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George Eliot. Blind, Mathilde, 1841–1896.
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page: 148



‘ROMOLA’ marks a new departure in George Eliot's literary career. From the present she turned to the past, from the native to the foreign, from the domestic to the historical. Yet in thus shifting her subject-matter, she did not alter the strongly-pronounced tendencies underlying her earlier novels; there was more of spontaneous, humorous description of life in the latter, whereas in ‘Romola’ the ethical teaching which forms so prominent a feature of George Eliot's art, though the same in essence, was more distinctly wrought out. Touching on this very point, she observes in a letter to an American correspondent: “It is perhaps less irrelevant to say, apropos of a distinction you seem to make between my earlier and later works, that though I trust there is some growth in my appreciation of others and in my self-distrust, there has been no change in the point of view from which I regard our life since I wrote my first fiction, the ‘Scenes of Clerical Life.’ Any apparent change of spirit must be due to something of which I am unconscious. The principles which are at the root of my effort to paint Dinah Morris are equally at the root of my effort to paint Mordecai.”

The first section of ‘Romola’ appeared in the page: 149 Cornhill Magazine for the summer of 1862, and, running its course in that popular periodical, was finished in the summer of the following year. Mr. Lewes, in a letter writen from 16 Blandford Square, July 5, 1862, to some old friends of George Eliot, makes the following remarks in reference to this new form of publication: “My main object in persuading her to consent to serial publication, was not the unheard-of magnificence of the offer, but the advantage to such a work of being read slowly and deliberately, instead of being galloped through in three volumes. I think it quite unique, and so will the public when it gets over the first feeling of surprise and disappointment at the book not being English, and like its predecessor.” And some time afterwards he wrote to the same friends: “Marian lives entirely in the fifteenth century, and is much cheered every now and then by hearing indirectly how her book is appreciated by the higher class of minds, and some of the highest; though it is not, and cannot be popular. In Florence we hear they are wild with delight and surprise at such a work being executed by a foreigner; as if an Italian had ever done anything of the kind!”

Before writing ‘Romola’ George Eliot had spent six weeks in Florence in order to familiarise herself with the manners and conversation of its inhabitants, and yet she hardly caught the trick of Italian speech, and for some time afterwards she hung back from beginning her story, as her characters not only refused to speak Italian to her, but would not speak at all, as we can well imagine Mrs. Poyser, Bartle Massey, and Maggie to have done. These recalcitrant spirits were at last brought to order, and she succeeded so well, especially in her delineation of the lower classes, page: 150 that they have been recognised by Italians as true to the life.

It should, however, be mentioned that the greatest modern Italian, Giuseppe Mazzini, found fault with the handling, and, indeed, with the introduction into this novel of the great figure of Savonarola. He considered that it compared unfavourably with ‘Adam Bede,’ a novel he genuinely admired, all but the marriage of Adam with Dinah Morris, which, he said, shocked his feelings, not having any conception that the taste of the novel-reading public demands a happy ending whatever may have been the previous course of the three volumes. Another illustrious man, D.G. Rossetti, whose judgment on such a subject carries peculiar weight, considered George Eliot to have been much less successful in ‘Romola’ than in her novels of English country life. He did not think that the tone and colour of Italian life in the fifteenth century were caught with that intuitive perception of a bygone age characteristic of a Walter Scott or a Meinhold. The Florentine contemporaries of “Fra Girolamo” seemed to him Nineteenth Century men and women dressed up in the costume of the Fifteenth. The book, to use his expression, was not “native.”

It is a majestic book, however: the most grandly planned of George Eliot's novels. It has a certain architectural dignity of structure, quite in keeping with its Italian nationality, a quality, by the way, entirely absent from the three later novels. The impressive historical background is not unlike one of Mr. Irving's magnificently wrought Italian stage-effects, rich in movement and colour, yet helping to throw the chief figures into greater relief. The page: 151 erudition shown in this work; the vast yet minute acquaintance with the habits of thought, the manners, the very talk of the Florentines of that day are truly surprising; but perhaps the very fact of that erudition being so perceptible shows that the material has not been absolutely vitalised. The amount of labour George Eliot expended on ‘Romola’ was so great, that it was the book which, she remarked to a friend, “she began a young woman and ended an old one.” The deep impression her works had made upon the public mind heightened her natural conscientiousness, and her gratitude for the confidence with which each fresh contribution from her pen was received, increased her anxiety to wield her influence for the highest ends.

