herself moves toward this view of life as art. The extent to which Felix determines this movement is not as straightforward as might at first appear, but he does initiate the thought processes in Esther that begin to search and question her own complacency and code of standards. Whereas Harold denies the possibility of change for women—“‘Women, very properly, don't change their views,’” he tells his mother (p. 36), Felix admonishes Esther with “‘I want you to change’” (p. 108).

Harold Transome believes that Esther is “a woman that could be governed” (p. 342), but the novel suggests that she has subtle control over the events that affect her. She seems, indeed, to be actively creating her world. Early in the novel, Mr. Lyon excuses some of Esther's sauciness by saying that she is a “‘critic of words’” (p. 62). This is a particularly significant comment in a novel as self-conscious about the political nature of language as Felix Holt.9 George Eliot's characters continually attest to the power of language. Felix gains his influence over Esther by speaking out to her on her pettiness, and she shows her deference to him by faltering in her words. “Was there ever more awkward speaking?” questions the narrator about her broken speech to Felix in chapter 22: “or any behaviour less like that of the graceful, self-possessed Miss Lyon, whose phrases were usually so well turned, and whose repartees were so ready?” (p. 193); similarly, Felix's “breaking-off in speech” (p. 262) ten chapters later signifies his own loss of self-possession before Esther. Language is an assertion; it threatens authority as Dredge's confession to his friends at the Sugar Loaf testifies: “‘I've been aforced to give my wife a black eye to hinder her from going to the preachin'. Lors-a-massy, she thinks she knows better nor me, and I can't make head nor tail of her talk’” (p. 118). Several characters have the gift of oratory. Mr. Lyon and Felix Holt can both effectively command an audience as they try to influence their listeners for the good.10 The misuse of language is at the heart of the political and legal manipulations carried out by Johnson and Jermyn. Both men use words unscrupulously to gain their own ends. Language has the power to make its own truth cut off from outside referents. Jermyn's short declaration—“‘I am your father’” (p. 382)—changes all aspects of Harold's life permanently. Before Harold even sees in the mirror “the hated fatherhood reasserted,” he “started at a leaping throb that went through him” at Jermyn's words (p. 382). “Slight words,” Eliot tells us, “may have a sacramental efficacy” (p. 134), but her imagery also expresses the potential for violence and destruction in language. Words can “fall like the beating cutting chill of heavy hail” (p. 141); they have the same effect as “the edge of a knife” (p. 214) or “a cutting icicle” (p. 337). Whether public or private, healing or hurting, language in Felix Holt is powerful. And perhaps the starkest statement on the links between language and control lies in juxtaposing these vocal expressions with the powerlessness of Mrs. Transome, whose sorrows remain unuttered.11

As a “critic of words,” then, Esther is associated with the written word, and she seems attuned to the subtleties of the work of art that she herself is in.12 The narrator states outright that at Transome Court, she sees her own life as a literary creation: “Esther found it impossible to read in these days; her life was a book which she seemed herself to be constructing—trying to make character clear before her, and looking into the ways of destiny” (p. 322). Later, she expresses her disappointment about Transome Court in another association between literature and life when she thinks about it as the place “where poetry was only literature, and the fine ideas had to be taken down from the shelves of the library when her husband's back was turned” (p. 358). In her lively dialogues with Harold, she shows an awareness of style and genre.13 She meets Harold's assertion that she considers him “‘a fat, fatuous, self-satisfied fellow’” with the parry: “‘O there are degrees … you have just as much of those qualities as is becoming. There are different styles. You are perfect in your own’” (p. 344). Later, she tells him that he is “‘quite in another genre,’” a lover, rather than a tragic hero. With Harold, she states, a woman “‘must dress for genteel comedy’” (p. 352). Her knowledge of these literary conventions is intimate, for some of her thrusts suggest that she can use them to parody not only Harold but the convention itself. She has full control over them. When Harold asks, “‘And I don't look languishing enough?’”, Esther replies, “‘O yes—rather too much so—at a fine cigar’” (p. 353).

At her first meeting with Felix, Esther informs him: “‘I have a great admiration for Byron’” (p. 62), but by the time they go for their walk along the river, she denies that gentlemen whom Felix labels “‘of the Byronic-bilious style’” are her “‘favourite’” (p. 221).14 Esther's ideas on heroes change in the course of the novel. George Eliot's interest in the concept of heroism in Felix Holt may have been aroused by the heroes and heroines of the Greek drama and Shakespeare's plays, both of which she was reading at the time of writing this novel.15 As her handling of the Rev. Mr. Lyon suggests—“[t]hat little man's heart was heroic” (p. 300)—she is particularly interested in hidden acts of heroism and hidden heroes. Esther seems engaged in a similar activity. A peculiar interaction goes on between Felix and Esther; Felix initiates a process of change in Esther, but he, in turn, seems to become her creation. Her perceptions of Felix transform him into her own personal icon. Like George Eliot, Esther too seems to discover heroism where a popular view might not find it. Just as Felix would not appeal to all women, so he would make an unlikely hero for most of the characters in the novel. As Mrs. Tiliot tells Mrs. Muscat, Felix's appearance “‘is enough to frighten one’” (p. 205). Mr. Lyon's congregation finds him rude and rash, and those who see the riot from their windows witness in Felix not the hero struggling to contain the violence, but the “leading spirit of the mob” (p. 267).

Felix Holt is a troublesome character. He has the qualities that Esther finds in him, but not as strongly and not as purely as she believes. With his capacity for kindness, Felix is basically good, as George Eliot means him to be. It would be difficult to quarrel with his aim to make the world a better place. His admonishments that the forces of change for the better “‘must come out of human nature—out of men's passions, feelings, desires’” (p. 250) show his affinities with his creator. But there are traits in Felix that work against any idealizing of him.16 His rather self-righteous rebuke of Esther for her “‘petty desires’” (p. 109) when he has known her barely a month, his refusal to admire her pretty ways or to play along gaily with her clever and saucy repartee, inevitably cast him as a bit of a prig. Harold Transome is not wholly obtuse or egotistic in not recognizing Felix as a rival in love. In many ways, Felix seems startlingly unworthy of Esther's hero worship. The narrator informs the reader that there is “a delicacy of which he was capable under all his abruptness” (p. 132), but for the most part, Felix keeps it well hidden. The narrator's assessments, indeed, seem often at odds with Felix's behavior. Mr. Lyon's frequent corrections of Felix's words and thoughts provide a significant commentary on his shortcomings. Felix's blunt honesty is too often mere rudeness and insensitivity, and his intolerance surfaces too readily. At times, instead of forceful plain speaking, Felix twists words, aligning himself with the abusers of power. His self-indulgence in the effect of “uncomprehended words” (p. 119), or his amusement at “giving his mother answers that were unintelligible to her” (p. 192) resembles Johnson's condescending treatment of his audience's ignorance at the Sugar Loaf, or Jermyn's stutterings and Latinisms to forestall his listeners, or, indeed, Christian's glibness to establish his superiority over Scales.

Esther's initial reactions to Felix are, perhaps, as important as her later reverence. To Felix's summation of why he wishes her to change, Esther finally replies: “‘I think you boast a little too much of your truth-telling, Mr. Holt … That virtue is apt to be easy to people when they only wound others and not themselves’” (p. 109). With Esther, Felix is at his most tactless and insensitive. His bluntness is often psychologically belittling to her. On the occasion of their first meeting, before he has so much as spoken to her, Felix passes harsh judgment on Esther that, in large part, arises simply from his prejudice against fine ladies: “A very delicate scent, the faint suggestion of a garden, was wafted as she went. He would not observe her, but he had a sense of an elastic walk, the tread of small feet, a long neck and a high crown of shining brown plaits with curls that floated backward—things, in short, that suggested a fine lady to him, and determined him to notice her as little as possible. A fine lady was always a sort of spun-glass affair—not natural, and with no beauty for him as art” (pp. 60-1). For Felix, “‘[o]ne sort of fine-ladyism is as good as another’” (p. 64). He seems incapable of making subtle or even obvious distinctions. Felix cannot really tell what is part of Esther's pettiness and what is not. His desire that she be a better person cannot be separated from the beauty that he sees in her, and what he calls her pettiness is often used in the service of enhancing that beauty. Felix, moreover, will not grant one beautiful woman the inner beauty to equal her looks, but he is quick to attribute traces of outward vanity to pettiness of heart and soul. Felix thinks after their first meeting: “‘I should like to come and scold her every day, and make her cry and cut her fine hair off’” (p. 65). His reaction builds to a peculiar climax. Felix's thoughts of cutting off Esther's hair hardly seem worth noticing at first, but significantly, these condemned curls turn out to be no mere decoration. “‘And these curls?’” questions Felix, as, later in the novel, they decide on their life together. “‘[T]hey are natural,’” she replies (p. 397). Surely the more fool he as Esther's response recalls Felix's earlier judgment on her hair as part of that “spun-glass affair—not natural.” In Esther, Felix, like Harold, fails to recognize the art that nature forms. His opinion of Esther does not allow for art and nature to coalesce, and his insight into her potential is balanced rather precariously by this lack of discernment.

Felix's sentiments concerning Esther's fair locks imply violence toward her. The inevitable association with the ravaged lock of the fair Belinda, to whom Esther has her share of similarities, lends a serious aspect to Felix's reaction. She, too, could become one of those “bodies changed to various forms by Spleen.”17 In his study of George Eliot's myth-making, Joseph Wiesenfarth suggests that Felix's beating the grass with his large stick when he walks along the river with Esther is a sign of his sexual repression. But Felix's underlying violence is not just sexual.18 He is potentially violent toward everyone. His blunt rudeness seems an expression of this violence, and Felix himself admits to it as well:

The weak point to which Felix referred was his liability to be carried completely out of his own mastery by indignant anger … When once exasperated, the passionateness of his nature threw off the yoke of a long-trained consciousness in which thought and emotion had been more and more completely mingled, and concentrated itself in a rage as ungovernable as that of boyhood. He was thoroughly aware of the liability, and knew that in such circumstances he could not answer for himself … Felix had a terrible arm: he knew that he was dangerous; and he avoided the conditions that might cause him exasperation, as he would have avoided intoxicating drinks if he had been in danger of intemperance.

(p. 243)

Felix does not lose control of his passions in the riot, but his “terrible arm” results in his murdering Tucker, an act not easily explained away. Tucker's death threatens a sympathetic view of Felix. The narrator tries to lay some of the blame on Tucker himself since “any discrimination of Tucker's lay in his muscles rather than his eyes” (p. 267). But Felix himself could have used a little of Tucker's kind of discrimination in their confrontation, and the images of Felix rallying the rioting crowd suggest that only a superhuman type of discernment could discover his true intentions. Later, Mrs. Holt's assurances to Mr. Lyon that “‘they say Tucker's wife'll be a deal better off than she was before, for the great folks'll pension her … and everything’” (p. 298) seem to aim at lessening Felix's culpability, but they do not cancel his action. In Adam Bede, George Eliot writes: “our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”19 The word “deed” often comes up in Felix Holt and is associated, directly and indirectly, with a number of characters. The epigraph to chapter 42, the chapter in which Jermyn and Mrs. Transome confront each other about the identity of Harold's father, is taken from Sophocles' Electra: “Thou sayst it, and not I; for thou hast done / The ugly deed that made these ugly words” (p. 331). The quotation not only affirms the close ties between language and action, but also emphasizes the great import that action itself holds. Some deeds result in irreversible consequences which continue to haunt the person who commits them. This irreversibility gives to Felix's “deed”—the word echoes throughout these sections—its seriousness. Though Felix certainly does not intend to commit murder, his statement to Esther that he is out of prison “‘till I do something bad again’” (p. 395) suggests no awareness of how “bad” his action really was. He expresses no resolution, as Adam Bede does, not to fight again. His position as Esther's mentor becomes increasingly precarious, as Esther's faults do, indeed, appear “pettier” (p. 107) than his. Esther is worthier of Felix Holt than she believes, if only because he is less than she believes.

Toward the novel's end, Felix seems to compromise some of his principles. He refuses to see Harold Transome in prison and will not accept any help from him in his trial “except the aid he might give as an honest witness” (p. 300), but he accepts the free service of a Loamford solicitor. The cost of the witnesses, furthermore, must still be undertaken by someone other than himself. In his union with Esther, he accepts her money, which will certainly provide a secure and comfortable if not altogether splendid future for them. Yet with all his faults and compromises, Esther Lyon grows more and more devoted to Felix. His strong appeal for her is disturbing since it seems to stem partly from his disquieting influence over her. Initially, by not succumbing to her charms, he offends “her woman's love of conquest” (p. 105), but this simply increases his appeal. She tells Harold later: “‘I find I am very wayward. When anything is offered to me, it seems that I prize it less, and don't want to have it’” (p. 344). As we have already seen, Esther likes the idea of Felix's superiority to her; but despite Esther's embracing of her inferiority, the novel presents the possibility that she chooses Felix because he is open to her influence, whereas Harold Transome is not.20 Mrs. Transome, both in her position at Transome Court and in her words to Denner, provides an example of one woman's inability to command Harold. In contrast, Felix himself admits the power that women have over men through his fears concerning their influence. His very resolution never to love and not to marry indicates his awareness of his own susceptibility. In a sense, there are two Felix Holts functioning here—one is George Eliot's; the other, Esther's. Through powerful speech, Esther clarifies her vision of Felix for herself and extends it into the public sphere. Felix Holt does inspire Esther, but only after she creates him in the image of an inspirer.

It is significant that Esther indulges much of her hero-building while Felix is in jail, for his removal from the scene gives a tenuous quality to the relations between Esther's view of Felix as hero and Felix himself. Esther's own words create her hero. “‘Felix Holt is a highly cultivated man,’ she tells Harold: ‘he is not at all conceited … If it is eccentricity to be very much better than other men, he is certainly eccentric; and fanatical too, if it is fanatical to renounce all small selfish motives for the sake of a great and unselfish one. I never knew what nobleness of character really was before I knew Felix Holt.’ … It seemed to Esther as if, in the excitement of this moment, her own words were bringing her a clearer revelation” (p. 350). When Esther speaks out at Felix's trial she shows the extent to which he has affected her. Felix expects his ideal woman to make “‘a man's passion for her rush in one current with all the great aims of his life’” (p. 223). In the trial scene, she becomes his ideal woman, inspired and inspiring. The image of the current recurs in terms of what Felix has done for Esther: “Some of that ardour which has flashed out and illuminated all poetry and history was burning to-day in the bosom of sweet Esther Lyon. In this, at least, her woman's lot was perfect: that the man she loved was her hero; that her woman's passion and her reverence for rarest goodness rushed together in an undivided current” (p. 375). But the scene also attests to how she creates him, for Felix, in essence, is eventually freed because of her view of him. She tells the courtroom: “‘His nature is very noble; he is tender-hearted; he could never have had any intention that was not brave and good’” (p. 376). And Sir Maximus tells his brother: “‘She's a modest, brave, beautiful woman. I'd ride a steeplechase, old as I am, to gratify her feelings. Hang it! the fellow's a good fellow if she thinks so’” (p. 379). Her influence in the trial scene is doubly strong. Her beauty elicits trust and sympathy, while the power of her words makes vibrant the presence of a noble-hearted Felix. Though he is seen often enough as the ordinary, bad sort of political agitator by the other characters, George Eliot never shows Felix in the role of “‘a demagogue of a new sort’” to which he aspires (p. 224); the heroism that he attains is the one that Esther allows him.

