Romola was George Eliot's first attempt at fiction outside her home country (perhaps even her home county). The reader is transported to Florence in 1492, where the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, the de facto ruler of the city, has initiated a period of uncertainty. A power vacuum has appeared in the city, and it's a time of unrest, with rival groups vying for supremacy and the charismatic preacher Savonarola waiting in the wings. Enter Tito Melema, a Greek-Italian survivor of a shipwreck, educated and good-looking, but down on his luck - a state of affairs which won't last long.
The stranger is taken in by some friendly locals, eventually gravitating to Nello's barber shop, a gathering place for intellectuals, and it's here that he receives an introduction to blind scholar Bardo Bardi and his beautiful daughter, Romola. Melema is handsome, intelligent and cunning, and this is his time; in the confusion of the new world order, power, wealth, fame and love are his for the taking. But is the fair-faced newcomer as good as he seems?
"Ay, Nello," said the painter, speaking with abrupt pauses; "and if thy tongue can leave off its everlasting chirping long enough for thy understanding to consider the the matter, thou mayst see that thou hast just shown the reason why the face of Messere will suit my traitor. A perfect traitor should have a face which vice can write no marks on - lips that will lie with a dimpled smile - eyes of such agate-like brightness and depth that no infamy can dull them - cheeks that will rise from a murder and not look haggard."As the story progresses, we see that there's truth in the painter's view of traitors and fair faces, and we begin to discern hints of what's really beneath the smiles and curls...
p.46 (Everyman, 1999)
Romola is a great vision of the distant past, a picture of renaissance Florence and a superb story of a man who wants it all. Eliot shows us a visitor who, arriving at the right time (and not having any uncomfortable beliefs or scruples to get in the way), is able to ingratiate himself with various Florentine factions, succeeding in becoming one of the most useful and powerful men in the city. The (anti)hero of the novel is a man with fatal flaws which threaten to undo him, the writer at pains to show us that then, just as now, beauty was often only skin deep. Despite having been born in Italy, there is enough of the Greek in Tito to justify a tragedy ;)
This is because Tito is fatally flawed. While he is outwardly strong and honest, on the inside he is weak, doubting and lazy - and not quite brazen enough to ignore the trouble he has brought upon himself:
"Tito foresaw that it would be impossible for him to escape being drawn into the circle; he must smile and retort, and look perfectly at his ease. Well! it was but the ordeal of swallowing bread and cheese pills after all. The man who let the mere anticipation of discovery choke him was simply a man of weak nerves." (p.168)Despite the bold words, he is not always able to swallow the pills with a smile. The chain armour he is eventually scared into wearing becomes a physical manifestation of his constant mental fears.
As Tito falls in our estimation, his role diminishes, leaving the way open for the rise of Romola, both in character and importance. Beautiful and good, she ever so gradually begins to suspect her husband's shortcomings:
"But all the while inwardly her imagination was busy trying to see how Tito could be as good as she had thought he was, and yet find it impossible to sacrifice those pleasures of society which were necessarily more vivid to a bright creature like him than to the common run of men." (p.249)Romola despises Tito once his true character is revealed; unlike her husband, she prefers helping the sick and poor, whoever they may be, to scheming for wealth and power. At times, she even ends up helping Tito's enemies...
One of the major themes of Romola is the difficulty of doing the right thing when the wrong thing is so much easier (and much more lucrative), and Eliot frequently returns to her main message of the way in which we justify our bad deeds to ourselves. She lingers on Tito's decisions to ignore signs that his adopted father, Baldassare Calvo, may not be dead after all, but it's never judgemental - Tito's actions are considered carefully as an ethical dilemma. It's all very cleverly done, with constant arguments on one side or the other forcing the reader to examine Tito's behaviour (and wonder if we would have acted differently...).
The tragedy is played out against a superbly researched background, and the language, too, evokes the era. We feel ourselves back in Renaissance Florence, witnessing the fall of the Medicis, and the rise (and subsequent fall) of the ambitious and enigmatic Savonarola. From within the walls of the city state, we are witness to the interference of the Pope and the 'visit' of the French army, along with a host of real-life characters (including Niccolò Machiavelli...) - there's even mention of Aldo Manuzio, AKA Aldus Manutius, the master publisher encountered in Bound in Venice!
Of course, there's a little too much research at times, and Romola isn't the easiest of books to get into. The narrator is looking back at times which seem fairly primitive, and the viewpoint is almost clinically detached, giving the book the air more of a scientific study than a novel. Also, as mentioned in Leonée Ormond's introduction, the character of Romola is especially problematic. She's far too modern and anachronistic in the way she thinks and acts (and has the freedom to think and act); just as is to be the case in Felix Holt, the main character here is the least life-like element of a realistic historical recreation.
Romola is one of the least-read, and least-popular, of Eliot's novels. However, it's still an excellent book, and of course, despite the title, it's Tito who is the star of the show. While the writer warns us about him frequently, part of you still wants him to succeed in his endeavours, even after we have glimpsed some of the ugly truths lurking beneath the handsome exterior. It's true what they say though - politics is a very dangerous game...
...especially in Renaissance Florence ;)