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OLM Favorites: Macaroni and Cheese

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In his 1852 essay “The Lady Novelists,” George Henry Lewes famously declared Jane Austen “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” If such perfected completion is indeed the measure of artistic greatness, then, much as it pains me, I have to admit George Eliot is a lesser novelist than Austen, for most of her novels are conspicuously, significantly, flawed.

Take her first full-length novel, Adam Bede: it’s rich, intelligent, and moving, but also technically awkward. Chapter 17, for instance, “In Which the Story Pauses a Little,” interrupts the action to deliver a lesson on Eliot’s signature brand of sympathetic realism. It’s a marvellous set piece, but that’s its weakness as much as its strength: Eliot hadn’t yet learned how to make such philosophizing integral, rather than disruptive, to the movement of her fiction.

Then there’s The Mill on the Floss, brilliant, profound, and emotionally gripping, but also unbalanced, as Eliot herself acknowledged (“The ‘epische Briet [epic breadth] into which I was beguiled by love of my subject in the two first volumes, caused a want of proportionate fullness in the treatment of the third, which I shall always regret.”) And the ending! It is equal parts shocking and bewildering, and as a result it has provoked endless controversy. Henry James didn’t see it coming and made feeble excuses about its not being anticipated by the rest of the novel (not true!); F. R. Leavis thought it “revealed immaturity”; feminist critics have found it variously profound, tragic, incestuous, metafictional, triumphant.

Felix Holt, Eliot’s most explicitly political novel, is also one of her least popular, and the blame lies largely with Felix himself: though interesting for the ideas he embodies, he is otherwise as compelling as a cardboard cut-out. And Daniel Deronda strikes most readers as uncomfortably bifurcated. Leavis notoriously advocated “freeing by simple surgery the living part of the immense Victorian novel from the deadweight”—that is, Daniel’s involvement with the Zionist Mordecai, leading up to his discovery and embrace of his own Jewish identity—thus, Leavis thought, leaving us with a greater novel, Gwendolen Harleth. Others have as energetically argued that Daniel Deronda’s two parts in fact make a compelling whole. As it happens, I agree with them (and I consider the ending of The Mill on the Floss the only possible one for the novel), but where there’s so much critical smoke, there must be at least a small authorial fire.

Only about Middlemarch, which James rightly concluded “sets a limit to the development of the old-fashioned English novel,” do most critics agree that Eliot achieved “perfect mastery.” Here, her means and her ends are wonderfully congruent; it contains nothing superfluous to its design, nothing inadequately incorporated or imperfectly completed.

Only one masterpiece? Not a very impressive record, it seems, at least on Lewes’s terms. But consistency in perfection is a lot to expect of any artist, and especially of an artist working in a medium as fluid and methodless as fiction. And does it in fact, make Eliot a lesser novelist that most of her novels are thus imperfect? My answer, as you probably expect, is no, and Lewes himself (who, after all, became Eliot’s husband) hints at why. “There are heights and depths in human nature Miss Austen has never scaled nor fathomed,” he continues in “The Lady Novelists”;

there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot; but although this is obvious to every reader, it is equally obvious that she has risked no failures by attempting to delineate that which she has not seen. Her circle may be restricted, but it is complete.

Let’s defer to the comments (or, better yet, altogether) any debate over whether Lewes’s assessment of Austen is adequate, and focus on a more general question: what’s the value in risking failure? If consistent “mastery” requires playing it safe, perhaps we should actually consider failure part of, rather than a problem for, our standard of artistic greatness. Is imperfection too high a price to pay, after all, for ambition? A good test case is the one of Eliot’s novels that comes closest to complete failure: her deeply researched, profoundly conceived, and now almost universally unread novel of Renaissance Florence, Romola.

