The last book of Romola actually focuses on the titular character more than on her husband, Tito. She became a disciple of Fra Girolamo Savonarola. Although sure she will never again be truly happy, Romola is glad to have “a reason for living, apart from personal enjoyment and personal affection” (ch. 44). She carries “from day to day into the abodes of pestilence and misery the sublime excitement of a gladness that, since such anguish existed, she too existed to make some of the anguish less bitter” (ch. 55). This she owes to Savonarola and, despite being uncomfortable with his more mystical teachings, she relies on him for the strength to continue.
When Romola’s belief in Savonarola is shaken, she again runs away from her husband. No longer wishing to live, she copies the actions of the subject of a story from one of her father’s books and puts herself to sea in a boat, hoping to die. In a strange, surreal sequence, she wakes up with her boat by a beautiful village which she finds to have been struck by the plague. She nurses the people back to health and then has a time of contemplation leading to some self-knowledge: “She questioned the justness of her own conclusions, of her own deeds: she had been rash, arrogant, always dissatisfied that others were not good enough, while she herself had not been true to what her soul had once recognised as best” (ch. 69). She returns home and finds that her husband has been murdered (in an abrupt ending for Tito) and Savonarola imprisoned.
In an earlier scene, Tito met with Savonarola and tricked him into handing over letters which were then waylaid and exposed, leading to Savonarola’s arrest. Savonarola’s political life was already troubled when Tito came and he was having a time of self-examination and is conscious of “irrevocable errors and lapses from veracity … entwined with noble purposes and sincere beliefs” and “self-justifying expediency … inwoven with the tissue of a great work” (ch. 64). I was strongly reminded of Tito himself. He considers that the end of life is “to extract the utmost sum of pleasure” (Book 1, ch. 11). For this end he is willing to use expediency, to have “lapses from veracity”, even though occasionally uncomfortable with the grim, even disagreeable demands (ch. 60) this makes on him. Obviously, Tito’s goal (pleasure) is entirely different from Savonarola’s (the purification of the church and mankind from immorality and corruption), but they both use deceit in their pursuit of these goals. Also unlike Savonarola, Tito sees nothing wrong with these “lapses”, while the former has an uneasy conscience because of them.
Like The Mill on the Floss before it, Romola is largely concerned with a debate between pleasure and asceticism. Romola’s brother, Dino, became a monk, seeking a life “in which there would be no uneasy hunger after pleasure” (Book 1, ch. 15 — doesn’t that sound like Maggie Tulliver?). Tito, on the other hand, actively seeks pleasure as an end in and of itself. Then there is Romola, who recoils from the monastic life her brother chose, seeing it as an escape from his duty to their father (something, I should point out, Maggie would never have done), but who also feels that, for her, pleasure is over and lives a life of charity apart from personal enjoyment.
Another theme throughout the novel is honesty versus deceit. Although Bardo de’ Bardi’s life was so largely concerned with gaining glory for himself, he used no underhand means to try to effect this. Romola told him, “Yours is a higher lot, never to have lied and truckled, than to have shared honours won by dishonour” (Book 1, ch. 5). Then there are Savonarola, who gets carried away in the glory of his cause, and Tito, to whom deceit in necessary for his own ease and safety. What is not really explored is whether the ends justify the means, though none of these men, honest or dishonest, realizes the end they sought.
Savonarola, as George Eliot portrays him, resembles both Romola’s father and her husband. Like the former, he sought his own glory. This was closely intertwined with the furthering of his more noble goals. Bardo also sought recognition for his work. Savonarola’s methods were unfortunately closer to those of Tito. In the end, Savonarola is executed, “not because he sought to deceive the world, but because he sought to make it noble” (ch. 71).
Romola finds Tessa and her children and takes them in. In an epilogue, eleven years after the death of Savonarola, Tessa’s son remarks that he would like “to be something that would make me a great man, and very happy besides”. Romola tells him that her father was a great man because “he chose poverty and obscurity rather than falsehood.” She says that Savonarola was great because he spent his life “in struggling against powerful wrong, and in trying to raise men to the highest deeds they are capable of.” She also knew a man who tried to avoid anything unpleasant and yet “calamity overtook him.”
“[I]f you mean to act nobly and seek to know the best things God has put within reach of men, you must learn to fix your mind on that end, and not on what will happen to you because of it. And remember, if you were to choose something lower, and make it the rule of your own life to seek your own pleasure and escape from what is disagreeable, calamity might come just the same” (Epilogue).
Painting of “St. Mary Magdalene” by Piero di Cosimo (1462 – 1522). I thought about using one of his paintings of the “Madonna”, a title frequently used to refer to Romola, but this one suited her better. Piero di Cosimo is one of a number of historical characters included in George Eliot’s novel Romola.