Critical Evaluation

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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.

In distinction to Tito and Savonarola stand the two main female characters in the book, Tessa and Romola. Tessa, in particular, seems to represent traits commonly associated with femininity in the nineteenth century. She is beautiful, naïve, and uneducated, and she easily falls prey to the charming and unscrupulous Tito. Unlike Tito, for whom every situation is an opportunity to deceive, Tessa takes everything literally. She is unable to see beyond appearances.

In contrast, Romola is educated and poised but lacks life experience. Like Tessa, Romola is seduced by Tito’s magnetism. Unlike Tessa, however, Romola is attracted to Tito’s worldliness and scholarly capabilities. He is a man who can understand her dedication to intellectual pursuits. Both Romola and Tessa experience the same disrespectful treatment from Tito and from their culture at large. Only Romola, however, is aware of the strictures placed on her because of her sex. Tessa is happy to perform the duties of wife and mother; Romola chafes under the prohibitions that forbid her to follow her father’s path. Romola is continually ignored or punished by a society that refuses to listen to her or take her seriously. She shares with Eliot’s other heroines (for example Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch and Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss) a sense of estrangement from her culture.

This particular aspect of the novel—its presentation of an autonomous and capable...

(This entire section contains 979 words.)

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woman repressed and alienated by her culture—led many of the novel’s critics to reprimand its author for using a fifteenth century setting to discuss nineteenth century problems. The historical setting provided Eliot with a contrast that allowed the reader to see with clarity that fifteenth century restrictions were quite relevant to the situation of women in the nineteenth century. Medieval Florence provided Eliot with the perfect opportunity not only to explore and instruct with regard to women’s capabilities but also to illustrate the educational value of history.

The use of history as an instructional guide in Romola has led many critics to argue that this work contains Eliot’s expression of a nineteenth century philosophy known as positivism. Developed by the French thinker Auguste Comte, positivism espouses the idea that in its growth and development over time, human society has participated in a moral evolution. According to Comte, in the manner that a child grows and learns to develop a sophisticated moral sense, so do cultures. From this perspective, fifteenth century Florence represents the painful transition from societal childhood to maturity. Romola represents this broader change, beginning the novel with a childish naïveté that grows into a moral sense that surpasses even that of the most devoted Christians. Taught the necessity of blind obedience to external authority, Romola struggles throughout the novel to discover her own inner strength and moral vision. Romola’s efforts to use her intellect in service of others and to develop a sense of moral duty without God form a major theme in the novel.

Although Romola—with its blend of history and fiction along with thematic explorations of egoism and piety, religious mysticism and political intrigue, and duty and rebellion—is a grand artistic achievement, the novel’s critical reception has been less than enthusiastic. Outside the English milieu that is more typical of her work, Eliot seems to lose, among the years that separate her from her subject, some of the acerbic wit and shrewd insight that characterize her other novels. However, one may say that it is precisely because Eliot attempted to create a work that would embody the philosophical, literary, and historical ideals she valued that she regarded Romola as one of her best works.