Romola by George Eliot

Romola I’ll admit that I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about starting to read Romola. I had added it to my Classics Club list because I loved Middlemarch and because the Italian Renaissance setting sounded appealing to me. Then I came across some reviews that said it was very difficult to read, overly detailed and boring, and I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. Luckily, now that I’ve read the book, I can say that none of these things were big problems for me. Yes, it was challenging, and yes, the amount of historical and political detail was overwhelming, but none of that mattered because I was so caught up in the story and the lives of the characters.

Romola is set in Florence in the final years of the 15th century and I wonder if this could be one of the reasons it’s not more widely read as it isn’t what you would typically expect from a Victorian novel. There’s no doubt that Eliot must have thoroughly researched the setting and the historical background, although it sometimes seemed that she had been determined to include every little fact and detail she uncovered during that research. Apparently Anthony Trollope wrote to Eliot after reading the first instalment and praised her for her descriptions of Florence, ‘wonderful in their energy and in their accuracy’, but warned her not to ‘fire too much over the heads of your readers’. Well, a lot of it did go over my head, and although I loved the book overall I won’t pretend that I understood everything I read.

The title character, Romola, is the daughter of an elderly scholar, Bardo de’ Bardi. Romola’s brother has left home to join the church and Romola is doing her best to take his place in helping their father with his classical studies. This work does not really interest Romola, however, so when they are introduced to a young man called Tito Melema who agrees to become Bardi’s assistant, this seems to be the perfect solution.

Tito, a Greek scholar, has just arrived in Florence after surviving a shipwreck and is looking forward to building a new life and career for himself. When he learns that his adoptive father, Baldassarre, has been sold into slavery in Antioch and needs his assistance, Tito must decide whether to put his own comfort above his duty to his father. Meanwhile Romola is beginning to fall in love with Tito, but knows nothing of his relationship with Baldassarre – or of his entanglement with a pretty young Florentine girl called Tessa.

The story of Romola and Tito unfolds against the backdrop of a very important period in Florentine history. Piero de’ Medici has been driven from Florence as the French prepare to invade and religious fervour is sweeping through the city under the leadership of the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola is an important character in Romola – along with Niccolò Machiavelli he is one of several real historical figures to appear in the novel – and is portrayed here as a complex human being with both good points and bad.

The fictional characters are even more interesting than the historical ones; the villain in this novel is the equal of almost any in Victorian fiction. He is particularly fascinating because when we first meet him he doesn’t appear to be villainous at all; his character undergoes a slow descent into deceit and treachery so that I went from liking him to loathing him. Romola sometimes feels more like a typical virtuous and dutiful Victorian heroine than a 15th century one (she reminded me of Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch) but I liked her and enjoyed watching her character develop.

I think how much you take away from Romola depends on how much effort you put in. You can look up every reference if you want to, or you can just be swept along by the story – like a lot of classics it works on more than one level. I certainly didn’t understand it all and I got very confused by the political intrigue towards the end of the book but as long as I could keep track of who was on which side, who was being betrayed and who was doing the betraying I was happy.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic but it’s one of the best I’ve read for a while. I was gripped by the plot, fascinated by the characters and loved the portrayal of Florence, its buildings, its art and culture and its people. Having only read Middlemarch, Silas Marner and now Romola so far, I’m looking forward to reading George Eliot’s other novels!

24 thoughts on “Romola by George Eliot

  1. jessicabookworm says:

    Wow this does sound like a challenge so I am really pleased to hear you got through it and enjoyed it. I love the idea of the setting but I am perhaps not ready for a classic this long or complicated just yet 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I had expected to struggle with this book more than I actually did. I think my strategy of reading it very slowly alongside other books helped me to get through it without getting too overwhelmed by the detail.

