Saturday, July 2, 2011

Romola by George Eliot

Author: George Eliot
Originally Published: Serialized in Cornhill Magazine, 1962-1963
Length:688 pages
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.


  1. Argh, I'm struggling through Middlemarch. I love the writing but I don't care for the storyline or most of the characters so it's very hard for me. Sigh.

  2. This isn't a genre I normally read, but you did a great job with the review.

  3. I have read The Mill on the Floss and became absolutely absorbed by it and felt bereft at the ending. I like what Eliot does, but think I will tackle Middlemarch before this one. I really enjoyed reading your review, and it is nice to be reminded that is summer somewhere at the moment. Freezing in Australia currently :)

  4. Jenny,
    It's been a while since I've read Middlemarch, so I don't remember if it was slow at the beginning, but I do remember Daniel Deronda taking about 200 pages, and then I was hooked. If all else fails, watch the miniseries. It's pretty good.


    I would definitely recommend Middlemarch first. Try to stay warm there in Australia!

  5. I've not read any George Eliot...does that diqualify me as a reader??!!

  6. Melissa,
    Of course not! Go for it if you like. I would just hate for someone to start out with this one and then think they don't like George Eliot. She has better ones than this, like Middlemarch or Mill on the Floss.

  7. Hi, just wanted to let you know I've added your entry to the literary blog directory:
    Hope you find some great blogs through it and also get some new readers. There's a button on my blog for you to use.

    I loved The Poisonwood Bible too :)

  8. Tiny Library,
    Thanks for putting the directory together! I have already found some great new blogs. I've got the button up.

  9. What a great review. I love the metaphor and how you proceeded to explain it. I will add this to my list, although we will see how I do with Middlemarch which I am planning to read on vacation soon.

  10. I hope you enjoy Middlemarch. I would place it in my top 5 favorites of all time, and I think I'm due for a reread. Have fun on your vacation!

  11. I loved Middlemarch, but based on your remarks here, I'm not sure Romola would be my next choice for George Eliot.