Romola: George Eliot’s Fantastic Foray into Historical Fiction

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Romola, George Eliot, 1862

TW: rape

Mmm, George Eliot wrote a book about 15th century Florence and it’s everything you dreamed it could be. Ok, you have never dreamed about a George Eliot novel set in 15th century Florence. That’s ok, I made a wishlist for you.

Wish List for George Eliot Novel about life in 15th Century Florence:

  • heroine with a name that is somehow both very British and very Italian.
    • Nailed it. Romola.
  • well-researched
    • And how. The details of art, architecture, daily life and political life in Florence are incredible.
  • historical figures appearing as characters in the novel
    • So many. You may have heard of that evil Borgia Pope. He’s in it, kind of. So are many more obscure figures.
  • a tragic love story
    • Yes! But this is George Eliot we’re talking about, so the love story goes wrong in an unconventional way.

You don’t need any knowledge of medieval Italy to understand the story. Tito Melema, a Greek fellow who has been sailing around doing who knows what for years, makes his way to Florence after a shipwreck. Just like us, the readers, Tito knows nothing of Florentine politics. When he falls in with a savvy set of fellows who patronize the same philosophical barber, the fellows explain everything to him and vicariously to the reader. Thanks, George Eliot, for that handy literary device.

Wealth has become concentrated in the hands of the elite. The people are suffering. A French conqueror approaches. A political/religious movement centered on the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola gains momentum.

Sidebar: I just compared Romola and A Tale of Two Cities in my head for the first time and I will state the results for you. Eliot does a better job of weaving the lives of fictional characters into historical events. Yes, A Tale of Two Cities is spectacular, but it’s weirdly abstract given Dickens’ propensity for microscopic focus on his characters. His allegorical and apostrophic descriptions of conditions in Revolutionary France are stunning. I said “damn” aloud the first and second time I read a particular passage about hunger. It’s a masterful novel, but the lives of the characters recede in importance, making way for historical events. Out of all the characters in all the Dickens’ novels I have read, I care least about the characters in A Tale of Two Cities. Including whatshisname and his big sacrifice.

In Romola, historical events and events in the lives of the characters converge so beautifully that during the scene depicting Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities I found myself thinking:

  • I can’t believe this is happening/actually happened in the past. How crazy that this friar became so powerful he got mobs of people to sacrifice the signs of wealth they had accumulated. He’s running Florence now.
  • I can’t believe Romola’s vain aunt was so confused and frightened, she gave up her fake hair. Get home safe, auntie.
  • I’m very worried for poor Tessa, I hope she gets back safe.
  • Will Romola discover her husband’s secret?
  • Yikes!

I never knew I could experience so much emotion over medieval Florentine politics.

Anyway, back to the plot. Tito meets a beautiful young woman named Romola. Romola’s life centers around her father who is an aging, infirm, nearly blind scholar. When she meets Tito my heart swelled right along with hers. I thought “Yes, girl. You will finally have something in your life that brings you joy! You will get out of that dark study and into the bright beautiful world with this bright beautiful man.” I was so happy for them, but Tito is not what he seems to be. Eliot develops a profound contrast between Romola’s dutiful sacrifice for her father and Tito’s selfish shirking of his filial responsibility. He seems like such a golden boy, but one decision leads to a complete moral decline. It hurts to read. Hurts good.

Romola embarks on a transformative moral journey of her own that is not always a pleasure to read. Most of the time it is, but there is one moment that makes me want to break things. If I was afflicted with Bruce Banner’s condition, this one scene in Romola would make me Hulk-out. Romola finally sees her husband for what he really is. Distraught, she packs a few necessaries and runs away. On the road out of Florence she encounters Savonarola. The friar convinces Romola that it is her Christian duty to stay with her husband, because of blah blah blah, God, sacred vow, blah blah. Trash. Garbage. Smash it. Barf. Yuck. Shudder. “Go back to your husband” means going back to your marital duties. “Stay with your dirt bag husband who makes your skin crawl” means go be martially raped. “Go back and be raped” says the priest to the young woman. “Stay with him and be serially raped” said many Christians to many women throughout the course of history. How repulsive. This man has betrayed and abandoned Romola in every way short of permanently leaving their home, but she supposedly owes him her body until she dies. Garbage. Trash. Religion is mostly horrible.

