Arthur's Reviews > Romola

Romola by George Eliot
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Jul 27, 10

Read in July, 2010

If you’re looking to read your first George Eliot, don’t start with Romola. In 1866, Henry James called it Eliot’s greatest novel to date (and that means greater than The Mill on the Floss, which opinion is goofy). “It is decidedly the most important,” he wrote of the novel, “--not the most entertaining nor the most readable, but the one in which the largest things are attempted and grasped.” James persevered in this opinion, calling it a “rare masterpiece” in 1873 and in 1876 ranking it above Daniel Deronda, which he called the weakest of her books. He did admit, however, that Deronda was not so “lacking current” as Romola.*

Things had gone so much downhill for Romola by 1985 that Harold Bloom, writing in The New York Review of Books (September 26), said that “Romola…is rightly forgotten.” Critics today pretty universally deplore it as a failure. I can’t disagree. But if you’re wending your way through Eliot’s complete works, Romola is a safe fourth or fifth stop on the journey. It has enough of what’s good in Eliot to keep your interest, and since you already know the brilliance she’s capable of from your reading of Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, and The Mill on the Floss, Romola’s weaknesses won’t deter you from finishing your trip.

I came to Romola because I was trying to fill in a picture of late quattrocento Florence. I’d just finished reading Ronald Lightbown’s Botticelli: Life and Work, which had sent me back to Christopher Hibbert’s The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall to read up on Savonarola. I wanted more, and who better than Eliot, I thought, to bring to life the period between the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1492) and the death of Savonarola (1498)?

As it turns out, Eliot didn’t bring Botticelli into the book at all; the revival of his reputation would have to wait a few more decades. But she does make a vivid character of Piero di Cosimo, who plays a small but crucial role in the story. In his case, Eliot was able to transform Vasari’s snippets of gossip about Piero into some of the most concrete, lively pages of the novel, and the scene of Tito Melema’s commissioning from Piero the decoration of a small case with the triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne captures the delight that Renaissance scholars and artists must have felt in telling again the myths of ancient Greece and Rome.

But that successful transformation is an exception in the novel. Much of the time Eliot has not prevented the dead hand of history from stopping her story cold. Her description of the Bonfire of the Vanities, for example, fails to catch fire. And she sometimes spreads her research in too thick a layer of local color, as she does with the Tuscan saws and sayings that suffocate the dialogue of Bratti the ragpicker and Nello the barber--a strange case of tin ear in an author who is famous for getting the cadences of farmers and workmen exactly right. Her Proem to the novel makes much of the fact that “we still resemble the men of the past more than we differ from them.” I wish she had acted on that belief and made her Florentines speak the way the folks speak in her English Midlands.

Frequently the lumbering machinery of plot and coincidence built to bring her characters into contact with one another creaks too loudly to be ignored. That is easily forgiven when turns in the plot result in brilliant scenes of the sort Eliot can achieve. But there’s nothing in Romola to match, say, the dying Peter Featherstone offering Mary Garth his fortune in Middlemarch, or in the same novel, Rosamond obstinately refusing to hear Lydgate’s plea that she economize. There are in fact too few scenes in which characters are allowed to develop and reveal themselves, and it’s on that level of fictional lives imagined and acted out that Romola’s failure is most conspicuous and most disappointing.

On the level, however, where, to return to James’s estimate, “the largest things are attempted and grasped,” the novel can generate real interest. Eliot’s psychological and moral analyses of her characters are often acute and profound, especially her analyses of Savonarola and Romola’s husband, Tito Melema. Tito is the most successful creation of the book. Handsome, talented, ambitious, and totally self-centered, he is a young man on the make who thinks the world owes him a living. He is a “tool with a smooth handle” (Chapter 45) who knows how to insinuate himself among the powerful and become their indispensable adjunct. And he is, most fatefully, a man who prefers to take the easy way to reach his goal of a life lived for pleasure and profit. If Eliot’s imagination had followed Tito’s career more closely, so that we saw him wheeling and dealing among the Florentine factions, the Piagnoni, Mediceans, and Compagnacci, we would have had a picture of quattrocento politics and history much more incisive than what Romola actually gives us; a different novel entirely, in fact, with Machiavelli as its muse (yes, he’s here, but he has only a few lines--good ones, however, and in a convincingly Machiavellian voice).

But Eliot was attempting things even larger than political history: it’s the conflict between the “clashing deities” (Chapter 17) of Christianity and paganism that really captures Eliot’s imagination and underlies the conflicts within her main character. Romola’s dilemma in its broadest outline is the dilemma of Renaissance culture.

