This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. Another out-of-sequence piece, since it so complements last week's one; a review of George Eliot’s novel Romola. Published first on Jul 19 2019.
Tito was experiencing that inexorable law of human souls, that we prepare ourselves for sudden deeds by the reiterated choice of good or evil which gradually determines character. ~ George Eliot
One reason compelled me to pick up George Eliot’s early 1860s novel Romola—not her most noted contribution to literature, but nonetheless perhaps one of her best. That is, my long standing fascination with the historical oddity that is Girolamo Savonarola. The Dominican friar—and one time de facto dictator of Florence—managed, in many of his commitments and complaints, to anticipate religious and political upheavals. And with her usual insight, Eliot captures him evocatively, dissecting his personality and historical meaning. It is this quality, whether writing about mass social forces or particular people, that always lends her writing its singular value—she captures moments, richly and in their full and powerful context, a distillation of what came before and what could come after.
Savonarola, who denounced with a rare boldness the worldliness and vicious habits of the clergy, and insisted on the duty of Christian men not to live for their own ease when wrong was triumphing in high places, and not to spend their wealth in outward pomp even in the churches, when their fellow-citizens were suffering from want and sickness. The Frate carried his doctrine rather too far for elderly ears; yet it was a memorable thing to see a preacher move his audience to such a pitch that the women even took off their ornaments, and delivered them up to be sold for the benefit of the needy. But the real force of demonstration for Girolamo Savonarola lay in his own burning indignation at the sight of wrong; in his fervent belief in an Unseen Justice that would put an end to the wrong, and in an Unseen Purity to which lying and uncleanness were an abomination. To his ardent, power-loving soul, believing in great ends, and longing to achieve those ends by the exertion of its own strong will, the faith in a supreme and righteous Ruler became one with the faith in a speedy divine interposition that would punish and reclaim.
Also notable is a passage describing the consequences and power of Savonarola’s rhetoric, which I hope you will forgive me for also quoting at length, given the beauty of Eliot’s prose:
In Savonarola’s preaching there were strains that appealed to the very finest susceptibilities of men’s natures, and there were elements that gratified low egoism, tickled gossiping curiosity, and fascinated timorous superstition. His need of personal predominance, his labyrinthine allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures, his enigmatic visions, and his false certitude about the Divine intentions, never ceased, in his own large soul, to be ennobled by that fervid piety, that passionate sense of the infinite, that active sympathy, that clear-sighted demand for the subjection of selfish interests to the general good, which he had in common with the greatest of mankind. But for the mass of his audience all the pregnancy of his preaching lay in his strong assertion of supernatural claims, in his denunciatory visions, in the false certitude which gave his sermons the interest of a political bulletin; and having once held that audience in his mastery, it was necessary to his nature—it was necessary for their welfare—that he should keep the mastery. The effect was inevitable. No man ever struggled to retain power over a mixed multitude without suffering vitiation; his standard must be their lower needs and not his own best insight.
Nonetheless, what kept me fascinated by this novel was not, ultimately, Savonarola, but rather Eliot’s more overriding preoccupation as a writer and storyteller. This is explored through the fictional Italianate-Greek scholar and protagonist of the fist section, Tito Melema.
That is, the theme of moral degradation only lightly illuminated by the more occasional intrusion of the Dominican tyrant and prophetic martyr. And why not, as Eliot has always been best at examining the extraordinary dimensions of supposedly ordinary lives. It is for that reason that moral degradation is a theme uniquely suited to her. As has been noted:
Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary. ~ Blaise Pascal
That is, despite the fact that Romola is rooted in grand political drama, its key insight is essentially the same as that contained within her earlier, more grounded works:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. ~ GE, Middlemarch
Tito arrives in Florence at the book’s beginning with all the suggestions of a great man, someone of moral nuance and seriousness. His ultimate, inverted fate, then, is all the more powerful for being rendered plausible at every step. Eliot does not deal in great downfalls or satanic temptations, but in the drip-drip of smaller transgressions that lead to evil because they degrade our capacity to resist future transgressions, and because they make the way back gradually, even imperceptibly, much harder. Therefore:
The contaminating effect of deeds often lies less in the commission than in the consequent adjustment of our desires—the enlistment of our self-interest on the side of falsity; as, on the other hand, the purifying influence of public confession springs from the fact, that by it the hope in lies is for ever swept away, and the soul recovers the noble attitude of simplicity.
Tito does not decisively break from his earlier good character, but as he neglects a duty to his adoptive father, deceives two lovers and ingratiates himself into a corrupting world of cynical political factions; he slowly loses himself. A fact that is largely illuminated by the contrasting journey of another character. From her relative isolation at the beginning, through reverent faith and towards a mature humanism, the titular Romola, Tito’s principle romantic interest, illustrates Eliot’s idea in the other direction.
We are brought to conclude, not through argument but story, with Eliot’s suppositions about morality. We are brought there because her story rings true with our own experiences, because she is one of the finest writers on the ordinary. Moreover, since the author has a keen sense that the micro and macro tend to reflect—as above, so below—we are thereby given insight on an historical moment as a moral parable, and into how ‘ordinary’ human beings shape history:
Our lives make a moral tradition for our individual selves, as the life of mankind at large makes a moral tradition for the race; and to have once acted nobly seems a reason why we should always be noble. But Tito was feeling the effect of an opposite tradition: he had won no memories of self-conquest and perfect faithfulness from which he could have a sense of falling.
In this sense, a good man is brought low not by a fundamental flaw but a series of small errors, and a good woman elevated by a series of small kindnesses; Romola is the opposite of the conventional heroes journey, the conventional tragedy. It is heroism and tragedy on a human scale, with a humane perspective on the unfolding of events.
Romola does miss some opportunities, admittedly. For example, Machiavelli makes appearances, but unfortunately not as the complicated hero of Antonio Gramsci, nor as Salman Rushdie’s great fictionalised satirist or Erica Benner’s misunderstood philosopher, but merely as a cheeky promoter of vice. This is a Machiavelli who provokes for its own sake, rather than offering devastating insight on a historical moment:
The only safe blows to be inflicted on men and parties are the blows that are too heavy to be avenged. […] Satan was a blunderer, an introducer of novita, who made a stupendous failure. If he had succeeded, we should all have been worshipping him, and his portrait would have been more flattered. […] If a prophet is to keep his power, he must be a prophet like Mahomet, with an army at his back, that when the people’s faith is fainting it may be frightened into life again.
Unfortunately, this Machiavelli also means his provocations, and is therefore a shallow interlocutor rather than someone whose complexity could rival Savonarola’s. It is an inevitable shortcoming of most historical fiction that it’s not going to be able to do justice to all of the events and people it depicts—Thomas More, another historical fascination of mine, has quite recently been mistreated in much the same way.
A book that takes on human frailty, but also our ability to rise above it.
Nonetheless, stripped of its historical commentary, what remains is a great addition to Eliot’s already impressive narrative work. A book that takes on human frailty, but also our ability to rise above it.
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.