George Eliot - Romola

... It would be absurd to speak without profound respect of a book which represents the application of an exceptionally powerful intellect carrying out a great scheme with so serious and sustained a purpose. The critic may well be unwilling to place himself in the seat of judgment, or to suppose that he can divine with any confidence what will be the opinion of posterity, if that vague and multitudinous body troubles itself to arrive at any definite opinion on the matter. On the other hand, it is not very difficult to say what one thinks oneself, and one may hope to suggest a remark or two which may be worth at least the trouble of refuting. Romola is to me one of the most provoking of books. I am alternately seduced into admiration and repelled by what seems to me a most lamentable misapplication of first-rate powers. I will speak frankly on both topics, without pretending to reach a precise valuation of merits.

The "historical novel " is a literary hybrid which is apt to offend opposite sides. Either the historian condemns it for its inaccuracy, or the novel-reader complains of its dulness. It is hard to avoid that Scylla and Charybdis. In my youth, I remember that classical students used to pore over two lively works, Gallus and Charicles, which represented the efforts of a German professor to empty a dictionary of classical antiquities into the framework of a novel. They were no doubt accurate, but I don't know whether anybody ever read them through. Scott's historical romances, on the other hand, fascinated the world, but are generally marked by a gallant indifference to any quantity of anachronisms. A historical critic, I suppose, would tear Ivanhoe to pieces, and forbid any student to read a book which would confuse his ideas in direct proportion to the literary attractiveness. Of course, we may request the historical critic to mind his own business. I have often thought that the beginning of Ivanhoe, the scene in the forest where Gurth and Wamba are chatting at the foot of the old barrow, and encounter the Templar and the Prior on their way to Cedric's house, is the best opening of a story ever written. It is inimitably graphic and picturesque, and introduces us at once to a set of actors most dramatically contrasted. Moreover, the interest does not flag till certain unfortunate concessions to the old-fashioned rules of story-telling spoil the concluding scenes. Still it is true that the indifference to accuracy, or even possibility, forces one to admit that it requires a rather juvenile readiness to accept the obvious unrealities. It suggests the thought that the charm might be even heightened if, for example, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck had a little stronger resemblance to real or at least possible outlaws. The problem had been attacked by two or three of George Eliot's contemporaries. Bulwer in Rienzi had, like George Eliot, found a theme in Italian history, besides dealing with Harold and with Warwick the Last of the Barons. Though Freeman admired Harold, and George Eliot read Rienzi respectfully, I do not suppose that these rapid dashes into a mixture of fiction, history, and political philosophy can now interest any one. Kingsley in Hypatia and Westward Ho! had shown abundant vigour as a story-teller, in spite of a large infusion of the religious and political pamphleteer; but did not convince readers that he had given the true spirit of his periods. Charles Reade's remarkable novel The Cloister and the Hearth, which appeared in 1861, was a more serious attempt to make general history into fiction, and has been greatly admired by some eminent critics, such as Mr. Swinburne, who possibly have in mind the comparison with Romola. I only mention these books, however, to justify the remark that, in a period when the serious study of history was developing, the attempt to combine the vigour of Scott with more thorough knowledge of facts represented a very natural and plausible enterprise.

