And maybe they can – this novel doesn’t really prove it one way or the other, since the book ultimately fails on exactly the three points just named, whereas in matter of style and aphorism it is Eliot at her best, having furnished me with a full bushel of lines so well-turned they have already started to fit themselves into my life like they were plugging leaks (My dad told me about a presentation he had to give where his host advised him ahead of time that he ought to “make it inspiring.” One of Eliot’s lines came back to me immediately -- a character is said to enjoy “that form of authorship which is called suggestion, and consists in telling another man that he might do a great deal with a given subject, by bringing a sufficient amount of knowledge, reasoning, and wit to bear upon it.”). In "purely literary matters," therefore, if there are such pristine things, Eliot's book is quite fine.
However: if I had hoped that it would tell me something interesting about radical politics, franchise reforms, and electioneering in 19th century Britain, I was disappointed to find that all these matters form only an indifferent background to the bland moralizing and trite inheritance plot that really drive the book; if I had hoped that Felix Holt would be a great account of Chartism’s and early socialism’s animating ideas, Eliot does not seem aware that they had any; and if I thought that a character subtitled “The Radical” would be one I could like, I was most bitterly disabused of all on that point.
The basis of the plot (which I am going to spoil in the next few lines—so be warned) is a hackneyed love triangle, in which an attractive minister’s daughter (or is she his daughter?) must chose between the wicked rich guy in town and the poor but honest Felix Holt. And as much as we all hope she’ll choose the wicked rich guy and bring some light to his arid life, we know in advance that she will eventually plump for the terrible Holt, who doesn't seem to need any other company than his ego. In the meantime it transpires that she is actually rich beyond her wildest dreams, her true parentage being aristocratic after all (thus solving the riddle of how an attractive person came to be born into the lower middle class) – but she gives it all up in the end to follow the hard and rock-strewn path of virtue.
The wicked rich guy, Harold Transome, has just returned to his country estate from making an additional fortune in the East, and unexpectedly declares himself a Radical candidate for Parliament. The various flutterings and mutterings of his Tory relatives at this news make for some good comedy (Harold's uncle quickly makes his peace with altered circumstances by deciding that if the world must go to ruin, one might as well be the fellow who leads it there), we never learn anything about his motives for becoming a Radical, or about his political goals. We can assume these all to be selfish and ignoble. (Why though? What would he have to gain from it? Indeed, he loses the election…). Anyway, by the final third of the novel, this potentially interesting election plot has been entirely abandoned for the banal inheritance one described above. The fact that Transome is a Radical and runs unsuccessfully for parliament ultimately matters not a wit to the book’s conclusion, except for the indirect role it plays in the tragicomic episode that results in Felix Holt's false imprisonment. It turns out that the real use of Harold in this novel is not that he is a Radical, but that, due to a technicality in 19th century inheritance law, he is suddenly dispossessed of his family estate because it turns out that Esther (the not-so-minister’s daughter) is the true heir. When this news comes, Harold takes it with more aplomb than you might expect, as he does the later revelation that his real father is the family lawyer (it’s not clear what practical difference this makes to anything, or why it should matter to the reader). All around Transome behaves decently, and has pretty good politics, for being a wicked rich guy.
The Transomes’ dispossession – the only true tragedy in the novel, since they take it hard, whereas anything bad that happens to Felix Holt is merely grist for his mill and anyway he’s not believable as a human character – comes about in the following way: Esther grows up thinking she is the daughter of Rufus Lyon, an eccentric Dissenting minister and by far the best character in the book (he is, at any rate, the one for whom Eliot herself has the most unfeigned sympathy). But Lyon has been keeping something from the girl he raised all these years. It turns out that her true mother was a beautiful French aristocrat who turned up penniless one day in Lyon's obscure English town (I forget why) and carrying an infant Esther in tow. Lyon took her into his home as a charity case, and while it was rather unfair of him to ask her to marry him in such circumstances, we are in the nineteenth century, and anyways he pledges his troth in a roundabout manner, along the lines of: “It’s not like I could ever ask you to marry me, but… would you?” (We see that charity in this as in all 19th century novels always involves beautiful high-born women who carry an aroma of exoticism and sexual adventure (however euphemistically dressed-up as “marriage”), and never people with terrible hacking coughs or mental illness or criminal backgrounds or difficult personalities, which makes one wonder why it is only the virtuous characters who go in for it.) Esther’s true father, meanwhile, has the dual advantages of being dead and the possessor of the rightful claim to the Transome estates, as is gradually revealed.
All of this is as lame as it sounds. Freud writes that it is a common fantasy among young children, when upset or frustrated with their adult caregivers, to think that the people posing as their parents must really be imposters, and their true progenitors in fact a beautiful king and queen somewhere, with far more money and nobility of spirit. You can see that Esther's storyline obtains the same level of realism.
