Wherefore art thou, Romola?

This just in: the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Romola is out of print. Does that mean it is losing (or should I say winning?) the battle for “least read George Eliot novel”? Admittedly, it does contain the truly terrible line of dialogue “you are as welcome as the cheese to the macaroni” (an Italian friend of mine assures me that in Italian, this idiomatic expression does not sound nearly so, well, cheesy)–but Romola is a truly extraordinary novel in many ways. Romola herself can be a bit tiresome in her pursuit of virtue (she’s a bit like a trial run at Dorothea Brooke), but even she has some great dramatic moments–the encounter with Savonarola when she’s finally seized the courage to run away from her unworthy husband among them. And that unworthy husband, Tito Melema, may be George Eliot’s greatest portrait of an egotist whose small concessions to self-interest accumulate until he achieves a truly villainous status. And the “dead hand” that in Middlemarch is a metaphor for men’s grasping efforts to control events from beyond the grave, is literalized in Romola in this extraordinary scene between Tito and the adoptive father he believed long dead and thus unable to expose his self-serving lies:

“An escape of prisoners,” said Lorenzo Tornabuoni, as he and his party turned round just against the steps of the Duomo, and saw a prisoner rushing by them. “The people are not content with having emptied the Bargello the other day. If there is no other authority in sight they must fall on the sbirri and secure freedom to thieves. Ah! there is a French soldier: that is more serious.”

The soldier he saw was struggling along on the north side of the piazza, but the object of his pursuit had taken the other direction. That object was the eldest prisoner, who had wheeled round the Baptistery and was running towards the Duomo, determined to take refuge in that sanctuary rather than trust to his speed. But in mounting the steps, his foot received a shock; he was precipitated towards the group of signori, whose backs were turned to him, and was only able to recover his balance as he clutched one of them by the arm.

It was Tito Melema who felt that clutch. He turned his head, and saw the face of his adoptive father, Baldassarre Calvo, close to his own.

The two men looked at each other, silent as death: Baldassarre, with dark fierceness and a tightening grip of the soiled worn hands on the velvet-clad arm; Tito, with cheeks and lips all bloodless, fascinated by terror. It seemed a long while to them–it was but a moment.

The first sound Tito heard was the short laugh of Piero di Cosimo, who stood close by him and was the only person that could see his face.

“Ha, ha! I know what a ghost should be now.”

“This is another escaped prisoner,” said Lorenzo Tornabuoni. “Who is he, I wonder?”

Some madman, surely,” said Tito.

He hardly knew how the words had come to his lips: there are moments when our passions speak and decide for us, and we seem to stand by and wonder. They carry in them an inspiration of crime, that in one instant does the work of long premeditation.

The two men had not taken their eyes off each other, and it seemed to Tito, when he had spoken, that some magical poison had darted from Baldassarre’s eyes, and that he felt it rushing through his veins. But the next instant the grasp on his arm had relaxed, and Baldassarre had disappeared within the church. (full text here)

I think Oxford is missing a bet in letting this one slip out of its catalogue. All is not lost, however. The Penguin Classics edition is still available, as is the Broadview edition which, though it has two columns of tiny print and so is not kind to the weak-eyed among us, includes Frederick Leighton’s gorgeous illustrations:

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