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Guest Blog: Truth in Fiction – George Eliot’s Romola

By Dr Hugh Mercer Curtler, Cottonwood, Minnesota, USA

I firmly believe that there is truth in fiction and, indeed, profound truth in the fiction of people like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, and George Eliot. Eliot is one of my favorite writers and she always provides a wealth of food for thought. There is depth and wisdom in her novels. One of her novels is a special treasure despite the fact that many people find it a “hard read.” It is the novel Romola which is set in 15th century Florence and focuses on a most interesting character named Tito Melema who is described by the narrator as having a “soft, pleasure-loving nature.” We might add he is also spoiled: the adopted son of a wealthy, adoring father who made his life as easy as possible while turning him into an accomplished scholar, somewhat resentful of his father’s demands on his time. In fact, the story centers around Tito’s failure to rescue his father from pirates with a purse filled with jewels, including a valuable ring, his father entrusted to him. When these jewels are sold and kept by Tito who decides not to pay the ransom, they make Tito a very wealthy man — and one who finds that his charm, outgoing personality, and scholarly abilities suit him splendidly for success and status in Florence.

George-Eliot-001

The novel is historical in the manner of Walter Scott. It mixes the fictional Tito and his eventual wife Romola with such figures as Savonarola, Lorenzo Medici, Machiavelli, and Pico della Mirandola — among others. It is masterfully done. But, again, the main interest for this reader is the character Tito and his remarkable resemblance to growing numbers of people I find myself surrounded by each and every day. Note how Eliot described this “soft” man as he gradually reconciles himself to the fact that he has abandoned his father for the wealth and fame he finds irresistible:

“. . . he was not out of love with goodness, or prepared to plunge into vice: he was in his fresh youth, with soft pulses for all charm and loveliness. . . with the ready inoffensive sociability which belong to a good nature . . . he had still a healthy appetite for ordinary human joys, and the poison could only work by degrees. He had sold himself to evil, but at present life seemed so nearly the same to him that he was not conscious of the bond. He meant things to go on as they had done before, both within and without him: he meant to win golden opinions by meritorious exertion, by ingenious learning, by amiable compliance: he was not going to do anything that would throw him out of harmony with the beings he cared for.”

This remarkable description, coupled with the ensuing story of Tito’s growing lust for wealth and power, not to mention the suffering he brings upon himself and those close to him, presents us with a likable, easy-going man who doesn’t set out to do the wrong thing but who lacks the will-power to resist. In fact, I would say this is a novel about character (“the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character”) and the growing awareness on Eliot’s part that the world around her was beginning to turn its back on the Victorian notion of human virtue and duty to others which set the age apart (despite its many shortcomings). She saw more clearly than most of those around her what a growing preoccupation with wealth coupled with a lack of strong character could mean to the people involved. Tito never means to do the wrong thing; he simply does not bother to think about what the right thing might be in a particular case. Moreover, he doesn’t have the strength of will to resist temptation and do the right thing even when he knows what it is. He becomes the master of rationalization and as a consequence he follows mindlessly the easy path to self-destruction.

The novel was written in 1863 but it tells us a great deal about ourselves today. Tito is a token of a type  — “soft, pleasure-loving” people who have never been denied anything they wanted — that is becoming more and more familiar in our century.

You can read Hugh Curtler’s blog here: http://hughcurtler.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/learning-from-great-poets/

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on March 15, 2013, in Fiction, History, Literature, Novels, Victorians and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. That sounds a really interesting book, and as you say it still echos today with people.
    Rosie

  2. Thank you for your post. I had a George Eliot period some years ago when I read through all her novels except Romola. I skipped that one because I was not interested in a historical novel about Florence. Nobody does character better than Eliot, however, and now I know I have to read Romola.

  3. Great post. It truly resonates with what is going on today in the US (and the world?) in current politics: “‘soft, pleasure-loving’ people who have never been denied anything they wanted.” Indeed! I must dust off my copy of Romola.

  4. George Eliot is a big favorite of mine. I first read Adam Bede when I was living in Central Asia. I then read everything by Eliot that I could get my hands on except Romola! I will now get a copy thanks to your post.

    My high school aged children are reading Silas Marner right now (their first Eliot), and we are having interesting conversations about literature and the real life lessons to be learned from the classics.

    My blog is not about literature but rather, family history, and is at http://www.gransfamilyhistory.com, I do love the classics and try to seque my family history into literature where I can. :)

  5. George Eliot is one of my favorite writers. I’ve read almost all the fiction she’s written except Romola. I actually have a copy of it sitting on my coffee table at the moment. I probably won’t get to it for another few weeks at best.

    Do you actually believe that “soft pleasure-loving people” have become more common in this century? I haven’t observed that. What I have observed is a shifting code of morality, at least here in the U.S., and different groups in our country are functioning with different codes resulting in a great deal of irritation, confusion and so on.

    If anything, the U.S. is becoming a harsh, pleasure-hating country.

  6. I read Silas Marner in college. I need to pick up a copy of Romola. Thank you for sharing this book.

  7. Thank you, I’d forgotten about Romola, I book I enjoyed so much!

  8. I fully agree with the thought. I believe that if you aren’t asking of a work of art, “what can you teach me about myself and the world I live in?”, you aren’t truly engaging with it. Good art makes a claim on you—you can’t go on in the same way after reading (watching, listening, viewing).

    Sadly I have not read any Eliot. (I “read” Silas Marner in high school, but despite my ability to associate words with letters with full competence, I was pretty much illiterate then, in the sense that matters.)

  9. attemptsatselfautonomy

    I’ve only ever read ‘Middlemarch’ by Eliot but now I will consider reading Romola!

    Like you, I believe Eliot’s focus on characterisation reveals the truth in fiction. A very interesting read!

  10. attemptsatselfautonomy

    Reblogged this on Attempts at Self-Autonomy and commented:
    Interesting views on George Eliot and her fiction.

  11. Thank you for writing not only about Eliot’s relevance for today but about her least regarded novel. I found Romola wonderful and not “hard” at all. In my opinion, it should be read and taught more widely, not only because it illustrates Eliot’s range and versatility, but also for the reasons you mention in your post. She is truly a thinking person’s author and my favorite.

  12. Reblogged this on Persephone Writes and commented:
    A wonderful and timely reflection on George Eliot’s brilliant, but under-read, historical novel Romola. George Elliot is one of my mentor’s in the craft of writing (see sidebar) so I couldn’t resist reblogging this post. Enjoy! :)

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