But now we can delay no longer a reckoning with the third leg of our love triangle—the dreaded Felix Holt.
I suppose every era has its stock hero whom we are all expected to recognize and cringe before as soon as he walks onto the stage, and in the Victorian novel he is of course the “moral man.” I suppose that it's a better choice than cringing before the strongman or the playboy or the dirty cop, but Felix Holt tries the limits of this apparent truism. The unpleasant thing about him is not his unpleasantness, since lots of unpleasant characters can figure quite wonderfully in novels. The insufferable thing about him is Eliot’s and all her characters’ total deafness to his insufferability.
Indeed, this novel contains some of the most blatant “character shilling” (thank you, TV Tropes) I have ever encountered in serious literature. This poor device, much relied on by authors who lack the time and aptitude to represent characters actually behaving in the light they wish to depict them, involves simply inserting into other characters’ mouths the impression of the character the author means to convey. (Since we can’t well chalk up the use of this mechanism to creative insufficiencies on Eliot’s part, we are tempted to conclude that she is doing it because she can’t really summon up genuine sympathy for Felix herself, but more on that later). Rufus and Esther Lyon both deliver an endless series of soliloquies (always unprompted) upon the subject of the many exemplary virtues of Felix Holt – his great intelligence, his integrity and spirit, his altruism and self-abnegation -- and these testimonies all stand in perfect contrast to the smug, crass, and ugly things Holt says upon his every entrance. It makes for a source of continual – though unintended – comedy in the novel. One of Felix’s first thoughts upon meeting Esther, when he realizes she is fond of reading Byron, is: “I should like to come and scold her every day, and make her cry and cut her fine hair off.” It seems an outsized reaction. One arrives at this line and thinks for a moment that Eliot may be onto something here that is more interesting than what the typical Victorian would notice. Perhaps she has caught wind of some of the sadism latent in the characteristic self-righteousness of her era. She may have noticed the way in which sexual frustrations can manifest themselves under moralistic guises, and is representing that truth in Felix Holt. We may at least hope that Esther and Felix will both learn from one another over the novels’ course – she to read more Blake instead, he to not be such a savage prig.
But no, we hoped for too much from what is, at last, a Victorian novel. Its collective pruderies had therefore ultimately to overpower even such an individualistic, imaginative and perspicuous giant as Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). It turns out that Holt is right about absolutely everything, Esther about nothing at all. The only ground Felix is eventually forced to cede, however partially, is on the question of the possibility of Esther's ultimate redemption. He writes her off for most of the book (indeed, he does a lot of complaining about how hard it is to find a woman “worthy” of him), but in the end he generously consents to marry her after she sacrifices a country estate to please him. Esther doesn’t once question Holt's many flattering self-evaluations; she only asks of him that he believe in her capacity for moral betterment. (It’s never clear to me that she needs any bettering in the first place, and surely any approximation to Holt could only be for the worse.) I would have advised her to keep the Byron and the estate – Felix can evidently take care of himself.
It is a strange thing to see all the interesting and imaginative characters in Eliot’s book constantly toadying and crawling before this one unbearable and thick-skulled one. Our only relief—though it also deepens the mystery of Eliot's intentions – is the fact that the author ultimately seems to be as bored by her protagonist as we are. Indeed, Holt disappears for large portions of the book, and there are far more paragraphs given over to the “character shilling” on his behalf than there are to anything he actually says or does. The majority of the novel is spent among the villains, the “clever sinners,” as one of them is described, rather than in the company of Felix and Esther, and it is actually towards this other set of people that Eliot is able to evoke real sympathy: they include Harold’s mother, Mrs. Transome, and Mr. Jermyn, the family lawyer who turns out to be his true father.
Eliot’s book does include some other immaculately good characters (as Holt is meant to be) who are nonetheless still appealing and interesting, but they usually also happen to be cranks or eccentrics, or to have some other redeeming touch of the ludicrous– the musty Rufus Lyon, for instance, or the painstakingly honorable Philip Debarry, who writes so elaborately gracious a letter to Lyon when the latter returns a lost pocketbook of his that he inadvertently commits himself to sponsoring a theological debate between the dissenter and the local representative of the Established Church (who “fill[s …] or rather makes vacuous” his pulpit, in Eliot’s delicious phrasing). These are by far the best incidents and figures in the book, and Eliot seems to enjoy them as much as we do, devoting to them all her most quotable, apothegmatic lines. Given this fact, I was not at first clear on why she decided to waste her and our time on Felix, whose speeches and boy-meets-girl plot with Esther are written in insipid and leaden prose, so different from Eliot's epigrammatic sparkles elsewhere.
