The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 28. Felix Holt
Not long after the completion of Romola, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes had established themselves at The Priory, Regent’s park. But, though the effort had been extraordinary—she had, as she wrote some ten years later, written the book “with her best blood, such as it is, and with the most ardent care for veracity of which her nature was capable”—she had no intention of resting on her laurels. “The last quarter,” she writes in January, 1865, “has made an epoch for me, by the fact that, for the first time in my serious authorship, I have written verse.” The earliest mention in her correspondence of The Spanish Gypsy, early in September, 1864, characteristically records that, while already engaged upon the play, she was “reading about Spain”; but, before, in the beginning of 1867, she took a journey to that country, she had been persuaded to give herself a respite, producing, in the interval, the one-volume novel Felix Holt, the Radical (1866). In some respects, this book holds an isolated position among her works, and, practically, alone warrants her being placed among eminent English writers of fiction who, in their novels, have treated political, as well as social, topics. Her consciousness of this direct purpose is shown by her having, after some hesitation, consented to follow up the publication of the novel by that of an Address to Working-Men issued in the name of its hero. As was her wont, she had prepared herself for her political novel by a solid course of reading, which included, besides the worthy Samuel Bamford’s Passages from the Life of a Radical, such guidance as Mill’s Political Economy and Harriet Martineau’s version of Comte’s Système de Politique Positive. On an examination, however, of her story itself, it will not be found to convey any political teaching of further purport than that which, a decade and a half earlier, Charles Kingsley and his friends had sought to bring home to the British working man. The secret of true reform is not to be found in any particular measure or programme of measures, whether it call itself Reform bill, people’s charter or any other name of high sound; but it lies in the resolve of the mass of the people—in other words, of the working classes—to learn to think and act for themselves. This kind of radicalism, though far from being either vague or visionary, is that of an idealist; and, as such, the principles of Felix Holt are presented in this story, in contrast with the toryism of the Debarrys and the colonially clear-sighted opportunism of Harold Transome. For the rest, the political philosophy of Felix Holt has not very much to do with the story, except as part and parcel of the manliness of character by which he secures his place in the heart of the heroine. The plot by which the contrasts in her fortunes and in those of the other personages of the story are developed is more melodramatic in its course than is usual with George Eliot; and, whether its legal machinery be perfect or otherwise, the general impression left on the reader is not one in which excellences of detail combine into a satisfactory total effect. Thus, and because of the lack of a female character comparable in interest to those standing forth in her other books, Felix Holt cannot be held entitled to rank with the finest of them.