The degree of Esther's control seems, at times, almost formidable. Felix fears that woman's influence might be petty, but what he should be fearing more, perhaps, is that it might be too great, for despite her surface submissiveness, Esther seems to take over. She creates a hero who will inspire her, but at the same time, she becomes that hero's muse with a vengeance, inspiring him to carry out her own desires. The indications of this control over her life and over Felix emerge from a variety of quarters.

In Felix Holt, George Eliot uses chapter epigraphs for the first time. These, no doubt, allowed her new freedom since through suggestive analogies, they let her emphasize aspects of her fiction from outside the text proper. The epigraphs that are not George Eliot's own creation come from a number of different sources, but only the two quotations from Shakespeare's Coriolanus directly link Felix to another character from literature. The epigraph to chapter 27 is from Coriolanus's speech in act II, scene iii.

Custom calls me to't:—
What custom wills, in all things should we do't?
The dust on antique time would lie unswept,
And mountainous error be too highly heaped
For truth to over-peer.

(lines 117-21)

The epigraph to chapter 30 of Felix Holt from act III, scene i refers to Coriolanus:

His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for his power to thunder. His heart's his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent;
And, being angry, doth forget that ever
He heard the name of death.

(lines 254-9)21

In George Eliot's novel, these references bear most closely on Felix's character and position. In chapter 27, Felix walks along the river with Esther and tells her what “custom calls” him to, and what he will do, and in chapter 30, Felix speaks to a crowd on nomination day very much as Coriolanus might, especially when he ridicules Johnson. Coriolanus and Felix Holt are very different in many ways, but they share certain similarities. Both are very outspoken. Both, at times, act rashly. Both have difficulty distinguishing the claims of the individual and the community. But what is particularly suggestive in Coriolanus's position with reference to Felix is that he is a man ruled by women. The influence of women, especially of his mother, is so strong on Coriolanus that it affects all aspects of his life. Felix's and Coriolanus's positions vary in relation to such influence. Mrs. Holt might only wish that she had the kind of power over her son that Volumnia has over hers, but her influence is, in another way, not so weak either, for if Mrs. Holt manages to do nothing else, she certainly has the effect of making Felix more forbearing. The influence of Coriolanus's wife, Virgilia, is not at first obvious, but she gradually emerges as an important alternative to Volumnia's effects and is a constant presence for Coriolanus, representing traits and attitudes that he is battling within himself. Virgilia's influence, like Esther's, is subtle and quiet, but because it is not so readily discernible, it should not be underestimated.

George Eliot supports the idea that Esther's control is strong in other ways. The performance of the three Fates has forever assigned to activities involving threads of any kind a deeper purpose than the obvious one. Sewing is a popular motif in the nineteenth-century novel. Like other women of her time, Esther has her handiwork, but for her it functions as more than a suitable feminine pastime. Mrs. Transome's embroidery has provided her with one means of coping with her life: “A little daily embroidery had been a constant element in Mrs Transome's life; that soothing occupation of taking stitches to produce what neither she nor any one else wanted, was then the resource of many a well-born and unhappy woman” (p. 82). Her sorrow and fitfulness seem to find some kind of release in her sewing. Esther notices that “[s]ometimes the stitches of her embroidery went on with silent unbroken swiftness for a quarter of an hour as if she had to work out her deliverance from bondage by finishing a scroll-patterned border; then her hands dropt suddenly and her gaze fell blankly on the table before her, and she would sit in that way motionless as a seated statue” (p. 361). Mrs. Transome, sewing, is a depressing image. It seems to carry the weight of female oppression through the ages. As art historian Roszika Parker points out in The Subversive Stitch, while embroidery was a source of enjoyment for many women, it also served as a means of controlling them. It confined them physically, to the domestic sphere and the “domestic arts,” and deprived them mentally, by substituting needle and thread in female education for books and knowledge. The history of the sewing woman is Mrs. Transome's history. Like her, Mrs. Transome is “powerless, silent and still.”22 Parker, however, suggests as well that women's handiwork can also be a means of assertion. Philomel's weaving showed us so long ago. But we see no assertions in Mrs. Transome's embroidery, which helps her rather to maintain silence. Her story is not to tell her story. The contrast of Mrs. Transome's sewing to Esther's brings out more forcefully the younger woman's controlling powers. Esther uses her handiwork not as a passive means of coping but as an active means of control. She does not hesitate to put into practice her awareness that netting shows to advantage certain of her physical attractions. She is often engaged in her handiwork when she is with others. When she wishes to gain full control of a situation, she turns to her handiwork and converses from behind it. In the conversation with Harold when Esther first alludes to Felix Holt, Harold causes Esther to make a number of mistakes in the pattern of her netting (p. 325). Her inability to control her blunders suggests her inability to control Harold, and later she rejects him.

The choice of Esther's favorite form of handiwork has other significance as well. Netting is suggestive of a snare of some kind and is associated, furthermore, with the spider's web.23 These associations make the scene in which Esther and Felix meet, after her return from Transome Court and his release from prison, somewhat ambiguous. It is an important scene, for it assures their union, but there is a suggestion that Esther is trapping Felix. As the chapter opens, she is waiting expectantly for him. As in the earlier scene when Felix comes to demand that she change, Esther is sitting in the kitchen between the fire and the window, but this time she is “stitching,” not reading (p. 395). Though she is not “netting” here, she is still pointedly engaged with threads. When Felix knocks, she hides behind the door as if she were Lyddy. Felix probably needs no inducement to enter, but her trick gives the impression that she is enticing him in, not unlike a spider with its intended victim. She seems to be catching Felix offguard—“‘Esther!’ exclaimed Felix, amazed” (p. 395). As they start to talk about the future, “[s]omething made Esther take up her work again, and begin to stitch” (p. 396). Eyes lowered, head bent, Esther stitching conveys subjugation, but, paradoxically, as Parker suggests, the sewing woman's concentrated activity also implies “self-containment, a kind of autonomy.”24 Esther, in the embroiderer's stance, both placates and challenges Felix. She appears simultaneously subservient and independent, conquered and inviting conquest—seductive combinations. It is little wonder that, as she begins to stitch anew, the scene moves forward rapidly to their mutual avowal of love and their decision to marry, which is precisely what Esther had wanted.25

This meeting of Esther and Felix back in Malthouse Yard seems to offer the fulfillment to their immediately preceding meeting in prison when they are constrained by time. There too they talk of the future—rather different futures for each of them then. They clasp and kiss, but in no conclusive way. The prison scene is, perhaps, most blatantly suggestive of Esther's control. Apparently, Esther is here more than ever in awe of Felix. The religious imagery is strong. Esther's dread of seeing Felix as she awaits him in prison is “what the dread of a pilgrim might be who has it whispered to him that the holy places are a delusion, or that he will see them with a soul unstirred and unbelieving.” Felix turns out not only to be the “same” but “inexpressibly better” (p. 363). George Eliot's presentation of Esther's devotion seems nearly excessive. Her hands point toward him in prayer: “He smiled, and took her two hands between his, pressed together as children hold them up in prayer.” But George Eliot goes on to put them on an equal footing: “Both of them felt too solemnly to be bashful. They looked straight into each other's eyes, as angels do when they tell some truth. And they stood in that way while he went on speaking” (p. 364). Felix's words that immediately precede these devout actions point toward the possibility that it is he who is under the influence of a kind of dark deity. Esther speaks “timidly” and “deprecatingly,” and Felix seemingly in jest, but his words nonetheless convey the danger that he senses in Esther (p. 363). “‘[Y]ou are dreadfully inspired,’” Felix tells her: “‘When the wicked Tempter is tired of snarling that word failure in a man's cell, he sends a voice like a thrush to say it for him. See now what a messenger of darkness you are!’” (pp. 363-4). He sees her as a temptress not because she is drawing him toward pettiness, but because she is tempting him away from his plans. Felix continues: “‘I don't mean to be illustrious, you know, and make a new era, else it would be kind of you to get a raven and teach it to croak ‘failure’ in my ears’” (p. 364). Felix's association of Esther with the raven further emphasizes a dark aspect in her relation to him, for the raven is always an ominous bird, and the message that Felix sees Esther assigning it is certainly a threatening one.26 Indeed, the message of the sweet-voiced thrush is really that of the raven.

In the later scene, when they decide to marry, Esther's voice is again compared to the voice of the thrush. In a sense Felix, in their exchanges in this chapter, acknowledges that Esther does to some extent create him. To her declaration that “‘my husband must be greater and nobler than I am,’” he replies: “‘if you take me in that way I shall be forced to be a much better fellow than I ever thought of being.’” Esther responds, “‘I call that retribution’ … with a laugh as sweet as the morning thrush” (pp. 397-8). Peter Coveney interprets this as an ironic reference to Felix's remarks in the jail scene about the “voice like a thrush” saying “failure” (p. 364).27 In terms of the scene's overall aspects, a serious reference seems more appropriate than an ironic one. Eliot is trying to establish an association with that same thrush bringing the dark temptations. The recalling of the thrush once again implies the continuing presence of Esther's ominous aspects in relation to Felix. Felix often applies the imagery of birds to Esther. “‘A peacock’” is his first derogatory conclusion about her (p. 65). Later, he details her shortcomings in this way: “‘[y]ou don't care to be better than a bird trimming its feathers, and pecking about after what pleases it’” (p. 109). Esther's development into the sweet-voiced thrush implies a degree of deception in her that Felix can no longer so easily penetrate. And in this final scene between them before their marriage, the point is, perhaps, that he cannot do so at all.

What follows in the Epilogue about Felix and Esther supports this view.28 “Esther has never repented,” affirms the narrator, but Felix “grumbles a little that she has made his life too easy.” He is in danger of becoming “a sleek dog” (p. 399). Felix seems to be referring to his easeful existence, but in the context of the novel his own admission carries other disturbing implications. It echoes and significantly threatens his earlier confident declaration, “‘I'll never be one of the sleek dogs’” (p. 222). “Sleek” is not used as a compliment in the course of the novel. Jermyn is described as “‘sleek’” in the same breath as he is labeled “‘an overbearing sycophant’” (p. 238). Mr. Nuttwood arouses Felix's mockery in part, at least, because he is a “sleek tradesman” (p. 131). “Sleek” seems to be associated with what Felix is sincerely opposed to. His fear of becoming a “sleek dog” implies not only that he is growing more comfortable and more prosperous than he would like, but also, perhaps, that he has undergone a kind of reduction; the edges of his impressive “Gothic” (p. 367) roughness have been smoothed away. His great ideals have been diminished, and the agitations of his spirit, as well as, perhaps, the deep thoughts that accompanied them, have been removed. The narrator refuses to reveal the place where Esther and Felix now reside, partly, perhaps, because Felix has not moved away to “‘some large town … some ugly, wicked, miserable place’” after all (p. 224). Henry James's early assessment of Felix carries some insight when he writes: “We find him a Radical and we leave him what?—only ‘utterly married.’”29 The suggestion that Esther has fulfilled the prophecy implied in her name is strong here. The Old Testament Queen Esther had a profound influence on her consort King Ahasuerus. Her story tells specifically of women's power within marriage. The Epilogue suggests that Esther and Felix's life conforms more to her wishes than to his. If the vain, conceited Esther of the first scenes promises to be another Angel in the House by the novel's end, the impression is that it will be her own house in which she presides. And it would not be a complete surprise to find the candles made of wax there.


  1. George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical, ed. Fred C. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 32, 28, 96, 99, 24. Further references will appear parenthetically in the text by page numbers.

  2. Bonnie Zimmerman, “Felix Holt and the True Power of Womanhood,” ELH 46, 3 (Fall 1979): 432-51, 448.

  3. Jennifer Uglow, George Eliot (London: Virago Press, 1987), p. 187.

  4. Alison Booth, “Not All Men Are Selfish and Cruel: Felix Holt as a Feminist Novel,” in Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, ed. Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 143-60, 143, 153.

  5. Kristin Brady, George Eliot (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp. 136, 140.

  6. Hugh Witemeyer, George Eliot and the Visual Arts (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1979).

  7. The portraits of Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) emphasize appearances, particularly fashionable, glamorous appearances, without trying to delve below them, as Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) began doing at the end of the next century. See William Gaunt, A Concise History of English Painting (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964).

  8. Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess,” in Poems, ed. Donald Smalley (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), pp. 49-51.

  9. Robin Sheet's article, “Felix Holt: Language, the Bible, and the Problematic of Meaning,” NCF [Nineteenth-Century Fiction] 37, 2 (September 1982): 146-69, presents a fine study of Eliot's awareness of the complexities of language and communication in Felix Holt. See also Ian Milner, The Structure of Values in George Eliot (Praha: Universita Karlova, 1968), pp. 46-55; Karen B. Mann, The Language that Makes George Eliot's Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983); Dorothea Barrett, Vocation and Desire: George Eliot's Heroines (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 99-122; and J. Russell Perkin, A Reception-History of George Eliot's Fiction (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1990), pp. 132-4.

  10. Both Sheets and Perkin question Lyon's and Holt's effectiveness as speakers.

  11. And yet, George Eliot's is no straightforward stance in which verbal utterance brings easy dominion. She sees the power of language in complex terms. The link between Mrs. Transome's silence and her powerlessness seems evident, but George Eliot also presents us with Mrs. Holt, whose flow of talk is unceasing. Hers is no image of silent forbearance, yet she too gains only a measure of influence.

  12. Many of the characters show an awareness of literary patterns and of the ways in which characters in literature are read. As a “bookish man” (p. 61), Felix's comment to Mr. Lyon about himself on his first visit to the rector's home is fitting: “‘You're thinking that you have a roughly-written page before you now’” (p. 54), he states, as Mr. Lyon examines his face through his spectacles. Harold's confidence that Esther prefers him to Felix Holt stems in part from his belief that “Esther was too clever and tasteful a woman to make a ballad heroine of herself, by bestowing her beauty and her lands on this lowly lover” (p. 350).

