This article was published in The George Eliot/George Henry Lewes Journal, 58-59 (September 2010), 26-42, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the editors.
This article traces Eliot’s changing knowledge of and attitudes towards Russia, and suggests reasons why Eliot chose to locate Leonora Alcharisi’s second marriage in Russia (including Alcharisi’s own reasons for marrying into the Russian aristocracy). Russia is presented as a place of both decadent luxury and harsh exile; the novel seems as unaware as Alcharisi of the distinctive positions of musical culture, and Jews, in the Russian empire. The popularity of the Jewish part of the novel amongst Russian Jews (in Russian and Yiddish translations) is noted. It is argued that the primary model for Alcharisi is the Italian mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, whom Eliot got to know when Viardot was living in London with a man who left Russia to spend his life following her – and the only Russian whose works Eliot certainly read – Ivan Turgenev.