I could write a whole essay about Romola that ignores its defects. You will be quick enough to spot them on your own; what you might appreciate a little help with is identifying its strengths—getting past, or through, the difficulties it poses to a sense of why, in spite of them, it is a novel well worth your time. You see, I do greatly admire Romola. It contains moments of psychological acuity and dramatic intensity unsurpassed in Eliot’s other fiction. But I’d be lying if I pretended that my admiration didn’t come at the cost of a lot of persistent effort. And what would be the purpose of that denial, anyway? I’m not trying to sell you copies of Romola, after all (though if you are going to buy one, consider the facsimile edition from Broadview Press that includes Frederick Leighton’s beautiful illustrations). No: instead, let’s confront the trouble with Romola and see where it leads us.

Romola opens with the arrival in Florence of Tito Melema, an enigmatic Greek shipwreck survivor seeking to re-establish his fortunes. Tito’s youthful beauty and scholarly aptitude quickly win him friends and patrons, including the blind old scholar Bardo de’ Bardi; before long Tito and Romola, Bardo’s devoted daughter, fall in love and marry. Romola has led a secluded life as her father’s amanuensis, but no upbringing could have made her suspect that Tito’s bright surface conceals a character of malignant selfishness and a history of dishonor and betrayal. Tito’s career flourishes, but as Romola learns his true nature she becomes increasingly alienated from him and struggles to reconcile her sacred vow of marriage with her conviction that he is unworthy of her devotion. Her personal crisis is reflected on a national scale in the story of Girolamo Savonarola, the charismatic preacher who urged religious and political reforms and eventually faced excommunication for his defiance of the Pope. Both Romola and Savonarola struggle to understand “where the duty of obedience ends, and the duty of resistance begins.”

That all sounds pretty interesting, right? So what exactly is wrong with Romola? The chief objection, made since the novel’s first publication, is that Eliot’s extensive research overwhelms both the characters and the action: as one of Romola’s earliest reviewers put it, “Sometimes the antiquarian quite drowns the novelist.” It’s not so much the passages of historical explanation, though there are many of this kind:

At the close of 1492, the year in which Lorenzo de’ Medici died and Tito Melema came as a wanderer to Florence, Italy was enjoying a peace and prosperity unthreatened by any near and definite danger. There was no fear of famine, for the seasons had been plenteous in corn, and wine, and oil; new palaces had been rising in all fair cities, new villas on pleasant slopes and summits; and the men who had more than their share of these good things were in no fear of the larger number who had less. For the citizens’ armour was getting rusty, and populations seemed to have become tame, licking the hands of masters who paid for a ready-made army when they wanted it, as they paid for goods of Smyrna. Even the fear of the Turk had ceased to be active, and the Pope found it more immediately profitable to accept bribes from him for a little prospective poisoning than to form plans either for conquering or for converting him.

It’s that in addition to such deft, if also dense, political scene-setting we also get much more minute accounts of Florentine street life, such as this one—quoted at length because scale is the issue as much as substance:

