On the last day of December 1872, George Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood, declared that the publication of Middlemarch would be ‘one of the events by which 1872 will be remembered’.1 If, from our vantage point, the claim now seems exaggerated, it is not difficult to forgive the hyperbole. His client and friend, George Eliot, was the greatest living writer of the time, and she had just delivered to him her finest novel. With its publication, her reputation was at its zenith and her influence extended far beyond literary circles. More than simply a novelist, she was a public intellectual whose contribution to the public debate was constantly sought across a wide range of topics. Campaigners for women’s rights, for example, solicited testimonials in support of the extension of the franchise to women, the reform of laws relating to married women’s property, increased educational and employment opportunities, and the admission of women as doctors. Followers of Auguste Comte entreated her to produce a work that would embody his Positivist vision for an ideal social state and to provide a liturgy for their Religion of Humanity. John Blackwood urged her to intervene in the debate surrounding the Second Reform Bill of 1867, and prevailed upon her to write an ‘Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt’, emphasising the ‘new responsibilities’ of the recently enfranchised (IV, 395). Her work was quoted in parliamentary debates and her ‘wit and wisdom’ were collected into a popular volume by Alexander Main.
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