The Politics of Allusion: Caleb Williams, The Iron Chest, Middlemarch and the Armoire de Fer

Damian Walford Davies

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2 Citations (SciVal)


This article analyses the haunting presence in works by William Godwin, George Colman the younger, and George Eliot of the famous armoire de fer (iron chest) episode of the French Revolution. While its place in Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) and in Colman's dramatization of Godwin's novel, The Iron Chest (1796), has been acknowledged, no critic has commented on its resonance in Middlemarch (1871–2), in which it is rehearsed and rewritten. A consideration of the iconography of a contemporary print of the opening of the iron chest, and of allusion and allegory in Godwin's and Colman's texts, is followed by a look at the workings of the ‘Web of Allusion’ in Middlemarch and George Eliot's and G. H. Lewes's interest in the careers of Godwin and Wollstonecraft. A discussion of the fascination in Eliot's novel—and in Victorian fiction generally—with the horrors of secrecy and the threat of blackmail leads to a focus on one of the pivotal scenes of Middlemarch which, it is argued, encodes references to the armoire de fer episode, the satirical print, and Caleb Williams. The significance of such allusiveness within the context of Eliot's ‘Study of Provincial Life’ is deepened as the article foregrounds the Bulstrode narrative of Middlemarch, in which suggestive references to Caleb Williams are again inscribed. Finally, the correlation between these narratives of secrecy and disclosure and Eliot's narrative technique (emphatically that of Psychological ‘prying’ and ‘revelation’) is discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)526-543
Number of pages18
JournalThe Review of English Studies
Issue number212
Publication statusPublished - 2002


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