Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Romola by George Eliot
Long-winded but worthwhile
George Eliot is best known for her novels of English country life, but this book set in Renaissance Florence just might be her magnum opus. Romola, Eliot’s fourth novel, was originally published in the pages of Cornhill Magazine from 1862 to 1863. The story opens in the year 1492. The title character, Romola de’ Bardi, is the daughter of a scholar who maintains a large library of classical texts. Romola assists her father, who is blind, with his studies, and in doing so has become an accomplished scholar in her own right. Tito Melema, a handsome young scholar from Greece, arrives in Florence after surviving a shipwreck. Romola’s father hires Tito to help him with his scholarly works, and soon a romance develops between the young man and woman. Tito is eager to establish himself as a figure of prominence in Florence, but events from his past come back to haunt him, threatening his newfound comfort. When Romola discovers too late that her husband is a man quite different from whom she thought he was, she struggles for independence from the confines of her marriage.
All this takes place against the backdrop of Florentine history, which at times Eliot lays on a little too thick. Just when you begin to get involved in the lives of the main characters, the author inserts another interminable barbershop conversation or tavern debate on politics. The supporting cast boasts some real historic personages, including Niccolò Machiavelli and Girolamo Savonarola. The latter dominates the latter half of the book as Eliot elevates him to protagonist status. Savonarola was a Dominican friar who championed a Christian reform movement that defied Pope Alexander VI. The religious battle between the pontiff and the heretic escalates into a political war, with the fate of Florence hanging in the balance. To some degree, all this social and political context influences the lives of the fictional characters, but Eliot overdoes it to the point of pedantry. It soon begins to feel like merely pointless, ostentatious flaunting of her encyclopedic knowledge of Florence and its history. The reader never cares about Savonarola the way he cares about the fictional characters, so the overwhelming presence of this heroic preacher whom Eliot so obviously admires becomes an unwelcome distraction from the better parts of the book.
When the narrative does follow Tito, Romola, or the ensemble supporting cast, however, the story is quite engaging. The Renaissance setting, archetypal characters, and classic themes of vengeance, loyalty, and integrity remind one of Victor Hugo’s great romantic works, in particular Notre-Dame de Paris (though Romola is not nearly as good). Yet in the authentically rendered psychology there’s an inkling of realism that foreshadows the naturalism of Emile Zola, as the characters are often slaves to their natures and driven by forces beyond their control.
Reading Romola was a long haul, and I was not completely enamored with it, but in the end I’m glad I read it and will take away from it memorable characters and scenes. I prefer Romola over the other books by Eliot that I have read—Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss—perhaps because I just prefer Renaissance Italy to the Victorian English countryside. Eliot obviously enjoyed the departure from her typical milieu as well, as evidenced by the prodigious amount of research that must have gone into this at times overly erudite epic. Romola’s long-windedness may make it a difficult book to love, but its ambitiousness and intelligence make it an easy book to admire.
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