Of her novels, George Eliot once said, Romola stood out as “having been written with my best blood.” This is a revealing statement coming from the author of Middlemarch (1871-1872) and The Mill on the Floss (1860), novels considered by most critics to be superior works. Why did Eliot shower Romola with such high praise? Romola is Eliot’s most ambitious historical novel. Readers find themselves transported back to fifteenth century Florence, where politics and religion intermingle; this is illustrated by the expulsion of the Medicis from power, an act in part inspired by the fervent preaching of Fra Girolamo Savonarola. Eliot spent many months studying Florentine history, both at home and during a trip to Italy in 1861. Her research resulted in a solid and reliable account of the period the novel portrays. Unfortunately, her meticulous attention to detail sometimes makes for cumbersome and difficult prose.
In addition to the painstaking re-creation of Italian history, Eliot presents her readers with a cast of both fictional and historical characters. One of her most intriguing creations is Tito Melema, the young man who quickly curries favor with the Florentine elite. No other Eliot character manifests the selfishness and deceit of Tito, a man with great personal charm. His unmatched skills in manipulating people, language, and politics drive the plot forward and provide the reader with a fascinating study of the devastating effects of rationalization and egotism.
In apparent contrast to the fictional Tito, Eliot portrays the historical Fra Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar whose calls for reform captivated Florence from 1491 to 1498. Savonarola is also a man of great charisma and influence, whose moral convictions are revealed by his religious zeal. Savonarola believes that God is working through him, carrying out heavenly justice through a human channel. Unlike Tito, Savonarola acts with the best of intentions, but he too is unwilling to contemplate the effects of his deeds. Consequently, Tito and Savonarola are revealed to be cut from the same moral cloth. Both men misuse their power and breed mistrust in those who rely on their judgment. Together, these characters offer a rich resource for reflection on questions of intentionality, morality, human will, and the appropriate use of political power.
(The entire section is 979 words.)