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Romola by George Eliot


by George Eliot

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Eliot leaves England for Romola, and back some 350 years to 15th century Florence, and tells a story about love and betrayal, revenge and forgiveness. It will never be as popular as her other novels, but it deserves attention as it was a novel that Eliot believed in and spent a great deal of time and effort in crafting it.

Romola de'Bardi has lived a quiet, studious life with her father, a classics scholar whose gone blind. Her brother deserted her atheist father to become a monk and she must provide the support he needs to complete his work and help ensure that her father's collection is donated, intact, for the public good of the city. Their life is shaken when the young and handsome Tito Melema shows up at their door and agrees to help. In fact, Tito is agreeable to everyone, and quickly becomes an indispensable part of the political and academic communities. Of course, he has a terrible secret that could destroy his reputation.

The Florence of the renaissance is brought to vivid life in these pages, the death of Lorenzo de Medici "the Magnificent", the reign of Savonrola, conversations with Machiavelli and other scholars abound. That is only the setting, however instructive it is, the meat of the story is the conflict of the upright Romola with Tito Melema, whose original deceit is compounded by guilt and fear until he becomes entirely selfish and heartless. Romola, educated by her father, is a rarity in her world, and has to struggle alone to do what she believes to be right. Her beliefs are challenged and she is full of doubts for much of the novel. This was a long, thickly detailed novel, less passionate than her earlier novels, but makes up for it with clean prose and commitment to the period.

This novel would have ranked with The Mill on the Floss or Adam Bede, but the ending was a trifle underwhelming, I wasn't sure what I would have preferred instead though. I suppose the ending was fine. My sole problem then is that we had taken this long journey through Renaissance Florence and Romola had gone through so much suffering, had even chosen to suffer. Then she finally does escape her marriage and Florence without getting guilt-tripped into turning around, and she ends up becoming a vision of the Madonna to a plague-stricken village. That aside, the novel is worthwhile, with little that detracts from the experience. A great experiment and important, too, because without the struggle of this novel she likely would not have written Middlemarch. ( )
  ManWithAnAgenda | Feb 18, 2019 |
Under every guilty secret there is hidden a brood of guilty wishes, whose unwholesome infecting life is cherished by the darkness.

I chose to read Romola for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge as my "Classic set in a place you'd like to visit." The story takes place in Florence, Italy, which is one of my bucket-list destinations. Written by George Eliot in 1863, Romola transports the reader to Florence in 1492, where the main characters rub elbows with Niccolo Machiavelli, Girolamo Savonarola, members of the Medici family, and other historical figures of the time.

Tito Melema, a handsome young Greek scholar, finds himself in Florence after being shipwrecked. As he tries to work his way up the social and political ladder he meets Romola, the beautiful daughter of one of Florence's most distinguished scholars, Bardo de Bardi. But Tito is haunted by the knowledge that his adoptive father may have survived the shipwreck, and he is torn between the desire to succeed and his filial duty to search for his father. Romola knows knows nothing of Tito's past or of his plans to undercut her father's dying wish. Their story plays out against the backdrop of Renaissance Italy and its religious and political upheaval.

Romola is well worth a read, especially for those who enjoy Victorian literature and/or historical fiction. I particularly enjoyed the Florentine setting and Romola's efforts to deal with Tito's bad decisions. The characters are complex and interesting, and their dilemmas and conflicts are universal.

I didn't know much about the time period before I started the book, and I think that hindered my enjoyment and understanding of the novel. While I did enjoy Romola, I would have appreciated it a lot more if the notes in my Modern Library Kindle edition would have been linked to the text. There were dozens of historical notes that I didn't read simply because navigating to them without an internal hyperlink was too cumbersome and time consuming. So while I recommend Romola the book, I do not recommend the Modern Library Kindle edition. If you read it, get yourself a copy in print or an ebook with links to the notes. ( )
  nsenger | Nov 12, 2017 |
need to upload cover
  jkdavies | Jun 14, 2016 |
A nice, well researched historical renaissance novel with Victorian touch. Everything that you expect from good historical fiction: A couple of historical characters to google, great personal adventures and tragedies in a very real setting.

Romola as such is ofcourse perhaps a bit too well off with access to education and privileges, but Eliot hardly tries to hide the links to 1850's struggles between religion, traditional values and earthly lusts and pleasures. ( )
  Kindnist85 | May 25, 2016 |
700 pages is a long way to go for three stars.

The time period is 1492-1498 Florence, where political winds are shifting and various factions are vying for power – the old guard Mediceans, the religious reformers under priest and fiery orator Savonarola, and the Arrabbiati, those who would put pleasure first. There are several historical figures who make cameos but it’s Savonarola’s struggles with corrupt Pope Alexander VI (perhaps known to the reader from history or from the Showtime series The Borgias :) and his desire to purify Florence through the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ that is the main focus of the ‘historical fiction’ aspect of the book, carrying on to his ultimate execution.

