Romola is the least read of George Eliot's novels, yet in her lifetime it had great critical acclaim, from Henry James for instance. It had little public success however, and, like readers of earlier generations, we moderns find it difficult to get into, requiring a great deal of patience. If we can persist beyond the proem and the early chapters, we shall find some of her best pages and a picture of a past age that grips us with its dramatic narrative and rich characterisation. Eliot herself said of it, 'I swear by every sentence as having been written with my best blood'.
In Eliot's oeuvre as a whole, Romola occupies an important position in her transition from the 'Warwickshire novel', full of local colour and idiom, to the great novels of her maturity, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. A holiday in Florence and an encounter with the character of Girolamo Savonarola, the fifteenth century reformer, led her to undertake this 'historical romance', set in the past, in a foreign country, and demanding a translated language. Typically she undertook a huge programme of research to make it authentic. This, admittedly, is something of a drawback for a novel; it 'smells of the lamp', as Henry James also wrote. Yet we admire enormously the risk she has taken and feel that, in the end, she has triumphed.
A dramatic, sometimes melodramatic story unfolds, fluently and persuasively written. Savonarola becomes the dominating presence; around him Eliot has assembled a cast of characters whose lives are influenced in one way or another by him. Central is Romola de'Bardi, who in one sense is the Blessed Damozel of the Pre-Raphaelites and in another, the dutiful daughter trying to define herself in a world of male authority. The key question becomes 'where the duty of obedience ends and the duty of resistance begins' - 'two kinds of faithfulness' that preoccupied Eliot. She draws on all that she had learned from Feuerbach and Auguste Comte on the 'religion of humanity' to make these notions flesh and blood in her characterisations. Arguably the greatest of these is Tito, Romola's husband, a figure of Shakespearean dimensions who can 'smile, and smile, yet be a villain'.
Eliot could not have chosen a time of greater upheaval and change: the death of the powerful Lorenzo de Medici, invasion by Charles VIII of France and the spectacular rise and fall of the charismatic priest Savonarola. Her young heroine Romola journeys from naïve and cloistered daughter to gradual disillusionment with both Savonarola and her unscrupulous and self-serving husband.
As we get deep into the novel the laboured research is forgotten; we are caught up with the dramatic narrative and underlying questions which are still as unresolved and topical to us today as they were to the Victorian audience for whom George Eliot wrote. The story is illuminated by Eliot's acute psychological insight into character and motive, revealing the extent of human frailty, but also our boundless capacity for selfless deeds.