B-Sides: George Eliot’s “The Spanish Gypsy”

If George Eliot was interested in religious coexistence, she was also interested in unbelief.

This year I am living in Granada, Spain. From a changed geographical vantage, the literature I study looks different, too. A friend wrote me recently, pointing out: “George Eliot made it all the way to Granada—I think it’s safe to say the furthest geographically she ever made it from England, no?”

The question sent me to Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem (1868), a B-Side in at least three senses. First, it is a celebrated novelist’s only epic poem. Second, although famous for realist fiction set in her own country, she chose 15th-century Spain as its setting, a country far off the circuits of the British Grand Tour. Finally, although set during the violent expulsion of Spain’s Muslims and Jews by its ascendant Catholic monarchy, the poem focuses on the Roma people, in Eliot’s time called “gypsies” by the English (a term now understood as a slur) and known to themselves, within Eliot’s poem, as “Zincali.”1 Critics who see The Spanish Gypsy as a prelude to Eliot’s later novel Daniel Deronda (1876) have frequently wondered why she made her heroine, Fedalma, Romany rather than Jewish. It is an especially striking choice because the Roma had only been in Spain for a few decades at the time the poem is set.2 In short, The Spanish Gypsy features a genre, setting, and culture eccentric to the wider circle of Eliot’s career.

Eliot and her partner, George Henry Lewes, did travel to Spain in 1866, braving long train rides to get there. Eliot, however, said that her true inspiration for the poem came from the story of the Annunciation. “Viewing a painting of the Annunciation,” Deborah Epstein Nord writes, Eliot “thought of the Virgin as a figure of tragedy.” Mary is chosen, Eliot says, “to fulfill a great destiny,” but is also denied “the ordinary lot of womanhood.”3 All of the child-rearing, none of the sex; I had never thought of Mary’s fate in quite these terms before reading Eliot’s response. In recasting Mary’s story through Fedalma, though, Eliot creates a story of female longing for an epic existence—reminiscent of Dorothea in Middlemarch (1871)—as well as one of sacrifice.

The heroine is born a Roma princess but raised in the Spanish court with no knowledge of her origins. Then, on the eve of a propitious and passionate marriage to Duke Silva, Fedalma’s biological father Zarca appears at her window, enters her room, and calls on her to fulfill her inherited destiny: to lead the Roma people. He wants her to live an epic life, and a life of epic sacrifice: “I am come—to claim my child, / Not from the Spaniard, … / But from herself.” Because Zarca and Silva are implacable enemies, Fedalma is faced with a sudden terrible choice. She cannot accept this mantle of responsibility from one while married to the other.

Initially she resists the call of blood, arguing, “I belong to him who loves me—whom I love— / Who chose me—whom I chose.” The chiasmus in those lines conveys the underlying equality of her union with Silva, in contrast to Zarca’s commanding mien. But when she hears her father’s plan to lead the Roma to “a promised land beyond the sea: / … And make a nation,” which she will reign, her resolve shifts: “I can never shrink / Back into bliss,—my heart has grown too big / With things that might be. Father, I will go.”

“Do you not wish the world were different?”

This relinquishment of ardent love would never be believable in the context of an English realist novel. In Middlemarch, to her sister’s pleadings that Dorothea not marry Will Ladislaw, the man she loves, Dorothea responds, “I might have done something better, if I had been better. But this is what I am going to do. I have promised to marry Mr. Ladislaw; and I am going to marry him.” In the context of epic poetry, though, with its grand scales and “hearts grown too big,” Fedalma abandons the man she loves to “do something better,” or at least something bigger. Verse, the past, and Spain allow Eliot in The Spanish Gypsy what prose and 1830s England would preclude in Middlemarch. Indeed, that work’s prelude points explicitly to the gap between Spanish epic past and humdrum reality by invoking Saint Theresa, “that Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago.” Though she “was certainly not the last of her kind,” Eliot’s narrator tells us, “later-born Theresas” like Dorothea are caught between “a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood” because “the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone.”

Fedalma lives in a different medium, epic poetry set in 15th-century Spain. If her decision to forego love—“the common yearning of womanhood”—is remarkable, it is followed by Silva’s even more remarkable decision to follow her and throw off his position. Just to be with Fedalma, he will join the Roma. For women, it seems, epic demands the resignation of love; for men, it demands the resignation of everything else. The choice is not easy, and Eliot gives space to Silva’s internal debate before he leaves to find her:

But ’neath this inward speech,—

Predominant, hectoring, the more passionate voice

Of many-blended consciousness,—there breathed

Murmurs of doubt, the weakness of a self

That is not one.

