Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002)
William Baker and Kenneth Womack's Felix Holt is part of the relatively recent Broadview Literary Texts series, a Canadian-based series that seeks to publish recognized canonical texts alongside less well known texts from literary history. With that in mind, coverage in the Victorian period means we have editions of often taught novels by Dickens (David Copperfield, Hard Times, and Great Expectations) and Charlotte Bronte (lane Eyre) alongside texts that hitherto have almost never been read or taught widely - Margaret Oliphant's Autobiography, Browning's The Ring and the Book and an edition of poems by Augusta Webster. Given the remit of the series, it is perhaps not surprising that Felix Holt is the only text by George Eliot represented in the series so far, since it has tended to be, with the exception of Romola, her most under read novel. Having said that, there is no shortage of Felix Holt on the market, and Baker and Womack's edition joins two other recent, inexpensive paperbacks - A. G. van den Broek's 1997 Everyman paperback edition and Linda Mugglestone's 1995 Penguin Classics edition - so a revival may be under way for a new generation of readers, re-readers and students.
George Eliot's contemporary E. S. Dallas called Felix Holt 'a work of rare genius' in his 1866 Times review, included in the BakerlWomack edition, but literary critical opinion has generally not been so generous. Often, the novel has been regarded as flawed, owing to weakness in the characterization of Felix and an unconvincing realist plot, in particular. But as Baker and Womack suggest in their introduction, it is in the 'multiplicity of characters and the novel's intersection with a variety of themes' - in the many discourses that the novel addresses, to put it in academic-speak - that readers today will find interest. Most obviously, Felix Holt takes its place alongside other condition-of-England novels, for the way George Eliot looks back to the political contexts of the Reform Bill of 1832. Yet, the novel equally can be regarded in relation to writing about radicalism in the nineteenth century or to writing about gender. It is in the many directions a reader/teacher can take the novel that will ensure that this generally understudied work becomes more of a stand-by for readers of Victorian literature.