In 1866 Frederic Harrison, a follower of Auguste Comte and true believer in his grand scheme for a utopian sociocracy, sent a letter to George Eliot urging her to write a great fictive tableau depicting the realization of the ideal Comtean society. Indeed, the correspondent declared that to undertake such a task was Eliot’s “destiny.” What the world needed to be shown, he argued, “is the possibility in real life of healthy moral control over societies.” Perhaps it is testimony to the verisimilitude of George Eliot’s art that this correspondent should mistake it for real life, but one sees his point: to persuade the widest audience, Comte’s grand abstract design required translation into the sort of living and true-to-life—that is, novelistic—picture at which Eliot excelled. She replied to this importuning with a tactful but decisive denial of the possibility of conveying the utopist’s design through the novelist’s art—a denial, that is, of the possibility of a utopian novel. You cannot imagine, she . . .
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