But soon, “the soul sank with hunger-pangs,” and Silva is off to find the Roma. When he does, he tells Zarca, “Love comes to cancel all ancestral hate, / Subdues all heritage, proves that in mankind / There is a union deeper than division.” Ultimately though, those lines prove utopian. Silva kills Zarca in retaliation for killing his uncle, and the poem ends with Fedalma, alone, leading her people to Africa in hopes of founding a homeland there, as though union between the peoples of Spain were impossible.

Setting the poem in 1492 signals Eliot’s wish to align Fedalma and Silva’s epic romance with embattled cultural hybridity. That year is, as Wai Chee Dimock puts it, a “nodal point,” when Christian religious violence erupted across both Spain and the Americas.4 It was the year that Ferdinand and Isabella took Granada from the Nasrids, ending the last bastion of 700 years of Islamic rule in Spain, and the year that Spanish Jews were required by royal ordinance to leave the country or convert to Christianity. The year 1492 put an end to Spain’s multifaith era, strained and uneven though it was. Still, the faint traces of syncretism and cultural fusion that remained are sprinkled through Eliot’s poem, such as “the church / A mosque converted” in Placa Santiago; or a bard’s use in his song of “Ojalà,” from Arabic. After dancing in the placa to this song, Fedalma says she “seemed new-waked / To life in unison with a multitude.” This utopian horizon of “life in unison with a multitude,” floats through Eliot’s poem. Fedalma asks at one point, moved by the sight of Roma prisoners in chains, “Do you not wish the world were different?” Eliot seems to see, before 1492, the possibility of companionable coexistence: Convivencia, to use Américo Castro’s controversial term from 1948.5

If Eliot was interested in religious coexistence, though, she was also interested in unbelief. The novelist known for “showing people how to be good in a world without God,” as Kathryn Hughes puts it, Eliot emphasizes throughout The Spanish Gypsy that the Roma—unlike Spain’s other minorities—have no declared religion. Zarca says that the Roma “have no god” but “a faith / Taught by no priest … / Faith to each other.”6 Accurate or not, Eliot uses the Roma to interpolate irreligion into 1492 Spain and to position secularism in contradistinction to the coming tide of religious violence. As Sephardo, a Jewish astrologer, says to Silva, “the stars / … tell no fortunes. I adhere alone / To such tradition of their agencies / As reason fortifies.”

Many critics of the poem view it as a parable of incontrovertible race; Fedalma accepts her Roma identity, though it was news to her until the night before her wedding. Yet the poem also depicts Fedalma and Silva throwing off Christianity quite suddenly, and characters like the Jewish convert Ephraim to whom “all religions” are “a queer human whim / Or else a vice.” Forced conversion (it happened to Ephraim’s father) is Eliot’s clearest evidence of the hypocrisies of religious chauvinism: as one character says, “’t is slippery work, conversion.” Meanwhile, hovering in her poem’s wings is Christopher Columbus, who is in Cordoba seeking funding for “new shores, new realms, new soldiers for the Cross.” The end of religious hybridity, the beginning of genocide—what better setting for a secular annunciation and Eliot’s career-long case for the ethics of religious skepticism? icon

  1. Eliot read George Borrow’s The Zincali; Or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain (1841) in preparation for writing the poem. Borrow describes Zincali in that work as “a term by which these people, especially those of Spain, sometimes designate themselves.” Borrow, The Zincali, 1841 (Campbell, 1843), p. 7.
  2. Richard J. Pym, The Gypsies of Early Modern Spain, 1425-1783 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 4, 6.
  3. Deborah Epstein Nord, Gypsies and the British Imagination, 1807-1930 (Columbia University Press, 2008), p.111.
  4. Wai Chee Dimock, “Hemispheric Islam: Continents and Centuries for American Literature,” American Literary History, vol, 21, no. 1 (2009), p. 41.
  5. On the historical problems with the Convivencia thesis, see H. Salvador Martínez, La Convivencia en la España del siglo XIII: Perspectivas alfonsíes (Ediciones Polifemo, 2006). Jacques Lezra’s talk, “Doing Without the World: The Fetish of al-Andalus,” University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2015, called my attention to this history.
  6. Kathryn Hughes, Review of The Life of George Eliot by Nancy Henry, The Guardian, June 1, 2022.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz. Featured image: 16th century depiction of the Annunciation in the church of San Tomé de Nogueira, Galicia, Spain / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)