Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

George Eliot's Romola: A Historical Novel "Rather Different in Character"

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

George Eliot's Romola: A Historical Novel "Rather Different in Character"

Article excerpt

From the beginning, George Eliot conceived of Romola (1862) as an experiment in rehabilitating the historical novel. In the 1860s, this genre was a denigrated narrative form, the realm of hack writers like G. P. R. James and William Harrison Ainsworth. Nineteenth-century reviewers marginalized their novels as disposable and populist, emphasizing historical atmosphere more than exhaustive historical research. More recent critical assessments of these mid-century historical novels often perpetuate these negative stereotypes. Andrew Sanders, echoing Lukacs's antipathy to "costumery" complains that "Ainsworth was little more than a reviver of old clothes." (1) Lukacs argues that the historical novel reaches its apex with Walter Scott and then begins a rapid decline. (2) Ian Duncan has described the popular historical novel after Scott as a "weaker lineage of literal imitation" (3) Eliot, however, thought this tradition could do more. Her novel explores the extent to which women could intervene as historical agents and, subsequently, as shapers of the historical narrative. Eliot's act of intervention, shaping history as a female writer, mirrors Romola's position as a female participant on the public historical stage. I offer Eliot's Romola as an example of the manner in which the historical novel as a genre becomes a site of narrative conflict among different models of historical knowledge. This conflict emblematizes the centrality of history as an imaginative category in the nineteenth century, which James Chandler describes as "the first epoch conscious of itself as such." (4) Romola demonstrates Eliot's struggle to gain satisfaction from any one narrative perspective, and her novel's narrative instability mirrors the larger phenomenon in the time of divergent trajectories of historical practice that never coalesce into an endorsement of one model. Nineteenth-century historical expressions run a broad spectrum from the "literary" historiography of Carlyle and Macaulay, the "philosophical" history of Hume, the county chronicles of local antiquarian societies, the gothic re-imaginings of the past in the novels of Walpole and Radcliffe, to the newly emerging empirical history of later Victorians such as Freeman and Green.

Eliot defines her project in Romola in opposition to the historical novel's common current. Writing to John Blackwood on 28 August 1860 concerning her work on the novel, Eliot states, "Mr. Lewes has encouraged me to persevere in the project, saying that I should probably do something in historical romance rather different in character from what has been done before." (5) Blackwood responds that he has confidence in her ability to depart from other specimens of the genre: "You have such a power of imparting reality to every thing you write that your Romance will not read like Fiction. I expect that you will return Historical Romance to its ancient popularity." In writing a historical novel that "will not read like Fiction," Blackwood foresees that Eliot will move the form into the more dignified realm of historiography through her "power of imparting reality," She later writes to Sara Hennell on 14 July 1862, "I myself have never expected--I might rather say intended--that the book should be as 'popular' in the same sense as others." (6) In her letter to Hennell, Eliot's desire to avoid a "popular" audience with this novel signals an intention to distance her novel from the conventions and audience of the contemporary historical novel and thereby dignify the form.

Eliot accuses women in particular of degrading the historical novel in her essay "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,' which first appeared in the Westminster Review in October 1856. Eliot notes women writers' widespread use of anachronism and the arbitrary application of superficial historical detail to creat," a false veneer of historicity. She abhors those novelists who "make their mental mediocrity more conspicuous by clothing it in a masquerade of ancient names. …

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