Gentility and Sympathy in Felix Holt

by Susan Zlotnick

James Gilray, Farmer Giles and His Wife Showing Off Their Daughter Betty to Their Neighbours on her Return from School, 1809. Image Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At first glance, James Gillray’s satirical depiction of a farmer’s daughter displaying her genteel accomplishments, Farmer Giles and his Wife shewing off their daughter Betty to their Neighbours, on her return from School (1809), seems far afield from George Eliot, the most intellectually ambitious and morally serious of all the great Victorian novelists.  However, Gillray’s print captures the social ambitions of families like Eliot’s as well as the derision to which their aspirations were subjected. Growing up in rural Warwickshire as the daughter of a carpenter-turned-estate manager, Eliot was–like Betty–sent off to school to acquire the gentility that was the hallmark of the rising middle class.  One consequence of Eliot’s early training in gentility was a lifelong self-consciousness, a morbid sensitivity to the opinions of others, that was intensified by her later move into London’s elite intellectual circles, where her rustic roots led to frequent accusations that she was insufficiently ladylike.  Eliot’s sensitivity has long been noted by scholars and assumed to be a character trait, part of Eliot’s essential psychological makeup.  In “Class Affect and the Victorian Novelist,” I suggest that we consider Eliot’s self-consciousness as a class affect, or what Raymond Williams refers to as a structure of feeling.    

This essay explores the traces of Eliot’s class affect that can be discerned in Felix Holt: the Radical (1866) and through the trajectory of its heroine, Esther Lyon.  Esther not only shares Eliot’s humble background and boarding-school education in gentility, but she is also singled out in George Eliot’s Life (1885) by Eliot’s late-in-life husband, John Cross, for her resemblance to Eliot on account of her sensitivity to class rank.  While Felix Holt is ordinarily discussed in the context of debates about the extension of suffrage to working men, my analysis places middle-class gentility at the center of the novel, of equal importance to the issue of working-class voting rights, and contends that Eliot uses the trope of sugar to represent both as parallel threats to the moral advancement of the nation.  Moreover, while the titular hero, Felix Holt, has no success convincing his fellow workers to embrace education rather than electoral politics, he does reform Esther.  Under Felix’s rough tutelage, Esther unlearns the lessons of her schooling in fine-ladyism and comes to understand that true distinction, at least in Eliot’s moral universe, arises from renouncing middle-class gentility in favor of sympathy.  In doing so, Esther forgoes the self-consciousness of gentility and embraces the reparative double consciousness of Eliotic sympathy, as she ceases to worry about what her neighbors think of her and begins to think with Felix in mind. Thus, by carefully attending to Esther’s narrative, I argue that Felix Holt offers readers an origin story for Eliotic sympathy by recapitulating its development out of the self-consciousness that was a by-product of Eliot’s own instruction in gentility.  Eliot transforms the excruciating sensitivity that was gentility’s affective legacy into her most distinctive moral concept, and thereby betrays the obscured class underpinnings of her own investment in sympathy.

To read more, see Susan Zlotnick, “Class Affect and the Victorian Novelist: George Eliot’s Gentility and the Origins of Sympathy in Felix Holt.” Victorian Review, vol. 47 no. 1, 2021, p. 115-133. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2021.0012.

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