ABSTRACT

Romola is a fascinating case study for those who want to look at Eliot's engagement with the paradigms of realism and idealism, both as they are deployed through the characters and as contrastive ideologies encoded in her novel. Located in fifteenth-century Florence, both setting and period are sufficiently remote for Eliot to feel free in her treatment of the idealist 1 — Savonarola on the public level, Romola on the private — as well as for honing her realist skills as she attempts to make both time and place more familiar to her readers. That her initial conception was intellectual is clear from her comment that she wanted to make her 'ideas thoroughly incarnate'; 2 that she wanted to familiarize the remote and make it 'real' is clear from the painstaking descriptions and explanations that accompany the plot. And it is probably for both these reasons, a high level of intellectualization and an over-zealous attempt at realism, together with characters who often lack vitality, that readers have often found this novel heavy reading. 3 Imperfect as it may be as a novel, however, Romola fascinates for the intellectual designs that show through it, among which is the triad of Savonarola the Schillerian idealist, Tito the 'realist' and Romola the intended middle ground, the otherworldly young girl who learns to adapt high moral imperatives to the world in which she lives. Romola's spiritual education has been discussed extensively, especially in its intertextual connection to Comte and Feuerbach, and is not the main focus of this chapter. 4 Rather, it is the impact of Schillerian 109idealism on the shaping of Savonarola. On the one hand, his fiery brand of Christian zealotry and his austere detachment from ordinary human life are strongly reminiscent of Schiller's Joan of Arc. On a broader level, however, the political turmoil, his unwitting contamination by worldly ambition, the inner conflict he faces and the drama of his downfall draw far more extensively on Wallenstein. Like Schiller who plots his drama within the context of the Thirty Years' War, Eliot uses Renaissance Florence to look at the intersection of grand ideals with the historical forces that test them. In particular, she was struck by the way he envisioned historical situations in terms of individual moral conflict and the situations they engender: in both texts, the choices which the protagonists confront are moral rather than purely political and their dramatic stature is defined by this implicit frame of reference.