Almost nobody has a good word to say for Romola, George Eliot’s fourth full-length novel: a historical romance set in 15th century Florence.
I admire Eliot so much that I ignored all warnings, downloaded the enormous thing from Audible.com, and took notes with a view to defying the conventional wisdom.
I got a little more than half way through the book before I finally had to quit, beaten into submission to the majority view: Romola is boring and silly – Eliot’s one grand debacle as a writer.
How could a writer as great as Eliot have failed so miserably? Some thoughts …
Eliot painstakingly researched Romola - and unfortunately that research seems to have overwhelmed her. She may have been misled by the example of Victor Hugo, who set his Hunchback of Notre Dame in approximately the same period. But whereas Hugo conjured up a vanished world and taught his contemporaries to appreciate the beauty of art and architecture that they despised, Eliot depicted a city that was still substantially standing – and with which 19th century English tourists were already infatuated. Result: vast tracts of her book read like a worshipful guidebook, liberally seasoned with Italian phrases to flatter herself and her readings with the pleasing feeling of being cognoscenti. (Whoops – I just did it myself. Sorry, signori.)
This superabundance of research into a subject without real novelty for her audience imbues Romola with a weird pastiche travelogue quality: “Now we are traversing the Palazzo Vecchio in the direction of the Duomo. Why here comes young Niccolo Macchiavelli! What a prince of a fellow! Hello, Nick!”
Eliot seems to have exhaustively studied the built environment of Renaissance Florence. The clothes, the style of writing, the political controversies of the day – all depicted in minute detail. But for all her antiquarian care for external details, the personalities in Romola think and talk exactly as do all her other characters: like mid-Victorian Englishpeople.
I cherish Eliot precisely because she is so wholly a person of her time – a time I happen to admire a great deal as it happens. She epitomizes the moral seriousness and the intellectual ambition of her moment. But precisely because she is of her moment, she rings false when she tries to inhabit other moments – and Romola rings very false indeed.
There’s an endless debate about “human nature” – is it variant or unchanging? The proper conservative position is that it does not change, and in many respects this conservative position is of course correct.
And yet as my reading eye wanders the corridors and archives of past human experience, I personally am more struck by how radically human beings differ from time to time and place to place. That is I suppose why classical antiquity, the Greeks and Romans, is so endlessly fascinating: Here are people who seem in so many ways so much like us … until they bring you up short with some clanging reminder of how weird, alien, and even uncanny they are.
My friend Jim Bowman wrote a fascinating book some years ago on the concept of “honor.” Here is a human attribute so indispensable, so absolutely vital that men would kill and die for it. Today, it has almost completely vanished. Jim at one point quotes from Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor novels. Two British World War II officers are discussing dueling. One observes that if they had been challenged to a duel 200 years before, they would have had to fight. Now if anybody challenged them, they would simply laugh.
The human mental universe changes. These changes are hard to recognize at any given time, because we project our own conceptions backward upon the past. Thus, when Showtime creates a series like “The Tudors” that depicts the people of 500 years ago as secular-minded hedonists like ourselves the result seems to many of us convincing enough. “Yes, they could have been just like that!” – and Henry VIII’s religious writings a trivial side interest, like watch collecting or card games.
But after another stretch of time, in which human behavior and expectations change again, Showtimes “Tudors” will cease to look like generic human beings and begin to look exactly what they are: the fantasies of one epoch projected back upon another. If anyone should happen to see the series in say 2250 they will be struck: how could anyone ever have imagined that wrapping a gangsta wrapper in 16th century costume would seem anything other than absurd?
Romola suffers the same problem. The heroine is another of Eliot’s serious minded young women whose lack of worldly vocation propels her into dangerously self-abnegating love – like Maggie Tulliver, Esther Lyon, and most famously Dorothea Brooke. The moral dilemma faced by the anti-hero Tito Melema is again the classic Eliotic dilemma: self-aggrandizement or obligation to others? Romola’s aged father is a prototype of another abstractedly selfish pedant, Edward Causobon.
Cram the book with historical incident and historical personality as Eliot will, she cannot save it from ringing false. She was who she was, she wrote what she knew, and when she reached further she betrayed her talent. Her greatness as an artist comes from the intensity of her perceptions rather than their breadth.