Paganism and the Revival of Learning, as embodied by Tito and Romola’s father (a rigid, unproductive scholar who, tellingly, is blind), is not just the hoarding of antique busts and gems or the indulgence in antique fantasies such as fascinate Piero di Cosimo. At its best, it seems to be a program of rational choice and enlightened materialism that Eliot invokes with imagery of light and joy and buoyant animal spirits, as here when Romola pictures her life with her handsome young husband:
Purple vines festooned between the elms, the strong corn perfecting itself under the vibrating heat, bright winged creatures hurrying and resting among the flowers, round limbs beating the earth in gladness with cymbals held aloft, light melodies chanted to the thrilling rhythm of strings--all objects and all sounds that tell of Nature revelling in her force. (Chapter 17)

But Romola, with a need as strenuous as her creator’s to define a purpose for life beyond mere selfish satisfaction, is unable to rest long in hedonism; and the effect of Tito’s moral failures, which are seen to arise from a weakness and egoism that his classical education and pagan outlook are helpless to correct, is to send his wife in search of a cause that will give her a difficult duty to fulfill. Enter Savonarola.

Christianity in Romola of course takes the form of the only religion on offer in 15th-century Italy: Roman Catholicism. This must have given Eliot the good Englishwoman no end of problems, and in Romola’s struggle to accept Savonarola’s moral authority I think I see Eliot’s own struggle to save the friar’s genuine reformist zeal from infection by the other aspect of his crusade, the nonsense she clearly sees as irredeemably papist and retrograde: the visions, the prophecy, the promise of miracles. The pages in which Eliot offers her analysis of Savonarola, the holy man in possession of great power, if the least novelistic, are nevertheless some of the most persuasive in their psychology and most moving in their rhetoric, especially Chapter 64, “The Prophet in his Cell,” and Chapter 71, “The Confession,” which she ends by exonerating him: “Power rose against him not because of his sins, but because of his greatness--not because he sought to deceive the world, but because he sought to make it noble” (Chapter 71).

Unsatisfactory as she is as a representation of a woman, Romola is an almost allegorical portrait of a consciousness toiling in the vale of soul-making. Eliot occasionally achieves grandeur in depicting Romola’s interior struggles and the courage she summons to act in conformance with her stringent ideals. But she out-Dorotheas Dorothea Brooke. She is hardly real, and the more closely the book focuses on her, the more unsatisfactory as a novel the book becomes. Even the other people in the novel have trouble seeing Romola as real; statuesque and blonde, she often startles them like an apparition of the B.V.M. Her education by her father in rational paganism saves her from succumbing to the worst excesses of Catholic superstition, so she’s uniquely suited to see what’s right and just in Savonarola’s mission and utterance. And since by temperament she’s a kind of one-woman NGO, she’s primed to accept his call to renounce vanities and serve the lowest and poorest of her fellow citizens.

Piling ideal upon ideal, Eliot makes of Romola not only a Madonna, but an Antigone as well. Early in the book Piero paints Romola as that heroine in a double portrait with her blind father as Oedipus (a very unlikely subject, I believe, in 15th-century Italian art). Much later, in Chapter 56, this foreshadowing is fulfilled in a climactic scene where we seem to watch the Protestant individual conscience dawning in Romola:
The law was sacred. Yes, but rebellion might be sacred too. It flashed upon her mind that the problem before her was essentially the same as that which had lain before Savonarola--the problem where the sacredness of obedience ended, and where the sacredness of rebellion began. To her, as to him, there had come one of those moments in life when the soul must dare to act on its own warrant, not only without external law to appeal to, but in the face of a law which is not unarmed with Divine lightnings….

There is another moment when Romola acts on her own warrant, when I thought the novel was going to take off in an unexpected, exhilarating direction: Romola decides to leave Florence, alone, and set out on a journey to consult “the most learned woman in the world, Cassandra Fedele, at Venice, and ask her how an instructed woman could support herself…” (Chapter 36). What’s this? I thought. George Eliot is going to give us a female picaresque? On the road with Romola? Alas, it works out otherwise. Rather than pattern the resolution of this moment on a classical source, the Crossing of the Rubicon, when the individual seizes his destiny and goes on to conquer the world, Eliot chooses instead to pattern the moment on one that's exemplary of Christian humility and submission: the Road to Damascus. Nearly a decade later, in 1871, we find Eliot still under the spell of this image, imagining again this road, and though Christian still, it leads not to submission, but to an “epic life” of “illimitable satisfaction”--the famous picture in the Prelude to Middlemarch of St. Theresa as a little girl setting out on crusade. That road, too, is never taken.

* James’s quotations are from his reviews gathered in A Century of George Eliot Criticism, Gordon Haight, editor, 1965: Houghton Mifflin; pp. 52, 80, 101, 98.
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