English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 37 (2006) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (37)


Arguably the most problematic episode of Romola for the novel's reviewers and critics is Romola's imitation of Boccaccio's heroine Costanza (or Gostanza) in the two chapters 'Drifting Away' and 'Romola's Waking'; even Romola's most favourable early reviews censured the episode's structural and stylistic interruption. However, as Mark Turner and Caroline Levine have observed, the critical consensus has evolved from censure of 'an unseemly breach in the narrative' to reappraisal of a 'crucial site of interest'.' If an unwritten orthodoxy remains then it is a less value-laden sense that the chapters depart from the novel's overarching historical project. However, it is possible to synthesize this problematic deviation with the overall design by mapping the episode onto its medieval origin and reading Romola, if only for two chapters, as one of a long line of medieval ancestresses, rather than a transposed Victorian heroine. Perhaps the chapters seem disconnected because it is here that George Eliot manages most completely to adopt a medieval narrative logic and exceeds the limits of the Victorian historical novel.

Criticism of the Costanza episode can be roughly divided into that which emphasizes its incongruity, and that which attempts to reintegrate it into the novel. The Westminster Review, though mostly well-disposed to Romola, was critical of the design of the relevant chapters, noting that they were 'strangely disconnected with the rest of the tale'. Echoing the Westminster Review's disapproval, George Levine reads the Costanza episode as an unconscionable intrusion, an obvious intervention, incongruous in a historical novel.

The completion of the symbolic pattern is clear enough. But even more clear is the fact that George Eliot herself has put justice in the world. Her own great yearning for it sought a method by which to embody it: the method was romance.3

Dorothea Barrett's introduction to the Penguin edition of Romola similarly treats both chapters as a conscious interruption, an attempt to introduce a 'utopian element'.4 In contrast, some recent criticism has attempted to reintegrate the chapters into the overall design. For Shona Elizabeth Simpson the episode marks the climax of Romola's ongoing 'negotiations with her environment, plotted as a progression from her father's library, to open streets, to the countryside. 'Romola's Waking' enacts Romola's rebirth in a space not controlled by others in which she can establish her own destiny. Any incoherence in the novel is introduced not by this episode but by the concluding scene, where Romola promises tuition to Tito's son but not his daughter.6 Julian Corner describes a psychological history that traces Romola's problems back to the traumatic loss of her mother; Romola is completely dissociated from her environment, and her compulsion to set herself adrift is the fulfilment of desire that has been expressed throughout the novel. If there is discontinuity in these chapters, then this is actually compatible with Romola's fundamental alienation throughout the novel,