  13. See also Uglow's discussion of Esther's awareness of genre (pp. 188-90).

  14. George Eliot's own opinion of Byron grew increasingly negative. In 1869, she wrote to Mrs. Charles Bray: “Byron and his poetry have become more and more repugnant to me of late years” (Gordon S. Haight, ed., The George Eliot Letters [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954-78], 5:54).

  15. See John Cross, ed., George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals (New Edition; London and Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1885), 2:402, 404; and Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), p. 383.

  16. From the early reviewers to the present, Felix has had his share of detractors. See, among others, R. H. Hutton, unsigned review, in Spectator, 23 June 1866; rprt. in George Eliot: the Critical Heritage, ed. David Carroll (London: Routledge, 1971), pp. 258-62; Arnold Kettle, “Felix Holt, the Radical,” in Critical Essays on George Eliot, ed. Barbara Hardy (London: Routledge, 1970), pp. 99-115; Robert Liddell, The Novels of George Eliot (London: Duckworth, 1977), pp. 110-20; Donald D. Stone, The Romantic Impulse in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 225-9; Philip Fisher, Making Up Society: The Novels of George Eliot (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), pp. 152-4.

  17. Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock,” in Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. William K. Wimsatt Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951), pp. 85-110, canto 4, line 48.

  18. In George Eliot's Mythmaking (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1977), Joseph Wiesenfarth censures Felix's behavior and sees in him more psychological complexity than an idealized character would have (pp. 175-9). See also Laura Comer Emery's psychological interpretations of Felix's tendency toward rage in George Eliot's Creative Conflict: The Other Side of Silence (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), pp. 123-30; and Judith Wilt's “Felix Holt, the Killer: A Reconstruction,” VS [Victorian Studies] 35, 1 (Autumn 1991): 51-69, which provides a careful analysis of Felix's violence.

  19. George Eliot, Adam Bede, ed. John Paterson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), p. 264.

  20. In Victorian novels written by women, the heroine frequently marries someone over whom she has some power or advantage, or to whom she is in some way superior. Some examples include Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Margaret Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks. In Middlemarch, the contrast of Dorothea's two marriages, the unhappy one to Casaubon, who sets his mind against her, and the fulfilling one to Ladislaw, who is eager to please her, suggests a further extension of this pattern. The woman's power cannot be at the expense of male powerlessness, as the Transome marriage in Felix Holt suggests, but generally, marriages in which the woman has ascendancy seem to augur well for future happiness. While there are, of course, exceptions to this handling of marriage by the women writers (e.g., Charlotte Yonge's popular works in which the male is unequivocally superior), there are also enough examples to suggest that this idea might form the basis for another generalization about the treatment of marriage in Victorian fiction.

  21. There was a fair amount of interest in the figure of Coriolanus in the nineteenth century. In 1807, Beethoven wrote his “Coriolanus Overture” for the play Coriolan by Heinrich J. von Collin. In nineteenth-century England, Shakespeare's Coriolanus was frequently performed. See C. B. Young, “The Stage-History of Coriolanus,” in The Tragedy of Coriolanus, ed. John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1960), pp. xli-liii.

    Sally Shuttleworth discusses the presence of Coriolanus in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley and Felix Holt, in George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984). Although my own argument disagrees with her conclusion that in both novels “courtship and marriage … follow the pattern of dominance and submission … the inferior woman submits to the teaching of her master” (p. 137), her interpretations are insightful and frequently persuasive. Her reading of Esther's sewing at the novel's end is also very interesting, though once again in marked opposition to mine.

  22. Roszika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 1984; rprt., 1989), p. 86. See also Elaine Hedges, “The Needle or the Pen: The Literary Rediscovery of Women's Textile Work,” in Tradition and the Talents of Women, ed. Florence Howe (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 338-64; and Elaine Showalter, “Common Threads,” in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 145-75, for other interesting discussions of the literary significance of women's handiwork.

  23. William M. Thackeray's illustration for chap. 4 of Vanity Fair, “Mr. Joseph Entangled,” is a fine example of the ideas of entrapment associated with threads (ed. John Sutherland [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983], p. 45).

  24. Parker, p. 10.

  25. Compare Rosamond and Lydgate's engagement in Book 3 of Middlemarch: Rosamond is occupied with “chain-work.” She drops it; Lydgate retrieves it—“Lydgate instantaneously stooped to pick up the chain”—and “[i]n half an hour he left the house an engaged man, whose soul was not his own, but the woman's to whom he had bound himself” (ed. Bert G. Hornback [New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977], p. 208).

  26. The most famous raven of all, Edgar Allan Poe's, was chosen, in part at least, because it is “the bird of ill omen,” as Poe recounts in the “Philosophy of Composition,” in Selected Writings, ed. Edward H. Davidson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), p. 458.

  27. Peter Coveney, introd., Felix Holt, the Radical (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 59.

  28. See Brady, and also Nancy L. Paxton, George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Reconstruction of Gender (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991) for recent interpretations of Esther and Felix's marriage that differ from my own. In arguing that Felix Holt offers a challenge to Spencer's biological theories on gender and class hierarchies, Paxton concludes that “Esther submits … to the principle of love and not to male domination” (p. 168) and that their marriage is a “partnership” (p. 166) of mutual “submission” (p. 169).

  29. Henry James, unsigned review in The Nation, 16 August 1866; rprt. in George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, pp. 273-7, 275.

Carolyn Lesjak (essay date 1996)

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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 realism's inexorable logic:

Realism had to embrace the whole reality of contemporary civilization, in which to be sure the bourgeoisie played a dominant role, but in which the masses were beginning to press threateningly ahead as they became ever more conscious of their own function and power. The common people in all its ramifications had to be taken into the subject matter of serious realism.


Within realism's impulse or dynamic toward the representation of the masses lies the search for the ever more novel or strange, the desire for the discovery of new aesthetic material with which to work. Citing the Goncourts as exemplary of this driven fascination with the common people, Auerbach quotes Edmond de Goncourt himself, who articulates this appeal in terms that strongly echo those of the imperial or colonizing impulse, seeking adventure in foreign places: “the people, the mob, if you will, has for me the attraction of unknown and undiscovered populations, something of the exoticism which travelers go to seek” (498).

For our purposes here what is important are the textual and aesthetic determinants of such an attitude. Auerbach argues that this attitude necessarily excludes from its representation “everything functionally essential, the people's work, its position within modern society, the political, social, and moral ferments which are alive in it and which point to the future” (498, emphasis added). Given this, one may well ask, what then can or does the so-called industrial novel do? If, indeed, the impetus motivating its representational concerns functionally precludes the representation of its supposed subject matter—the working people and their work—what does the industrial novel in fact represent?

Raymond Williams, in his ground-breaking work Culture and Society, reads the industrial novel as a genre defined by its conflicting concerns (99-119). On the one hand, these novels embody a critical response to industrialism, with, in some cases, genuine sympathy for the plight of the working class. On the other hand, in the face of the actual conditions of the working class, they back down from any serious involvement out of fear, opting instead for a backdoor exit of sorts involving either the death or the emigration—to a new world, often the New World—of their politically engaged and potentially militant protagonists. Williams identifies this ultimate withdrawal, fueled as it is initially out of sympathy, as the determining “structure of feeling” of the industrial novel.

This conflict between concern on the one hand and fear on the other not only determines the internal structure of these novels, but constitutes as well their failure realistically to represent the social conditions of their time. The fear of violence, according to Williams, distorts even the best of intentions: Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, which comes closest for Williams to identifying imaginatively with and hence representing the “lived experience” of the working class, is finally unable to sustain its sympathy for that experience once the threat of violence arises and with it, the potential for that violence to be organized through collective solidarity and struggle. This inability is marked in Gaskell's text by the recourse to conventional sentimental fiction, as the novel's center moves from John Barton and his participation in the workers' union to the love trials of Mary Barton and her journey to exonerate her lover, falsely accused of murder. In other cases, such as that of Dickens's Hard Times, withdrawal takes the form of confused passivity amidst the tangle of complex social forces: Blackpool's “Aw a muddle!” becomes synonymous with Dickens's treatment of the working class in general; a typically adolescent posture in its claim to have “seen through” society while simultaneously rejecting any real engagement in that society, Dickens's work thus figures for Williams more as a symptom than an assessment, realistic or otherwise, of the very confusions of industrial society that it purports to represent. Whatever the actual specifics of each individual novel's resolution—be it that of Alton Locke, North and South, or Felix Holt—the strategy, one of containment, remains essentially the same.1 Moreover, as Williams notes in conclusion, it is a strategy or structure of feeling whose provenance is by no means limited to the nineteenth century, but whose legacy remains with us today.

While Williams's argument has great explanatory power, most notably in its identification of the structure motivating the oft-noted murky politics of these novels, Williams's own interpretive politics themselves bear further investigation. In the midst of his critique of Mary Barton we find Williams bemoaning what he sees as Gaskell's shift towards sentimental fiction as a fall of sorts: “[Mary's] indecision between Jem Wilson and ‘her gay lover, Harry Carson’; her agony in Wilson's trial; her pursuit and last-minute rescue of the vital witness; the realization of her love for Wilson: all this, the familiar and orthodox plot of the Victorian novel of sentiment, but of little lasting interest” (101). Implicit in this diagnosis is a strict delineation of “industrial” novels as separate from and superior to (if done authentically) merely sentimental fiction which for Williams can be of “little lasting interest.” Such a view is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Williams's model has served as an exemplar for subsequent interpretations of the industrial novel. Hence, once categorized as “industrial,” a novel is subject to interpretation based on its politics, politics here meaning that which deals with broad social issues properly circumscribed in the public sphere. Within such a framework, a novel such as Mary Barton (or Felix Holt, Sybil, and so on) is either judged a good book by critics sympathetic to its liberal or humanitarian politics or a bad book by those who condemn this self-same liberalism. In either case, the so-called industrial novel is relegated to the “political” camp of literature in contrast to the homier domain of “domestic” or sentimental fiction. And should a novel stray out of the factory and into the home, within a Marxist framework it spells political doom.

All this is not to say that we should relish the sentimental strains of Mary Barton or any other industrial novel. Instead, it is to point out the particular representational quandary in which many critics, following the lead of Williams, have placed the industrial novel. On the one hand, these novels cannot be “great” literature if and when they stray from their mission of authenticity, which, needless to say, they always do. And, when they do stray into the realm of properly domestic fiction, they certainly cannot be considered great because sentimental fiction (obviously?) is of no “lasting interest.” On the face of it, such a division falsely implies that domestic fiction deals exclusively with the domestic sphere whereas industrial fiction has as its singular domain the public sphere.2

In addition to this sort of exclusion of the domestic from the public sphere, there is another exclusion which operates with a certain specificity to the industrial novel, given its project, broadly defined, of representing industrialization and its social effects. This exclusion is one in which the notion of “culture” (here inclusive of more than simply literary culture) is used as an ideological weapon to exclude the realm of production from the bourgeois public sphere.3 That is, culture becomes part of the bourgeois public sphere's arsenal of exclusions and disavowals; through the ideology of culture, the producers of England's wealth are barred from participation and inclusion in the public sphere because they are deemed deficient in cultural capital. Culture becomes a litmus test for workers being admitted into the public sphere. Thus, the same notion of Arnoldian culture which has worked to situate the industrial novel outside of the literary canon, also serves to exclude the sphere of production from the public sphere—both in the industrial novel and in Victorian society itself.4

Paradoxically, while Williams's body of work emphasizes the need to theorize culture not, as Arnold does, as something discrete and autonomous but rather as integral to all social practices, for the most part he leaves out the cultural formation of imperialism and its determining effects upon England and English culture. As I will argue, however, the crisis of industrialism, the industrial novel's raison d'être, and its connected attempt to understand the newly-emerging experience and processes of modernity, cannot be understood outside the context of English nationalism and Empire. It is here that the exoticism of the Goncourts is more generally applicable. If we read the industrial novel as a narrative of “internal” travel, with its respective authors operating as adventure-seeking travelers of sorts, the masses, through metaphoric displacement, are situated much like the exotic, colonial Other, but with the added thrust that their threat to England is if anything greater than that of the colonial, existing as it does within the internal, domestic boundaries of England.5 Faced with the cultural anxiety wrought by the possibility of internal disruption and division, the industrial novel emplots a paradigmatic structure wherein the attempt to represent the fearfully internal Other—the working class—necessitates its eventual absorption into a new community, one whose membership admits an identification beyond that of class interest, in place of class distinctions; that is, the unifying ideology of the national body. The cementing of this national ideology is predicated on the erasure of class and gender inequalities. Or, as Benedict Anderson has formulated it, “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in the imagined community of ‘nation,’ the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (7, emphasis added).

In the following reading of George Eliot's Felix Holt, I will argue that this process occurs through a series of displacements involving ever-wider spheres: from production to the domestic sphere of consumption, from the domestic sphere to the national sphere, and finally from the national to the imperial sphere, with each move entailing a symbolic resolution of conflict.6 A central precondition for this symbolic resolution of conflict is the exclusion of work and working-class struggle from representation; an exclusion prompted, on the one hand, by the very real demands being made by the English working class for political representation and, on the other hand, naturalized almost seamlessly by a politics of culture which shifts the terms of political representation away from the productive sphere altogether. In order to mute class conflict and the disparities of wealth which divide the productive sphere, the working class is represented in the pub or the home thereby allowing it to be defined in terms of its pleasures as opposed to its productive activity. A “crime” committed by an individual member of the working class—be it theft, murder, or some act of violence—functions initially to rob working-class voices of their political legitimacy. This shift in narrative focus provides the space necessary for the construction of a “moral community,” independent of industrial production. In the end, a sense of community united under the concept of “nation” is cemented against what are perceived of as both the external and internal forces threatening its dissolution.