Eliot interweaves this with the fictional story of Tito Melema, an educated young Greek, new to Florence but who quickly immerses himself into its politics. He is pleasant enough on the surface, but commits unpardonable acts against his own father, who he leaves in slavery, a young girl, who he deceives in a sham marriage, and Romola, his real wife, who he betrays not only by having a ‘wife’ on the side, but also by selling his father-in-law’s library when he dies, counter to the man’s final wishes and Tito’s promises. He also slickly plays on all of the political ‘teams’, maneuvering so that he’ll be successful regardless of whoever comes out on top.

It’s when his evil is revealed to the reader’s horror, and when it’s placed side by side with Romola, a sweet, smart young woman who has a strong sense of filial duty, a commitment to marriage, and a natural inclination to help the poor and downtrodden, that the novel is most successful. The scenes between the two, while few and far between, are electric.

However, my goodness, their relationship is so mired in the density of the book that I can’t possibly imagine a higher rating. Eliot clearly did a lot of research, but loads up too much of the first parts of the novel with the results of that, as well as an onslaught of Italian words and phrases, to the book’s detriment. She does explain the political maneuvering reasonably well, and it’s not a question of getting lost in the characters, but she’s tedious in her delivery. There are convenient coincidences in the plot that I forgive as being common to 19th century literature, but the plot meanders and in my view the book is just not well executed, certainly nowhere near her classic ‘Middlemarch’, or other historical fiction tomes, such as ‘War and Peace’.

If you’re an Eliot fan, interested in the time period, or just like the challenge of getting through giant books (all of which are true for me btw :), you may like Romola; otherwise, you should probably look elsewhere.

On man’s search for meaning, which is timeless. Wow, and on page one, loved this:
“And as the faint light of his course pierced into the dwellings of men, it fell, as now, on the rosy warmth of nestling children; on the haggard waking of sorrow and sickness; on the hasty uprising of the hard-handed labourer; and on the late sleep of the night-student, who had been questioning the stars or the sages, or his own soul, for that hidden knowledge which would break through the barrier of man’s brief life, and show its dark path, that seemed to bend no whither, to be an arc in an immeasurable circle of light and glory. The great river-courses which have shaped the lives of men have hardly changed; and those other streams, the life-currents that ebb and flow in human hearts, pulsate to the same great needs, the same great loves and terrors. As our thought follows close in the slow wake of the dawn, we are impressed with the broad sameness of the human lot, which never alters in the main headings of its history – hunger and labour, seed-time and harvest, love and death.”

On lying:
“But he had borrowed from the terrible usurer Falsehood, and the loan had mounted and mounted with the years, till he belonged to the usurer, body and soul.”

On marriage:
“Romola had an energy of her own which thwarted his, and no man, who is not exceptionally feeble, will endure being thwarted by his wife. Marriage must be a relation either of sympathy or of conquest.”

On old age:
“I think all lines of the human face have something either touching or grand, unless they seem to come from low passions. How fine old men are, like my godfather! Why should not old women look grand and simple?”

On selflessness:
“There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world, that no man can be great – he can hardly keep himself from wickedness – unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards, and gets strength to endure what is hard and painful.”

No connection to the previous book! Maybe it took so long to get through this that I forgot the previous book. :) Maybe it’s a sign to stop pointing out the connections. ( )
1 vote gbill | May 16, 2015 |
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1862 ( [1862, 1864])
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The Loggia de'Cerchi stood in the heart of old Florence, within a labyrinth of narrow streets behind the Badia, now rarely threaded by the stranger, unless in a dubious search for a certain severely simple door place, bearing this inscription :—

Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never: they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140434704, Paperback)

'There is no book of mine about which I more thoroughly feel that I swear by every sentence as having been written with my best blood'

Wrote George Eliot of Romola, the novel which argues her most profound and utopian vision of the position of women. Romola's patient subservience to her scholar-father Bardo, her unhappy marriage to supple and treacherous Tito, and her passionate intellectual and spiritual awakening take place in Renaissance Florence which, like Victorian Britain, was caught up in a period of ferment and transition.

Romola appeared in 1862-3 to high praise by Victorians from Tennyson and Trollope to Henry James, and discerning modern readers will recognize it as George Eliot's first mature masterpiece. In her introduction to this new edition, Dorothea Barrett explores the issues of gender and learning, desire and scholarship, and the interweaving of history and fiction which she identifies at the centre of the novel.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:23 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

One of George Eliot's most ambitious and imaginative novels, 'Romola' is set in Renaissance Florence during the turbulent years following the expulsion of the powerful Medici family when the zealous religious reformer Savonarola rose to control the city. Described by Eliot as 'written with my best blood', the story of Romola's intellectual and spiritual awakening is a compelling portrayal of a Utopian heroine. In her introduction, Dorothea Barrett examines George Eliot's life and literary career, and issues of gender, language and history.… (more)

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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