Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 45 (2014)
George Eliot's two Marmite novels - given their reputations, not everyone tries them, and when they do, they often leave them only partially digested - Romola (1862-3), the one she famously said aged her, and Felix Holt (1866), the one with that involved legal plot, were the focus of last year's George Eliot Conference sponsored by the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. Nevertheless, despite their uneven appeal, the Conference drew a tolerably-sized audience. Barbara Hardy (Birkbeck and Swansea) and Louise Lee (Roehampton) once again organized the Conference, bringing together a group of speakers who variously dealt with the topics of art, politics, religion and laughter.
Leonee Ormond (King's College London) gave the first of two longer papers, 'The Illustrations of Romola' - by Frederick Leighton (1830-1896). He was only 32 when commissioned by Eliot, having come to prominence during the 1855 exhibition of his painting 'Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Aorence', which Prince Albert urged Queen Victoria to buy. In a fascinating talk that helped the audience to visualize a number of Aorentine references, Ormond recalled Eliot's great delight in having Leighton as her illustrator. Besides her own long, painstaking research into all things fifthteenth-century Aorence, she called on him to confirm, among other things, details of dress and decorations in the frescos of the church of Santa Maria Novella. He was, therefore, instrumental in the way her characters are described, although he sometimes ignored the detail Eliot wanted. With the help of slides and handouts, Ormond also considered some of the artists who are either mentioned in Romola or appear as characters. A notable omission, Ormond reminded us, is Sandro Botticelli (c.l445-151O), which may seem odd, given his great popularity today. However, Ormond pointed out, Botticelli's fame post-dates Romola.