George Eliot's Felix Holt promises perhaps too much. Beginning in the memorable year 1832, it immodestly sets as its task the tracing of change in the English industrial landscape and the effects of this change on the fictional town of Treby Magna. The opening passage takes us back in time to the period immediately preceding the novel's setting, when “the glory had not yet departed from the old coach-roads” (75). Eliot compares the sights, sounds, and fullness of immediately apprehensible experience offered by the long, slow journey by coach to a future where travel will more likely resemble a “bullet” being “shot … through a tube.” Speed becomes the new determining force; that which will alter not only the landscape but our ability to relate to it as well.7 For Eliot, the high-speed “tube-journey's” limitations are twofold. First, it is disruptive to memory. Second, and perhaps most importantly for the task at hand, it defies representation: “The tube-journey can never lend much to picture and narrative; it is as barren as an exclamatory O!” (75). Such a crisis of representation would seem to put Eliot's own role as writer in danger, if indeed she is to relate to us the changes in Treby Magna effected by industrialization. By setting the novel in 1832, however (although it was written in 1866), Eliot seems to want to avoid this representational impasse. By returning to this earlier period she will describe the process of this change, but not the experiences of it which are yet to come, foreseeable yet unrepresentable some time in the still indefinite future (which was actually Eliot's own present).8

Eliot does, however, in a sense flesh out the barren O! of this future, of how it might be experienced, by telling us what it will not be, by showing us what the coach journey is and what it offers. Taking us along with her on a hypothetical trip from Avon to Kent, Eliot gives us a vision of the English countryside verdant with over-blossoming nature and a pace of life consonant with the rhythms of rural existence; the shepherd here moves in sync with the slow pace of his grazing cattle. Twined and tendrilled with wild convolvulus, many-tubed honeysuckle, scarlet haws, deep-crimson hips, blackberry branches, pale pink dogroses, and ruby-berried nightshade, it is a landscape demarcated by the “unmarketable beauty” of traditional English hedgerows (77). Were we to catch a glimpse of the people contentedly ensconced behind these hedgerows, we would see faces begrimed with dirt; yet, lest we mistakenly confer upon this dirt a lack of moral uprightness, of wanton uncleanliness, Eliot is quick to inform us that this is not your ordinary dirt but Protestant dirt, the kind of dirt that makes its possessors clean. And these Protestants in particular are doubly scrubbed, saved as they are “from the excesses of Protestantism by not knowing how to read” (77). These are the glory days: the days before the rick-burners, the riots, and the encroachment of handlooms and mines—and with them Dissenters—on this pastoral cornucopia.

As the coach continues on its way, however, this scene passes, and we near the villages and hamlets with their coal-pits and manufacture. At this juncture, a schism is registered. Whereas those inhabitants peopling the rural countryside are “sure that old England was the best of all possible countries” (78) this manufacturing midlands' population is not so easily convinced. Indeed, the connection between the town and the country becomes hard if not impossible to discern; the traveler has literally passed from “one phase of English life to another” (79)—where dirt is no longer imbued with any great moral rectitude but is simply dirty. In this new landscape, it becomes difficult to read the signs so transparent in the agricultural regions. Whereas rural life apparently hides nothing valuable beneath its tendrils—“If there were any facts which had not fallen under their own observation, they were facts not worth observing” (78)—such transparency between vision and object becomes unsettled and disrupted once we enter the new landscape of the town. Representation itself becomes indeterminate, precariously and dangerously up for grabs by a variety of different and contradictory interpretations. Here the parson preaches a sermon invoking his parishioners to “plough up the fallow-ground of your hearts” (80) and its meaning is so opaque, so susceptible to being divergently interpreted that one group sees in it an argument for fallows and yet another sees it, au contraire, as an argument against them. Shaken by this highly unstable state of affairs, the parson simply expires in a fit of apoplexy.

Even within this potentially disruptive framework of change, however, there is a unifying force for Eliot, embodied in the figure of the coachman. That force is narrative. For what he can do—and the modern train conductor cannot—is gather stories. Because of the slow pace with which he, unlike the train, moves through the landscape the old coachman is able to gather knowledge of the landscape and its people and this, for Eliot, is the raw material of “fine stories” (83). Indeed, as Eliot assures us, there are enough stories of English life, “enough of English labours in town and country, enough aspects of earth and sky, to make episodes for a modern Odyssey” (76).

And yet already within the space of Eliot's introduction, the threat to this kind of integrated storytelling is all too evident, creeping into even the coachman's relationship to the landscape. Embittered by the railroad's invasive presence on the landscape—materialized in a vision of the countryside “strewn with shattered limbs”—the coachman lapses momentarily into his own form of apoplexy; he is rendered speechless: “[he] looked before him with the blank gaze of one who had driven his coach to the outermost edge of the universe, and saw his leaders plunging into the abyss” (81). Where once there was something to relate, now there is momentarily only blankness and silence, the inability to narrate: the “high prophetic strain” briefly takes the place of the “familiar one of narrative” (81). This “prophetic strain” is both potent and cataclysmic, foretelling a certain future of shattered limbs and destroyed inns which leads our coachman to the brink of the abyss and, significantly, the end of narrative. Represented by the railroad and its sure path of destruction, the prophetic mode is thus intimately connected to modernity itself. It figures for Eliot as all that is counter to narrative, and like the coachman's stories, Eliot's own narrative is susceptible to its powers. Threatened as it is by new forms of technology and new social forces coming into being with that technology, Eliot's story is precariously located in the interstices between two modes of storytelling: the prophetic and the narrative. As I will argue later, when Eliot, in the face of the destructive forces of industrialism, invokes her recuperative vision of national unity she ironically succumbs to the very mode of prophecy she is at such pains to forestall.

Within the context of this fast-disappearing “old-fashioned” storytelling Eliot will attempt to tell us the story of Felix Holt. Like the coach journey, Felix's story is already on the cusp, located somewhere between an old-fashioned narratability and an increasingly destabilized state of modern indeterminacy and speed. On the one hand, this is not new terrain for Eliot. Throughout her oeuvre she grapples with how to recover and draw the right connections between the past and the present; to understand the present as unfolding and evolving from the past in order to adequately see the relationship of each minute part to the whole, no matter how obscure each individual part may at first seem. On the other hand, Felix Holt breaks new ground precisely because the industrial novel's project necessarily requires the introduction of new forces existing very much in the present, namely the newly created phenomena of industrial workers and their labor.


Within Felix Holt one is hard-pressed to find any direct representation of work.9 The way in which we learn what little we do about the workers in the novel is through negation: by looking at what the workers do when they are not on the job, we are presumably to glean some sense of who they are and what they do when they are. Thus Eliot takes us not to the mine or the factory but to the pub. It is here that we are to get our sense of the workers' lives and their “miseries,” and the relationship between the two: “One way of getting an idea of our fellow-countrymen's miseries is to go and look at their pleasures” (373). The scene is the Cross-Keys, the local pub where the working class enjoys its leisure-time. Upon entrance we are presented with a “fungous-featured landlord” and a “yellow sickly landlady” in an establishment pouring “doctored ale,” and reeking of “an odour of bad tobacco, and remarkably strong cheese” (373-74). Surely, if this dank, fetid atmosphere—by all accounts more suitable for the cultivation of mushrooms and mold than people's pleasures—provides the space for the workers' leisure, we are meant to be impressed with the fact that their miseries must be dreadful indeed. To drive home this point the narrator impresses upon us that in comparison to other watering-holes the Cross-Keys actually presented a “high standard of pleasure” (374).

Talk in the pub revolves around the political issues occupying the minds of Trebians, specifically the impending election and more generally the question of representation upon which it centers. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of political opportunists enlisted by each side ready to bend the ears of these working men in order to gain support for their particular candidate. One such man is Mr. Johnson, who visits the Sproxton pub with the express purpose of rallying the workers to the Radical cause of Harold Transome. In the course of buying rounds and sponging for Radical support, Mr. Johnson informs the workers of their no less than national role and importance in the upcoming elections:

“No, no: I say, as this country prospers it has more and more need of you, sirs. It can do without a pack of lazy lords and ladies, but it can never do without brave colliers. And the country will prosper. I pledge you my word, sirs, this country will rise to the tip-top of everything, and there isn't a man in it but what shall have his joint in the pot, and his spare money jingling in his pocket, if we only exert ourselves to send the right men to parliament—men who will speak up for the collier, and the stone-cutter, and the navvy” (Mr. Johnson waved his hand liberally), “and will stand no nonsense. This is a crisis, and we must exert ourselves. We've got Reform, gentlemen, but now the thing is to make Reform work. It's a crisis—I pledge you my word it's a crisis.”


From the venerable Mr. Johnson's speech it would appear that the interests of working men occupy a central role in the election. But as with all political prevarications it is but another example of how words do not necessarily speak the truth.10 The levels of deception are numerous. To begin with, Mr. Johnson delivers himself in the service of Harold Transome, a landowning aristocrat who has taken on the false mantle of a Radical simply by calling himself one. Moreover, the colliers and miners themselves do not yet have the vote; their role therefore, according to Mr. Johnson, is rather to amass themselves for Harold Transome by making their presence felt on election day and when the opportunity arises, attacking Transome's opponents. This appeal falls on willing ears. One worker, aptly named Dredge, overzealously takes up the pugilistic aspects of the cause and has to be rebuked, gently reminded that actual hard knocks are out of the question—although the slinging of soft muddy things would be well within bounds. In contrast to the enthusiasm the workers as a whole show for Johnson's slick speech and reasoning, our hero Felix Holt, witnessing this bravado performance, leaves the pub in disgust, loathe to hear his own heartfelt convictions (about the importance of the working man, not their enlistment as potential disrupters of the election process) travestied by such a political charlatan.

One might read this scene as a straightforward condemnation of men like Johnson who play willy-nilly with the sympathies of the working class. Certainly opportunists are one focus of the narrative's critique. But it is a double-edged critique: the ease with which Johnson can manipulate the miners' sentiments is equally if not more biting about the marked absence of political acuity in the working class. Their sympathies are to be played with so cavalierly because they lack a proper education in political know-how. They hang on the last word of Johnson's speech (crisis), for instance, not because they understand what this word means—they most surely do not, we are told—but precisely because they do not know its meaning and for this reason (or lack of reason) are thoroughly persuaded. His words convince by their very incomprehensibility. This caricature of working-class sensibility is crucial to explaining the effect the absence of industrial work has on the structure of the novel as a whole. By parodying the workers, the narrative provocatively casts suspicion on their political abilities. In the process, the question of their representation moves from the issue of their natural right to self-representation as working members of English society to an evaluation of whether, given their political immaturity, they are in a position to be able to represent themselves.11 At stake becomes a valuation of political knowledge, a valuation in which the collier and miner come up woefully short. From the issue of knowledge it is then but a small step to the question of culture itself. As Eliot makes explicit in the “Address to Working Men” (a speech appended to the end of the novel and delivered in the fictive voice of Felix Holt), “degrading, barbarous pleasures” such as those of the working class are nothing less than a sign of cultural privation, of the lack of those “precious benefits” which she calls the “common estate of society.”12 And this “common estate,” which Eliot, via the pub, shows no mere expansion of the franchise can provide, is “that treasure of knowledge, science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling, and manners, great memories and the interpretation of great records, which is carried on from the minds of one generation to the minds of another” (621). The literary quandary of how to represent modern labor has been translated into an issue of political representation, which in turn rests on who the rightful heirs of such a conveyed tradition of culture can and should be.

Such a shift is integrally connected to the actual debates about reform in England beginning in the 1830s and continuing into the 1860s with the passing of the Second Reform Bill in 1867, just one year after Eliot wrote Felix Holt. The nature of this period of reform has been characterized by critics such as Williams and Patrick Brantlinger as one involving two distinct phases: the first, the middle-class reform of the 1830s through the mid-1850s in which political reformist action was believed to be the mechanism through which to alleviate social problems (grouped under the umbrella term the “Condition of England”) and the second, in which the optimism and energy of this earlier period of reform is replaced by the “cult of progress,” i.e. the belief in the inevitability of historical progress, of “laws” of evolution and organic growth that displace human agency as the motor of change (Williams, Problems 213-39; Brantlinger).13 These two phases are divided along class lines. Whereas the first Reform Bill centered on the issue of enfranchising the middle class, with the 1867 Bill the middle class found itself in a decidedly different position, possibly having to cede rather than gain power through the extension of the franchise to the working class. With the middle class in a position potentially to lose power, the political ground of reform radically shifted; the hegemony of the middle class was threatened. At this point broad issues of culture began to play a significantly larger part in English political life. Culture and its related terms—education, responsibility, moral and intellectual fitness, obligation, trust and so on—slowly came to displace questions of natural right; these cultural criteria took precedence over what properly constituted an individual's right to representation.14 Or, as Brantlinger notes, “one stood for or against a new reform bill, depending partly on one's definition of culture and on one's belief as to whether those who were to be enfranchised had enough of it or not” (239).

Curiously enough, it is this latter phase of reform that Felix Holt narrates. As the pub scenes illustrate, what is of central concern is whether the workers have the cultural capital to warrant a political right to representation. And if the caricature of their political and intellectual ineptitude were not evidence enough, the depiction of their mob violence on election day resulting, as it does, in an anarchic, seemingly politically unmotivated riot, definitively answers this concern with a resounding no.15 Thus, while Felix Holt is set in the period of crisis of the first Reform Bill of 1832, ideationally the crisis it confronts and attempts to reconcile is that of the second Reform Bill, contemporaneous with the actual period in which Eliot was writing the novel. In the narrative's own practice, then, the present is not written as a continuation of the past but rather is projected back onto the past. The collapse of present into past conflates two distinct historical moments into one moment, a moment, moreover, that as the result of the fusion must always remain an ideal.

This metaleptic return has direct consequences for Eliot's representations of work. Since the ultimate basis for political judgment rests on cultural capital, neither work nor the workplace are necessary sites for political claims to representation. Production is repressed, excluded from the status of reality. In a sense, then, it becomes not so much a question of being unable to represent work but of its seeming irrelevance to the “present” 1860s politics of culture. In the process, thirty-odd years of history are conflated, years that include, significantly, the working-class militancy of the 1840s when, from a middle-class British perspective, workers' struggle in the political form of Chartism reared its ugly head and threatened to divide the nation along class lines. The active forgetting of that which has not yet happened—given the historical setting of Felix Holt—eliminates with it the memory of class conflict.

It is precisely this attempt to purge the past of its fractious discontinuities that is necessary to constitute the nation. It is the absent space of work which will be filled by the concept of “nation,” which, unlike work, serves to unite the heterogeneous workers and middle-class citizens populating Felix Holt. In essence, the “Condition of England” question is “answered” through its supersession by culture: the nation becomes synonymous with culture, English culture, which in turn provides the ideological cement necessary to symbolically unite worker and capitalist in their mutual national identification as English.16 Much like our coachman, whose narrative was temporarily derailed by the penetration of urban capital (manifest in the railroad) into the countryside, the narrative of Felix Holt, faced with the presence of industrial labor, shifts gears, moving into a prophetic register which foretells the steady, progressive realization of a national destiny.

