The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 27. Romola

“I began Romola,” she writes, a young woman—I finished it an old woman.” In whatever sense this saying is to be accepted, it shows how she had consciously and consistently contemplated this work as a labour of years, and how she had been led to the writing of it by something besides a vast variety of study in political and ecclesiastical history, in theology, in political philosophy, in humanistic and artistic lore and in illustrative literature of all kinds. Yet, it is a supreme prerogative of genius to be able to master its material by becoming part of what it has transformed; and George Eliot was never more herself, and never displayed her most distinctive intellectual qualities and moral purposes with more powerful directness than in this, the most elaborate, as well as erudite, of all her literary productions. Romola is one of the most real and lifelike of her prose fictions, and, from this point of view, too, shows itself altogether superior to a novel which it is difficult not to bring into comparison with it, Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia, published about ten years earlier. Both works exhibit the movement of actual life, as well as of deep feeling; but Romola is not less distinguished from the older work by its greater variety and vividness of illustrative detail, than it is by the profounder depth of the human emotions, belonging to no age or scene in particular, which it calls up. For, although Romola may fairly be called a historical novel, it is something at once different from, and more than, this. The book has a right to be so described by virtue of the exhaustive view which it offers of the Florence of its period, of the men who helped to make or mar the fortunes of the republic, of the traditions, usages and notions of the city, of the humours of its festivals and the charms of its gardens, of the types of signoria, mercato, the world of learning and letters and the cloisters of San Marco. The actual historical personages introduced—Machiavelli, king Charles VIII and the rest—are not mere lay figures, but careful studies; and Savonarola himself towers before us, with the well-known facial features in which a likeness, not without reason, has been discovered to George Eliot’s own, while his eloquence is reproduced from his own written discourses. The lesser figures with which the canvas is crowded—the talkers in the barber’s shop and the rest—are, to say the least, as concrete and as lifelike as are any of George Eliot’s English townsfolk or villagers; indeed, she says herself that her desire to give as full a view of the medium in which a character moves as of the character itself actuated her in Romola just as strongly as it did in The Mill on the Floss and in her other books; but that the excess of this was, naturally, more perceptible in the former instance. The wonderfully fine proem almost leads us to suppose that it is the opening to a historical novel, of which Florence itself will prove to be the main theme. Yet, the whole of these surroundings, to use George Eliot’s word, form only the “medium,” or milieu, of the action—of Savonarola himself as well as of his beloved Florence; and the action itself is, once more, the struggle through which fate, circumstance, place, time and the individualities—her father, her husband and the rest—brought into contact with her own individuality compel a noble-natured woman to pass before she can reconcile herself to her lot in the consciousness of having striven for what is great and good. The evolution thus accomplished is a process of which the human interest pervades, but at the same time transcends, all its rich political, religious and literary envelopment. The piety of Romola, her maiden devotion to the service of her father and the studies which he loves, cannot, we know, circumscribe the life of one created, like herself, for the performance of the highest duties of womanhood. And so she falls in love with Tito—beautiful and clever and gifted with the adaptability which belongs to the lower scholarship, as it does to the lower statesmanship, of life, and which, if combined with an unflinching and unyielding “improbity” of purpose, often comes near to brilliant success. There may be points and passages—beginning with his mock marriage to Tessa—in which the cruelty of Tito’s selfishness is beyond bearing; but the hardening of his heart is told with fidelity to nature. It may be added that, although the construction of the story is not open to the charge of artificiality (and the Baldassare byplot is quite in accordance with historical probability), fateful meetings and lucky escapes from meetings are too liberally distributed over the surface of the action. But, as the novel runs along what, apart from mere details, may be truly described as its majestic course, Romola herself rises to the height of the problems which she is called upon to confront—problems of public and private duty, which her spiritual guide, Savonarola, refused to allow her to treat as distinct from one another. The hopes and fears of her fellow-citizens may shrink from the friar, when his position, gradually undermined, begins to give way; when the plague takes the heart out of the people; and when the church drives him out of her communion; but neither plague nor papal thunder has terrors for her free and exalted soul, and she has not ceased to trust in the prophet because he has become rebel. In her personal experiences, she passes through a not dissimilar evolution. The tragic sorrow of her utter isolation seems, at last, to have descended upon her hopelessly, and, through the blue waters, she drifts away from all that was near and dear to her. But, like her boat, her lofty soul finds its way into harbour. To the villagers among whom she landed she left beyond her the legend of the beneficient Madonna’s visit; to herself, there remained the resolve to hold herself on the highest level of self-sacrifice possible to her, tending the children of her twice faithless husband, and leaving all else in the hands of God. Thus, while Tito had fallen, because, of the earth earthy, he could not, with all his beauty and learning and wit, rise above himself, Romola stands erect, though with bowed head. The variegated brilliancy of the setting which dazzles us in this wonderful novel thus melts, at its close, into a soft diffusion of the purest light.