Deep breath. Let’s move on. Despite this wretched moment, I became a bit obsessed with Girolamo Savonarola. The man, like all prophets, was a quack, but his fundamental message moves me. He was a socialist. He wanted to fix the problem of the wealthy exploiting the poor and he had a great deal of success. Then he was tortured and executed for standing up to power. How horrible. George Eliot brought him and his epoch in history to life so powerfully that I am very sad for this man who died 500 years ago. How wretched. His movement certainly does not meet contemporary standards of intersectionality—nothing does—but he fought for equality and paid a horrible price for it.

You might like Romola if:

  • you’re a student of art or Italian history
  • the thought of income inequality makes your heart thump
  • you love historical fiction
  • you’re ready to revel in the decline of a douchebag

You might not like Romola if:

  • you’re an anti-intellectual, free-market-loving, MAGA-hat-wearing turdblossom

Final Thoughts: What else is there to say? I love the book. It enrages me and saddens me, intrigues me and lifts me up. I recommend it. It is quite long and Victorian, so download the audiobook if you don’t think you have the patience for the written version. It’s worth a read or a listen.

Silas Marner: A Fireside Read to Warm Your Hearth and Heart

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Silas Marner, George Eliot, 1861

In the novella Silas Marner, George Eliot merges realism and fairy tale. Unlike most European folk tales, the story begins in a Grimm place and ends up somewhere homey and heartwarming.

The title character is an archetypal outcast, a weaver who, through the treachery of a close friend, is cut off from any avenue to human affection. Eliot describes his severely limited existence as the execution of weaving jobs and the accumulation of money repeated incessantly.

When a half orphaned, half abandoned child wanders into his home, Marner finds new purpose and his life becomes entwined with local families.

Silas Marner is a tale of second chances. Eliot posits that whether you’re screwed up or you’ve been screwed over, transformation and redemption are possible, uncomfortable and infinitely rewarding.

As in all her work Eliot is at her best when describing the English countryside and at her worst when condescendingly stereotyping its people. I could read page after page of her describing a flat, featureless stretch of land, but my eyes roll when she generalizes the characteristics of farmers. Her patronizing tone has some purpose in this novel, so it’s more bearable than in Adam Bede

Ultimately, Eliot creates a great deal of sympathy for a seemingly unlovable loner and the wastrel aristocrats he inadvertently becomes involved with. The book starts off a little slow, but my enjoyment increased with every page. Who doesn’t like a fairy tale re-imagined in contemporary times (granted contemporary for Eliot meant mid-1800s)?

You might like Silas Marner if:

  • you’re fond of outcasts
  • it would do you good to read a story of redemption
  • you’re fond of fairy tales

You might not like Silas Marner if:

  • you prefer tragic endings

Final Thoughts:

Silas Marner is an uplifting read, which is rare in the English canon. Authors usually chose to show how a character’s flaws lead to misfortune. Whereas, Eliot starts with unfortunate and flawed characters and shows how their choices lead to their redemption. I like it. It’s nice to read a story with an uncommon plot and an uncommon emotional arc. This is a great, short read for cozy autumn or winter evenings. I might have just convinced myself to read it again soon.

Betrayed by my Favorite Author: Women Who Hate Women

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Adam Bede, George Eliot, 1859

Before I started this project, I considered George Eliot my favorite Victorian author on the strength of Middlemarch alone. She dethroned herself with the rest of her body of work. Yes, she. If you’re not familiar, George Eliot is the nom-de-plume of Mary Ann Evans. When I was assigned to read Middlemarch for a college course, I loved it. I will discuss that special novel when we come to it in this endeavor. Just know that there’s one metaphor that compares women’s native passions and energies to a river whose force diminishes as it breaks upon the rocks of all the other crap people expect from us.

Having read only Middlemarch, I saw Eliot as a feminist author who fought back against the stereotype of female characters whose only concerns are hair ribbons and marrying rich. A Mill on the Floss mostly confirmed this opinion. Then I came to Adam Bede.

