From Status to Contract: Inheritance and Succession in George Eliot's Late Fiction

Phoebe Poon


This article examines the intersections between jurisprudence and literature through a close reading of George Eliot’s last three novels in relation to Henry Sumner Maine’s 'Ancient Law: Its Connection With the Early History of Society, and Its Relation to Modern Ideas' (1861). A legal bestseller in its time, 'Ancient Law' expounded a theory of social evolution centring on the idea that the 'movement of progressive societies … from Status to Contract.' Maine’s status-contract model provided a framework for his readers to view customs of inheritance and succession in light of a binary social discourse that presented family interests (expressed juridically in terms of “status”) in opposition to individual interests (expressed as “contract,” the epitome of non-familial legal relations). The reconciliation of family and individual interests in Eliot’s fiction is the main focus of this essay, which offers fresh interpretations of 'Felix Holt', 'Middlemarch', and 'Daniel Deronda' in their theoretical and historical contexts.

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