They had now emerged from the narrow streets into a broad piazza, known to the elder Florentine writers as the Mercato Vecchio, or the Old Market. This piazza, though it had been the scene of a provision-market from time immemorial, and may, perhaps, says fond imagination, be the very spot to which the Fesulean ancestors of the Florentines descended from their high fastness to traffic with the rustic population of the valley, had not been shunned as a place of residence by Florentine wealth. In the early decades of the fifteenth century, which was now near its end, the Medici and other powerful families of the popolani grassi, or commercial nobility, had their houses there, not perhaps finding their ears much offended by the loud roar of mingled dialects, or their eyes much shocked by the butchers’ stalls, which the old poet Antonio Pucci accounts a chief glory, or dignita, of a market that, in his esteem, eclipsed the markets of all the earth beside. But the glory of mutton and veal (well attested to be the flesh of the right animals; for were not the skins, with the heads attached, duly displayed, according to the decree of the Signoria?) was just now wanting to the Mercato, the time of Lent not being yet over. The proud corporation, or “Art,” of butchers was in abeyance, and it was the great harvest-time of the market-gardeners, the cheesemongers, the vendors of macaroni, corn, eggs, milk, and dried fruits: a change which was apt to make the women’s voices predominant in the chorus. But in all seasons there was the experimental ringing of pots and pans, the chinking of the money-changers, the tempting offers of cheapness at the old-clothes stalls, the challenges of the dicers, the vaunting of new linens and woollens, of excellent wooden-ware, kettles, and frying-pans; there was the choking of the narrow inlets with mules and carts, together with much uncomplimentary remonstrance in terms remarkably identical with the insults in use by the gentler sex of the present day, under the same imbrowning and heating circumstances. Ladies and gentlemen, who came to market, looked on at a larger amount of amateur fighting than could easily be seen in these later times, and beheld more revolting rags, beggary, and rascaldom, than modern householders could well picture to themselves. As the day wore on, the hideous drama of the gaming-house might be seen here by any chance open-air spectator—the quivering eagerness, the blank despair, the sobs, the blasphemy, and the blows:—

“E vedesi chi perde con gran soffi,
E bestemmiar colla mano alia mascella,
E ricever e dar di molti ingoffi.”

But still there was the relief of prettier sights: there were brood-rabbits, not less innocent and astonished than those of our own period; there were doves and singing-birds to be bought as presents for the children; there were even kittens for sale, and here and there a handsome gattuccio, or “Tom,” with the highest character for mousing; and, better than all, there were young, softly-rounded cheeks and bright eyes, freshened by the start from the far-off castello (walled village) at daybreak, not to speak of older faces with the unfading charm of honest goodwill in them, such as are never quite wanting in scenes of human industry. And high on a pillar in the centre of the place—a venerable pillar, fetched from the church of San Giovanni—stood Donatello’s stone statue of Plenty, with a fountain near it, where, says old Pucci, the good wives of the market freshened their utensils, and their throats also; not because they were unable to buy wine, but because they wished to save the money for their husbands.

It’s an overwhelming cascade of details, and this is just a single paragraph from the novel’s first chapter: the prospect of a novel composed along these lines might well scare off all but the hardiest readers.

The principle at work in Romola, as Eliot herself explained, was “to strive after as full a vision of the medium in which a character moves as of the character itself”—the same principle as she followed in her novels of English life, such as Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss. Raveloe and St. Ogg’s, however, were much closer to home for Eliot and her original audience and so required much less effortful reconstruction; many readers have agreed with Leslie Stephen that despite “the remarkable power not only of many passages but of the general conception of the book it is a magnificent piece of cram.” And even if we grant Eliot significant expository latitude for moving her story back four centuries and across to Italy, it remains difficult to justify the chapter “A Florentine Joke,” which recounts (in what feels like real time) an elaborate prank involving a monkey dressed as a baby, and from which I will spare you any quotation.

Who can really say, though, how much detail is too much? Even today, novelists like A. S. Byatt, in The Children’s Book, or Hilary Mantel, in A Place of Greater Safety, pile on the information without fear or drastic repercussions. One reader’s tedious excess may be another’s delightful indulgence. Romola’s abundant accumulation of historical particulars alone would not necessarily have condemned it to literary history’s dread ‘remaindered’ pile. It becomes self-destructive only in combination with the novel’s idiom, which is—not always, but often enough—both archaic and pedantic.