Let me tell you how Eliot betrayed me and all women in Adam Bede. There is a character, Bartle Massey, who exists only to spew misogynist nonsense. Every line of his dialogue cut me. Not because a male character hates women, but because my beloved George Eliot wrote and published those lines. She put those horrible thoughts into the world for others to chuckle at. I will not comb through the text to find his most egregiously hateful statements, because reading even one makes my shoulders tense up. So, here’s the first one I could find:

“I must give [my dog] her supper too, confound her! Though she’ll do nothing with it but nourish those unnecessary babbies. That’s the way with these women—they’ve got no head-pieces to nourish, and so their food all runs either to fat or to brats.”

Do you not feel betrayed? How could George Eliot write that? I mean, fuck. I like to think I’m a pretty savvy reader, and I found no evidence that his dialogue was meant to be satirical. What’s worse, he serves no purpose in the novel other than as a mouthpiece for hate. Really. His only other role is moral support for the title character, a function which could easily have been served by at least two other characters. Seriously, if I were to draw you a diagram of the plot, and I’d be happy to do so, this joker’s name would appear nowhere, because he’s inconsequential.

Her portrayal of female characters is problematic as well. First we have Hetty Sorrel, a pretty young girl who is so astoundingly vain and empty headed that she manages to ruin or nearly ruin the lives of everyone near her. Then there’s Lizbeth Bede who destroys the happiness of the men around her by constantly whinging about trifles. And there’s Mrs. Poyser who also cannot stop complaining. Lastly, we have Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher. Now, that’s pretty cool. A lady doing manstuff. Well, until she gets married and the Methodist church decides women shouldn’t preach because they’re dumb dumbs who do more harm than good. So, George Eliot provided us with stereotypes of female vanity and shrewishness elevated to the point of ruinous destruction.

Why? Why would she do this to me? I loved her so much and she stabbed me right in the feminism. I can’t help but think that Eliot was trying to throw her audience off the scent of her true identity or assert her membership in some male club by bashing women. Which sucks. That just sucks. Just don’t do that “I am a woman, but I’m not like other women. They’re the worst,” crap. Hey, George Eliot, are you a woman? Yes. Are you awesome? Yes. Therefore women are awesome. You’re not a special miracle; you’re evidence that all women have the ability to be insightful, eloquent artists, given the chance.

Listen, I am going to forgive George Eliot. What she did to me as a female reader of female authors really stings. But, every feminist takes a tumble at some point. We all screw up. Standing up to existing powers is exhausting and tricky. She redeemed herself with Middlemarch and I will apply its soothing balm to my psyche.

I don’t forgive Adam Bede, though. I have more problems with it. I find the characters flat, either wholly good or wholly sinful.

Victorians loved descriptions of quaint rustic scenes. Eliot provided them. Her tone in doing so comes off as extremely condescending to me. I slogged through her descriptions of country dinners with a grimace on my face. Then there’s this thing that happened that I just can’t stomach. Spoilers coming in the next paragraph.

Ok. Adam Bede is this strong, sexy carpenter. He’s tall, handsome, hardworking, good at everything, and wise in a quaint rustic way. Everybody in his whole town loves him. His younger brother, Seth, is a less awesome version of Adam. He’s a great guy, but no one really cares about him, because they’re too busy being impressed by Adam. Seth is in love with Dinah Morris. She looks like an angel. She’s so good and pure. She’s just so much better than other women that he could never love anyone but her. But Dinah only loves Jesus. She tells Seth that he’s just the kind of guy she would marry if she was going to marry anyone, but God wants her to blah blah blah not get married and help people yadda yadda.  (When people talk about Christianity, it sounds like the adults in Charlie Brown to me.) The plot proceeds. It’s a doozy. Hardships are endured. Christiany whomp-whomp sounds are made. Dinah falls in love with Adam. Adam finds that he loves her too.