It may be taken for granted that the first condition of success is that you should become a contemporary of the society described. It is no easy task to go back for some centuries; to immerse yourself so thoroughly in the extinct modes of thought and sentiment that you can instinctively feel what the actors would have felt under the supposed circumstances. You can see into the mind of a British rustic of sixty years ago, especially if you happen to have been his daughter; but to get back to the inhabitant of Florence in the fifteenth century requires a more difficult transformation. Did George Eliot achieve it even approximately? To that, as it seems to me, there can be but one answer. She saw most clearly that the feat was necessary. She tried to qualify herself most industriously, but the very nature of her preparation shows the extreme difficulty, or, as I think, the impracticability of the task. "She spent," says an admiring critic, "six weeks" (really seven) "in Florence in order to familiarize herself with the manners and conversation of the inhabitants." In spite of this, it is said, her characters, when she began to write, not only "refused to speak Italian to her, but refused to speak at all." By hard reading, however, she reduced "these recalcitrant spirits to order," and "succeeded so well, especially in her delineation of the lower classes, that they have been recognized by Italians as true to life." The Italians are an eminently intelligent as well as an eminently courteous people; and we will hope that these anonymous critics had not to put any great strain upon their consciences. Yet one cannot help contrasting this initiation into the Italian characteristics with the unconscious process which had lasted for twenty years at Chilvers-Coton. Seven weeks is a brief period for acclimatization in a new social atmosphere. If an intelligent Italian lady had spent seven weeks at the Charing Cross Hotel, walked diligently about Leicester Square and the Strand, read steadily at the British Museum, and rummaged old bookshops in back streets, how much knowledge would she have acquired of the British costermonger? No doubt with the help of a few books on London labour, and study of Sam Weller's cockney slang, she might manage to make him talk and behave himself in such a way that a critic could not put his finger upon any directly assignable blunder. There is, too, a certain likeness between human beings everywhere, which might save the costermonger from being a mere monstrosity. But one would not expect a very vivid realization of the genuine Englishman; nor can I see any indications that the description of the Italian "lower classes" in Romola gets beyond careful observance of costume and commonplace. George Eliot had not, like some novelists, been primarily interested in a period, steeped her mind in its literature simply for the love of it, and then felt a prompting to give form to her impressions. "They," said Scott, speaking of certain imitators, "have to read old books and consult antiquarian collections to get their knowledge. I write because I have long since read such works, and possess, thanks to a strong memory, the information which they have to seek for." [Journal, i. 275.] George Eliot had, it is to be presumed, a fair knowledge of the general outlines of history. She came to Florence as a highly intelligent sightseer; and it then struck her that "the place would make a picturesque background, and that the Savonarola period offered a number of interesting situations. She proceeded to get up the necessary knowledge; but with the result like that which happens when a manager presents Julius Caesar or Coriolanus in the costume "of the period." The costume may be as correct as the manager's archaeological knowledge allows, but Julius Caesar and Coriolanus remain what Shakespeare made them, not ancient Romans at all, but frankly and unmistakably Elizabethans.

Meanwhile the attempt to be historically accurate has a painfully numbing effect on her imagination. She seems to be always trembling at the possibility of an intruding anachronism. She tells an admirable critic, R. H. Hutton, that "there is scarcely a phrase, an incident, an allusion [in Romola] that did not gather its value to me from its supposed subservience to my main artistic purpose." She always strives after as full a vision of the medium in which a "character moves as of the character itself. The psychological causes which prompted me to give such details of Florentine life and history as I have given are precisely the same as those which determined me in giving the details of English village life." That, no doubt, is perfectly true; but then she had seen the English details with her own eyes, and she only makes a judicious selection from authorities when describing Florentine details. There was, it appears, an article of dress called a "scarsella," which always gets upon my nerves in Romola. The thing will intrude without any (to me) perceptible relation to her "main artistic purpose." The scarlet waistcoats and brand-new white smock-frocks in Adam Bede make a picture at once. We see the rustics on their way to the squire's feast; but this wretched scarsella worries me, and only suggests a hint for Leighton's illustrations. A more important result of this weakness is shown in another case defended by George Eliot herself. She complains that "the general ignorance of old Florentine literature" and other causes have led to misunderstandings of many parts of Romola--"the scene of the quack doctor and the monkey, for example, which is a specimen not of humour as I relish it, but of the practical joking which was the amusement of the gravest old Florentines, and without which no conception of them would be historical. The whole piquancy of that scene in question was intended to lie in the antithesis between the puerility which stood for wit and humour in the old republic, and the majesty of its front in graver matters." She appeals to the precedent of the chase of the false herald in Quentin Durward, which makes Louis XI. and Charles of Burgundy "laugh even to tears." Now, I am quite unable to speak of the historical accuracy. All one can say is that if the ancient Florentines laughed so heartily at the dreary joke of imposing a monkey upon a quack for a baby, they must have been duller than one would have supposed. The precedent from Scott is curiously inapplicable. The scene in Quentin Durward is effective and an essential part of the story, because the "joke" shows both the brutality of the performers and the cunning of Louis XI. The king is skilfully getting rid of a cast-off agent in his intrigues against Charles with the help of Charles himself. To detail a wearisome practical joke in all its native unadulterated badness in order to make a contrast with other parts of the book is a hazardous experiment. It is to be deliberately dull, because history proves that people could be dull four centuries ago. The truth is that in her English books George Eliot can make bad joking amusing, because she makes us smile not at the joke, but at the jokers. The talkers at the "Rainbow" are inimitable, because their talk is so pointless. Here the incongruity which is to interest us has to be gradually inferred from subsequent reflection, and the writer falls into the common error of boring us by describing bores.