To be sure, the language of Romola would not have read as strangely to devotees of Scott (George Eliot emphatically was one), or to readers of Bulwer-Lytton or William Harrison Ainsworth, as it does to most of us. “By the rood of Bromholme,” exclaims Ivanhoe’s Cedric the Saxon. “I always add my hollo,” says a yeoman to Prince John in the same novel, “when I see a good shot or a gallant blow”; “Sayst thou?” replies the Prince; “then thou canst hit the white thyself, I’ll warrant.” “HO, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?’ begins Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. “Alas, no!, dear Clodius; he has not invited me,” replies Diomed; “By Pollux, a scurvy trick! for they say his suppers are the best in Pompeii.” Contemporary readers are likely to find such language either funny or tedious, as Hilary Mantel recognizes: “How do you give the past a human voice,” she wonders,

without betraying it or making your reader furiously impatient? Too much period flavor, and you slow up the story. “Nay, damsel, be not afeared,” may be authentic, but it will make your reader giggle. If you give way to an outbreak of “prithee” and “perchance,” then perchance your reader will hurl the book across the room.

Romola stands up to the novels of Scott and Bulwer-Lytton better than to Wolf Hall, but the flamboyant vigor of Vanity Fair reminds us that the Victorians too had alternative models of historical fiction. Thackeray, for instance, illustrated his Regency characters dressed in 1840s costumes, even as he wrote their dialogue in pithy contemporary phrases. In doing so he serves his moral purposes, conflating past and present as he does fiction and reality. Eliot, like Scott, chose instead to accentuate the otherness of the past. This, together with her commitment to the literal foreignness of their Italian dialects, means that almost nothing any of her characters say sounds quite natural to our ears. Though at times of especially heightened drama the resulting faint air of unreality is surprisingly effective (“The draught is bitterness on the lips. But there is rapture in the cup—there is the vision which makes all life below it dross forever”!), other moments do indeed, as Mantel anticipates, induce giggles or worse.

My favorite cringe-worthy moment in Romola arises from just this unfortunate combination of archaism and translation: “Good-day, Messer Domenico,” says Nello the barber to an arriving customer; “You come as opportunely as cheese on macaroni.” Awful, isn’t it? But it’s also the perfect illustration of the difference between an uninteresting failure—one that is just bad, lazy writing—and a failure that deserves our interest, maybe even our respect, because it’s in service of something worth trying. In this case, Nello’s cheesy phrase first makes me chuckle, then makes me think: why is it there? what does it fail at? Failure has to be measured against aspiration, after all. Here, with this phrase (a rendering of the colloquial expression “come il cacio sui maccheroni”) the aim is clearly to strike a note of authenticity that will make the past in a foreign country especially vivid to us. Weirdly, it sort of does that, doesn’t it? And it does so precisely because it cuts off any possibility of identification: “I would never say that!” we all exclaim. Yet artistically, it’s no good, for the same reason, and also for another—the overly-literal translation turns Nello’s speech into something nobody would say.

In this moment we have the larger failures of Romola in microcosmic form: the novel is too literally historical, too thorough, too manifestly researched, too distancing, to be great historical fiction, or great fiction of any kind. But just as the unfortunately leaden phrasing of Nello’s aphorism arises from a worthwhile impulse, so too the creaky pedantry of Romola is the unfortunate side-effect of something important, provocative, and difficult—something worth failing at—which is Eliot’s attempt to write historical fiction that is also philosophical fiction, to create not an entertaining costume drama but a novel of ideas.

What we are constantly aware of, reading Romola, is that the novelist is thinking. This can feel like a defect (Henry James complained that “the philosophic door is always open” in her novels, sending a “cooling draught” across them), and to be sure, in the best of all possible novels thought and feeling, philosophy and aesthetics, work together so seamlessly that we take this difficult merger for granted as we read. Eliot was aware herself of the risk of lapsing “from the picture to the diagram.” But too much overt thinking is a genuine defect only if our expectations of the novel are so low that we’d rather the failure be in the other direction—which is the impression often given by the steady stream of intellectually unambitious historical fiction crowded onto bookstore shelves today. It’s not that their authors aren’t competent or better at assembling their materials and telling an engrossing story, but readers of Philippa Gregory or Sarah Dunant or Carolly Erickson know (and presumably like) that their books turn on character and plot, not theories of historical or moral development.

