Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 45 (2014)
Romola can be seen as a landmark in George Eliot's career, when we bear in mind her striking confession to her second husband, John Cross: 'I began it a young woman -, I finished it an old woman' (Haight  362). Many of her readers, indeed, felt it represented a new departure, far from the world of Adam Bede, Mrs Poyser and Silas Mamer. It was a more ambitious novel, with more refined and educated characters, set in a foreign country, in a distant past. Her first works of fiction were also set in the past, but only one or two generations before, and some of them Mr Gilfil's Love-Story', Adam Bede and Si/as Mamer) might have been given the same subtitle as Walter Scott's Waverley, "Tis sixty years since'. Because she had such a great admiration for Scott, George Eliot was bound sooner or later to write a truly historical novel. And this was Romola, dealing with the political and religious situation in Florence at the very end of the fifteenth century, and introducing the complex historical character of Savonarola, the controversial Dominican friar who regarded himself as a prophet, although his enemies declared that he was a liar and a hypocrite, and whose death George Eliot saw as a possible redefinition of the idea of martyrdom (Carroll ).
The political theme here is something new, which she was to develop in her late novels. But, because of the intricacies between politics and religion in the life of Savonarola, it is given secondary importance compared with religion, a familiar theme of her early novels. What is new in this respect, however, is that it is the first and last time Eliot deals with Roman Catholicism, instead of Anglicanism, Evangelicalism, Methodism and other varieties of Nonconformity. Here, Eliot's reader is confronted with aspects of religion with which he is not necessarily familiar, because they belong to Catholicism in its earlier form: popular religious festivals, processions, bonfires of vanities, a corrupted papacy, excommunications, etc. Against this exotic historical background, it is interesting to see what religion represents in the lives of the characters, particularly in the experience of Romola, the heroine of the novel.