Thomas Holcroft Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Thomas Holcroft 1745-1809

English novelist, playwright, translator, critic, and poet.

Thomas Holcroft was a novelist, dramatist, translator, and critic of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, chiefly known as one of the most prominent and influential Jacobin authors. He gained fame as a political reformer, a peer of William Godwin, and a member of the artisans tried for treason in response to their alleged association with the Society for Constitutional Information. He was also well known to his contemporaries for his role in securing the publication of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man. Twentieth century critics, however, have increasingly directed their attention away from Holcroft's political writings and have concentrated instead on his literary output. Scholars have argued that in his plays and in his novels Holcroft experimented with both content and form, believing that the purpose of literature was to educate and expand the thinking of the public. His works featured not only his ideas about social and political reform, but also strong moral messages. Holcroft's most highly-regarded works include his novels Anna St. Ives: A Novel (1792), The Adventures of Hugh Trevor: A Novel (1794, 1797) and his play The Road to Ruin: A Comedy (1792). In addition, Holcroft is known for introducing the melodrame, a form of French theater featuring dialogue, music, dancing and pantomime, to English audiences.


Holcroft was born 10 December 1745 to Thomas Holcroft, a cobbler, and his wife, Sarah. By the time Holcroft was six years old his father had taught him to read. During his youth he read the Bible, the sensational novels popular with the lower classes, and pious religious literature; as an adult, though, Holcroft rejected these forms of literature and attempted to create alternate forms for his fellow working class readers. In the 1750s Holcroft's father abandoned his work as a cobbler to take up peddling in the surrounding countryside, and the family accompanied him on his travels. As Holcroft came of age, he grew tired of the nomadic lifestyle and took a position as a stable boy near the Newmarket racetrack. In his leisure, he spent his time learning mathematics and playing the violin. He worked in a number of jobs before he embarked on a career as a traveling actor. Through his work, Holcroft was exposed to the conditions of the working poor across England as well as to the influence of the thespian world. He began writing for the theater after he secured a position in London, but his first plays were not successful. During this time, he met many important literary figures, such as Elizabeth Inchbald, who were impressed by Holcroft's thinking and political ideologies. In 1780 Holcroft published the novel Alwyn; or, The Gentleman Comedian, and the following year he wrote his first successful play, Duplicity: A Comedy (1781). The period between 1782 and 1794 was a fruitful and significant time in Holcroft's career, a period during which he wrote his two most highly regarded novels, Anna St. Ives and The Adventures of Hugh Trevor, as well as three influential plays: The School for Arrogance: A Comedy (1791), The Road to Ruin: A Comedy (1792), and The Deserted Daughter: A Comedy (1795). In addition, Holcroft was by this time a noted translator, focusing on exposing the English to European writings on the Enlightenment. Besides translating such works as Voltaire's memoirs, Holcroft translated Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais's Marriage de Figaro into a tremendously successful English play The Follies of a Day; or, The Marriage of Figaro (1785).

Influenced by the mood of political reform prevalent in Europe in the 1780s and 90s, Holcroft became known and respected for his revolutionary ideology. His support of the French Revolution, his cry for social reform, and his criticism of the court government had earned him the respect of many fellow Jacobins. He was instrumental in aiding Thomas Paine in publishing The Rights of Man, a rebuttal to Edmund's Burke's rebuke of revolutionary politics. Holcroft was an influential friend of William Godwin, helping to shape the author's religious, social, and political philosophies. In 1794 as part of a group of artisans including Thomas Hardy, John Thelwell, and John Horne Tooke, Holcroft was charged with treason for his alleged association with the Society for Constitutional Information. He was acquitted without a trial, thus being denied a forum in which to defend himself to the public, a fact that angered Holcroft. He responded by publishing A Narrative of Facts, Relating to a Prosecution for High Treason; Including the Address to the Jury, Which the Court Refused to Hear, with Letters to the Attorney General, Lord Chief Justice Eyre, Mr. Sergent Adair, The Honorable Thomas Erskine, and Vicary Gibbs Esq. and the Defence the Author Had Prepared, if He Had Been Brought to Trial (1795) and A Letter to the Right Honorable William Windham on the Intemperance and Dangerous Tendency of His Public Conduct (1795). However, his public reputation did suffer. Anti-Jacobins persecuted him, forcing his plays to fold and impeding him from earning a living. His later life was spent in a quest to solve his financial troubles. Battling ill health, Holcroft was in the midst of writing his memoirs when he died on 23 March 1809. William Hazlitt completed the memoirs in the year following Holcroft's death and donated the profits to Holcroft's family.

