George Eliot’s initial work on The Spanish Gypsy in 1864 caused her continual headaches, “malaise and feebleness,” and a “swamp of miseries” (Letters 4:166, 169). In 1865, she quit the lengthy dramatic poem at the behest of her partner, George Henry Lewes, who worried about her mental health, and wrote her fifth novel, Felix Holt, the Radical. Upon publication of the novel in 1866, her friend Frederic Harrison wrote her to praise its poetic qualities and her potential as a poet:

I find myself taking it up as I take up Tennyson or Shelley or Browning and thinking out the sequences of thought suggested by the undertones of the thought and the harmony of the lines. Can it be right to put the subtle finish of a poem into the language of a prose narrative? It is not a waste of toil? And yet whilst so many readers must miss all that, most of them even not consciously observing the fact, that they have a really new species of literature before them (a romance constructed in the artistic spirit and aim of a poem) yet all is not lost. I know whole families where the three volumes have been read chapter by chapter and line by line and reread and recited as are the stanzas of In Memoriam … Are you sure that your destiny is not to produce a poem-not a poem in prose but in measure-a drama? (4:284-6)1

Harrison recognized that Eliot’s “finest artistic mastery [was] devoted to the solution of the greatest problems and the highest purposes” and urged her to use her “feminine influences” as a “priest teacher adviser or friend” to write a “great work of art” (one that he outlined specifically in the letter) that would show the world the possibility of moral living in society (4:289).2 His placing Eliot

1 Robert Browning’s praise of Romola as “the noblest and most heroic prose poem” that he had ever read (Letters 4:96) reflected the common practice of using poetry to comment on the level of achievement in prose (LaPorte, Victorian Poets 195-6). A number of critics have commented on the poetic achievement of Eliot’s prose; however, Harrison wanted Eliot to produce an actual poem-not “in prose but in measure.”