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Second Glance: The Radicalism of Felix Holt

The woman who became Victorian England’s greatest novelist knew from experience what it meant to make difficult choices and live with the consequences. Born in 1819 and christened Mary Ann Evans, she was a country girl, raised in the English midlands in and around Coventry; her father was an estate manager. From these modest beginnings, Marian (as she renamed herself) became one of the most substantial and cosmopolitan intellectual figures of her day, widely read in history, philosophy, theology, the physical and natural sciences, and the classics, and conversant in languages including French, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. A devout evangelical Christian in her youth, she abandoned her faith in the 1840s under the influence of the German ‘Higher Criticism’ of the Bible; henceforth she believed in and promoted the view that “the idea of God . . . is the ideal of a goodness entirely human.”

In 1854 she separated herself still further from the social pieties of her day by eloping with a married man, George Henry Lewes, living with him as his wife—even calling herself “Mrs Lewes”—until his death more than two decades later, after which she further startled her contemporaries by marrying again, this time a man twenty years her junior. And at a time when the role of ‘lady novelist’ was intensely controversial, she took a male pseudonym and created a voice and a persona so distinct and authoritative that unlike her other great pseudonymous contemporary, Currer Bell, much better known today by her real name, Charlotte Brontë, she is invariably discussed as ‘George Eliot.’

This compelling story of personal growth, broken social taboos, and radical intellectualism seems ready-made for an inspirational bio-pic of the Becoming Jane variety. Yet George Eliot has never had the mass appeal of her enduringly popular predecessor. Adaptations of her novels are comparatively few; there are no costume balls in her honor; as far as I know (and happily, I think), there are no planned rewritings of Middlemarch with zombies or The Mill on the Floss with sea monsters. What makes the difference?

Perhaps it is that, however fraught their social and political context, Austen’s novels resolve their difficulties unambiguously in favor of those we like the best. Elizabeth Bennet may risk financial ruin (or worse) when she refuses the appalling Mr. Collins, but her resolute pursuit of individual happiness is rewarded with not only the best lines, but the best man and the best house in the book. If we presume to judge Charlotte Lucas for her more pragmatic choice, it is only because Austen allows us, like Lizzie, to escape the more realistic consequences of Mr Bennet’s abject failure of paternal responsibility. Pride and Prejudice is thoroughly delightful, because Lizzie deserves everything she gets, and we can vicariously enjoy her wit, her independence, and her ultimate success—just as we do with Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Anne Elliot. But it’s also a fantasy, a Cinderella world of virtue rewarded and happily-ever-after.

In contrast, as Virginia Woolf noted in her centennial essay on George Eliot in the TLS in 1919, Eliot’s heroines “do not find what they seek”:

The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something—they scarcely know what—for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence.

Her heroines end up at best ambivalently fulfilled, never triumphant. As A.S. Byatt has said, George Eliot refuses to “pander to the fairy-tale form.” The result, for us, is an uncomfortable mental and emotional chafing: why isn’t a different, happier ending possible? what are the “facts of human existence” that inhibit her protagonists’ desires, or ours for them? what must be done before the hoped-for happy ending can be wholly achieved and realistic? Where Austen offers us uncompromised satisfactions, that is, George Eliot insists on dissatisfaction—which is the raw material of social and political change.

We can see this effect clearly in George Eliot’s most overtly political novel, Felix Holt, the Radical (1866). Today sharing the honors of ‘least read’ with her historical novel Romola, Felix Holt lacks the bucolic charm of Adam Bede, the visceral appeal of The Mill on the Floss, and the astonishing balance of narrative finesse and intellectual reach of her later masterpieces, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. At the same time, it has its own integrity, a unity arising from the complexly rendered interrelationships between its election plot and its compelling personal stories. In particular, the story of pretty, shallow young Esther Lyon’s deliberation between two suitors, the elegant but insubstantial Harold Transome, and the uncompromising and didactic Felix Holt, comes to represent something much broader and deeper than which option will, in Elizabeth Bennet’s words, “constitute [her] happiness.” Esther’s eventual decision to enter into “voluntary subjection” to a husband she considers “greater and nobler” than herself might well seem neither radical nor romantic, but her submission to Felix’s moral authority reflects the novel’s emphasis on the need for social conditions to change before women—or, as we’ll see, the working class—can or should claim power on their own terms.

Set during the lead-up to the Reform Bill of 1832, Felix Holt was published during the lead-up to the Reform Bill of 1867,, and thus participated doubly in an intense national debate about democracy. Even in George Eliot’s liberal progressive circles, democratic reform was met with as much anxiety as enthusiasm, and Felix Holt displays Eliot’s own skepticism about the wisdom of extending the franchise too far too soon. When an election agent, speaking to a crowd of working men, urges on them the necessity of universal suffrage if they are to enjoy a “man’s share” in the business of the country, Felix Holt (himself a working man) counters him by arguing that the vote will not give the men “‘political power worth having’” but will rather put the country into the hands of “ignorant numbers”:

‘Suppose out of every hundred who had a vote there were thirty who had some soberness, some sense to choose with, some good feeling to make them wish the right thing for all. And suppose there were seventy out of the hundred who were, half of them, not sober, who had no sense to choose one thing in politics more than another, and who had so little good feeling in them that they wasted on their own drinking the money that should have helped to feed and clothe their wives and children; and another half of them who, if they didn’t drink, were too ignorant or mean or stupid to see any good for themselves better than pocketing a five-shilling piece when it was offered them. Where would be the political power of the thirty sober men? The power would lie with the seventy drunken and stupid votes; and I’ll tell you what sort of men would get the power—what sort of men would end by returning whom they pleased to Parliament.’