Major Works

Holcroft was a prolific writer, the author of more than a dozen plays, numerous essays of literary criticism, a travel account, a volume of poetry, and five novels. However, regardless of the genre, Holcroft's works share a common purpose: to expose the public to his reform ideology and to provide moral encouragement to his readers. Throughout his life, Holcroft was convinced of humanity's ability to improve itself through great literature. While his plays were often written to appeal to the masses, Holcroft crafted his novels carefully to disseminate his views on the immoral chaos of the English government, the need for social reform, and the importance of rejecting the frivolous and self-indulgent way of life. Several of Holcroft's works center upon the destructiveness of gambling. In the play Duplicity, Sir Henry Portland loses all his property including his sister's dowry while gambling. Confronted with his own folly, he is saved when Mr. Osborne, the holder of his debts and in love with Portland's sister, returns the property. Set against the failures of middle class ideology, Road to Ruin features a similar theme. However, Holcroft's best known and most highly regarded works, the novels Anna St. Ives and The Adventures of Hugh Trevor, focus even more strongly on the issues of morality and the need for reform. In Anna St. Ives, Holcroft presents utopian notions of social justice through his two main characters: Anna, a member of the landed gentry who supports social reform and equality, and her beloved, the poor but honest Frank Henley. Confronted by the crass, destructive, and arrogant Coke Clifton, Anna successfully reforms him through her fortitude despite the difficulties he inflicts on Henley. The novel ends happily with the two lovers reconciled. Holcroft's intent to expose the moral decay of contemporary society is similar in Hugh Trevor, but his method is different. Holcroft writes a satirical picaresque novel about the efforts of a virtuous young man to resist the temptations and corrupting forces of society as he attempts to secure employment. In Hugh Trevor Holcroft explores the problems of numerous institutions from the law to business and promotes his view that crime results from circumstances and not from character flaws. Both novels are heavily based on earlier examples of literature: Anna St. Ives on Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Hugh Trevor on Henry Fielding's Tom Jones as well as the works of Tobias Smollett.

Critical Reception

During Holcroft's life, critics were not always favorable to his work, particularly his plays. Many of his plays closed after less than a week, a trend which intensified after his treason trial and the resulting persecution by anti-Jacobin forces. Holcroft was forced to write anonymously or suffer from critical and public rejection of his plays. However, a 1794 review of his novel The Adventures of Hugh Trevor praises Holcroft's ability to portray a wide variety of characters realistically. Through the following century, Holcroft's literary career was ignored; he was remembered as a political reformer. However, Elbridge Colby's scholarship on Holcroft in the 1920s—an extensive revision of William Hazlitt's memoirs—elevated Holcroft's stature as a novelist and playwright, sparking a new interest in his literary career. Some critics have continued to decry Holcroft's impact upon literature. Janie Teissedou writes: “Of course, it is quite normal that Holcroft should not be remembered as an outstanding novelist, since his novels are most of the time defective on the literary level. …” Most scholars agree that the quality of Holcroft's work is wildly uneven; however, other scholars contend that Holcroft was an influential writer who consciously shaped the novel in new ways. Critics such as Virgil R. Stallbaumer and Gary Kelly argue that in representing the ideologies of the Jacobin movement, Holcroft sought to make his novels venues of moral instruction, as well as to advocate political and social reform. They argue that with the exception of Alwyn, all of Holcroft's novels contain a strong moral lesson, especially Anna St. Ives which was intended to teach female readers “fortitude.” Other reviewers praise Holcroft's realistic and moving portrayals of the English lower classes, noting that his early life of poverty made him uniquely qualified among his fellow reformers to speak to the issues of the poor. However, other scholars state that Holcroft was a victim of contemporary thought and culture despite his advocacy for free thought. Anne McWhir argues that in The Adventures of Hugh Trevor Holcroft retained the cultural idioms of the day which restricted the choices and freedom of women. As she puts it, “ … Holcroft's tale grows maudlin in its conventional morality.” In a mixed critique of Anna St. Ives, Mary Wollstonecroft stated that the title character's behavior is “so remote from everything that we observe in real life, that we must pronouce it highly improbable, if not wholly unnatural.”

However, other scholars testify to Holcroft's talent as a writer. Stallbaumer notes Holcroft's skill as a satirist; Jerry C. Beasley states that the best of Holcroft's works are original and highly readable, particularly for the time period; and Gary Kelly writes: “With the background and humour of Diderot and the skepticism of Voltaire he combined the studious generalizing mind of Montesquieu and the erratic passionate nature of Rousseau.”