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Literature / Romola

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Romola (1862-1863) was George Eliot's only attempt to write a full-blown historical novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott. It explores late 15th-century Florentine religion and politics through the eyes of the beautiful, highly educated Romola and Tito, her witty, cultured and entirely amoral husband. As the story unfolds, Romola becomes disenchanted with her husband, enchanted by the fiery reforming Dominican Savonarola, and then disenchanted once again. Given the sheer amount of research involved, some of it done on the spot, Eliot found Romola extremely difficult to write; famously, she said afterward that "I began it a young woman,I finished it an old woman."

The novel was well received in the Victorian period, but is now one of Eliot's less-read novels. It was last adapted for film in 1925.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Asshole Victim: Tito, eventually.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Deconstructed. Romola, Tito and Tessa are all exquisitely beautiful, but Romola verges on the angelic, Tito is out for the main chance, and Tessa is so innocent that she seems to have no moral sense whatsoever.
  • Break the Haughty: Savonarola tells Romola that instead of leaving her awful husband and abandoning Florence, she must remain and sacrifice her desires. She falls under his spell, at least temporarily.
  • Character Title
  • Contrived Coincidence: Not only does Baldassare wind up in Florence with his disobedient adopted son, but also Romola's brother Dino (a.k.a. Fra Luca) was the one who transmitted Baldassare's plea for help to Tito.
  • Corrupt Church: Savonarola spends the novel crusading against what he sees as the decadence of Alexander VI's church.
  • Death by Irony: Tito escapes from rioters by jumping into the river and swimming away, only to wash up at Baldassare's feet. Needless to say, Baldassare takes advantage of the opportunity.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Romola, whose humanist education prepares her to do... nothing, really, in fifteenth-century Florence.
  • Dirty Coward: Tito, who is terrified when Baldassare reappears, and later walks around wearing chain mail under his clothes.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Savonarola.
  • Generation Xerox: At the end, Romola is trying to save Tessa's children from the flaws of their parents.
  • Gold Digger: Tito is a male version.
  • The Hedonist: Tito. Also Tessa, to a certain extent, but her hedonism is more innocent sensuality than full-blown pleasure-seeking.
  • Historical Domain Character: Savonarola, Machiavelli and Bernardo del Nero are the most prominent examples.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: For about the first half of the novel, virtually everybody when it comes to Tito. Eventually, most of the characters wise up, although some of them remain open to using him for their own nefarious purposes.
  • Kick the Dog: Tito leaves Baldassare in slavery; then, when Baldassare shows up again, Tito denies that he even knows him.
  • Man on Fire: Savonarola's supposed to undergo a trial by fire, but it doesn't come off. He's later burnt at the stake, which completely destroys his reputation.
  • Memento MacGuffin: Tito's ring, a gift from his adoptive father, Baldassare.
  • Moral Guardians: Within the novel, Savonarola.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Dino (Fra Luca) has a vision of an evil man who wants to marry Romola.
  • Rags to Riches: The orphaned Tito turns out to be quite upwardly mobile.
  • Revenge: Baldassare intends to punish Tito for his cruelty and ingratitude. He succeeds.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Most notably, the triptych with Tito as Bacchus and Romola as Ariadne, and the frequent associations of Romola with the Virgin Mary.
  • Secret Other Family: Tito's family with his other "wife", Tessa.
  • Shown Their Work: The novel is deeply indebted to both the primary sources and the best 19th-century scholarship. We briefly "meet" one of Eliot's 15th-century sources near the end. (For some readers, this is actually the novel's biggest problem.)
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Unsuccessfully. Both Romola and Tessa are under the impression that Tito is a fine, upright fellow, which he most certainly isn't.
  • Together in Death: Baldassare dies immediately after murdering Tito, and the bodies cannot be separated.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Romola chews out Savonarola when he tells her that he won't stop Bernardo's execution.