George Eliot’s Romola: A Victorian Perspective on Renaissance Florence
Ryerson, Anna Eby
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Most of George Eliot’s novels were set in nineteenth-century England, but her vivid historical novel Romola – which places a well-educated female protagonist in Renaissance Florence – was an exception to this rule. Romola presents something of a mystery: Eliot says that she gave her “best blood” in this endeavor, though the novel has sometimes been criticized for the extent of its visual and historical detail. But why did Eliot choose to write such an unusual novel? What was she trying to accomplish in this ambitious work, and how did this large-scale experiment affect her subsequent writing? In this thesis I will argue that the very features that make Romola so unusual furthered Eliot’s development as a novelist. Her extremely detailed focus on the cultural and geographic environment of this novel set the stage for Eliot’s groundbreaking attention to the intense interaction between character and setting, a hallmark of her later, most ambitious, and successful masterpiece, Middlemarch. The great attention to travel and movement in Romola highlights the constraints placed by the environment on Eliot’s female characters. And by placing her female protagonist in Renaissance Florence, Eliot chooses a time of burgeoning individual rights and intellectual creativity – but not for women. In bringing these limitations to light, Eliot makes a feminist statement about the restricted rights of women, and reaches beyond that feminist lens to show us the human condition, one in which autonomous action can only carry us so far. In my thesis, I argue that in Romola, Eliot situates her characters in what I will call a tethered environment, in which the person is tightly laced to society and culture. I will further argue that this close interaction between character and setting grew in part out of the Darwinian scientific culture in which Eliot participated, and that it became a platform for her later great work of Middlemarch. In both Romola and even more in Middlemarch, Eliot thus creates a new complex structure for the novel, one that carries the model of the Bildungsroman into territory that presages the modern dilemma of perceived limitations on human endeavors.