It’s difficult at first to reconcile such a conservative argument with Felix’s designation as a ‘radical.’ But Felix’s radicalism reflects the original meaning of the word, as given for instance in the Oxford English Dictionary: “of the root or roots; fundamental; far-reaching; thorough.” “I want,” he says, “to go to some roots a good deal lower down than the franchise.” Felix advocates reform, not of the mechanics of representative government, but of the men who embody it:

‘while public opinion is what it is—while men have no better beliefs about public duty—while corruption is not felt to be a damning disgrace—while men are not ashamed in Parliament and out of it to make public questions which concern the welfare of millions a mere screen for their own petty private ends,—I say, no fresh scheme of voting will much mend our condition.’

The people, in short, are not ready for power; Felix’s radical call is for them to abjure its pursuit and dedicate themselves instead to their own self-improvement. Though injustice and hardship rightly provoke protest, the complexity of national life and the inevitable nearsightedness of self-interest necessitate patience and caution in political reform. In a separate “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt,” Felix cautions his audience,

‘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.’

Universal suffrage is an illusory quick fix: the real need is to “put knowledge in the place of ignorance, and fellow-feeling in the place of selfishness”—for men to “consider the general good as well as their own.”

This emphasis on strenuous self-criticism and education in the service of a higher good is echoed in the choices Esther faces in private life: she too must learn to put nobler aims ahead of the satisfaction of her own immediate desires. Marriage to Harold Transome promises a tidy resolution to the novel’s complex inheritance plot as well as an opportunity for Esther to take up, as her right, an elegant and influential place in society, a place that at one time would have wholly suited her tastes and ambitions. But Esther, like the working men, has been lectured by Felix— “You talk to me,” she protests at one point, “like an angry pedagogue.” It proves an unexpectedly effective courtship strategy. Knowing that to him she appears “trivial, narrow, selfish,” Esther becomes dissatisfied with herself and longs “to acquire the strength of greater motives and obey the more strenuous rule”:

The favourite Byronic heroes were beginning to look something like last night’s decorations seen in the sober dawn…. [T]here was the sense, that 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 power.

The life Harold offers, with its “absence of high demand,” seems to her reformed conscience one of “motiveless ease,” in which “the higher ambition which had begun to spring in her was for ever nullifed.”

Under Felix’s influence, Esther has begun to emerge into moral maturity, the first step of which is acknowledging her own shortcomings. Though her revelations and their immediate consequences are intensely personal, every one of George Eliot’s novels is emphatic that this kind of development is hindered for women by social, historical, educational, and legal factors. A woman too often “must take meaner things,” Esther tells Felix, “because only meaner things are within her reach.” “You are a man,” protests Maggie Tulliver to her repressive brother Tom, “and can do something in the world.” “You can never imagine what it is,” says Daniel Deronda’s mother, the singer Alcharisi, “to have a man’s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl.” “God was cruel when he made women,” exclaims Mrs Transome, Harold’s mother, one of George Eliot’s greatest creations, who stalks the pages of Felix Holt like a bitter, disempowered ghost.

But the right response is not for women, any more than for workers, to demand or seize predominance; indeed, Mrs. Transome’s own petty tyrannies (she finds “the opiate for her discontent in the exertion of her will about smaller things”) are symptoms of the wrongs that follow from selfish authority. More than a lover—or, even less comfortably, as a lover—Esther needs a teacher, a mentor; the culmination of her romance is not mastery but humility, not triumph but submission. Like Maggie, Dorothea, and Gwendolen, Esther chooses renunciation over desire; she reforms radically, not by asserting her will in service of her own pleasure or advancement, but by sacrificing what is easy in favor of what is hard but worthwhile. “It is not true,” she reflects, “that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult.”

“Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” begins the marvelous Finale to Middlemarch. The endings of George Eliot’s novels all emphasize their own liminal status, on the boundary between what the novel has accomplished and what remains to be done—much of which, she is always quick to remind us, is our responsibility: “we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas.” On one level Felix Holt ends happily enough: Felix and Esther are in love, and Esther chooses right for herself and for “the growing good of the world.” But her subservience, however voluntary, uncomfortably highlights inequities between men and women, disparities in opportunity and thus in achievement that cannot be realistically overcome by either wishful thinking or revolutionary action. George Eliot’s novels call us to account for ourselves and for the world we cumulatively create as well as inhabit. ‘What have you done lately,’ she asks us through them, ‘to bring about the happy endings you want?’ Austen is hard on the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but far easier on us—small wonder we take so easily to her. Yet if, like Esther, we chose what is more difficult, we might find ourselves doing more to “mend our condition” and render our public and private dissatisfactions obsolete.

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Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She blogs about literature at Novel Readings and The Valve.