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George Eliot at 200: revisiting the genius of Romola

George Eliot

Dr Karen Attar celebrates the life of the great Victorian novelist with a recap of  the library’s 1863 edition of Romola, perhaps the least-known and least-read of George Eliot’s novels. 

Why feature Romola in a celebration of the 200th anniversary of George Eliot’s birth? As an historical novel, it is atypical of Eliot’s output, and is the least popular of Eliot’s major works.

Whereas 6,000 copies of The Mill on the Floss had sold within the first two months of publication, it took a whole year to sell 1,714 copies of Romola, and by September 1865, it was being remaindered. Yet the book’s very atypicality renders it interesting.

Romola is the fourth of Eliot’s full-length novels. It is set in Florence between the death of Lorenzo de Medici in April 1492 and the execution of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola for heresy in May 1498. Thus, it takes in the first turbulent years of a republican government under Savonarola after 60 years of autocratic government by the Medicis, and Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494. Romola, the hero and amanuensis of her blind scholarly father, marries an opportunistic rogue and ends up isolated when her love for him turns to contempt and she furthermore loses trust in Savonarola. The discovery of duty in self-sacrifice is her solace.

The idea for Romola came to George Eliot when she visited Florence with George Henry Lewes in 1860. They returned to the city for four weeks in 1861 to soak themselves in its atmosphere. Back in England Eliot read omnivorously for the new novel, taking notes assiduously: works on the Middle Ages, on ecclesiastical history, and on the revival of learning; histories of Florence, art, and Italian literature; works on and by Savonarola; even Daniel Rock’s Hierurgia for information about ecclesiastical vestments and Boccaccio’s Decameron for Italian idiom.

She began writing on 1 January 1862 and finished on 9 June 1863, having taken some time off to write Silas Marner in the middle. Eliot found the process stressful, not least because (unlike her previous novels) she wrote it for serial instalments in the Cornhill Magazine from July 1862 until August 1863, so had to come to terms with the rhythms of serial publication.

Eliot wrote of the entire experience: ‘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’, and, ‘I began it a young woman – I finished it an old woman’. Whereas Eliot usually published with Blackwood, publication in the Cornhill Magazine meant that Romola’s first publisher was George Smith, and that the subsequent three-decker was published by Smith, Elder & Co. Blackwood later brought out a two-volume edition.

The sheer weight of the historical knowledge in Romola was one reason for its general unpopularity, with the work being accused of ‘instructive antiquarianism’. But the public lack of enthusiasm contrasted with the acclaim of the intelligentsia. Robert Browning told George Eliot that Romola was ‘the noblest and most heroic prose poem’ he had ever read. Anthony Trollope admired Romola’s character and was sure that the novel would outlive its author; Gladstone praised it loudly at a dinner party; the Westminster Review and the Spectator agreed that Romola was George Eliot’s greatest work yet; Tennyson, Mazzini, Monckton Milnes, Millais and F D Maurice all joined the ranks of the admirers.

George Eliot

This edition in Senate House Library is from Bernhard Tauchnitz’s Collection of British Authors, a series begun in 1841 ‘to promote the literary interest of my Anglo-Saxon cousins, by rendering English literature as universally known as possible beyond the limits of the British Empire’. Eliot appeared in the Tauchnitz series in the 1860s alongside Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, Margaret Oliphant, Mrs Henry Wood and other popular writers.

By the time Tauchnitz published Romola, Eliot was an established author in his series, represented by Scenes of Clerical Life, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner. Several other works would follow. Romola did well within the series because the Italian book trade took it up as a travel souvenir, selling it in handsome vellum bindings (as for the Senate House Library copy) which contrasted favourably with the standard Tauchnitz paper wrappers. Eighty-two sepia photographs emphasise the travel aspect. This copy bears the bookseller’s ticket of Edward Goodban, an English bookseller in Florence.

Romola is the only work by George Eliot in the Durning-Lawrence Library, which is largely devoted to Sir Francis Bacon in the widest sense. It does also hold a few specimens of current literature read by its Victorian/Edwardian owners.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

Other articles on the collections in Senate House Library
The voyage that never ends: ‘discovering’ our worlds
Remembering Napoleon Bonaparte in ‘sumptuous’ print
Master of the essay: a review of Joseph Addison’s European ‘Grand Tour’
Multifaceted Good Omens: exploring the Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett Archive
Robinson Crusoe at 300
From daily sermons to satire, the rediscovered musings of a long-lost German polymath
King Lear: 400 years of the second quarto of Shakespeare’s great tragedy
Joyful tidings: 175 years of Christmas cards
Looking back at the Thirty Years War
The decapitation of Sir Walter Raleigh: villain or victim?
Celebrating the 450th anniversary of the ‘Bishops’ Bible’ 
Queen Victoria’s journal reveals her rosy view of Scotland
Shakespeare scintillation: Senate House Library’s first folios
From daily sermons to satire, the rediscovered musings of a long-lost German polymath

Cover image: replica by François D’Albert Durade (1804-1886)

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