Originally Published: Serialized in Cornhill Magazine, 1962-1963
Source: Purchased used copy
Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4/5
Had she not proved that the things to which she had pledged herself were impossible? The impulse to set herself free had risen again with overmastering force; yet the freedom could only be an exchange of calamity. There is no compensation for the woman who feels that the chief relation of her life has been no more than a mistake. She has lost her crown. The deepest secret of human blessedness has half whispered itself to her, and then for ever passed her by. (pg. 500)
The Middlemarch giveaway reminded me that several months ago I read Romola and hadn't yet gathered my thoughts on it. Luckily, I took notes and underlined excessively otherwise I would probably be able to read the book again and not even remember how it ended. While that can be very advantageous sometimes--Harry Potter 7 is pretty hazy to me, so I think I will enjoy the movie all the more--when it comes to a long, less well-known Victorian novel, a reread or a movie is probably not in the cards.
I went into this book with a bundle of preconceived notions. First of all, I revere George Eliot. The woman is undoubtedly a genius. I am duty-bound to worship any and all words that flow from her pen. It was already decided that I would love Romola because I love the author and she can do no wrong. However, the novel has been branded with descriptions such as "rightly forgotten" and as displaying "excessive erudition" by critics. I knew I would like it, but would I have to brace myself to like it? (Yes, I can be loyal to a dead author in that way.)
The best way for me to describe my experience is to use a somewhat sappy metaphor. Have you ever gone on a strenuous hike but then at the end it was all worth it because of the spectacular view? The first 100 or so pages of Romola was the climb. In the beginning Eliot displays her uncanny talent for capturing a moment in time and looking at it microscopically, but I prefer it when she focuses the lens on minds, hearts and ideas rather than less personal subjects like architecture, random citizens and political climate. As the novel moves on, a shift does occur, and as the story becomes more engaging, the main characters also become vividly drawn, and there it is--the "view."
The character who creates the most tension and interest in the novel is Tito (just as in Daniel Deronda, the title character is upstaged by someone of a more murky nature.) Tito, an Italian-Greek scholar is shipwrecked and winds up in Florence of 1492, where he meets the daughter of a blind scholar, the beautiful Romola. They fall in love and eventually marry despite warning from her estranged brother. The problem is that Tito is despicable, cowardly, lazy, selfish, and ambitious, only he doesn't even know it, and neither does anyone else. He has abandoned his adopted father for the sake of his own ambition, and has "married" a young girl and fathered two children that he keeps in hiding. Romola, intelligent though she is, only gradually begins to see his true nature. (I'm not sure if he ever realizes he's a jerk, though.) Her ability to break free from the relationship is very limited, and discouraged by the charismatic friar Savonarola (of Bonfire of the Vanities fame). As she embraces the religious fervor of the time, she decides she must stay and do what she feels is her duty to her husband and community. The instability of Venice escalates, and events unfold that give Romola more options, and she finds purpose somewhere off the tracks of both her secular upbringing and her religious conversion.
I've rambled on much more than usual, but it's really hot here, and I think I'd rather stay and type than move. In a way, any small critique I have about the laborious beginning is unfair because Eliot meant for this to be a historical novel, a study of life in Florence in the fifteenth century. A reader should expect an uphill journey. She also used this time period to make comparisons with the religious and social turbulence in England of her own time. I would need to study more British history to fully appreciate this aspect. All in all, the most satisfying aspect of the novel is Eliot's signature psychological/religious/social introspection and the conflicts encountered within, written in such precise prose that causes fireworks in my brain.
Bottom line: Unless you're a die-hard George Eliot fan, proceed with caution. But if you are a fan, it may be that, like me, it is predetermined you will have unconditional love for such genius.