Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More from Romola

I'll be the first to admit George Eliot is not for everyone. As a rule, she does not write short novels; she doesn't cut to the chase or read like a screenplay. She unwinds one flowing sentence after another, building by slow accretion a character's rich psychological profile. Step by step, the plot unfolds, motivations are explored, the fates of the players are intertwined, and never, never is Eliot in a rush to make things happen.

So, you have to enjoy the subtle beauties of her language, the shadings, the foreshadowings, the drift of fine detail that creates an entire imaginative world. But then. Where everything has been advancing tick-tock, tick-tock, there comes a point when it all accelerates, the tensions that have been hinted at before suddenly intensify, and for me at least, the decorously-paced story becomes the page-turner. Or, as I said to my husband in much less refined terms, the shit really hits the fan. I'm just past that point now. Not only are the fictional characters headed for reversals, but the historical ones are as well. Now the revolutionary leader Savonarola -- the crusading Domenican priest Fra Girolamo -- is coming to power in Florence after the downfall of the Medeci's in the French-Italian wars. There will be book-burnings and there will be blood!

One of the chapters just finished is called, "A Supper in the Rucellai Gardens." Tito Melema, husband of the titular beauty Romola, continues his downward spiral into lies and betrayal, just as his political star is rising in the new power structure of Florence after the Medeci have been expelled. He is dining with the most powerful men in Florence, while at the same time being confronted by the one man who knows all of his darkest secrets and who seeks to expose him. Here, we come to another of Eliot's uncanny strengths: as a Victorian woman writing about fifteenth century Florence, she possesses a peculiarly timeless understanding of what makes people tick.

See if any of this sounds familiar: a young, handsome, silver-tongued politician on the rise, seems outwardly devoted to his wife, but in fact has betrayed her and fathered a child out of wedlock, and now faces exposure and disgrace. He is willing to say or do anything to weasel out of it. Also, a cynical political party, currently out of favor, is willing to latch on to a popular conservative movement led by an evangelical to retain their grip on power. (Georgie girl, I hope you're getting a load of this.)

I could quote the entire chapter, but of course, that's not feasible, so I'll just pick out a bit of it for your amusement. The Frate is the conservative priest, Girolamo Savonarola, and this comes from the speech of one of the richest men in Florence to his cronies:

"We might have done without the fear of God and the reform of morals being passed by a majority of black beans; but that excellent proposition, that our Medicean heads should be allowed to remain comfortably on our shoulders, and that we should not be obliged to hand over our property in fines, has my warm approval.

"...And, for my part, I see clearly enough that the only safe and wise policy for us Mediceans to pursue is to throw our strength into the scale of the Frate's party. We are not strong enough to make head on our own behalf; and if the Frate and the popular party were upset, every one who hears me knows perfectly well what other party would be uppermost just now....

"A wise dissimulation," he went on, "is the only course for moderate, rational men in times of violent party feeling. I need hardly tell this company what are my real political attachments... This theory of the Frate's, that we are to have a popular government, in which every man is to strive for the general good, and know no party names, is a theory that may do for some isle of Cristoforo Colombo's finding, but will never do for our fine old quarrelsome Florence....the best thing we can all do will be to keep the Frate's flag flying, for if any other were to be hoisted just now it would be a black flag for us."

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Picking a favorite author feels like picking a favorite child -- you feel a little slighting toward the others, but in your heart of hearts, there is the one. For me, that is George Eliot. While it used to be the case that Silas Marner was assigned in high school English classes, it was not in mine. (Our novels junior and senior year were instead The Scarlet Letter and Animal Farm. It was a less savage age when we had not yet completely given up on and betrayed our youth by assigning Dean Koontz and Anne Rice, as if the origins of those authors had never existed. But I digress.)

I didn't encounter Eliot until my college course on the Rise of the Novel, in which we read many books of formidable length, including Middlemarch. In fact, this is the same course in which I was supposed to have read Bleak House, and as recorded in this blog, finally finished it a mere 25 years later! As word-addled as I was between the Fielding, Eliot, Dickens, James, Sterne, et al. (confession: I never finished Tristram Shandy either; yes, it's on the repair list), I was engaged by Middlemarch. It wasn't just that I liked it, I admired it; it was so grand, so serious, and instead of being weighed down by its own substance, it was a fascinating, romantic story. I don't think anyone has ever taken such an intense look into the moral lives of her characters. And George Eliot was very concerned with moral decisions. She herself struggled with and ultimately rejected Anglicanism, and as a religious skeptic, she investigated the impulses that drove men and women to the acts that would either destroy them or settle them in an enlightened, useful, and happy life.

Since my first introduction, I've read through most of the Eliot oeuvre, including some of the short fiction, poetry, and her letters. Of the novels, only two remain for me -- Felix Holt and Romola, and I've just begun the latter, which is set in Florence, Italy in 1492. It is a departure for her; her other novels are set in her own Victorian time period, in England. This novel is an expression of her ambition and classical learning, a foray into historical fiction that most critics have numbered among her less successful attempts. Having just started, I can say only that it is awe-inspiring in its erudition. Oh, she delights in throwing around the Latin and Italian phrases, as well as her knowledge of classical literature, including Greek. This may not make for an engrossing novel on the level of Adam Bede, but it has its own charms.

Here, she describes the slow, moral descent of one of the novel's main characters in her wonderfully meticulous dissection of human frailty:

When, the next morning, Tito put this determination into act he had chosen his colour in the game, and had given an inevitable bent to his wishes. He had made it impossible that he should not from henceforth desire it to be the truth that his father was dead; impossible that he should not be tempted to baseness rather than that the precise facts of his conduct should not remain for ever concealed.

Under every guilty secret there is hidden a brood of guilty wishes, whose unwholesome infecting life is cherished by the darkness. The contaminating effect of deeds often lies less in the commission than in the consequent adjustment of our desires -- the enlistment of our self interest on the side of falsity; as on the other hand, the purifying influence of public confession springs from the fact, that by it the hope in lies is for ever swept away, and the soul recovers the noble attitude of simplicity.