The philosophical concerns of Romola are the central ones of Eliot’s oeuvre as a whole: the historical significance of religion and its gradual displacement by a humanistic ethos of fellowship; the social and moral dangers of egotism; the saving grace of sympathy. The difference in this case is the specificity with which these ongoing themes are connected to large-scale historical events and shown to be part of a necessary moral evolution at both national and personal levels. The central example is Romola herself, raised by her father to hate the dark superstition of religion. Their greatest grief is the loss of her brother, Dino, to its influence. “I have disowned him for ever,” Bardo tells Tito:

He was a ready scholar as you are, but … showing a disposition from the very first to turn away his eyes from the clear lights of reason and philosophy, and to prostrate himself under the influences of a dim mysticism which eludes all rules of human duty as it eludes all argument. And so it ended. We will speak no more of him: he is dead to me.

Eliot’s own treatment of religion is never so antagonistic: she has too much respect for the church as an institution that, whatever its doctrinal basis, has for centuries framed and supported people’s best instincts. And thus Bardo’s absolutism sits uncomfortably with Romola, who feels more strongly than her father does the pull of personal affection and loyalty. At the same time, the real evil of Dino’s conversion is shown to be that it leads him to seek wisdom in “the shadow region … apart from human sympathies,” when the simple dictates “of filial and brotherly affection” could have led him to warn Romola about Tito’s falseness and prevent the catastrophe of her marriage.

The same precedence of family and fellowship over dogmatic principle eventually causes Romola’s rift with Savonarola, whose rise and fall shape the novel’s larger narrative. At a time of personal crisis—when the truth about Tito’s character has become apparent—she sets off on a remarkable journey:

she had invented a lot for herself—to go to the most learned woman in the world, Cassandra Fedele, at Venice, and ask her how an instructed woman could support herself in a lonely life there.

Among Eliot’s women, only the Alcharisi in Daniel Deronda attempts a similarly bold act of self-actualization. While the Alcharisi succeeds, however, adamantly refusing to live as a wife and mother and instead fulfilling her ambition to be a great singer, Romola is accosted by Savonarola and sent back to fill “[her] place”. “It was declared to me,” he tells her, “that you are seeking to escape from the lot that God has laid upon you”:

you are flying from your debts: the debt of a Florentine woman; the debt of a wife. You are turning your back on the lot that has been appointed for you—you are going to choose another. But can man or woman choose duties? no more than they can choose their birthplace or their father and mother. My daughter, you are fleeing from the presence of God into the wilderness.

Romola is awed into obedience to his commands and, temporarily, also into submission to his faith. Even in the initial moment of her dedication, though, his authority is as much personal as religious:

It was the first time she had encountered a gaze in which simple human fellowship expressed itself as a strongly felt bond. Such a glance is half the vocation of the priest or spiritual guide of men …

Romola finds her vocation following Savonarola’s edicts, “tending the sick and relieving the hungry,” but her work is worthy not because it’s in the service of God but because it makes life better for people on Earth. When Savonarola’s influence begins to run counter to this imperative—when he preaches not mercy but “severity”—when he declares to Romola, “the end I seek is one to which minor respects must be sacrificed” and one of those sacrifices is the life of her beloved godfather—then Romola rejects his guidance to follow a higher ideal: “God’s kingdom is something wider—else, let me stand outside it with the beings that I love.”

Savonarola’s failure is not that he is religious but that he is unloving. Having cast off his authority, Romola must discover for herself a source for “that supremely hallowed motive which men call duty, but which can have no inward constraining existence save through some form of believing love.” Temporarily adrift from ties of conscience, Romola drifts away literally in a boat, hoping to be “freed from the burden of choice,” to find either death “or else new necessities that might rouse a new life in her.” In a strikingly allegorical sequence, she finds herself in a plague-stricken village where the immediate needs of suffering people once again confirm her vocation, with no need for reference to either Savonarola or supernatural decrees. Ironically, the villagers, not knowing the truth about her mysterious arrival, later tell stories “about the Blessed Lady who came over the sea,”

legends by which all who heard might know that in times gone by a woman had done beautiful loving deeds there, rescuing those who were ready to perish.