Now, that all seems believable to me. I’m sure brothers have both fallen in love with the same woman. No doubt, a man has married a woman who rejected the proposal of his brother. What I don’t believe is Seth’s attitude about it. Seth, the poor dear, tells Adam that he loves being around Dinah so much that if he can’t marry her, he’s happy to be a bachelor forever and have her near him as a sister. Nope! Zero. That has never happened. If Seth had moved on and married someone else and regarded his feelings for Dinah as misguided puppy love, I would believe that he would condone the marriage. But, I cannot believe that any person would ever be ok with their brother marrying the one person they feel they could ever love. Just no. The last person to be ok with their brother marrying their one true love would be a younger brother who has spent his whole life in his brother’s shadow.

Let’s look at a parallel fictional example. Lady Edith and Lady Mary. Edith lives in Mary’s shadow. Edith was in love with cousin Whatshisface, the one who died on the Titanic. Mary was supposed to marry him to save the family fortune. Was Edith ok with this? No. She was resentful and so desperate for this dude’s affection that she thought a burnt-faced conman was said dead cousin and kind of fell in love with that weirdo. That was a stupid plot element, but it illustrates my point. Also, Edith fell for other people, because it is unnatural to just never seek out human affection again when the first person you’re into doesn’t feel the same way about you. Unnatural.

I do not generally need faithful realism in a work of fiction. However, I just could not buy into the ending of Adam Bede. George Eliot wants me to believe that Adam marrying Dinah and Seth living as their sad bachelor brother is a happy ending. Nope. My gut churned when Dinah and Adam fell in love. Everybody in that situation needed to find someone else to love. I get that these characters don’t often get out of their small town, but…. Just don’t marry the one person your little brother has ever loved. Just don’t. Please. Don’t.

I should mention that something very controversial happens in this book. Not just Victorian controversial, every time period controversial. Well, I can’t speak to what offended cavepeople, but if anything did, probably this thing would. So, it’s not exactly boring. Also, Eliot is a great writer. Every unlikable element of Adam Bede is beautifully written.

You might like Adam Bede if:

  • you are not a feminist
  • you’re a feminist who’s pretty good at shaking off misogynist statements
  • you like George Eliot’s other novels
  • I mean, it’s a well-written book. If the stuff I mentioned wouldn’t bother you and you generally like Victorian fiction, it’s a pretty darn good book. I hope you do read it and like it. It’s not for me, but I’d be perfectly happy to hear that someone else enjoyed it.

You might not like Adam Bede if:

  • the Bartle Massey quote above made your gorge rise.

Final Thoughts: My final thought is a message for Bartle Massey:

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An Open Letter to Maggie Tulliver

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The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot, 1860

Oh, Maggie Tulliver. Mag, Mags, Magsy. Oh, Magpie. If only…. You shouldn’a…. It’s not your fault. Not like this!

In the long history of misunderstood literary youths, you are the least understood.

You just couldn’t do your gender roles, you poor, stubborn, affectionate thing.

If only your brother had your brains. If only women were allowed to exercise their mental capacities . If only your parents weren’t donkey-brained fools. They should have appreciated you, Magster. Everyone should have appreciated you.

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I’m sorry Phillip pulled that friend-zone nonsense on you. I’m sorry about what went down with your cousin’s fiancé. I’m sorry your brother was such a bully. You still loved him. More than he deserved. I’m sorry Victorian society had such strange and unreasonable expectations about female sexual purity. I’m sorry everybody always assumed the worst of you.

I wish you hadn’t done the honorable thing. It caused a lot of pain for a lot of people. I know you were sticking to your principles. Couldn’t you have compromised a little? Sometimes you just have to get by in society. It doesn’t feel good, but you do what’s required sometimes. Just to avoid causing a big painful kerfuffle. You got everybody all kerfuffled. I respect you though. So much. You always did your best.

I’m especially sorry about how things ended for you. I guess you’re probably ok with…that thing that happened, but I’m not. I’m not satisfied with your ending at all.

You were worth the whole damn lot of them. That’s a reference to a book published eighty years after your book.

Nothing ever went your way.

Just know you found the perfect love you craved in the hearts of your readers even if your author wrote you a crappy ending.

Love,

Sydney

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