  2. Lark says:

    This is one of Eliot’s novels that I’ve been avoiding…for a lot of the same reasons you were hesitant to read it. But I’m glad to know that it’s not an impossible classic to get through. I’ve liked all of the other Eliot novels that I’ve read. Middlemarch is my favorite, but I love The Mill on the Floss, too. I still find this novel a little intimidating…but maybe I’ll put it back on my list. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      No, not impossible at all, but it does take some time and effort. I actually found Middlemarch harder to get into, though I loved it in the end. I haven’t read The Mill on the Floss yet but it’s on my list!

      • Genevieve says:

        I’m half way through Romola and adoring the rich, lush language. I am in awe of Mary Evans’ (why did she have to use a pen name?) skill as story teller, how brilliantly she gets into the minds and beings of her characters. I think she is as insightful as Shakespeare. If you loved Middlemarch and Romola – then Daniel Deronda is a MUST!!! In every way Mary Ann was prescient and ahead of her times, like Harriet Beecher Stowe. Would that these women be given the full due they deserve in the pantheon of writers!!! Brilliant!

  3. My Book Strings says:

    I’m glad this book worked out for you. The historical aspect sounds interesting to me, but since I haven’t read anything by Eliot yet; I think I’ll start with Middlemarch before I try this one.

  4. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I shall try this book – it does sound interesting. I remember being thoroughly confused by Italian history at school when I took European History, but maybe some of it has stuck somewhere in my brain! Anyway I loved Middlemarch and have been meaning to read The Mill on the Floss for years, so Romola is going on my Classics Club list now.

    • Helen says:

      I never had the chance to study Italian history at school but over the last few years I’ve come to love reading historical fiction set in Italy, which is why this book was so appealing to me. I hope you like it!

  5. Lisa says:

    I’ve read about how challenging this books is, so since I’ve only read one of George Eliot’s novels so far, I haven’t been in a hurry to find this one. But it’s good to hear that you found so much to enjoy – it does seem worth the effort.

    • Helen says:

      I definitely thought it was worth the effort and not quite as difficult to read as I’d been afraid it might be. I do love books set in Renaissance Italy, though, so that probably helped!

  6. hastanton says:

    I am a huge George Eliot fan but I must admit Romola was a Middlemarch too far !!!! I loved it in parts but found its little rambling and baggy . I read it with my book group and was the only one to finish it !!!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you at least loved parts of Romola! I agree that it was quite rambling in places and I did find my attention wandering at times, but I enjoyed it overall. It’s probably not a book I would want to read again, though – I think once was enough!

  7. Ocean Bream says:

    The only book I have read by Eliot is The Mill on the Floss and I loved it for all its tragedy and exaggeration. I think I shall have a go at reading Romola. I love a rambling novel because when you read it over again you always find little tidbits that you missed out the first time round and to me that is special, it’s like you’re falling in love with a book over and over again!

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read The Mill on the Floss yet but I’m looking forward to it. I hope you do decide to give Romola a go. It’s such a complex, detailed book – I’m not sure if I’ll want to re-read it one day, but I know there were a lot of things I missed the first time!

  8. NickS says:

    I’ve nearly finished it; 30 pages to go. Sorry, but can’t wait for it to end. So many words; so little happens. And some of the philosophical comments completely inaccessible (in other words; I didn’t understand them).

    • Helen says:

      Well done for persevering with the book despite not enjoying it! I didn’t understand everything either, but I have a particular interest in Renaissance Italy so I found it interesting, though I can see that it’s not a book that would appeal to everyone.

      • NickS says:

        I have now read 3 George Elliot books; Silas Marnier, Adam Bede and Romola. I thought that Silas Marnier was wonderful; Adam Bede OK but overlong; but I did not enjoy Romola at all. “Romola” is a very similar character to “Dinah” (from Adam Bede).
        I find myself wondering how accurately an English person from the 19th century could write about 16th century Italy; I know Elliot visited Italy to research; but still I wonder…
        If I read another Elliot book it will be “MiddleMarch”; I hope that brings back the admiration I had for Elliot that Silas gave me.

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