A second look at Mr. Johnson's speech bears out this shift in political terrain. Framed by an unquestioned belief in history as progress—“as this country prospers,” he begins—Johnson's speech mirrors the movement of reform just described, and diverts attention from labor politics per se to a national politics: “the country will prosper … will rise to the tip-top of everything.” As the future tense of his discourse appropriately emphasizes, he moves here into the prophetic mode, virtually prophesying the nation and its fortunes. This prophetic mode, as with the coachman, leaves the realm of descriptive, realistic narrative, and indeed must: the prophetic therefore constructs a political space divorced from political action and devoid of those very real conflicts which would hamper national unity. The only form of action entertained is the workers' rioting which results from a misguided and wholly unpolitical mob mentality, a mentality, it is underscored, “animated by no real political passion” (428). To the extent that the workers are thus reduced to a “mad crowd” (425), their collective subjectivity is limited to passive receivership (possibly) of England's great cultural heritage. In Arnoldian fashion, culture and its expression in the “nation” come to stand virtually in opposition to history: like Arnold's understanding of “anarchy,” history within Felix Holt is too embedded in the thick of things, too susceptible to divisions of class and ideology. Reaching across this divide, culture functions as a protective enclosure, a space where the social practices of labor are suspended. Within the weave of culture, the fabric of social relations in modern society and the abstract form of social domination intrinsic to them are severed from their socio-historical constitution in determinate, structured forms of practice.

The politics of culture in which Felix Holt is engaged, as discussed above, more properly represent the period of reform of the 1860s following the Chartist struggles of the 1840s, a period which contains within it the defeat of the first wave of working-class militancy: action on the workers' part has already been effectively quelled and overcome. When attempting to confront industrial labor, then, the narrative shifts into a register that already precludes it from social consideration. Within the text, Chartism and the alternative vision of work it carries with it is represented as an historical impossibility—though ostensibly the novel is fictively situated in 1832.

Yet Eliot does attempt to narrate a form of labor complementary to her mobilization of culture. To do so she must turn back to the past. In an attempt to reconnect figuratively the brain and the hands, to offer an alternative to the non-representability of the hands alone, Eliot leaves the domain of the industrialized working class and returns to the residual socio-economic mode of artisanal production. Mental and manual labor are combined in the figure of Felix Holt as artisan and organic intellectual. This return can be read generally as a desire to maintain social positions that are the creation of obsolete modes of production (see Marx 399-421). And, within the context of the novel, it serves to carve out an extra-economic realm seemingly independent of industrial production.

The strangeness of Felix's socio-economic markings are acknowledged in the text: “Felix was known personally, and vaguely believed to be a man who meant many queer things, not at all of an every-day kind” (427). Part of this “queerness” results from Felix's marginal position outside the economy of exchange: “He had put a stop to the making of saleable drugs, contrary to the nature of buying and selling” (465, emphasis added). From his newly created role as lower-middle-class artisan, Felix putatively escapes the snares of modernization—market relations and the instrumentality they express. On the one hand, there is a utopian element in Eliot's move back to quasi-artisanal production; a desire somehow to reestablish the fast-disappearing connection between manual and mental labor, to slow down the pace of change and resist the fragmentation threatening the cohesiveness of the rural community. Herein lies the creative performative capacity utterly denied the industrial worker. On the other hand, caught as he is in an historically outmoded economic structure and cultural form, Felix represents a regressive resistance to “modernity” itself. Like Eliot's disembodied notion of culture, he is literally “not at all of an every-day kind” (428).

In essence, the narrative's investment in him lies in the contrast he provides to the modern worker. As the fictive author of the “Address to Working Men” he advises the workers to recognize the organic, evolutionary nature of things, and therefore to “take the world as it is”; to accept the superiority of the “masters” who hold the keys to this cultural treasure, which is “the life of the nation” (621-22). In this sense, Felix Holt hovers didactically over the text as a model—of resistance to the penetration of capital and of acquiescence to a politics of class conciliation premised on a unifying vision of cultural nationalism. To expose the ideologies and discourses of modern nationalism and its construction within bourgeois culture is to discover the traces of the repressed history contained in (the absence of) industrial labor.


Just as the division between work and culture presupposed a reconfiguration of the relation between external and internal (the workers, potentially external forces of disruption, are “internalized” within the boundaries of English culture), the relation of England to its other “Others”—the Orientalized East—operates through the construction of internal/external boundaries of mutual exclusivity. The Orient enters Felix Holt in the guise of Harold Transome, who arrives back on England's shores at the beginning of the novel. We learn little about Harold's exploits while he has been away in Greece save for the fact that he has accumulated large sums of money and an heir. While the actual source of Harold's money is left unspecified, we do know that his experience abroad has reshaped his views on the processes of modernization at home. The apparent (and grossly stereotypical) slothfulness of the Easterner serves to justify conveniently the self-interested practices of competitive English commerce:

If you had lived in the East, as I have, you would be more tolerant. More tolerant, for example, of an active industrious selfishness, such as we have here, though it may not always be quite scrupulous: you would see how much better it is than an idle selfishness.


This selfish industriousness which Harold espouses is sharply contrasted to Felix's resistance to market forces. Indeed the dichotomous positions they hold mark the alternative visions of work that organize Felix Holt. These alternatives, like those represented by the shift from production to pleasure when dealing with the workers, are mapped appetitively by the opposite pleasures each affords. If Felix Holt turns to the pub to explore workers' pleasures, when looking for bourgeois pleasures its haunt is (figuratively) the bedroom, the realm of sexual desire. Through the central female figure of Esther Lyon we are given a litmus test for evaluating the different pleasures identified with Harold and Felix and the alternative social visions manifest in them.17

Throughout the novel Esther functions as a liminal figure. In terms of her class identification, she can be read as the representative petit bourgeois. The product of an aristocrat and a sailor, she operates from within an indeterminate class position, liable to be as swayed by the class interests of the aristocracy (in the figure of Harold Transome) as by those of the working class (identified falsely, as we have seen, with Felix Holt). Esther's sexual desires and her eventual capitulation to Felix serve as cautionary political allegory. Torn between Felix and Harold Transome, Esther's ultimate acceptance of Felix mirrors the transformation desired by the text for the working class. They, like Esther, the message seems to say, should accept their proper function within the body politic, that of accommodation to current social conditions in the interests of the health of the nation as a whole.

The mechanics whereby the gendered body of Esther is made part of this “organic” national body reveals the violence and domination underlying the seemingly benign picture of accommodation. Specifically, the romantic plot of Felix Holt makes explicit the link between culture and power, a link obfuscated in the realm of work and production. By looking at how power circulates through the figure of Esther we can recover the missing link, the (repressed) body, upon which English culture and imperial power is written.

Esther spends the greater part of the novel in a condition of conflicted indecisiveness, at a juncture where she must choose between the initially illusive pleasures and privileges of the aristocratic “queenly” life and the hardworking, duty-bound self-sacrificing ethic of Felix's artisanal “vocation.” Thanks to the convoluted legal subplot of entail which cedes to Esther legitimate rights to the Transome estate and with it any potential cross-class sexual conflict, Esther can make what looks like a voluntary choice between her two lovers. It is crucial that this is a voluntary choice; what is at stake is the principle of self-regulation.

On one level, Esther's education, her private journey through successive stages of personal development, can be read as a microcosm of the modern narrative of “inevitable progress” as she learns to discard the Romantic texts she initially identifies with in favor of the “realism” Felix Holt embodies—a process built upon a necessary disillusionment, and moving toward the “disinterested objectivity” of scientific rationality:

The favourite Byronic heroes were beginning to look something like last night's decorations seen in the sober dawn … if Felix Holt were to love her, her life would be exalted into something quite new—into a sort of difficult blessedness, such as one may imagine in beings who are conscious of painfully growing into the possession of higher powers.


Romanticism is clearly not the suitable genre for this awakening. The final death knell to any sort of Romantic utopia comes when Esther's vision of Oriental love is shattered by Harold's informing her that his Greek wife had been a slave: “Hitherto Esther's acquaintance with Oriental love was derived chiefly from Byronic poems, and this had not sufficed to adjust her mind to a new story, where the Giaour concerned was giving her his arm. She was unable to speak” (541). The identification of Harold as Giaour is an odd one. At once it both situates him within an Oriental narrative—as Christian, no doubt, but labeled as such from within a non-Christian, Muslim perspective, and it radically severs Esther's identification with that narrative. The moment the Orient, even if only metaphorically, takes on flesh and blood, the pleasures it seemed to afford Esther lose their allure. So much so that when Harold names Esther “the empress of [her] own fortunes—and more besides,” a rather befuddled Esther replies: “Dear me … I don't think I know very well what to do with my empire” (501).

While Esther will ultimately reject this role of empress, Harold's relationship to her maps the novel's vision of East/West relations. As the revelation that Harold's wife was a slave makes clear, the validation of the English woman comes through the dehumanization of the non-European woman. The contrast is meant to show Esther that “her own place was peculiar and supreme” (541). At the same time, however, the situating of Harold's Eastern experience in Greece, as opposed to India or Africa, falsely separates Harold's venture from the British imperial enterprise. Harold is figured more as an adventurer than a colonist or imperial administrator, thereby separating the work of empire from its socioeconomic moorings. What these two figurations suggest is a subtle distinction between different operations of cultural and economic power. When such force is meted out genteelly in the interests of its larger (legitimatizing) cultural project then it appears to lose its nasty repressive edge and regain its status as lofty “cultured” ideal. As Esther remarks about Harold Transome's mode of governance on his own estate, what is so impressive is the naturalness—due to his gender—of his domination, “the masculine ease with which he governed everybody and administered everything about him, without the least harshness, and with a facile good-nature which yet was not weak” (524). Any show of brute force or direct repression, however, must remain invisible. In other words, Harold's attempt simultaneously to devalue the worth of his Eastern wife and increase Esther's value backfires precisely because of the directness of exchange it exposes. The entrance of money and, with it, an openly exploitative exercise of power demystifies the more finely veiled traffic in women in the patriarchal kinship system.

Against the individual and opportunistic pleasures driving Harold's sexual pursuits, the text invites us to see Esther's final union with Felix as the opting for an “authentic” culture, unsullied by the crude and instrumental market forces of buying and selling. Yet the mechanics of their union, rather than providing any real alternative to such forces, simply dresses up the workings of cultural domination in a finer, more veiled frippery. For what Esther chooses in Felix is nothing short of the Law:

He was like no one else to her: he had seemed to bring at once a law, and the love that gave strength to obey the law. … The first religious experience of her life—the first self-questioning, the first voluntary subjection, the first longing to acquire the strength of greater motives and obey the more strenuous rule—had come to her through Felix Holt. No wonder that she felt as if the loss of him were inevitable backsliding.

(369, emphasis added)

Esther is successively “stung,” “shaken in her self-contentment,” filled with mortification and anger, and the “sense of a terrible power over her that Felix seemed to have as his angry words vibrated through her”—feelings that become “almost too much for her self-control” (212). And, on the next page: “she revolted against his assumption of superiority, yet she felt herself in a new kind of subjection to him. He was ill-bred, he was rude, he had taken an unwarrantable liberty; yet his indignant words were a tribute to her: he thought she was worth more pains that the women of whom he took no notice” (213). In short, Felix, as pedagogue and master, wields the phallus and penetrates Esther's being, causing her to accept her own lawless lack in her voluntary subjection to his superiority. Crucial to our reading of Esther's education and its relation to the culture of imperialism is the way in which this process of personal subjection is internal, regulated by the self, and involving a recognition on Esther's part that she is indeed inferior to Felix and thus subject to his superior powers. Such internal regulation conveniently alleviates the necessity of external repression altogether as the “colonizer”—in this case, Felix—is thoroughly absorbed into the consciousness of the “colonized.” As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue, Oedipus is the figurehead of a psychology that corresponds well to such an imperialism. It is “colonization pursued by other means, it is the interior colony, and we shall see that even here at home … it is our intimate colonial education” (170). In a word, Oedipus is what teaches us to desire our own repression.19 The culmination of this colonial mentality is achieved when Esther finally relates to Felix's words as if they were her own, realizing that they “at last seemed strangely to fit her own experience” (556).

The powerlessness inherent in such a recognition is clearly marked in the novel as a condition specific to women. In this respect, Eliot is often heralded by critics for her proto-feminist representations of the plight of women in patriarchal society.20 But her understanding of the desires denied women is itself equally problematic. That is, for Eliot, there is a fundamental connection between power and culture that remains unquestioned: the desire to rule or to dominate is never in and of itself critiqued; instead it is always a question of how that rule is exercised. And when that rule is suitably cloaked in a domesticated, naturalized hierarchy of duties or functions, it masks any relation to the naked power relations underlying its operation. Indeed, at the end of the novel, Eliot recreates Esther's and Felix's past for us, to the extent that all of Esther's feelings of subjection and humiliation become but pleasant lover's pleasures: “They smiled at each other, with the old sense of amusement they had so often had together” (557). It is just such pleasure, entailed in Eliot's version of “authentic” culture, that greases the machinery of domination, both on England's shores and beyond. This vision of domestic pleasure, so clearly meant to offset that other image of pleasure which Felix Holt gives us, that of the miners and their pubs, more potently underscores the way in which pleasure itself, and with it labor—whether in the direct form of economic domination or the more mediated domain of culture—is severed from reality, excluded from the public sphere, by the mechanisms of power fueling England's cultural project of nationhood.


In his study of the Bildungsroman, Franco Moretti reads Felix Holt as symptomatic of the end of this symbolic form which “had always held fast to the notion that the biography of a young individual was the most meaningful viewpoint for the understanding and the evaluation of history” (227). This form, now insufficient to the new project at hand—the representation of the masses or the “collective”—is superseded by one in which the individual figures merely as a part of the whole. Within such a framework, Felix's vocation is seen as originating from an “ethnic or social partiality.” Once the biography of the individual can no longer capture history, the narrative opts for the building of enclaves or sub-cultures which preserve “communal” values at odds with the larger dynamics of the “great world.” This transition occurs as an effect of larger historical processes, namely the sacrifice of individuality which typifies the “age of the masses.” For Moretti, then, the failure of Felix Holt as a novel rests in the conflict between these two structures: Eliot, by attempting to tell her tale of the masses, yet with only the worn-out, historically outdated narrative form of the Bildungsroman at her disposal, is unable ultimately to represent her collective subject. Her novel, flawed not from lack of writerly skill, but because it lies on the cusp of a historical transition, marks this transition that has not yet found a form adequate to its representation.

But what this analysis fails to take into account is the way in which Eliot sets the partiality of Felix's view and the domain of his actions within the larger social dynamic of change and progress. As the “Address to Working Men” impresses upon us it is precisely in the interests of society, of Gesellschaft as Gemeinschaft that “revolutionary” views such as those identified with an organized working class must be domesticated within the confines of a national English culture. In order to ensure the survival of the social organism, to use Eliot's own metaphors of organicism, each part must recognize and perform its function in relation to the body as a whole. Within such an organic view of the nation, there can be no cultivation of sub-cultures, for each part of necessity is always integral to and inseparable from the whole. Rather in the interests of this national body, of nationalism, the validation of what Moretti reads as the sub-culture of Felix's position must remain sub.