But her gratitude to the public by no means extended to the critics. She recoiled from them with the instinctive shrinking of the sensitive plant. These interpreters between author and public were in her eyes a most superfluous modern institution: though at one time she herself had not scorned to sit in the critic's seat. It is well-known that G.H. Lewes acted as a kind of moral screen protecting her from every gust or breath of criticism that was not entirely genial. One lady, after reading ‘The Mill on the Floss,’ had written off in the heat of the moment, and, with the freedom of old friendship, while expressing the warmest admiration for the beauty of the first two volumes, she had ventured to find fault with part of the third. This letter was returned by Lewes, who begged her at the same time never to write again in this strain to George Eliot, to whom he had not ventured to show it for fear it should too painfully affect her. In a letter to the American lady already page: 152 mentioned, George Eliot, after referring to this habit of Mr. Lewes, says: “In this way I get confirmed in my impression that the criticism of any new writing is shifting and untrustworthy. I hardly think that any critic can have so keen a sense of the shortcomings in my works as that I groan under in the course of writing them, and I cannot imagine any edification coming to an author from a sort of reviewing which consists in attributing to him or her unexpressed opinions, and in imagining circumstances which may be alleged as petty private motives for the treatment of subjects which ought to be of general human interest.... I have been led into this rather superfluous sort of remark by the mention of a rule which seemed to require explanation.”

And again on another occasion to the same effect: “But do not expect criticism from me. I hate ‘sitting in the seat of judgment,’ and I would rather impress the public generally with the sense that they may get the best result from a book without necessarily forming an ‘opinion’ about it, than I would rush into stating opinions of my own. The floods of nonsense printed in the form of critical opinions seem to me a chief curse of our times—a chief obstacle to true culture.”

In spite of these severe strictures on the critics and their opinions, an “opinion” must now be given about ‘Romola.’ This novel may really be judged from two entirely different points of view, possibly from others besides, but, as it appears to me, from two. One may consider it as an historical work, with its moving pageants, its civic broils, its church festivals, its religious revival, its fickle populace, now siding with the Pope, and now with the would-be page: 153 reformer of the Papacy. Or again one may regard the conjugal relations between Romola and Tito, the slow spiritual growth of the one, and the swifter moral disintegration of the other, as one of the subtlest studies in psychology in literature.

To turn to the scenic details which form a considerable element of this historical picture, I have already hinted that they are not without a taint of cumbrousness and pedantry. The author seems to move somewhat heavily under her weight of learning, and we miss that splendid natural swiftness and ease of movement which Shakespere, Goethe, and Hugo know how to impart to their crowds and spectacular effects. If, instead of the people, one examines the man who dominated the people, the large, massive, imposing figure of Savonarola, one must admit that the character is very powerfully and faithfully executed but not produced at one throw. He does not take the imagination by storm as he would have done had Carlyle been at his fashioning. With an epithet or two, with a sharp, incisive phrase, the latter would have coinjured the great Dominican from his grave, and we should have seen him, or believed at least that we saw him, as he was in the flesh when his impassioned voice resounded through the Duomo, swaying the hearts of the Florentine people with the force of a great conviction. That he stands out thus tangibly in ‘Romola’ it would be futile to assert: nevertheless, he is a noble, powerful study, although one has laboriously to gather into one's mind the somewhat mechanical descriptions which help to portray his individuality. The idea underlying the working out of this grand character is the same which Goethe had once proposed to himself in his projected, page: 154 but unfortunately never executed, drama of ‘Mahomet.’ It is that of a man of moral genius, who, in solitude and obscurity, has conceived some new, profounder aspect of religious truth, and who, stirred by a sublime devotion, now goes forth among men to bless and regenerate them by teaching them this higher life. But in his contact with the multitude, in his efforts at influencing it, the prophet or preacher is in his turn influenced. If he fails to move by the loftiest means, he will gradually resort to the lower in order to effect his purpose. The purity of his spirit is tarnished, ambition has crept in where holiness reigned, and his perfect rectitude of purpose will be sacrificed so that he may but rule.