These are trifling illustrations of the more general difficulty. Romola is to give us the spirit of the Renaissance. It requires no dissertation to show why the Renaissance should have a surpassing charm for the imagination. There is, I suppose, no book which opens the eyes of the respectable modern reader with more startling effect than the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini in the next generation. The combination of artistic inspiration, intellectual audacity, gross superstition, and supreme indifference to morality, gives the shock of entering a new world where all established formula break down, or are in a chaotic state of internecine conflict. When we take up a book in which one is to be a contemporary with the Borgias, and to have personal interviews with Machiavelli, we may expect a similar sensation. We are to be spectators of a state of things in which the elementary human passions have been let loose, when violence and treachery are normal parts of the day's work, where new intellectual horizons have opened, and yet the old creeds are still potent, and there is the strangest mingling of high aspirations and brutal indulgence, when the nobler and baser elements of belief are so strangely blended that the ruffian is still religious, and the enlightened reformer fanatically superstitious. If anybody derives any vivid impressions of such a world from Romola, his eyes must be much keener than mine. George Eliot has, it must be noticed, chosen one of the two alternatives which are open to the historical novelist. She deals with a private history and the great public characters, and their political proceedings remain for the most part in the background. Savonarola, indeed, has to act in the story as well as in the history. Hutton considers the portrait of the reformer to be one of George Eliot's great triumphs, and appeals especially to one scene. I am the more glad to be able to point to an appreciative and genial criticism, as I have to confess my inability to accept it. I should have taken the same scene for the clearest illustration of failure. The prophet is in his cell. He is trying to make up his mind to accept the test proposed by his enemies. Representatives of both parties are to walk through fire, counting upon a miraculous intervention; the flames are to burn the heretic and spare the orthodox. Savonarola's enthusiasm prompts him to run the risk; but when he tries to imagine the scene, the flesh shrinks, he begins to suspect that the appeal may be presumptuous, and is well aware at the bottom of his mind that it is a trap devised by his enemies. To show Savonarola tortured by these conflicting impulses would no doubt require the highest dramatic genius. What we really have is not the concrete man at all, but a long and very able psychological analysis of his mental state. A bit of it gets into inverted commas to pass for a soliloquy; but instead of seeing and hearing Savonarola, we are really listening through several pages to a highly intelligent lecture upon an interesting specimen. The style becomes cumbrous and flagging. I venture to quote a long sentence as a specimen of George Eliot at her worst. The acceptance of the ordeal is inevitable: "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 miracles such as his own prophetic inspiration and divinely-wrought 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." Savonarola's mind was surely, in this respect, constituted like most people's; we all think that we can bear the dentist's forceps till we get into his armchair; but this almost Germanic concatenation of clauses not only puts such obvious truths languidly, but keeps Savonarola himself at a distance. We are not listening to a Hamlet, but to a judicious critic analysing the state of mind which prompts "to be or not to be." The same languor affects all the historical framework of the story. We come upon many scenes which seem to demand a forcible presentation: the entry of the French into Florence; the "bonfire of Vanities"; and the strange tragicomedy of the ordeal; but when we want to see the crowd and bustle and the play of popular fun and passion, we get careful narrative; and as half of it,--we do not know which half,--is obviously only fiction, we think that we might as well have been reading Guicciardini or Professor Villari. The story of the political intrigues is necessary to determine the fate of the characters; but it is as dull as any of the ordinary history books. Machiavelli talks, but he talks like a book, and does not manage one really good bit of Mephistophelian cynicism. The great men of Florence seem to be as prosy when they are feasting as when they are playing practical jokes. One of them receives credit for "short and pithy" speech to which the "formal dignity" of his interlocutor is an amusing contrast. This short and pithy gentleman manages to take a page to say that he takes the Savonarola party to be composed of psalm-singing humbugs, not to be trusted by men of sense. ... Leslie Stephen


Popular posts from this blog

Diego Rivera: The Flower Carrier

Hanif Kureishi: Something Given - Reflections on Writing

Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry