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.