On Carrier-Pigeons and the Electric Telegraph: an elusive note in two George Eliot notebooks




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Oxford University Press



Peer reviewed



In George Eliot’s holograph notebook in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (MS. Don. G. 8) containing material gathered while researching her Italian novel Romola set at the end of the fifteenth century in Florence, there appears a seemingly incongruous entry: ‘Instead of carrier-pigeons the electric telegraph’.1 This note is preceded by a short list of books on the history of Venice in the Middle Ages, and followed by a quotation from one of these sources together with two more entries from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The notebook was in use between January 1862 and late 1864, and some of these entries can be closely related to material which eventually found its way into the novel. However, Eliot’s entry on carrier-pigeons and the electric telegraph appears to be wholly unconnected with the surrounding material, and I was unable to trace a source for it while researching my edition of Eliot’s Bodleian Romola notebook. An almost identical note appears in another Eliot notebook also containing notes made while researching Romola, which reads: ‘Instead of carrier pigeons—the electric telegraph!’.2 The editor of MS 708 was also unable to identify a source for this entry. Similar entries to those in MS. Don. G. 8. surround the MS. 708 entry, which is preceded by notes from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Hody’s De Graecis Illustribus, and followed by an unidentified entry on the length of time it took the Roman Empire to adopt Christianity and further unidentified entries on topics including the conception of the Supreme Being, and a little girl telling God a fable ‘because he must be so tired of hearing prayers’. Like MS. Don. G. 8, MS 708 was probably in use from early 1862 onwards.



George Eliot, notebooks, carrier-pigeons, electric telegraph, Romola


Thompson, A. (2021) On Carrier-Pigeons and the Electric Telegraph: an Elusive Note in Two George Eliot Notebooks. Notes and Queries, gjab112


Research Institute

Institute of English