Romola (George Eliot)

I’ve been reading through the complete works of George Eliot; this week I finished reading RomolaRomola caught my attention when I started reading Eliot’s books–for it is an outlier compared to her other novels. Instead of Victorian England, Eliot’s usual setting for her novels, Romola is set in 15th century Italy. Eliot was proud of the book, stating: “There is no book of mine about which I more thoroughly feel that I swear by every sentence as having been written with my best blood.” It came out to critical acclaim, though is not considered one of her better works now.

As I have read through Eliot’s books I’ve come to appreciate her style and some of her signature themes (in fact, I plan to write a future post about some of these themes). Romola had me conflicted. I loved the struggle and messiness of the humanity (one of Eliot’s specialties), yet I could not feel fully supportive of any character. I also failed to see how the book portrayed the empowerment of women in any way (one of the things this book is often praised for).

Here are some of my thoughts–fair warning, they will contain spoilers–so if you plan to read the book you might want to stop here. I’ll put a page break, so if you wish to proceed click through. . .Early in Romola Tito Melema is introduced. He is handsome. He is educated. He is intelligent. He is pleasant. And as the book continues you learn he is weak, dishonest, disloyal, and manipulative. Yet in all his flaws he is very human. You see his fear. You see his desire to repent. You see regret. What makes things even more interesting is that his chief enemy, Baldassarre, is technically in the right, yet so full of blind rage and bitterness that his character feels even more evil than Tito. So the character wronged is despised more than the one who wronged him.

Romola is the beautiful, perfect wife for Tito. When she realizes her husband’s lack of character she decides to leave him. Now this might  seem like the moment Romola is empowered and strong. Yet she meets a male spiritual leader, Fra Girolamo, as she is fleeing and he directs her to return and serve the poor in her city. Saying” “My daughter, you are fleeing from the presence of God into the wilderness.” He effectively tells her, you have a duty, an obligation, to return home. And she does. She returns home to her husband. I do not see power here.

Fra Girolamo is an important character, for he gains significant political power early in the book and is martyred after a turn of public opinion by end of the book. The Fra is a dynamic preacher, calling the people to forsake vanity and care for each other. His message is full of guilt, yet devoid of theology. When things are falling apart for him near the end of the book he is faced with many difficult decisions. One of these is the chance to speak on Romola’s condemned godfather’s behalf, who was part of a failed political movement. As Romola pleads with the Fra he listens patiently: “. . . at this moment such feelings [irritation] were nullified by that hard struggle which made half the tragedy of his life–the struggle of a mind possessed by a never-silent hunger after purity and simplicity, yet caught in a tangle of egoistic demands, false ideas, and different outward conditions, that made simplicity impossible.” He lets the man die. It would seem that the Fra is supposed to represent the moral right, heroic and battered in struggle.

But instead of this romantic portrayal of the Fra being final, things change. He is arrested. At the threat of torture he declares his prophecy and preaching were not inspired, but rather a ploy for power. He then recants that statement, which prompts the beginning of torture. But before it even begins he makes the statement again. He is broken. By the time he dies he seems to be a shattered and destroyed man.

Several times there are occurrences in the book which are outlandishly improbable. Baldassarre meeting Tito the first time in Florence. Baldassarre meeting Romola. Baldassarre meeting Tessa (Tito’s mistress [1]). Tito washing up on shore right beside Baldassarre. To me these situations weakened the book considerably. When Baldassarre finally killed Tito my response was” Oh come on, really? Instead of a serious climactic scene it was comedic to me.

Romolla makes a half-hearted attempt to kill herself (not a strong move). She then spends some time nursing victims of a plague in a neighboring town. She then returns home to help support Tito’s mistress and illegitimate children. She has a belief in “our own better self” and the “finer impulses of the soul.” The book closes with her expressing her admiration of Fra Girolamo, saying: he spent his life: “trying to raise men to the highest deeds they are capable of.” What a sad final note.

In conclusion, I think Romola is a sad book about the depravity of humans and the futility of trusting our own nobleness or the nobleness of others. There is no redemption. It is a book in which everyone loses [2].

[1] The development of the affair between Tito and Tessa is fascinating. It begins with Tito genuinely wanting to help her and be nice to her. Over time her outright adoration of him  is too enticing for him to resist, and he becomes flirtatious. Then, in good Victorian novel fashion, things go from a scene involving a kiss on the cheek to a child being present. Boy, that escalated quickly. (And yes, I just used an Anchorman quote while reviewing Romola. I am well cultured.)

[2] There are several additional story lines that illustrate the losing theme as well, but to prevent writing a novel-sized post I’ll refrain from addressing them. Suffice it to say that Romola is one of the saddest books I have ever read.

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