One final indication of the shift from a regional communal identification to a broadly British nationalist one is evident in the inscription which opens Felix Holt:

“Upon the Midlands now the industrious muse doth fall,
The shires which we the heart of England well may call.
My native country those, which so brave spirits has bred,
If there be virtues yet remaining in thy Earth,
Or any good of thine thou bred'st into my birth,
Accept it as thine own, whilst now I sing of thee,
Of all thy later brood the unworthiest though I be.”


This poem, a slightly altered version of a passage from The Thirteenth Song of Drayton's Poly-Olbion, contains a significant revision. Whereas Drayton speaks of only one “shire”—Warwickshire—Eliot harkens to a plurality of shires; these shires together comprise her “native country” of England. In essence, Eliot remakes this poem about regional pride into something akin to a national anthem. Much like the narrative of Felix Holt as a whole, the present is here rewritten in the past with all traces of difference or conflict essentially erased.

In a sense, then, nationalism, or the identification of oneself as part of a nation, is the linchpin between (the dissolution of) community and the modern state. In place of the ruptures and discontinuities of self and community, national identification reinscribes a notion of wholeness and continuity. As such, nationalism is that which mediates between the seemingly knowable past and an unknowable present and future. It is that which bridges the representational gap in Felix Holt, the tension between the prophetic and the narrative.

In the novel, as we have seen, this mediation takes two forms: the one, represented by the figure of Felix Holt himself, functions by dint of his placement in a realm removed from daily life. The other, represented by Esther, and by extension the working class, gives us a brief glimpse of another possibility, of the existence of chaotic desires, of a discontinuous sense of self, of the nonidentity of reason and reality, subjects and objects, of the internal splits and ruptures that make Esther feel as if her thoughts and her life were a “heap of fragments.” It is this possibility that the prophetic register of Felix Holt shuts down; the force of Eliot's text works to bind these fragments together into a unified form. Hence the crucial role of education in the novel: Esther and the working class require education precisely in order to bring them within the national fold. In the face of an unnarratable, unrepresentable present, Eliot slips into the prophetic mode; she must prophesy the unity of a nation to be created. Thus, whereas the prophetic mode in which Felix Holt functions writes an uninterrupted history of progress in the guise of culture, the narrative process of integration—of both the workers as a class and Esther as a woman—into that history reveals a residue of labors and pleasures yet to be redeemed. While at some level, Eliot's Felix Holt registers this uncomfortable fit—between labor and pleasure, between the narrative and the prophetic—it ultimately resolves such discomfort by rendering invisible that which does not “fit.” In this sense, Felix Holt truly is a modern Odyssey: like Adorno and Horkheimer's analysis of the dialectic of Enlightenment, Felix Holt enacts a narrative of instrumental rationality which defines labor narrowly in the realm of a capitalist work ethic that by its very nature denies pleasure and desire.


  1. Jameson, in the context of discussing Lukács's conception of totality, refers to the notion of ideology it posits in terms of strategies of containment. As Jameson argues, “Lukács's achievement was to have understood that such strategies of containment—which Marx himself described principally in his critiques of classical political economy and the ingenious frames the latter constructed in order to avoid the ultimate consequences of such insights as the relationship between labor and value—can be unmasked only by confrontation with the ideal of totality which they at once imply and repress” (53).

  2. Recent feminist post-structuralist critics have attempted to address this problem, specifically in relation to the construction of the nineteenth-century novel. Armstrong, for example, tries to bring the public and private spheres, politics and sexuality, back into relation by historicizing the split between them. She argues that it was precisely during the nineteenth century that the project of gendering subjectivity outside of and separate from “politics” acquired its political significance. She goes on then to claim primacy for the domestic front as the privileged site of ideological battle (and eventual victory) for middle-class dominance.

  3. Given this exclusion, Negt and Kluge characterize the bourgeois public sphere as “an illusory synthesis of the totality of society” (73). They posit that this synthesis is premised significantly on the denial of large realms of social experience outside of or counter to the bourgeois public sphere, namely the self-experience of the masses, whose experience constitutes an alternative or proletarian public sphere. As Negt and Kluge describe this process of disqualification, “the proletarian context of living does not as such lose its experiential value; however, the experience bound up in it is rendered ‘incomprehensible’ in terms of social communication: ultimately, it becomes a private experience” (18).

  4. For a discussion tracing our critical lineage back to Arnold and the autonomy he assigns culture, see Gallagher 219-67.

  5. There are any number of examples later in the century of the thematic of the colonial invading England's island, ranging from Sherlock Holmes detective stories (see especially Doyle, The Sign of Four [107-205]) to narratives of the Englander “gone native.” Like representations of the working class in the industrial novel, they reflect a palpable sense of cultural anxiety over the breaking down of clearly demarcated internal/external social and spatial boundaries.

  6. This series of displacements from the sphere of production to the domestic and national spheres typifies the structure of the industrial novel generally. Industrial novels exemplifying such a dynamic include Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil, and Charles Dickens's Hard Times.

  7. In 1841 a rapid coach from London to Exeter took eighteen hours. In 1845 the same journey by rail express took six and a half hours (Beales 114).

  8. This distinction between the process and experience of change is crucial to how Eliot will attempt to represent history in the novel, something I develop later in the essay. In its simplest form, this distinction involves the difference between reading the process or history of change as a diachronic, continuous narrative of development and progress and seeing history as a series of fragments and ruptures, as a narrative of discontinuity in which the past is not simply passively read to confirm the present. I am here drawing on the work of Benjamin who distinguishes these two readings of the relationship between past and present as the difference between historicism and historical materialism. Whereas historicism, for Benjamin, “gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past,” historical materialism “supplies a unique experience with the past” (262).

  9. In the face of the general absence of literary representations of industrial work and industrial workers, Robbins suggests that we need to look elsewhere for representations of “the people,” namely to the depiction of servants. But as I will argue it is this very absence which shapes how the realist novel represents “the people.”

  10. The epigraph to this chapter opens with the following poem about truth: “Truth is the precious harvest of the earth. / But once, when harvest waved upon a land, / The noisome cankerworm and caterpillar, / Locusts, and all the swarming foul-born broods, / Fastened upon it with swift, greedy jaws, / And turned the harvest into pestilence, / Until men said, What profits it to sow?” (215).

  11. When John Blackwood sent Eliot her proofs of “Address to Working Men” he added a note clarifying that the charge that the new franchise makes the working man the master was made as a sarcasm in the House. Eliot responded in a letter on December 7, 1867: “I agree with you about the phrase, ‘masters of the country.’ I wrote that part twice, and originally I distinctly said that the epithet was false. Afterwards I left that out, preferring to make a stronger argumentum ad hominem in case any workman believed himself a future master” (Haight 339).

  12. It was at the behest of her publisher that Eliot wrote the “Address to Working Men” in November, 1867. Blackwood got the idea after hearing Disraeli's Edinburgh “address to the working men” in defense of the Second Reform Bill. In terms of the larger argument I am making as to the ambivalent narration of past and present in Felix Holt, the significance of the address lies in its historical continuity with the novel. Whereas the novel purportedly portrays the changes of 1832, its formal concerns are those of the 1860s.

  13. Although there is a slight discrepancy in the time frames of Williams and Brantlinger, the distinction they draw is essentially the same: the first period of reform is identified with middle-class rights and the ensuing crisis of Chartism in the 1840s, and the second with the crisis of suffrage surrounding the second Reform Bill. In the following discussion of the rising importance of culture in debates about reform I am paraphrasing Brantlinger's argument. Hobsbawm also notes the shift in class alliances but in the broader context of Europe as a whole. In terms of continental politics he marks 1848 as a turning point for the bourgeoisie. As he argues, 1848 failed because ultimately the struggle was not between the old regimes and the “forces of progress,” but rather between “order” and social revolution. Moderate liberals made the discovery that revolution was dangerous, and that their economic demands could be met without it, i.e. through reform: the bourgeoisie had ceased to be a revolutionary class (349-62). On the significance of 1848, see also Lukács 171-250.

  14. Moretti interestingly traces this emphasis on cultural continuity back to the singular nature of the English Revolution, suggesting that 1642 and 1688 figured as “revolutionary” in the etymological sense of the word: rather than a revolutionary break between an aristocratic past and a newly-emerging bourgeois present (as in France 1789), the English Revolution reestablished or restored rights deemed temporarily lost, circling back toward English origins not forward to a revolutionary new future. In the context of the development and analysis of the Bildungsroman, Moretti argues that this had profound effects on the British form of this genre (181-228).

  15. The very vocabulary Eliot uses when describing the mob and its riot indicates the force of its threat to ordered society. The mob is variously described as “a mad crowd,” a “mass of wild chaotic desires and impulses,” and “unreasoning men,” filled with “destructive spirit,” “blind [outrage]” and raising the spectre of “horror” should they not be “diverted from any further attack on places where they would get in the midst of intoxicating and inflammable materials” (424-27). Against this chaos of desire and impulse, the “civil force” of Treby Magna “prepared themselves to struggle for order,” whose essence lay primarily in protecting the private property most likely to be destroyed by this mass.

  16. Hall convincingly argues that the reconstitution of the English nation as a result of the Reform Act of 1867 cannot be understood outside the context of Empire, “for it was impossible to think about the ‘mother country’ and its specificities without reference to the colonies.” As she demonstrates through the chain of connections she draws between Birmingham, England, Britain and Jamaica, “there was a deep-rooted and widely shared set of assumptions which cut across Radical and Tory that England was without doubt the greatest, the most advanced and the most civilized nation of all time. The colonies demonstrated this for they were possessed and civilized by the English” (10).

  17. Interestingly enough, this choice is also distinguished through a literary metaphor as the choice between two different genres, reflected in Esther's comment to Harold that “[he is] quite in another genre” (540).

  18. Chapter 43, in which Esther explores her primary feeling of just such subjection before Felix, begins with an epigraph of two stanzas of Tennyson's In Memoriam, the second of which harkens “Dear friend, far off, my lost desire, / So far, so near, in woe and weal; / O, loved the most when most I feel / There is a lower and a higher!” (522). Once again, this illustrates the kind of naturalized hierarchy that is continually being reestablished on different levels of the narrative, be it the economic, the social, the cultural, or the moral.

  19. The end of Felix Holt closes with the classic image of Oedipal triangulation: the producing of a “young Felix” in the last sentence of the novel completes the “daddy-mommy-me” triangle and moreover, ensures the reproduction of “oedipal” power, which here takes the particular form of scientific rationality: “There is a young Felix, who has a great deal more science than his father, but not much more money” (606).

  20. See, for instance, Barrett, Uglow, and Beer. In his foreword to Cottom's book on Eliot, Eagleton as well suggests that Eliot's representations of sex and gender surpass the simple project of class hegemony (viii-xvii).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1988.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

Barrett, Dorothea. Vocation and Desire: George Eliot's Heroines. London: Routledge, 1989.

Beales, Derek. From Castlereagh to Gladstone 1815-1885. New York: Norton, 1969.

Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1986.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 253-64.

Brantlinger, Patrick. The Spirit of Reform: British Literature and Politics, 1832-1867. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. R. Hurley, et al. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. Vol. 1. New York: Bantam, 1986.

Eagleton, Terry. Foreword. Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History and Literary Representation. By Daniel Cottom. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Eliot, George. Felix Holt, The Radical. New York: Penguin, 1972.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Haight, Gordon S., ed. Selections from George Eliot's Letters. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Hall, Catherine. “Rethinking Imperial Histories: The Reform Act of 1867.” New Left Review 208 (1994): 3-29.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. New York: NAL, 1962.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1962.

Marx, Karl. “Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy.” Collected Works 1857-1861. Vol. 28. Trans. Ernst Wangermann. New York: International Publishers, 1964.

Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. London: Verso, 1987.

Negt, Oskar, and Alexander Kluge. Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere. Trans. Peter Labanyi, Jamie Owen Daniel, and Assenka Oksiloff. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Robbins, Bruce. The Servant's Hand: English Fiction From Below. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Uglow, Jennifer. George Eliot. New York: Pantheon, 1987.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York: Penguin, 1961.

———. Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. London: Verso, 1980.

Alicia Carroll (essay date 1997)

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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 Felix Holt, The Radical, Eliot creates a dialogue between otherness and desire that is mediated through a presence which is neither fully English nor authentically Eastern.1 In doing so, she complicates Victorian notions of race in provocative, unconventional ways. With its seductive British national, at once a bastard, a gentleman, a radical political candidate, and “an Oriental, you know” (194), the novel probes deeply into notions of national identity and desire, deconstructing appearances of Englishness and otherness, deliberately confusing and subverting those values which other Victorian novelists like Dickens or Thackeray hold sacred. The political and domestic questions the novel's Orientalism raises do not start from Edward Said's clean slate, where “positive ideas of home, of a nation and its language, of proper order, good behavior, moral values” set a standard by which others are measured (81). Instead, the moral values of Eliot's England are themselves apparently absent from all but the narrator's text. That narrator, a voice for an author who is herself an outsider in a complicated, often paradoxical sense, is itself in conflict about the morality of England's empire and the “English life” she represents.

Making the political candidate who is an object of the heroine's desire both an “Oriental” and a Byronic “Giaour,” Eliot's novel studies not just the English self's connection to a provincial community, but critically, the English self's connection to the wider, multicultural world. The heroine's attraction to her exotic suitor, Harold Transome, and to an English mythology of exoticism becomes a metaphor for the narrative drive toward the breaking of bonds with self and community, as well as toward their reinvention. Often literally and metaphorically savage, the cultural other becomes a repository of the violent energy involved in reform. Rich with a Turkish fortune, literally plump with Eastern luxury and a round, “brown” heir (491), Eliot's political candidate draws on Orientalist stereotypes, particularly those Eliot inherited from Byron's Oriental Tales. Desirous and acquisitive, he signals what Victorian imperialists might fear most in otherness, the desire for sexual and political autonomy unmitigated by English perceptions of morality and vocation.

In the novel, a literary genre which was by the nineteenth century “becoming increasingly committed to depicting only the normative bourgeois values of industry, sobriety, and chastity,” orientalizing rebellious figures “permitted the representation of … ‘transgressive’ moral values” (Leask 20). Certainly, Eliot's canon is replete with rebellious figures who are other in significant ways, strikingly dark like Eliot's Spanish gypsy, Fedalma, Maggie Tulliver, or Dorothea Brooke, half-caste or foreign like Daniel Deronda or Will Ladislaw. However, in Felix Holt, Eliot's Oriental is also an Englishman and an imperialist. A far cry from the cheerily English, unexamined plantation owner of Mansfield Park, he seems a conscious representation of the fact that “desire and moral scruple merge in this fascination with oriental luxury and its commodification in trade and literature” (Leask 21). In Eliot's novel, the slave-owning imperialist who calls himself an “Oriental” represents the British potential for tyranny. At home in the Midlands, in an English society dominated by philistinism, it is the landed native who is a barbarian. Paradoxically, Eliot's Oriental is a critique of Englishness.