But eventually the explanation presents itself: Holt serves as a vehicle for Eliot’s political and class prejudices -- a mouthpiece for the things she'd really like to say to the workers if she could force them to listen. These views he delivers in a series of sanctimonious tirades to the other working class characters, who are mostly brainless and exist in the novel only to form a mad rabble on cue and to serve as targets for Eliot’s condescending jokes (She writes: “a cause which was to be proved by argument or testimony is not an object of passionate devotion to colliers: a visible cause of beer acts on them much more strongly[;]” and there's more of the kind.) They want instruction from a “true Radical” like Holt, who is in fact not a political radical at all, as we would understand the term, but a skeptic as to Britain’s expanded franchise who maintains that political effort is futile until the day that a "moral reform" of "human nature" has been effected. As Holt says in one of his harangues, delivered after a more sensible proto-Chartist lays out the political and social reforms he would favor:
“I say, no fresh scheme of voting will much mend our condition. […] 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 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.”These are of course the sort of banalities that could be used to defend any system of longstanding bondage or social iniquity you chose. They certainly have nothing to do with Radicalism, and reflect a depth of contempt that no real person in Holt's condition would feel. At any rate, even if the point about human nature is a kind of perennial truism, I don’t at all trust the Felix Holts of the world to decide in what direction that nature ought to be reformed -- especially not when they seem so certain that their own person is the ideal prototype.
Eliot agrees with Holt, however, as her various asides and her own shilling on Holt's behalf make clear. It is true that in the process of agreeing with him, she airs some pretty well-observed truths about political life: "Crying abuses—[...] 'bloated pluralists,' and other corruptions hindering men from being wise and happy—had to be fought against and slain. Such a time is a time of hope. Afterward when the corpses of those monsters have been held up to the public wonder and abhorrence, and yet wisdom and happiness do not follow, but rather a more abundant breeding of the foolish and unhappy, comes a time of doubt and despondency. But in the great Reform-year Hope was mighty" or this one: "the intricacies of life [...] would certainly be greatly simplified if corrupt practices were the invariable mark of wrong opinions." All of that may be true, however, without altering the fact that in the meantime, while we await the transformation of human nature, people still need to be able to vote and feed their families and not labor fourteen hours a day in conditions inimical to life.
It is a disappointing thing to realize in this way that even Eliot – by far the best and least prejudiced of the Victorians – in the end cannot write about the working class without at once adopting this pedantic and superior tone -- and this despite Eliot’s conception of herself as someone who took seriously laborers as human beings and as fit subjects for literature (We recall her famous essay on the “lady novelists” of her age, for instance, in which she bitingly remarks of her contemporaries that they “have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; [and] have no notion of the working-classes except as 'dependents;'"). For all her good intentions, though, she at last proves unable to conquer the typical class presumptions of the British literary elite-- in much the same way white Americans find ourselves sliding time and again into unconscious racism. “British professional folk often think creative imaginations unlikely outside their own social class,” writes Alasdair Gray. “[O]n first reading Ulysses Virginia Woolf thought James Joyce (despite his Jesuit and Dublin University education) had all the faults of a self-taught working man.” One either lives in Bloomsbury or is “self-taught,” it would seem.
So much for the political plot of the novel, on which I pinned such earnest hopes. The only thing the election serves to do, ultimately, is to provide a theater for a scene of riot and mayhem, in which Felix is accidentally caught up and made to appear criminal (whereas in fact, of course, he was only trying to lead the mob away from doing mischief). Once this farce is ended and Holt is hauled away by the law, we have a blessed respite of a hundred pages or so with no Felix (though the shilling continues apace in his absence), in which Esther is free to move into the Transome estate and flirt with Harold, who intends to marry her (plainly the best solution for everyone involved, as it would allow the Transomes to live in peace and Esther to have a Holtless future.) Transome, being wicked, and therefore not esteeming his own moral character particularly highly, and not aspiring to much in the way of prophecy, and not wanting to cut off anyone’s hair or scold anyone or make anyone cry, and basically liking Esther the way she is, is of course a villain and we are meant to be glad that Esther finally rejects him. I am not. Once again I have found the Victorian villain to be far more human and likeable than the Victorian prig. As Philip Larkin put it: “Don’t read much now: the dude / Who lets the girl down before / The hero arrives, […] Seem[s] far too familiar.”
Esther lets the Transomes keep their lands and home, ultimately, so at least we aren’t faced with the galling prospect of Felix Holt putting his boots on the nice furniture while he tells Esther that she ought to wear something more modest. Instead we can imagine this scene unfolding in some dismal tenement, with a little Felix Junior running about and learning to adopt his father's tone.
Meanwhile, the fate of the novel’s “clever sinners” is gone over in a bare paragraph in the last two pages, with the Transomes carrying on much as before and the lawyer Jermyn being financially ruined and sent into exile. Villains are usually damned in just this hasty fashion at the end of such novels, and we are permitted to forget for a moment that in real life people don’t go off quietly into permanent defeat, and the suffering even of villains has a way of making its presence known to the Felix Holts of the world -- and maybe of disturbing even such consciences as theirs.