According to the proem to Romola, it seems the point of this novel is to demonstrate that people do not change much over time, “to remind us that we still resemble the men of the past more than we differ from them”. Mankind is much the same in 1863 (when Romola was published), as they were in 1492 (when the action of the story begins — Romola is a historical novel). Of course, if that was George Eliot’s intention, it is much better proved today by her contemporary novels, assuming she drew a true picture of life during her own time.
So far in the book, Tito Melema, not Romola, is the main character. Very soon after Tito’s arrival in Florence, the painter Piero di Cosimo abruptly asks him, “Young man, I am painting a picture of Sinon deceiving old Priam, and I should be glad of your face for my Sinon”. When the barber Nello takes offense at this, Piero explains that “a perfect traitor should have a face which vice can write no marks on … I say not this young man is a traitor: I mean, he has a face that would make him the more perfect traitor if he had the heart of one” (ch. 4).
It is not long before we find out that the beautiful Tito is, indeed, a traitor. He was raised by an old scholar named Baldassarre Calvo. They were shipwrecked together. Tito escaped with valuable jewels of Baldassarre’s, but he does not know whether Baldassarre drowned or was captured by the Turks and sold into slavery. Instead of devoting Baldassarre’s money to finding out and rescuing him, Tito decides to stay in Florence with the money.
Tito keeps a ring which is “of virtue to make the wearer fortunate, especially at sea, and also to restore to him whatever he may have lost” (ch. 4). At first, I wondered whether this foreshadowed Baldassarre’s eventual restoration. The ring does help identify Tito to a stranger who gives him a note confirming that Baldassarre is now a slave. By this time, however, Tito has no intention of leaving Florence (involving, as it would, the admission of his meanness and leaving his new fiancée). He decides to sell the ring. “The ring had helped towards the recognition of him. Tito had begun to dislike recognition, which was a claim from the past.” (ch. 14).
Living in Florence is Bardo de’ Bardi. Imagine Mr. Casaubon (from George Eliot’s Middlemarch) and then imagine him blind and you have a pretty good idea of Bardo de’ Bardi. Imagine being his daughter and you have an idea of what life is life for the heroine, Romola. Of course, being raised amongst curios and dusty scholarship, she doesn’t know any other life. Tito, having been raised by a scholar, is of use to Bardo. He and Romola fall in love and the book ends with their marriage — a marriage which is obviously doomed. Besides being a traitor to Baldassarre, it is suggested that Tito will also be a traitor to Romola. When Tito found out that the stranger who gave him Baldassarre’s note was Romola’s brother, he thinks he will be found out. Under this impression, he has a mock wedding ceremony with a simple village girl named Tessa. Tessa obviously thinks she has really married him, however, and he does not undeceive her.
Romola’s brother, Fra Luca, has returned to Florence only to die. He left his father long ago to become a monk and his father disowned him. He calls Romola to him just before he dies to tell her of a repeated warning dream he had of her marrying with disastrous consequences. The irony is, of course, that if he had just been brotherly (instead of all mystical) and asked about Romola’s life, he would have learned that she was engaged to Tito and been able to effectively prevent the marriage.
Fra Luca expresses no regret for leaving their father.
“My father has … been like one busy picking shining stones in a mine, while there was a world dying of plague above him. … I told him the studies he wished me to live for were either childish trifling … or else they must be made warm and living by pulses that beat to worldly ambitions and fleshly lusts, for worldly ambitions and fleshly lusts made all the substance of the poetry and history he wanted me to bend my eyes on continually.” (ch. 15)
Despite his turning away from dead scholarship, Fra Luca takes up the monastic life because, he says, “I must have no affection, no hope, wedding me to that which passeth away”. This sounds very much like the kind of life Maggie Tulliver (The Mill on the Floss) sought for herself.
At the deathbed of Fra Luca was another Dominican friar, Fra Girolamo Savonarola. From the influence he had upon Romola, I predict that he will become a more prominent character later on. Not being familiar with fifteenth century Italy, I’m sure that a lot of information in the book was lost on me. I did recognize Niccolò Machiavelli as being an historical character, and I am sure there were others.
Illustrations: A book cover with Lillian Gish as Romola from a movie adaptation of Romola and Dorothy Gish as Tessa in the same adaptation.