(My desire to have more people read George Eliot outweighed my desire to divulge all of my thoughts on this book. For this reason, I do not unveil any major plot points in Romola. Fear not to read the following thoughts on George Eliot, and take it rather as an exhortation to read on your own!)
I hesitate to write about George Eliot lest I say anything unworthy of one who I think may be the greatest novelist in the English language. My fascination with George Eliot began early last semester, when I opened the first page of Middlemarch and saw Eliot making conjectures about St. Teresa of Avila and what allowed her to accomplish so much in her time. As I continued and found the main character, Dorothea Brooke, to be modeled on the person of St. Teresa, I was instantly hooked. Upon finishing Middlemarch, I did not believe a novel could begin, proceed, or end in so satisfying a manner, but I continued to read anyway and soon had finished more of Eliot’s novels: Mill on the Floss, The Lifted Veil, Daniel Deronda, and I am now writing this post upon finishing Romola. In my opinion, none of these has outdone Middlemarch, and yet they have only confirmed my preference for George Eliot over every other English-language novelist.
(A quick note before continuing: “George Eliot” was the pen name of Marian Evans. Unlike Charlotte Bronte who initially wrote with a pen name, but is now always identified by her birth name, George Eliot continues to be referred to through her pen name, although always with feminine pronouns. This always surprises and distracts people who discover this in conversation, so I decided to omit pronouns in the first paragraph and then insert this note before continuing.)
By claiming for George Eliot the title of greatest English novelist, I know this requires an explanation for those who think Jane Austen deserves this title. As delightful as Austen is in everything she writes, “her works are but miniatures”, as one critic puts it. She concerns herself beautifully with a very small set of concerns. Whereas Austen typically ends her novels with a suitable marriage, George Eliot saves most of her story for what happens after the wedding and her characters have interests that reach far beyond domestic tranquility. There are also two elements almost entirely missing Jane Austen, which take center stage in the work of George Eliot: religion and the intellectual life. The closest Austen gets to considering these is in Northanger Abbey, when the narrator satirically derides the novel, and then in Mansfield Park, when there is a discourse on the usefulness of clergy and common prayer. To look at these elements in Eliot, it is necessary to take each in turn.
I already mentioned about how Middlemarch begins with an observation about the life and times of St. Teresa of Avila. Silas Marner, probably Eliot’s most widely read work, begins with the banishment of a man from a Puritanical community, and this sets the stage for everything that follows there. In another novel, she has a character discover the Imitation of Christ and change her life, and in another, the plot revolves around the meaning of Judaism. There is even a reference to a natural Manichaeism in Mill on the Floss! In Romola in particular, set in Renaissance Florence, Eliot depicts a radical (and even political) sort of Catholicism which she compares and contrasts with pagan elements existing in that time and place. She is meticulous in showing the causes and effects of the change of religious attitudes within her characters, and the great care with which Eliot depicts this is especially remarkable when one learns about the development of her own religious attitude. In a future post, I would like to consider more closely the religious history of George Eliot, who began as an evangelical, but later became more agnostic and even published translations of Feuerbach and an early historicizing account of the life of Jesus. Despite all of this, and partly because of it, she depicts the interior life of her characters in a most accurate way, keeping their freedom intact even as she shows all the motives at work. It is especially true of Middlemarch, but in all of her novels, one can hardly walk away without growing in sympathy for the lives and struggles of others.
In addition to the religious aspect of her novels, George Eliot displays an erudition wide and deep in all of her novels, and especially in Romola. Before writing any fiction, Eliot parodied the know-it-all heroines of her contemporaries in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and satirically comments in many of her books that Greek is too difficult for the mind of a woman (George Eliot herself was proficient in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian). Eliot avoids the pitfalls that she criticizes, and many times over, as a trope common to several of her novels is the intellectually capable female becoming either obsessed or repulsed before a wider intellectual project. Since Romola is placed within the Italian Renaissance, the reader is constantly impressed by the learning of many characters in the book, which itself demands that the reader already have some background knowledge but at the same time encourages the reader to get more. One instance of this is a description of a back-and-forth early on between two scholars, one clearly superior to the other, each exchange of which contains a Latin poem, each one satirizing the last and including ever more obscure references to the classical use of certain words. It was not necessary, but I was so impressed, that I put down Romola for a week in order to work on my own Latin, attempting to read classics (Ovid and Quintilian) and eventually settling for the Vulgate, which I am currently working through at a slow pace. Romola also made want to read the Italian poets, reread The Prince by Machiavelli, study up on 14th and 15th century paganism, and look more closely at the controversy surrounding Girolamo Savonarola. I also need to go back to Florence. I cannot think of any other author that brings so much to the table in this way, especially without feeling artificial or stuffy.
Alongside her erudition in philosophy and literature, Eliot also shows herself an expert in describing painted works that she herself has invented. (I just learned that this is called ekphrasis.) I am thoroughly impressed when I find an author capable of using mere words to convey the effect of music or painting. This first stood out to me when I read The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and he describes a piano-violin fugue that occurs within an interview. It is the first time the child with the violin has ever played a fugue, and Hesse allows the reader to discover with him the effects of this form of music. Even in Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, a novel I did not otherwise care for, there is a beautiful scene where Hanno is rapt by his mother’s music, such that the reader almost hears the same. As for the description of painting, Homer can be credited as the first to do this with his lengthy description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. George Eliot places a painter in three of her novels, and always gives such a description that the reader wants to see the finished project, though he has a fair sketch in his mind. These paintings are less essential in other novels, from the humorous sketch of Casaubon as Aquinas in Middlemarch to the mournful series about Berenice in Daniel Deronda, but in Romola they take on a more integral role, from the tabernacle adorned with Bacchus and Ariadne to the painted horror of Tito Melema, as well as a scene of the blind Oedipus with Antigone.
One other distinctive aspect of this novel is the depiction of evil, and evil with a beautiful guise. In Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss, there is certainly cruelty and bitterness, and yet I do not think it ever quite arrives at malice. Daniel Deronda depicts some straightforward evil, but it is most striking in Romola, where Eliot makes the reader fall in love with a character who ends up beyond redemption, all in a desire to avoid whatever is unpleasant. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Eliot leads the reader right up to the moment when a choice has to be made, when one can choose the good or the easy, and envision the consequences both far and near. Besides the malice of one particular character, there are others who are almost like ghosts, haunting the imaginations and consciences of characters within the book. There is nothing quite like this in her other novels.
If I had to liken Romola to any other novel, I would point to The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Eliot, like Manzoni, beautifully describes life in an Italian city and seamlessly blends the historical and the fictional. Both authors manage to show both the most glorious and the most ugly manifestations of religion, especially when it is mixed up with baser motives. Her occasional use of Italian may be difficult for those less familiar with the language, but there is nothing essential that one would miss beyond a few jokes and some pleasant poetry (my Penguin edition even included notes to elucidate these bits).
Since I am unwilling to divulge any essential plot details, but always want to say more, let me know if you have read any of her novels! I am certainly willing to talk further about them, but not at the expense of “spoiling” the enjoyment of a first read.
[Romola is #2 on my classics reading challenge.]