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Romola must surely be the hardest of novels to edit. Editors, in order to give useful and in many cases necessary explanatory notes, must steep themselves in the details of Renaissance Florence much as George Eliot herself did. That she researched her book too much, producing a historical novel of great complexity and humanity but one which the reader needs more than usual patience and intellectual curiosity to read with pleasure, is a commonplace of criticism. While the novel was in the early stages of composition, G. H. Lewes foresaw the problem and asked John Blackwood (who did not in the end publish Romola, as George Smith made a magnificent offer for it) to help him 'discountenance [George Eliot's] idea of a Romance being the product of an Encyclopaedia'.

Fortunately for editors of Romola, there are five surviving authorial notebooks with materials relevant to the progress of the novel. George Eliot's and Lewes's journals and letters, too, yield information about books bought and borrowed both in London and on two trips to Florence undertaken in May-June 1860 (when Lewes first suggested the idea of a historical romance on the life and times of Savonarola) and April-May 1861. In his Introduction Andrew Brown gives a clear account of the reading pursued, showing how closely George Eliot based her biographical and topical details on Pasquale Villari's Storia di Fra Girolamo Savonarola e de' suoi tempi in particular.

Indeed, the account given here of the novel's genesis George Eliot's secrecy about her idea, her fear of losing popularity by the choice of a non-English subject, and her allowing Silas Marner to usurp the Italian novel during the winter of 1860-1-is a masterpiece of lucidity and conciseness. So also is the description of the pains of authorship, always acute with George Eliot but never more so than with the bold departure represented by the setting of Romola. Another departure from the usual was the publication of the novel, by Smith's persuasion, in monthly parts in his Cornhill Magazine. This was the first and only time she submitted to write in this way (Middlemarch was also produced serially, but not for a magazine), and it caused her much misery.

Brown chooses as his copy-text for this Clarendon edition the first appearance of the novel in the Cornhill Magazine in 1862-3. His reasons are cogent: there is no edition of the novel for which a full set of proofs corrected by George Eliot survives, except the much later Cabinet Edition published by Blackwood in 1877-8, in which the changes from previous editions are very few. Setting from the manuscript kin the British Library would be impracticable because it is less a fair copy than a working draft, full of inaccuracies of spelling and punctuation. The sensible thing to do, in Brown's view, is to accept the Cornhill text for the most part, reinstating MS readings occasionally when there seems evidence that George Eliot did not approve of a change by the printer, and preferring some readings from subsequent editions where we know that George Eliot corrected a reading.

On the whole, this method of choosing a copy-text is acceptable, though of course it is open to the objection that it produces a text of Romola which never existed in the present form.

More problematic is the decision to put all explanatory footnotes to the end of the volume. Brown was faced with two problems here. first, George Eliot's own footnotes, which are unique in her oeuvre, and which consist of translations of words and phrases given in Italian in the text itself; and secondly, Brown's own footnotes to names and places and quotations in the text. To take the latter first. These notes are excellent: full, detailed, informative, chasing George Eliot's sources through her exceptionally wide reading in general literature as well as Florentine lore. Often these notes are necessarily lengthy; it is therefore sensible to put them at the end of the volume and not at the foot of the page, where they would jostle in unwieldy fashion with the variant readings which take up the bottom inch of most pages. But George Eliot's notes are different. They appeared at the bottom of the page in all editions of the novel, and they ought probably to have been kept there. The logic which dictated that Frederic Leighton's illustrations from the Cornhill edition be kept in should have extended to the author's footnotes. That said, this edition is both handsome and invaluable to scholars of George Eliot.
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Author:Ashton, Rosemary
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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