Good ‘Christian’ novel: 30 June

A holiday reading recommendation: Romola by George Eliot.

Romola  takes you to Florence, between 1494 and 1498. Romola is a young noblewoman. Her life is tragically, although somewhat tangentially, linked to the life of the monk and reformer of Church and State, Savonarola.

Romola the book takes you engagingly into a more colourful, world. The plot moves on with interesting twists. As always, Eliot writes with huge sympathy for all her characters, the good and the not so good, explaining their motives, allowing them to express themselves fully and distinctly. Great themes are explored: self-interest and self-sacrifice, Classical philosophy and Christian faith, the possibility and process of democratic, anti-aristocratic, reform.

Romola, my Penguin edition Introduction assures us, is historically accurate. Eliot writes with a wealth of detail about medieval Florence, for which the notes are useful. It is possible also to gain the full gist of the story with only half understanding most of the references, not having to turn often to the back. Eliot writes with a mid 19th century expansiveness and slight ponderousness. Neither she nor her culture had embraced the narrative of short bursts to which, thanks to cinema and television, we are accustomed. Reading Romola is engaging not only with 15th century Florence, but with the slower mindset of the 19th century.

Romola shows its age. Characters speak at unrealistic length. Melodramatic coincidences intrude into the detailed reality. (Both here and in other novels Eliot uses boats, rivers, seas, as magical elements.) Eliot’s comments could have been edited down. I find her repeated mention of her characters’ ‘natures’, which explain and justify their attitudes and actions, both at odds with a story in which choices are important and a little tedious.

Romola also strongly, mostly through the narrative, portrays Christian, fallible, faith, as a force for good in the world. I think this is one reason why Eliot chose, and stuck with, her male pen name, as well as recognising the perceived male gravitas. As an unknown man, she could write more freely and positively of faith than her ‘cultured despisers of religion’ friends would like.

Early in Romola a monk speaks a prophetic vision which comes to pass. The learning of the Greek and Latin classics, which, to cultured Florentines and Victorians alike, was seen as the best education, is portrayed as morally incoherent and dubious, leading only to educated self-interest. The other-worldliness of the Christian religious, derided by the aristocratic classicists, is shown to be a surer motive for life.

Savonarola is a central and admired figure. His genuine divine inspiration is attested to not only by his supporters, but by his ministry to Romola which depends on what would be called today an accurate ‘word of knowledge’. Savonarola is dramatically highlighted by an opposite central character, Romola’s husband. The husband’s selfish scheming shows up the selfless steadfastness of the monk. Romola sees Savonaroa’s great flaw but comes at the end to revere him.

The views of Romola and of Eliot the author coincide. They share a similar attachment to both Christianity and classical philosophy. For Romola the classics were her original education after which she was drawn powerfully to Christianity by the inspiration of Savonarola. For Eliot evangelical Christianity was her original education, in which she saw too many human flaws, and was led to a more detached, classically influenced scepticism. But Eliot retained admiration for the genuine inspiration of John Wesley and others like him. She moved away from early Methodist emphasis on individual conversion and repentance to a later Methodist championing of the need to love our neighbour as ourselves, the Methodism which so inspired the early Labour Party. She recognised, not least in Romola, that the true root of such beneficial democracy was not in the Classics but in Christ.

Eliot ends by commending Savonarola for the inspiration he gave to selfless living and to democracy. She portrays old Florence as a fascinating seed-bed of contemporary politics. We see the competing claims of the stability of the status quo overseen by the wealthy and the deep corruption of the status quo seen by the democratic reformers. We are reminded that our democracy was instigated not by those steeped in Greek and Roman tradition, but by radical, reforming Christians.

We see also the perils of reforming politics. The story shows us the temptation to use ignoble means to a noble perceived end.  In Florence there was a strong personality for the people to follow and the temptation, not least to the man himself, of a developing personality cult. We see the enthusiasm of the people when they are treated as responsible and vote-worthy and the destructiveness of the people when they are led and manipulated as a mob. The perils are outweighed, in Romola, by historical hints from Eliot that the arguments and work of the flawed and failed reformer Savonarola were taken up later by others, by Luther and Wesley and many less famous, to help create the freer democracy we enjoy now.

I was not keen at first to read Romola, not having any initial interest in medieval Italy. But the book was on our shelves and I gave it a try. I am glad I did. Romola has been an enjoyable, engaging, memorable, thought-provoking read.

Roger Harper

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