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Book Review: Romola

Victorian meets Renaissance


I’ve said it before: You don’t curl up with a George Eliot novel. You sit in your seat and pay attention.

Typically, Eliot wrote about provincial life in the Victorian era, but her one excursion into the historical novel is Romola (1862-63). Set in 15th Century Renaissance Italy, the novel unfolds against the backdrop of the French-Italian War of 1494. The French king invades Florence, driving out the ruling family, the Medicis. In the midst of the turmoil is the monk Savonarola, whose spiritual visions claim that God is scourging the city of its avarice and politics and is asserting that Pope Alexander VI should be deposed. Savonarola gathers quite a following, culminating in the original Bonfire of the Vanities, yet his fame is short lived. As the French king retreats and the Medicis finagle their way back into power, the monk’s own authority wanes. He is excommunicated, humiliated, and finally executed.

The central character of the novel is Romola, a beautiful and intelligent daughter of a blind scholar. She falls in love with Tito Melema, a Greek refugee who literally washes up on shore in Florence. Tito is all charm and good-nature, and it isn’t long before he and Romola are married. But Tito’s sights are set on Florentine politics. He too finagles his way into the inner circles, proving his adroit skills at playing both sides against each other.

Tito’s predominant trait, and ultimately his greatest failing, is an aversion to anything unpleasant. He simply doesn’t want to experience the ugly side of life. He will postpone addressing conflict in the hope that it will simply resolve itself. Even his effort to find his missing foster father, Baldassare, peters out because it proves all too onerous an undertaking.

Baldassare arrives in the city, where he is chained to other prisoners. He escapes, only to encounter his foster son. Tito finds it an inconvenient time for Baldassare’s return and so denies knowing him.

Driven mad by his foster son’s denial, Baldassare plots how to assassinate Tito. A few failed attempts, and the poor old man is shattered.


William Powell as Tito, and Lillian Gish as Romola

Romola and Tito’s marriage is also suffering. They have drifted apart because of Tito’s selfish actions. Romola proves remarkably perceptive, picking up clues here and there about the identity of Baldassare and his relation to Tito. Also, she discovers that her husband has a common-law wife, Tessa, and two children.

George Eliot famously said of Romola that “every sentence [has] been written with my best blood, such as it is, and with the most ardent care for veracity of which my nature is capable.”

You can feel it: There is an earnestness to the prose. All of Eliot’s novels examine the repressed passions of its characters. They feel things deeply, yet in a world as emotionally repressed as the Victorian era, it is often difficult to give vent to it.

That said, Eliot does utilize excessive rational thought to expose what is at the core of every emotion and individual action. You can practically see her with a microscope peering down into the souls of her characters. She keeps scraping away at minutia, as though there is a purer truth underneath it all.

At times, such an approach becomes exhausting. I lost count of the number of times that the action is called to a halt so that the author can peer through her magic lens. What is different about Romola is that the author utilizes dialogue in a more descriptive fashion than in her other novels. Dialogue periodically lends energy to the story, but after a while, the plot simply bogs down. The last quarter of the book, which focuses on Savonarola’s trial and judgment -- which should be thrilling -- is dragged down by the heavy chains of excessive analysis.

This is my third go-round for Romola. The last time I read it was nearly 25 years ago. Admittedly, I didn’t remember much of the plot, other than Tito’s betrayal. The political aspects of the story went over my head at that time, but this time Wikipedia offered me some basic background to understand who Savonarola was and what happened during the Italian War, so I was able to follow the plot more readily.

Now, how to philosophize about anguished tears?

When I was in my early twenties, I went through quite a George Eliot phase. I was fascinated by all things Victorian – chowing down on Dickens, Trollope, Bronte, and Eliot. More than any of the others, George Eliot fascinated me with her characters’ repressed passion and the author’s critical thinking. But now that I am returning to her work, I am trying to figure out what actually appealed to me. Thirty years ago, I think I was simply too young to comprehend the subtlety of her themes, at least in terms of how the stories fit together. This time, though, I have a greater appreciation for her perceptivity into the human condition, but I am not all that enamored by the density of her writing.

Last year, I tackled Daniel Deronda, and this year it is Romola. Up next is The Mill on the Floss, certainly not one of my favorite of George Eliot’s novels, mostly because of the horrendous abuse that Maggie Tulliver undergoes at the hands of her judgmental brother. But I am hoping that I will comprehend the themes better this time around.

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