Such are the opposing tendencies co-existing in Savonarola's mixed but lofty nature. For “that dissidence between inward reality and outward seeming was not the Christian simplicity after which he had striven through years of his youth and prime, and which he had preached as a chief fruit of the Divine life. In the heat and stress of the day, with cheeks burning, with shouts ringing in the ears, who is so blest as to remember the yearnings he had in the cool and silent morning, and know that he has not belied them?” And again: “It was the habit of Savonarola's mind to conceive great things, and to feel that he was the man to do them. Iniquity should be brought low; the cause of justice, purity, and love should triumph, and it should triumph by his voice, by his work, by his blood. In moments of ecstatic contemplation, doubtless, the sense of self melted in the sense of the Unspeakable, and in that part of his experience lay the elements of genuine self-abasement; but in the presence of his fellow-men for whom he page: 155 was to act, pre-eminence seemed a necessary condition of life.” But, as George Eliot says, “Power rose against him, not because of his sins, but because of his greatness; not because he sought to deceive the world, but because he sought to make it noble. And through that greatness of his he endured a double agony; not only the reviling, and the torture, and the death-throe, but the agony of sinking from the visior of glorious achievement into that deep shadow where he could only say, ‘I count as nothing: darkness encompasses me; yet the light I saw was the true light.’”

But after all, in George Eliot's story the chief interest attaching to “Fra Girolamo” consists in his influence on Romola's spiritual growth. This may possibly be a blemish; yet in most novels the fictitious characters eclipse the historical ones. The effect produced by the high-souled Romola is not unlike that of an antique statue, at once splendidly beautiful and imposingly cold. By the side of Tito she reminds one of the pure whiteness of marble sculpture as contrasted with the rich glowing sensuousness of a Venetian picture.

It is difficult to analyse why the proud, loving, single-hearted Romola, who has something of the fierceness and impetuosity of the old “Bardo blood” in her, should leave this impression of coldness; for in spite of her acts of magnanimity and self-devotion, such, curiously enough, is the case. Perhaps in this instance George Eliot modelled the character too much according to a philosophical conception instead of projecting it, complete in its incompleteness, as it might have come from the hand of Nature. Another objection sometimes brought forward, of Romola page: 156 having but little resemblance to an Italian woman of the fifteenth century, seems to me less relevant. The lofty dignity, the pride, the intense adhesion to family traditions were, on the contrary, very marked attributes of a high national type during the period of Italian supremacy. In fact, the character is not without hints and suggestions of such a woman as Vittoria Colonna, while its didactic tendency slightly recalls “those awful women of Italy who held professorial chairs, and were great in civil and canon law.” In one sense Romola is a true child of the Renaissance. Brought up by her father, the enthusiastic old scholar, in pagan ideas, she had remained aloof from Roman Catholic beliefs and superstitions, and even when transformed by the mighty influence of Savonarola into a devoted Piagnone, her attitude always remains more or less that of a Protestant, unwilling to surrender the right of private judgment to the Church.

