Thursday, April 01, 2010

Savonarola's end

I have finished Eliot's Romola. One of its criticisms, and a reason that it is not considered one of her major novels, is that her fictional characters are overwhelmed by the political and historical character of the novel. Girolamo Savonarola dominates the last third. The heroine Romola has come under his bracing influence in the wake of her miserable marriage; her husband's numerous betrayals include plotting against the infamous prophet; and the last act of the novel concerns the events that lead to his excommunication and public execution for heresy.

Eliot examines minutely, not only Romola's crisis of faith as her moral compass fails her in a very public way, but also Savonarola's failure to live up to his fiery sermonizing. Was he a poser or was he in earnest? He had declared to the people that God would intercede on his behalf to prove his prophecies were true. The people took him at his word. And when he ran afoul of the Pope, whose corruption he excoriated, his followers were eager to witness Savonarola's miraculous rescue when subjected to a trial by fire. Unfortunately, he was not so convinced:

Not that Savonarola had uttered and written a falsity when he declared his belief in a future supernatural attestation of his work; but his mind was so constituted that while it was easy for him to believe in a miracle which, being distant and undefined, was screened behind the strong reasons he saw for its occurrence, and yet easier for him to have a belief in inward intuitions; it was at the same time insurmountably difficult to him to believe in the probability of a miracle which, like this of being carried unhurt through the fire, pressed in all its details on his imagination and involved a demand not only for belief but for exceptional action.

Eliot investigates the psychological burden of a figure such as Savonarola, neither condemning him entirely, or holding him up as a martyr. This is the dilemma Romola faces; she has invested in Savonarola's message of purity and goodness as an example for her own life, when she had nothing more to cling to, but when faced with having that last belief stripped away, where does that leave her? Here is her (and Eliot's) humane and compassionate conclusion:

Whatever falsehood there had been in him, had been a fall and not a purpose; a gradual entanglement in which he struggled, not a contrivance encouraged by success.
In Eliot's progress as a writer Romola occupies the space between her earlier triumphs (Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss) and her later masterpieces (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda). I'm glad to have filled this gap. I can definitely see the more refined expressions of ideas she explored in Romola that turned up in more artful ways in the latter two novels, particularly Deronda. Romola, almost too saintly in her suffering, becomes the more deeply flawed, yet still beautiful, Gwendolyn Harleth in Deronda, with Daniel assuming Savonarola's role of moral compass for her even as he struggles with his own mysterious identity and mission as a Jew in Victorian Britain.

It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which as been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness. (Daniel Deronda)