A political opportunist, Harold Transome wages two campaigns in the novel, one to win Esther Lyon and one to win a seat in the House of Commons (541). As the political alter ego and romantic rival of Eliot's reticent, Arnoldian radical, Felix Holt, Transome provides another link between otherness and desire in Eliot's canon. Anticipating the problem of miscegenation, which is to become a central focus in Eliot's later works, Transome and his cloak of otherness seem a logical step towards Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Ultimately, the excoriation and final redemption of Harold Transome might say as much about the difficulties of reforming the prescribed plots of English domestic fiction as about radicalism, Toryism, or Whiggery.

Indeed, like Daniel Deronda, the miscegenationist romance plot of Felix Holt connects the problems of blood and race, and their metaphoric content of the self's conflict with community, to the plots of vocation and reform. As in Eliot's last great novel, her clean conservatism, or the “high mountain air” of her idea of reform, possesses a correspondent depravity, a “Red Deeps” of moral uncertainty (Mill on the Floss 391). In Felix Holt, those depths are reached through Harold Transome's moral position as a slave owner and empire builder, his illegitimacy and that of his child, Harry. In contrast to the Gothic or Northern-European superiority of Felix Holt and the heroine Esther Lyon's French-English, aristocratic delicacy of feature and frame, Transome, his father, Jermyn, and his child Harry are all posited as savage or of a lower order. However, as the products both of otherness and Englishness, the stereotypes in Felix Holt undermine rather than stabilize the English community. The Oriental here is as tainted by his identity as an imperialist Englishman as he is by his participation in barbaric Oriental custom; contamination comes from within.

Some readers have noted that the issue of reform in Felix Holt connects an individual's moral to his or her political awareness to such an extent that “family politics” reflect national politics (Gallagher 258).2 But in Felix Holt, Eliot's notion of family extends beyond the national family of England, encompassing the Oriental within the colonial Englishman, and issues of race within the “family” of the English class system itself. The politics of race and class infiltrate the politics of Victorian national reform in the novel, much as they did in the career of Benjamin Disraeli in Victorian politics. Through its melange of historical and literary Oriental figures, racial stereotypes, and reform politics, Eliot's novel very deliberately calls into play questions about the moral axioms of Englishness in both the political and domestic spheres. As many critics have noticed, she does not satisfactorily answer them in the conservative Felix Holt, in which the willful heroine ends up married, chastened, and “punished” at novel's end.

Eliot's ideal England, her bright, organic, utopian community, then, has an underside that is often drawn in terms of race and class. Energized by sexual and political desire, the “brown, darting, determined lizard,” Harold Transome (98), like Caterina Sarti, Fedalma, Maggie Tulliver, Will Ladislaw, or Daniel Deronda, initiates the processes of reform and narrative progression in Eliot's canon. Torn herself between “disgust” and desire, Eliot's narrator depicts the lower realm such figures inhabit in paradoxical terms of repugnance and attraction. The lower realm in Felix Holt, of which Harold Transome is prince, is also the seat of sexual attraction, sensual pleasure, and temptation. Like Satan, Harold Transome is “far more interesting” than the rather hapless English Felix, whose angelic aescetism is partnered with a “belligerent pedantry” and a profound anti-sensualism, signaled mainly through his disapproval of Esther's taste for Byron (Thomson 110). Eliot is clearly intrigued by his presence and by that of his heir, the incomprehensible polyglot child, Harry. These forces, intruding roughly, savagely into the novel's Arnoldian scheme, are ones to be reckoned with, not tossed aside in the desire to create a “moral” George Eliot with a narrative voice devoid of any troubling paradoxes. Indeed, casting her candidate Harold Transome in the shape of Disraeli, who casts himself in the shape of the Orientalist Byron, Eliot displaces our concept of her morality and brings new moral questions to the study of her canon.3


Empire is a literary as well as a political construct in Felix Holt and it owes its seductive, dangerous glamour to Byron. In the past, Eliot's narrator has been linked to Felix Holt's belief that, as a representative of moral depravity, Byron can only corrupt. The reading of Byron and the development of a specifically Byronic Orientalism become an important defiance of moral correctness in the novel, and linking Eliot's voice with Felix has contributed to the critical construction of an earnest, morally conservative, politically idealistic George Eliot. Throughout, the young Esther Lyon is seen reading Byron with pleasure and is severely condemned for doing so by the pedantic Felix. Echoing Carlyle, he insists that she put down her Byron and replace it with a more instructive text. The conflict is a significant one throughout the novel. Esther sacrifices her Byronic text, particularly its tales of “Oriental love” and its acute “invective,” when she marries Felix (541; Letters 1: 71). Again, hearing George Eliot in Felix Holt, critics have seen this rejection as firmly based in the biographical record. The mature George Eliot's distaste for Byron is plain for all to see in her letters. Equally plain, however, is the fact that the young Mary Ann Evans was herself a devotee of Byron and that, indeed, he was as much a favorite as Carlyle or Wordsworth. It was only after the 1869 exposure of Byron's incestuous relationship with his sister that Eliot began to deplore him. Written in 1867, Eliot's novel predates that shift. In her letters, the record of her attachment to Byron, especially her identification with his poetry, which was to continue up until the novelist began Middlemarch,4 suggests an entirely different reading of Felix Holt. Deeply interwoven in the makeup of Harold Transome as a Byronic Childe Harold or a Giaour himself, Eliot's treatment of Byron becomes an important element in the novel and necessitates the critical re-reading of his poetry in Eliot's life as a writer and reader.

Clearly, the Byron discussed in Felix Holt is a familiar figure to Mary Ann Evans. In her adolescence, Evans formed close friendships at school with two girls, Martha Jackson and Maria Lewis. Addressing each other as Clematis, Ivy, and Veronica in the fashion of the sentimental “Language of Flowers,” the girls often took, at Evans's suggestion, “assigned subjects for their letters, bones ‘to pick together without contention’” (Haight 25). Usually severely Evangelical and didactic in tone, the letters are an apt illustration of adolescent religious fervor. Written during the “Holy War” period, as Mary Ann Evans defied her father's wishes and refused to attend a church she found theologically moribund, the letters' most significant, and most poignant, resonance is their depiction of a bright young woman living in “a walled-in world” that comes vibrantly alive only through books (Letters 1: 71). Allusions to Carlyle, Byron, and Shakespeare break through the soporific constraints of the “Language of Flowers,” coloring the girls' provincial Evangelical piety with the beginnings of an incisive literary sensibility. Clearly identifying with Byron's roving and Satanic impulses, Mary Ann Evans alludes to him frequently. Like Esther Lyon, she read Byron for pleasure and for affirmation of her own desire to wander, to leave home and its “walled-in” confines and limitations. Her rage often found its voice through the yearning and the anger expressed in Byron's poetry.

Lonely and depressed, in May 1840 George Eliot wrote to her friend Maria Lewis of her dissatisfaction with her “lot” in life:

[To] tell you the truth I begin to feel involuntarily isolated, and without being humble, to have such a consciousness that I am a negation of all that finds love and esteem as makes me anticipate for myself—no matter what; I shall have countless undeserved enemies if my life be prolonged, wherever my lot may be cast, and I need rigid discipline, which I have never yet had. Byron in his Childe Harold (which I have just begun the second time) checks reflections on individual and personal sorrows by reminding himself of the revolutions and woes beneath which the shores of the Mediterranean have groaned. We may with more effectual comparison think of the dangers of the Great Ark of the Church in these latter times of the deluge of sin.

(Letters 1: 51-52)

The remarkable irony here is that Evans, for the moment, finds Byron a source of the “rigid discipline” which she both craves and resists. This letter to Maria Lewis marks the special significance which Byron held for her. Thrown into relief against the background of the letter's pious allusion to the “dangers” now facing the “Great Ark of the Church,” Eliot's allusion to the opening stanza of Childe Harold's fourth canto has the special ring of personal identification. The allusion to Byron, part self-affirmation, part self-derision, reflects not just the tenor of Childe Harold itself, but Evans's attempts to “check” her own desires, which strongly resist containment. If, in the opening of Canto IV, Childe Harold assuages his personal sorrows by comparing them to those of the city of Venice, he also expresses his wanderlust. “I've taught me other tongues—and in strange eyes have made me not a stranger. … I leave behind the inviolate island of the sage and free, and seek me out a home by a remoter sea” (IV: 64-72). Though the young Mary Ann Evans could not yet actually leave England, as had Byron's Harold, clearly she had the desire to escape her “involuntary isolation” and the imprisoning quality of her domestic routine. Seeking escape, Evans found in Byron the ability to brighten “dull life” with “the beings of the mind … essentially immortal” (Childe Harold IV: 37-38).

The allusions to Byron, and particularly to Childe Harold, continue to mark Evans' “flower” correspondence, especially during the crucial period of the “Holy War,” the stand-off between Mary Anne and Issac Evans over church-going. At this time, she inscribed the flyleaf of her copy of Petrarch with four stanzas from Childe Harold's fourth Canto (those referring to Petrarch's tomb). She recorded her reading and re-reading of Byron in her journal and letters. Even more significantly, the Satanic-Byronic attitude is named and assumed in one of her angriest, most personally revealing, and, paradoxically, most “political” letters from this period. The letter clearly reveals that Byron had become an ally in Mary Ann Evans's personal rebellion or private war of independence. Moreover, its political metaphors have direct significance for Esther Lyon's own internal holy war in Felix Holt, which also mixes politics, desire, fathers and daughters, and church-going. Indeed, Evans's letters find politics an apt metaphor for this domestic dispute, just as Felix Holt finds it a metaphor for the disputes within the larger family of humanity. As father and daughter attempt to redraw the boundaries of authority and obedience, the daughter's eloquent arguments are illustrated by images culled not from the language of Victorian family values but from an analogous political issue, Chartism. Evans felt her role as a daughter to be similar to that of an unchartered artisan:

Carlyle says that to the artisans of Glasgow the world is not one of blue skies and a green carpet, but a world of copperas-fumes, low cellars, hard wages, “striking,” and gin; and if the recollection of this picture did not remind me that gratitude should be my reservoir of feeling, that into which all that comes from above or around should be received as a source of fertilization for my soul, I should give a lachrymose parody of the said description and tell you all seriously what I now tell you playfully that mine is too often a world such as Wilkie can so well paint, a walled-in world. … But I must check this Byronic invective. …

(Letters 1: 71)

This strikes the key note of Eliot's identification with Byron. Her enjoyment of him is clear. He is irresistible, read and re-read. But the pleasure is a guilty one. His “invective,” so identifiable with her own rage and her own desire to break free of the rules of her father, must be “checked” and controlled. Like Esther Lyons, she indulges her desire to read, but always with the knowledge that the identification is less a communion with God than with a fallen angel. Reading Byron represents, to Mary Ann Evans, leaving home, a risky endeavor, much dreamed of in her adolescent letters in which she often quotes Byron: “both my heart and my limbs would leap to behold the ‘great and wide sea’ that old Ocean on which man can leave no trace” (qtd. in Letters 1: 101). Leaving “no trace,” leaving identity, girlhood, family, and English society behind, sailing off, like Childe Harold, on the great ocean of independence and self-discovery, is at once terrifying and exhilarating. After the publication of “The True Story of Lady Byron's Life” in August 1869, two years after the writing of Felix Holt, Eliot joined the English readership, scandalized by the revelation of Byron's incest, in a conventional and spasmodic reaction against his poetry. She wrote to her friend Cara Bray,

Byron and his poetry have become more and more repugnant to me of late years (I read a good deal of him a little while ago, in order to form a fresh judgment). As to this story, I cannot help being sorry that it seemed necessary to publish what is only worthy to die and rot. After all Byron remains deeply pitiable, like all of us sinners.

(Letters 5: 54)

It is clear from Eliot's journal that the “fresh judgment” of which she speaks was formed in January 1869, when she recorded reading the first four cantos of Don Juan. But earlier letters reveal a different appreciation of Byron and one which asks to be considered in light of the adolescent Esther Lyon's reading in Felix Holt. Eliot critics may well assume that her mature assessment of Byron is that he was “repugnant,” but it is necessary to examine exactly what fears and concerns went into that judgment. Esther Lyon's furtive, pleasurable reading and ultimate rejection of Byron is not likely to be merely attributable to the development of “good” moral taste. Esther Lyon, like Mary Anne Evans, has a clear but troubled attraction to Byron's sensualism and to his Orientalist fancies, and reexamining Esther's reading and Eliot's re-casting of her political radical in the shape of a Byronic Childe Harold challenges the conservatism of the novel, and leaves us far less certain that Felix Holt is in fact George Eliot. In a novel written by a novelist determined both by temperament and political inclination to show both the overt and covert elements within an organically interwoven community, we cannot assume that the rejection of political radicalism is as clear cut as it once seemed to Eliot scholars. As in Mary Ann Evans's perception of Byron's poetry itself, in her novel the repugnant and the irresistible are often one and the same. As they are aligned, so is the “moral” choice, here embodied by Felix Holt, often easily resistible and as unappealing as the distasteful Casaubon himself in Middlemarch. As in that later novel, it is necessary in Felix Holt to distinguish true morality from ignorant asceticism.

Like Eliot's own reading of Byron, the novel's progress to Esther's ultimate rejection of Byronic ideology is morally and intellectually complicated. Infiltrating the web-like narrative on several different levels and acting as a controversial article of faith, Esther's appreciation for Byron initiates a violent “holy war” of sorts between herself and Felix. In this sense, Byron's Orientalism and his accompanying sensuality inform those two characters' struggle with the experience of sexual desire. Anticipating and literalizing their struggle, the “Giaour,” Harold Transome, serves as a medium through which the pleasures and dangers of desire are acted out. Indeed, the resonances of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and his Oriental Tales help to shape the moral and political universe of Felix Holt.

As in Childe Harold, the setting of the physical, cultural, and moral universe in Felix Holt is a ruin. A metaphor of cultural ruination, Transome Court stands derelict at the novel's opening, ravaged by time. Transome's ancestral home recalls Childe Harold's “good hall” whose “hearth is desolate” and where “wild weeds are gathering on the wall” (I: 130-32). This pervasive sense of ruination extends, in Eliot's novel as in Byron's poem, beyond setting to modern man whose ruin is clearly symbolized in Harold's father, the syphilitic half-witted “old” Mr. Transome, the embittered, wasted Mrs. Transome, and her corrupt lover, Jermyn. Eventually, ruin of a sort will be visited also upon the young Transome heir Harold when he learns of his illegitimacy. But Eliot's allusions to Byron are marked by important deviations from his text. The middle-class novelist introduces a class-consciousness that the aristocratic poet ignores. Here ruination is the pragmatic effect of poverty, class, or race, rather than the result of Romantic ennui. Likewise, Eliot's pilgrim is not endowed with the fine cultural sense of Childe Harold. He does not mourn the loss of classical values represented in Byron's poem by his displeasure in the British alliance with the Ottoman Turks over Greece. Significantly, Harold Transome is one of the “barbarous hands” exploiting Greek culture (I: 953). In Smyrna, then a center of the Ottoman Empire, Transome has bought a captive Greek wife, a slave woman who is the mother of his child Harry.

