Romola is the least of George Eliot's novels. If you're reading this, you probably didn't need me to tell you that.
What you might hope to have some insight into is, should I read it? Probably you're a person who reads a lot, likes Victorian novels, you've read a few other George Eliot novels, and you're wondering, should I carry on and read Romola?
Well, my answer is, hmm, maybe, but probably not.
Of course, there's a certain charm in being completist, and this is George Eliot, so it's not terrible or anything, but I finished it and I thought, I would have been better off rereading one of hers I hadn't read in a while, say TheMill on the Floss in my case. Ah, well.
The events take place in late 15th century Florence. At the very beginning Lorenzo de' Medici has just died. This is in 1492. His son Piero de' Medici is unable to establish himself, and Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican priest, becomes the guiding hand of the restored Florentine republic, until his fall and death in 1498. The French king occupies Florence for a while. It's an exciting time, but the politics are complicated. Eliot gives you a lot of--perhaps too many--details, but it can still be confusing. The main events of the novel take place over these six years.
The two main characters are Tito Melema and Romola. Tito is a poor Greek-speaker from southern Italy who has acquired an education and is hoping to make it in Florence, a leading point of Italian culture at the time. Romola is the daughter of a renowned but aging humanist scholar in Florence; her brother has become a Dominican priest and has been cut off by her anti-clerical father. Tito comes to take the place of that son in the father's eyes, but Tito's ambitions will go beyond simple scholarship. But he does marry Romola.
It's Tito I thought the main problem in the novel, and Tito dominates the first half. He's a weak man, who wants to be liked, and can't make himself do the things he knows he should if it will be unpleasant in the short term. He's like Arthur Donnithorne in Adam Bede in this, except while we see Arthur from the side, we're constantly with Tito. It's not like Tito is unrealistic, we know the type, but it's painful and slow to spend time with him. And Eliot's great virtue I think is her sympathy; Tito is Arthur without the bit of redemptive uplift at the end. His fall can't be considered a tragedy. In the end he's just a villain.
Romola herself is more successful, though there were points where I was not convinced her psychology was appropriate to a fifteenth century woman. Of course realism is not required in a novel, but I think of George Eliot as generally a realistic writer and not a fantasist. Romola is given a happier ending with a constructed family.
There are a number of portraits of actual historical figures: the painter Piero di Cosimo has a minor but amusing and important role, a young Niccolò Machiavelli appears, the pro-Medicean politician Bernardo del Nero is Romola's godfather. But the other major character is Savonarola himself, of whom Eliot gives a fairly full portrait. Eliot, from the Methodists in her family background, is interested in reforming religious figures, and she's fairly sympathetic to Savonarola, and he plays a prominent role both in the history, but also in the lives of the characters. I don't know enough about Savonarola to comment on the accuracy, but he was interesting as portrayed.
Well, it was George Eliot on an off-day, or an off three years, it seems, even if it feels a bit hubristic of me to say it. But, in any case, that's still George Eliot.