Her entirely human actions, in other words, become the stuff of myth.

This is, in miniature, Eliot’s own view of the origins and value of religion: it has no authority as dogma, no standing as truth, but it provides an explanatory framework that serves until myths are replaced with reality. It also provides a structure through which people can help each other endure the inevitable hardships of life—but the examples of Dino and Savonarola suggest that religious conviction may impede as easily as it furthers that compassionate mission, while Romola’s actions show that religion is in no way necessary to it.

In emphasizing these philosophical aspects of Romola, I don’t mean to suggest that it has nothing to offer us as a novel. In the essay I’m not writing, the one that puts aside the novel’s defects, I start with more conventional measures of success in fiction, especially plot and character, both of which Eliot handles ably in Romola. Savonarola in particular is a complex portrait of a man “possessed by a never-silent hunger after purity and simplicity, yet caught in a tangle of egoistic demands, false ideas, and difficult outward conditions, that made simplicity impossible.”

Tito, too, is splendidly done. Of all Eliot’s erring egoists, he is the most charming. His descent into villainy is so easy and gentle that he hardly notices it himself: “He had sold himself into evil, but at present life seemed so nearly the same to him that he was not conscious of the bond.” His case exemplifies the insidious corruption of “following the impulses of the moment” rather than respecting the responsibilities incurred by the past, a moral imperative derived from Eliot’s determinism and literalized in Romola by the clutching hand of Tito’s betrayed foster father, Baldassare. Tito attempts to shake off his history: “the Past had grasped him with living quivering hands, and he had disowned it.” But the vengeful Baldassare stalks Tito through a series of suspenseful encounters, including a trial by Homeric allusion (which is much more thrilling than it sounds) and ending in horrifying violence.

Romola, in other words, has all the elements of successful fiction. For better and for worse, however, they are assembled in the service of ideas—ideas about the clash of competing worldviews and conflicts between irreconcilable measures of the good, about spiritual needs and political leadership, about human loyalty and fellowship, about the moral apparatus of nations as well as the moral imperatives of the individual conscience. The novel is deliberately set at a particular historical moment in which all of these ideas had a living urgency. It is also thick with the evidence that Eliot thought about all of this—so thick that it ultimately fails to balance the two qualities Eliot herself declared essential to historical fiction: “as much accurate and minute knowledge as creative vigor.” To be sure, the novel has both knowledge and vigor, just hardly ever at the same time.

But that’s a particularly difficult balancing act to pull off: it requires, as Eliot said, “a form of imaginative power [which] must always be among the very rarest,” “the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius.” Mastery over the means to your ends is easier (though never easy) when those ends are more narrowly defined. If she didn’t pull it off, at least her attempt challenged her, as it continues to challenge her readers: “I began Romola as a young woman—I finished it an old woman,” she famously reported. Looked at in this way, her failure in Romola is an inspiration, as well as an education in what fiction can at least try to accomplish. We can do better, in our turn, than to dismiss it as “desperately wearying,” as Rebecca Mead did not long ago in the New Yorker. Henry James concluded that Romola is “on the whole … decidedly the most important” of Eliot’s novels: “not the most entertaining nor the most readable, but the one in which the largest things are attempted and grasped.” As Robert Browning’s Andrea del Sarto observed, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Poor Andrea could never be Raphael or Michelangelo, but George Eliot did become the author of Middlemarch, something she could never have accomplished if she’d been afraid of failure.

Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University. She is a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.

Frederick Leighton’s illustrations for Romola have been reproduced from J. Thomas, P. T. Killick, A. A. Mandal, and D. J. Skilton, A Database of Mid-Victorian wood-engraved Illustration.