Felix Holt and the force of beauty

Reni HelenaOnly a couple years before Dostoevsky had Prince Myshkin say “Beauty will save the world”, George Eliot taught this same doctrine in her novel Felix Holt: The Radical. As two of the characters are sitting in leisure, one of them looks to other “very much as a reverential Protestant might look at a picture of the Virgin, with a devoutness suggested by the type than by the image.” He goes on to say:

“I wonder whether the subtle measuring of forces will ever come to measuring the force there would be in one beautiful woman whose mind was as noble as her face was beautiful – who made a man’s passion for her rush in one current with all the great aims of his life. […] You might be that woman I was thinking of a little while ago when I looked at your face: the woman whose beauty makes a great task easier to men instead of turning them away from it. I am not likely to see such fine issues; but they may come where a woman’s spirit is finely touched. I should like to be sure they would come to you.”

What this passage attributes to woman can be applied as well to all that is beautiful when placed at the service of goodness and truth, and applies perfectly well to the novels of George Eliot. I do not hesitate to claim her as my favorite novelist, and she excels in making visible the beauty of soul in those who possess virtue and those who long for it. Anyone can make a picture more horrifying by adding another limb, but it takes a true skill to adorn goodness and to bring it out where it is deeply hidden.

enric vidal madonnaWith Felix Holt, George Eliot gives us another excellent novel which fully displays her erudition and mastery of style. Compared to her other novels, this one stands out as more difficult on account of the legal and political intricacies at play, which are difficult to follow at first, but become clearer as they are revisited throughout the novel. The weakest points in the book are the few chapters where the dialogue is chiefly among the rabble, and therefore of very little interest compared to her fleshed-out characters. I almost pointed out that this novel differs from Daniel Deronda and Romola in remaining provincial, and yet there are elements from France and Syria that have an important effect on the whole.

Reading this right after finishing Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, I was very attentive to any hints of sympathy with the Papists or antagonism with the established Anglican Church. I was not disappointed. She starts early on with characters “were kept safely in the via media of indifference, and could have registered themselves in the census by a big black mark as members of the Church of England”, and the much-criticized Roman Catholic Relief Act appears many times to help orient the readers to the opinions of the characters about the Papists “who lived far enough off to be spoken of uncivilly.” I would like to eventually peruse her letters to find out more about here education and opinions, but for now I have sent away for another of her novels.

[This novel is #12 on my classics reading challenge.]

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