Clearly, Harold Transome's sojourn in the East and his self-identification as an Oriental is another ripple in Eliot's complex use of the cultural other. Felix Holt seems to voice the very potent cultural forces which insist on the moral corruption of the cultural other. The usually “liberal” Eliot, significantly also now wrestling with her most progressive female narrative, The Spanish Gypsy, in which a European protagonist becomes a gypsy and lives out Maggie Tulliver's fantasy-nightmare desire to escape “civilization,” now looks through the mirror of English culture and affirms stereotypical cultural anxieties. Like her gypsy heroine, Harold Transome exudes an intense eroticism that here proves as unmanageable as it is seductive. As suitor to the Byron-reading Esther Lyon, Harold Transome evokes, as Will Ladislaw will later evoke through both Byron and Shelley, the Satanic Byronic hero as well as Byron's pilgrim Harold. Uniting her own creative vision with this element of allusion, Eliot seems to engage in a moral dialogue with Byron.

Like Childe Harold, Transome is a figure of less than moral properties who, as an illegitimate child, has already “run” through “Sin's long labyrinth” (I: 37). The novel's opening, like Childe Harold, evokes the tradition of the romaunt. Eliot's protagonist has also been “sent upon a mission, the fulfillment of which will prove his courage and other qualities needed for moral survival” (Marshall 36). Eliot's Harold shares with Byron's anti-hero his sense of “a crowded, pressing past—not only the fullness of immediate pleasures but also those dense and obsessive memories which will always haunt such heroes” (Garber 9). The medieval tradition, as it is filtered through Byron's cynicism, fits Harold Transome. He is a strange, alien pilgrim returned to a strange home which is marked with the memory of sexual sin, remorse, and guilt. At Transome Court, first envisioned to the reader as an “enchanted forest in the under world,” the very trees bleed with “human histories” and “unuttered cries” (84). Emissary knight and captain of industry, Harold Transome has one foot in the blood-wet world of Byronic Romanticism and one in Eliot's Victorian world of real socio-political concerns. He is a strange hybrid monster of Gothic Romanticism and Victorian efficiency and energy: “the lizard's egg, that whiterounded passive prettiness, had become a brown, darting, determined lizard” (98). Marking the evolution of literature itself, he is a hero or villain evolved to suit the spirit of his own age, a study in ruthless energy, a dangerous inversion of Childe Harold's Romantic ennui and welschriften. If the East represented spiritual revivification and sensual fascination to Byron and Goethe, it represented another opportunity altogether to the pragmatic nineteenth-century industrialist—the opportunity to make a fortune. This Harold's mission was economic. At the opening of the novel, his moral nature is as bankrupt as his coffers are full.

Indeed, Eliot's Harold may share the experiences of Byron's Childe, but, like Disraeli, whose travels to the East in Byron's footsteps involved more the acquisition of the poet's old servants than his cultural understanding, he shares in the luxury of the East without even the usual Western absorption in its perceived mysticism. For Harold Transome also the East is an “enterprise” (Disraeli, Tancred 439). Much like public perceptions of Childe Harold and the protagonists of Byron's Oriental Tales, Harold Transome's sexuality is marked by his Oriental travels. He poses a political and moral threat to the England to which he returns, and the novel regularly relates politics and morality, beginning with Harold's announcement of himself as a Radical candidate, which strikes his mother “as if her son had said that he had been converted to Mahometanism at Smyrna, and had four wives” (92). Harold signals exactly what Eliot fears in the characters of Fedalma, Caterina Sarti, Maggie Tulliver, or Daniel Deronda—a tainted, dark, almost savage, sexual and political desire, unmitigated and uncontrolled by English perceptions of morality and vocation. Like Victorian Orientalists who translated the Arabian Nights into English, Eliot too is breaking the “Victorian taboo of masking sexuality” but is doing so by speaking only of sexuality “in a removed setting—the East” (Leask 21). Because Transome's empire building involved slave owning and union with the Ottoman empire, he is made an immoral figure with a past and future that is part of the English absorption in an East “ripe for moral and economic appropriation” (Leask 21). Just as Byron casts Giaour and Hassan “in the same mold,” so too Eliot's narrative stance towards Harold reverses (Brantlinger 61).

The fact of Harold's violation of the East is immediately apparent in the presence of his son, Harry. Waiting for Harold's return from Smyrna, his mother is full of anxiety:

[I]f Mrs Transome had expected only her son, she would have trembled less; she expected a little grandson also: and there were reasons why she had not been enraptured when her son had written to her only when he was on the eve of returning that he already had an heir born to him.


The thinly veiled fact alluded to here will be confirmed by the child Harry's appearance and character and will make another woman “tremble.” The shocked and affronted Esther Lyons learns that “Harry's mother had been a slave—was bought, in fact” (954). Here Eliot suggests that “the Giaour concerned” is not a Romantic figure of “Oriental love,” as Esther knew it “chiefly from Byronic poems,” but an imperialist, even anti-Byronic figure (541). Harry's mother had been Greek. Buying a Greek wife in Smyrna, Harold Transome participates in the modern desecration of Greek civilization which so infuriated Byron. But the image of a captive white Greek woman, made so popular and controversial by Hiram Powers's exhibition of The Greek Slave at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851, had even more resonance for the Victorians. Exhibited in America and England, Powers's statue made the image of the Greek slave an icon of the oppressed under tyranny. Her image spoke to feminists, who used slavery as an analogue for sexism, to supporters of Greek independence, to Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, and to feminist poets, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who condemned the statue's passivity in her poem, “Hiram Powers's Greek Slave”). The “subjectivity and intensity” of responses to the statue, however, all share one element (Yellin 110). That is a deep

hatred of the cruel TURK who does thus violate the sacred rights of human nature … our sister with all her affections, aspirations, and high capacities, sold to the bestial TURK, whoever he may be, and he designs to cast her down from her God-given estate, into the dominion of things.

(Frederick Douglass qtd. in Yellin 110)

This is the company Harold Transome keeps in buying a Greek wife. Aligning himself with the “bestial” Turk, he is, of course, more closely associated with a grasping, ugly, dangerously vulgar acquisitiveness and cultural barbarism. But as Powers turns the image of slavery white, so does Eliot reverse the image of the slave-owner, who here is not authentically a Turk, but an Englishman tainted and colored by his associations with the practices of a “bestial” people.

As a Radical candidate, Harold Transome's corrupt history is always with him. He is less Byron's Childe Harold than Disraeli's. The fictional politician returns to Britain just when the historical politician did, returning from Smyrna, where he had enjoyed the same lifestyle as had Harold Transome, learning to

repose on voluptuous ottomans and smoke superb pipes, daily to indulge in the luxuries of a bath which requires half-a-dozen attendants for its perfection; to court the air in a carved caique, by shores which are a perpetual scene, and to find no exertion greater than a canter on a barb. …

(Disraeli, Letters 1: 174)

By creating a similarly luxurious political candidate of equally “voluptuous” morality and strongly imperialist tendencies, Eliot seems to be referring to the problematic morality of Disraeli's imperialist policies. She is indicting, as Byron did, Victorian Englishness itself. Peeling the layers away from the multi-layered character of Harold Transome reveals that his Byronic “Oriental” trappings are mere affection. He is a bastardization of Byron, not the book of poems which Esther is reading against Felix Holt's advice but merely its cover. Here Eliot seems deliberately to be challenging Felix Holt's moral perception of Byron, differentiating between the genuine article and its usurpation.

The threat to Eliot's sense of country posed by this false Childe Harold is clearly present in the new generation of Transomes. With the creation of the heir Harry, Eliot seems again to be stressing the generational contamination of English culture and English family values from within English culture itself. As the Victorian Harold is no improvement on the Romantic, so the Victorian heir is no improvement on the father; he is a further bastardization of the Transome morality. The dangers of the post-1832, post-reform political world are embodied in him. Darkly “savage,” gibbering his own incomprehensible polyglot language, the baby Harry literally consumes and is consumed by the forces which created him. He first appears as “a black-maned little boy” who is driving old, feeble-minded Mr. Transome as if his grandfather were a horse and himself the master (177). The “little savage,” whose speech is “a broken lisping polyglot of hazardous interpretation,” cannot understand his grandmother's warning that he let her dog “alone—he'll bite” if Harry pulls his tail (178). But the advice is misconstrued. Harry is like an animal himself, unable to control his appetite or understand the difference between people and animals. In front of the comically aristocratic Sir Maximus and Lady De Barry, who have come to learn of his father's candidacy, Harry bites his grandmother. They immediately conclude that the savage boy with the “great black eyes … doesn't look like a lady's child” (177-79). “After living in the East so long he may have become the sort of people one would not care to be intimate with” (179). Later, the child Harry, still unable to understand English, names his grandmother “Bite” (492). As the plot of Felix Holt thickens with the mixed blood of racial and class difference, it clearly expresses an almost over-determined anxiety over the “dilution” of blood and fusion of races.

Characteristic of Eliot's fiction, Harry's name for his grandmother suggests that it remains unclear who has bitten whom. The child Harry has, in a sense, been bitten or marked by his grandmother. It is to her, in the scheme of Victorian racial and classist stereotypes, that he owes his father's immoral influence. If he is not “a lady's child,” his father is not a gentleman's child. Jermyn possesses, like his son and grandson, “latent savageness” (115). Once unleashed amidst the aristocracy, and chartered with political power, those elements have teeth. Baby Harry is then a metaphor for his father's “low” heritage and political radicalism. The visiting Sir Maximus and Lady De Barry never get to the question of “Harold's politics” and rush away only to have their suspicions confirmed. Harold “has become a regular beast among those Mahometans—he's got neither religion nor morals left. He can't know anything about English politics” (182). The savage Oriental, a very “licentious man” (182), is both personally and politically suspect.

De Barry's condemnation is ironic. While the English aristocrats perceive Harold as an Oriental usurper, Eliot's narrator critically identifies his character with English imperialism and an empty, economic Orientalism. Not truly of the East in the sense that Fedalma or Daniel Deronda will be, not truly different in the sense that Will Ladislaw, Dorothea Brooke, or Maggie Tulliver are, Harold Transome is a purely English entity. His illegitimate, biting child, confused in the very direction of his attack, represents the illegitimacy of his Oriental trappings.

Though Eliot condemns Harold Transome's imperialist exploits, his exotic sexuality still clings to him like the scent of “atta of roses” (601). Esther's “Giaour” becomes the object of her desire; her reading of Byron, which sensitizes her to the “Oriental love” she thinks Transome represents, becomes the stuff of her resistance to the ascetic, pleasure-denying Felix Holt (541). Indeed, the English lovers' stand-off over Esther's reading of Byron is explosive and violent. So intense is Holt's reaction to the poet that, ironically, this pacifist “should like to come and scold [Esther] every day, and make her cry and cut her fine hair off” (154). Willing to “live on raw turnips to subdue [his] flesh” (150, 156), Felix perceives Esther and her Byron as a sensual, luxurious trap meant to keep him from his “fine” political “purpose” (156). Quite literally, he hates her:

I could grind my teeth at such self-satisfied minxes, who think they can tell everybody what is the correct thing, and the utmost stretch of their ideas will not place them on a level with the intelligent fleas. I should like to see if she could be made ashamed of herself.


Felix's sadistic desires to punish, scold, and injure Esther are returned, like Dorothea's to Casaubon's or Romola's to Savonorola's, with something approaching love. Though she thinks “she could never love any one who was so much of a pedagogue and a master,” she also experiences “a strange contradiction of impulses”; sexual desire and sexual repugnance are clearly at issue in the flare-up over Byron (213).

For Felix Holt and Esther Lyon, the exiled Byron becomes an emblem of the sexuality which Esther must conceal or distance herself from as a lady and which Felix Holt labels debauchery and a distraction from his “fine purpose” (156). Discovering Esther's reading, Felix discovers her sexuality, and in the act of that discovery, Esther notes Felix's virility, his “massive” build and his “large clear gray eyes and full lips” (150). Discovering Byron in Esther's work basket takes on the quality of violent sexual exposure when the large, rough Felix accidentally knocks over the basket, revealing her reading and her private thoughts:

down went the blue-frilled work-basket, flying open, and dispersing on the floor reels, thimble, muslin work, a small sealed bottle of atta of rose, and something heavier than these—a duodecimo volume which fell close to him. … “Byron's Poems!” he said, in a tone of disgust, while Esther was recovering all the other articles. “‘The Dream’—he'd better have been asleep and snoring. What! do you stuff your memory with Byron, Miss Lyon?”


The basket, dressed in blue like Esther herself, goes down and spills its “small, sealed” feminine secrets, the “heavier” of which is the hidden volume. Blundering and invasive, disapproving and pedagogic, Felix now acts the role of moral arbiter. As his voice has been assumed to be Eliot's own, traditional readings find this “first determining confrontation” with Felix central to the novel. “The theme of Esther's ‘dreaming’ consciousness, stuffed as it is with illusion, and her progressive awakening, is central to Felix Holt” (editor's note, Eliot, Felix 655 n11). Esther's “illusions,” symbolized by her admiration for “The Dream,” impede her moral progress. This reading is underscored by strict interpretations of George Eliot's aestheticism. How could the admirer of the Dutch realists also admire the literary tinsel of Byron's poetry? But such wholesale generic distinctions break down in the face of the novel's complexity. The rejection of Byron, consistently placed in aesthetic terms, is less a question of ways of writing than of ways of experiencing desire. Better to examine what so repulses in “The Dream” and exactly what Felix Holt would like to see left “asleep” (150).

In “The Dream,” Esther is reading the narrative of what is later to “disgust” Mary Anne Evans, the story of a forbidden, perhaps incestuous love. Already repulsed by the sexual nature of the poem, Felix Holt is reacting not just to Esther's penchant for what he thinks is inferior poetry but to sex. Aggressively asexual, he cannot bear the poetry of seduction. Byron is an especially acute representation here because his poetry so often explores the male self under siege from predatory women. Ironically, Byron's male heroes express “what it might be like to be a heroine, compelled to negotiate and often to feign compliance in a world made by and for those who hol