This is the last book I picked up for the (now thankfully finished) essay on mid-Victorian zealous clergymen. And there can’t be many more zealous than Fra Girolamo Savonarola.
Romola is the story of the eponymous Romola, who lives in fifteenth-century Florence shortly after the collapse of the Medici dynasty. It was inspired by a trip that Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes took in Florence, during which Lewes read a biography of the (in)famous Savonarola. Savonarola attained huge political power from a city in flux after the death of Lorenzo de Medici, and he looms large in the novel. He has huge sway over the previously-atheist Romola, and convinces her to stay in Florence after she tries to flee the city in a bid to leave her scheming husband Tito. She stays, but doesn’t return to her husband, instead devoting herself to charitable causes. She becomes disilliusioned with Savonarola, though, after his zealousness reaches fever pitch, along with his love of political power. He instigates the famous Bonfire of the Vanities, and denies clemency to Romola’s uncle, who is eventually executed for his part in political dissidence.
While I was having to concentrate on the rise and fall of Savonarola, the novel also has much to say about Romola’s independence as a woman who is surrounded by men trying to influence her: her blind, bitter, demanding father, her husband Tito, Savonarola. She ultimately lives as she chooses, and in that embodies much of Eliot’s fervent belief in women’s (and an individual’s) rights.
Romola is often written off as Eliot’s “least enjoyed” novel, but I think this is unfair. Eliot’s biographer Kathryn Hughes may have referred to the novel’s ‘turgid strangeness’, and others have criticised the amount of perhaps unnecessary detail – the spoils of the year + of research Eliot conducted before she even began to put pen to paper. Indeed, Romola‘s gestation was so prolonged that she broke off to write Silas Marner in the middle of it all.
I enjoyed Romola, the novel which Eliot famously ‘began as a young woman and finished as an old woman’, and at some point I intend to read the novel again without having to concentrate on one particular thread because of study. While it is, yes, very different to her early novels, it certainly presages her masterpiece Middlemarch in terms of the level of psychological investigation of her characters. I have read that there are also stylistic echoes of Romola in Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, but since I haven’t read that I have no idea whether it’s true. Perhaps someone could tell me?
Don’t be put off by the negativity that seems to surround this novel. I’m not saying that it is always a breeze to read as some of the detail feels quite microscopic, but it’s a very worthwhile experience. Standing back after having finished reading Romola I can see it for the grand achievement that it is; a broad epic, endlessly fulfilling. Give it a shot.