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  • Republican Liberty in George Eliot's Romola
  • Gary Wihl

Set in Florence at the origin of modern republicanism, George Eliot's Romola (1862–63) combines a nuanced account of political humanism with a melodramatic story of misfortune and betrayal. The novel's unwieldy union of exaggerated emotion and pathos with a superabundance of historical detail has left it Eliot's most neglected work. In this essay, I shall argue that the formal imperfections of the novel are indeed flawed experiments, but they deserve renewed attention because they are driven by a bold effort to work through Victorian problems in democratic reform, perhaps more deeply than Eliot's contemporaries John Stuart Mill or Matthew Arnold. Eliot's efforts to map Victorian democratic reforms onto a crucial phase in European republicanism do not suffice to make Romola a better novel than it actually is. But the political depth of Eliot's novel is its most neglected or misread aspect, what defines its place in Eliot's development as a novelist and what connects the novel to a rich source of intellectual history, specifically Florentine republican politics between the collapse and restoration of the Medician dynasty.1 The story of the novel's main character, Romola, begins against the background of the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492 and the flight of his cowardly son Piero upon the invasion of Charles VIII in 1494. It continues the story of Romola's marriage and separation from her husband against the background of the first republican Florentine government, led by the Franciscan prior Savonarola, who establishes a form of representational, constitutional government in a Grand Council but who is subsequently caught up in Papal and Medician antirepublican conspiracies, tried, and executed for heresy in 1498. The story draws to a conclusion during the high point of Florentine republican government from 1498 up to 1509, just before the Medicis regain control of Florence in 1512.

In the critical period between the death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1492 and the torture of Savonarola in 1498, Florence found itself at the crossroads [End Page 247] of modern republican government: an aristocratic governing class was rapidly losing power; Florence was caught between strategic alliances with Charles the VIII of France, who temporarily occupied the republican city as protector and defender, and the Papacy and its allies to the south that provoked the development of the populist, anti-Papist reform movements in Florence led by Savonarola.2 Machiavelli observed the Florentine political drama and based many of his theories of the state on his Florentine experience.3 Indeed, young Niccolo is a character in Eliot's novel.

Knowing something of the genuine political complexity of the Florentine crisis and its legacy on republican thought in Machiavelli's writing deepens the interpretation of Eliot's novel and refines its position in the development of her skills and intentions as a novelist. The period from 1512 up to the final and decisive regaining of power by the Medicis in 1530 covers the development of the most influential republican doctrines associated with the rise of modern democracy.4 The novel's historical setting is one of the most carefully studied phases of republican development in Western intellectual history. Romola covers only a segment, primarily the Savonarolean segment, of the period from 1492 to 1530 in Florence. But the entire phase of republican government and political discourse between the Medician flight and restoration is virtually an intellectual laboratory where various mixtures of humanist rhetoric, classical constitutional theory, and Christian and secular notions of fortune and virtue were refined, argued, and synthesized. The tumultuous relationships between the fledgling Italian republics of Florence and Venice, bounded by the military conflicts between the kings of France and the Papal alliances with Milan and Rome, gave rise to the most intense bursts of republican activity on the Continent prior to the French Revolution. The development of Florentine political theory centered on the writings of Machiavelli is on a par with the explosion of literary and political writing that surrounded the American constitutional convention of 1787 or the portrayal of the French revolution from Burke through the first-and second-generation English Romantics.

Neglect or underestimation of...


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