Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 44 (2013)
In this characterization of Dorothea by the narrator of Middlemarch (1871-2), the 'Great' Reform Act of 1832 is posited as a dividing line between two phases of history, so distinct as to have separate spheres of interest and judgements of normality. George Eliot flatters her mid-Victorian reader by insinuating that only the 'modem' mind of their shared present could understand the zeal of a humanistic 'exalted enthusiasm' that took its source of energy from within. In this passage, therefore, 'reform' seems to be the key to historical, social and personal change. The issue of reform - of society, of institution and of self - looms equally large in Felix Holt (1866), where it is channelled through a double consciousness. Although Felix Holt describes and discusses the issues attendant on the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot is conscious of evoking in its readers echoes of its later counterpart, what would become the 1867 Reform Act, which was being debated in Parliament while Felix Holt was written and published. The worlds of the novel and of the initial readership are, therefore, bracketed and deeply embedded in a culture of reform.
I argue that Eliot's stance on reform in Felix Holt, so often equated with Matthew Arnold's, has been oversimplified due to a questionable elision of the author with her eponymous hero, and of two distinct embodiments of 'Felix Holt' in two different publications. In part because of the profusion of apparently authoritative pearls of wisdom scattered through her texts, it is all too easy to elide 'George Eliot', himself an authorial construct, with the sentiments expressed in his/her novels. I argue that Eliot's extensive use of free indirect discourse, irony, and the double time-frame, makes this a futile and limiting task. In these multiple contexts, Felix Holt and its paratext 'Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt' (1867), which have often been dismissed as narrowly conservative, emerge as notably dynamic and polyphonic texts.