The clash of character when a woman like Romola finds herself chained in a life-long bond to such a nature as Tito's—the beautiful, wily, insinuating Greek—is wrought out with wonderful skill and matchless subtlety of analysis. Indeed Tito is not only one of George Eliot's most original creations, he is a unique character in fiction. Novelists, as a rule, only depict the full-blown villain or traitor, their virtuous and wicked people being separated from each other by a hard and fast line much like the goats and sheep. They continually treat character as something permanent and unchangeable, whereas to George Eliot it presents itself as an organism flexible by nature, subject to change under varying conditions, liable on the one hand to disease and page: 157 deterioration, but on the other hand no less capable of being rehabilitated, refined, or ennobled. This is one of the most distinctive notes of George Eliot's art, and gives a quickening, fructifying quality to her moral teaching. But it is an artistic no less than a moral gain, sharpening the interest felt in the evolution of her fictitious personages. For this reason Tito, the creature of circumstances, is perhaps the most striking of all her characters in the eyes of the psychologist. We seem to see the very pulse of the human machine laid bare, to see the corroding effect of self-indulgence and dread of pain on a nature not intrinsically wicked, to see at last how, little by little, weakness has led to falsehood, and falsehood to infamy. And yet this creature, who, under our eyes, gradually hardens into crime, is one so richly dowered with rare gifts of person and mind, that in spite of his moral degeneracy, he fascinates the reader no less than the men and women supposed to come into actual contact with him. His beauty is described with the same life-like intensity as Hetty's: the warm glow of colour in his perfectly-moulded face, with its dark curls and long agate-like eyes; his sunny brightness of look, the velvet softness of a manner with which he ingratiates himself with young and old, and the airy buoyancy of his whole gracious being, are as vividly portrayed as the quick talent to which everything comes natural, the abundant good-humour, the acuteness of a polished intellect, whose sharp edge, will, at need, cut relentlessly through every tissue of sentiment.

From Melema's first uneasy debate with himself, when, in his splendid, unsoiled youth, he enters Florence a shipwrecked stranger—a debate, that is, page: 158 as to whether he is bound to go in search of Baldassare, who has been as a father to him—to the moment when his already blunted conscience absolves him from such a search, and again, on to that supreme crisis when, suddenly face to face with his benefactor, he denies him, and so is inevitably urged from one act of baseness and cruelty to another still blacker—we have unfolded before us, by an unshrinking analyzer of human nature, what might not inappropriately be called “A Soul's Tragedy.” The wonderful art in the working out of this character is shown in the fact that one has no positive impression of Tito's innate badness, but, on the contrary, feels as if, after his first lapses from truth and goodness, there is still a possibility of his reforming, if only his soft, pleasure-loving nature were not driven on, almost in spite of himself, by his shuddering dread of shame or suffering in any form. “For,” writes George Eliot, “Tito was experiencing that inexorable law of human souls, that we prepare ourselves for sudden deeds by the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character.”

The description of the married life of Romola and Tito is unsurpassed in George Eliot's novels for subtlety and depth of insight: notably the young wife's fond striving after complete inner harmony, her first, faint, unavowed sense of something wanting, her instinctive efforts to keep fast hold of her love and trust, and her violent, irrevocable recoil on the discovery of Tito's first faithless action. Perhaps there is something cold, almost stern, in Romola's loathing alienation from her husband, and the instantaneous death of her passionate love. One cannot quite hinder the impression that a softer woman might have page: 159 forgiven and won from him a confession of his wrong-doing; a confession which would have averted the committal of his worst and basest deeds. Indeed, it is Tito's awe of his grand, noble wife, and his dread of her judgment, which first of all incite him to prevarication and lies.

It is curious to compare George Sand's theory of love, in this instance, with George Eliot's. In ‘Leon Leoni,’ and in many of her novels besides, the Frenchwoman seems to imply that for a woman to love once is to love always, and that there is nothing so base, or mean, or cruel, but she will forgive the man on whom she has placed her affections. In the story mentioned above she has worked out this idea to an extent which, in many of its details, is simply revolting. Love is there described as a magnetic attraction, unresisted and irresistible, to which the heroine absolutely surrenders pride, reason, and conscience. Just the opposite kind of love is that which we find portrayed in ‘Romola:’ it is a love identical with the fullest belief in the truth and goodness of the beloved object, so that at the first realisation of moral obliquity the repulsion created extinguishes that love, although there is no outward severance of the marriage bond.

This great novel closes with these significant words, which Romola addresses to Lillo, Tito's child, but not her own:

“And so, my Lillo, if you mean to act nobly, and seek to know the best things God has put within reach of man, you must learn to fix your mind on that end, and not on what will happen to you because of it. And remember, if you were to choose something lower, and make it the rule of your life to seek page: 160 your own pleasure and escape from what is disagreeable, calamity might come just the same; and it would be calamity falling on a base mind, which is the one form of sorrow that has no balm in it, and that may well make a man say, ‘It would have been better for me if I had never been born!’”