The Classics Club Challenge: Romola, by George Eliot

George Eliot’s Romola is a tour-de-force; basically, it’s Middlemarch, but make it Renaissance Italy. (That’s simplifying things a bit, okay, but you get the gist.) The story opens with the arrival of a stranger, Tito, in the city of Florence. Tito is a Greek scholar, kind of, who has led something of an exciting life – but you have to extrapolate that from between the lines, at least at the beginning, because he’s playing it very close to the vest. The Florentines are naturally curious about this stranger who has appeared so suddenly on a feast day, but Tito isn’t sharing his history. He quickly falls in with a barber who knows everyone and wangles himself an introduction to a blind local scholar, Bardo de Bardi, with good connections that Tito can use.

When Tito meets Bardo, he’s interested not just in his connections – Bardo also has a daughter, Romola, who is beautiful, elegant and graceful. Romola is devoted to her father; her brother has run away to join Savanarola’s Dominican brotherhood and Bardo feels betrayed by this son who chose mysticism over logic. Romola lives to ease her father’s burdens, and Bardo quickly sees in Tito someone who could replace the son that he has lost. It’s no surprise that Romola and Tito quickly marry (against a warning from Romola’s brother) – but Tito turns out to be hiding a disgraceful past, and prepared to be as treacherous as he needs to be to ensure his wealth and position and keep his secrets buried. Bardo dies, happy in his mistaken belief that his daughter is married to a gem of a person, and Tito’s first act is to sell his father-in-law’s prized library to a disbursement of buyers, destroying both Bardo’s dearest wish (that his library be kept together) and Romola’s affection for him in one fell swoop. Romola runs away, determined to seek out a famous female scholar in Rome (or Venice? I forget which) and become an independent intellectual woman – but on her flight, she is intercepted by Savanarola himself, who talks her into being a good Christian woman and devoting herself to her husband, and sends her packing back to Florence.

Romola was labouring, as a loving woman must, to subdue her nature to her husband’s. The great need of her heart compelled her to strangle, with desperate resolution, every rising impulse of suspicion, pride, and resentment; she felt equal to any self-infliction that would have saved her from ceasing to love.

To be perfectly honest, this is where George Eliot lost me. I was already struggling a bit to get through this chunkster of a novel – it’s crammed full of overwhelming amounts of detail and political information about the players in Renaissance Florentine society; just try to keep all the de Medicis an anti-de Medicis straight. But I was stoked to read the story of a woman striking out for herself in a time when that was just not done, making a home among an intellectual sisterhood, and claiming her independence. And then not only did none of that happen, but the way in which Romola was stymied just rang so false to me.

Romola had no affection, respect, or allegiance to the Dominican monks – least of all Savanarola. For the entire first third of the book, she shares her father’s disgust for the monks who, in his view, stole away his son, converted him to mysticism, and caused him to reject the intellectual life that his father stood for. Romola visits her brother on his deathbed and is enraged and deeply upset by his mystical vision that if Romola marries (anyone, but it’s Tito that Romola has in mind) a parade of horribles will result. And it is presumptuous for this brother who ran away from home and rejected his family to then presume to dictate to his sister that she can’t get married because disaster! I was right there with Romola. But then in the course of one conversation over a couple of paragraphs, Savanarola convinces her to return to her husband (after previously urging her to take her brother’s advice and not get married) and to become Savanarola’s biggest cheerleader from among the fancy class of Florence. I suppose George Eliot is making a point about the magnetic force of Savanarola’s personality, and it’s my twenty-first century reader’s lens that is getting in the way, but I just didn’t buy it. And then Romola, instead of the single independent intellectual woman I wanted to read about, becomes a downtrodden wife and over-the-top Christian missionary to the poor of Florence. No, thanks.

As you can no doubt tell, I was disappointed in Romola the character and in Romola the book. It was no Middlemarch. (Part of my problem was also that I, unaccountably, thought that Romola was about Romani people, and I spent the first five chapters wondering why were in Italy and where the caravan was. But I did eventually figure out that I’d gotten the wrong idea about the plot and lean into the actual story, only to be deeply disappointed by Romola, the side characters, and – well, everyone.) If Romola de Bardi is supposed to be a Florentine Dorothea Brooke, she has some backbone to grow.

Have you read Romola? What’s your favorite George Eliot?

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