Whence the “dear reader”—and to where? This essay proposes that George Eliot's reformulation of nineteenth-century conventions for addressing reading audiences documents a response to the emergence of Britain's first mass reading public. Eliot inherits a propensity for spontaneous direct address that figuratively emplaces singularized readers in precisely delimited narrative scenes. In her later work she gives up on even this pretense of a shared common ground for readers from a vast and diverse public, instead using more oblique forms of address, like writerly commentary and erudite paratext, to acknowledge readers without delimiting their scale. Drawing on reading history and political literary theory, in particular the work of Jacques Rancière, the essay argues that this shift democratizes address. Democratic address capitalizes on the indiscriminate relationship between text and audience that characterizes a mass reading public. Yet in Eliot this turn toward an expansive, inclusive form of address is also linked to an increasingly rarefied style. The essay concludes by examining how the aesthetically rarefied Henry James and the populist best seller Marie Corelli chart two divergent routes out of Eliot's reformulation of address. Together they reflect the tension in her work between theoretical inclusivity and high literary style—and between democratic principles of universal access and the stratification that in practice organizes a mass reading public.

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