English Seminar: Sophie Frazer, ‘“Speaking brokenly”: George Eliot’s Romola and the phenomenology of loss’
Sophie Frazer, ‘“Speaking brokenly”: George Eliot’s Romola and the phenomenology of loss’
George Eliot’s historical romance Romola (1862-3) has long been considered a failure. An ambitious revivification of Renaissance Florence, with an awkward, obsessive verisimilitude, Romola has often been judged a failure of style and story. Much of the derision has centred on the eponymous heroine, an allegorised Madonna-incarnate, or, in the words of John Kucich, ‘a lifeless paragon of virtue.’ Some readers have found parts of the novel – most notably Romola’s single-handed salvation of a plague-ridden village – as an embarrassing misstep in Eliot’s soberly realist project.
In this paper, I argue that Romola is one of the most affectively intelligent of Eliot’s fictional characters. More than that, I claim for Romola the text a privileged place in the author’s oeuvre, one that demands a re-evaluation of the figure at its centre, especially if we are to contend with the text’s ostensible lifelessness: for Romola imagines deeper than any of her counterparts what it might mean to live with the endlessness of mourning. Denied the absolution (in narrative terms) of either heterosexual love, or the martyrdom of death, Romola must live with the banal fact of loss, a sacrifice that the logic of the text insists upon. I want to resist the critical commonplace that the novel’s brilliant scope and archival quality somehow subtract from its affective power: for Romola is rich in imaginative feel; the sense of stumbling through the reading of this novel, of a dimming of perceptual faculties, is central to Eliot’s decentring of vision.
In my reading, I account for the text’s reliance upon visual strategies of representation, or what I describe as an aesthetic of visualised mourning, by drawing out the complexity with which Eliot depicts the instability of the optical in Romola. The project of Victorian empiricism, with its drive toward materialist perfectibility, becomes here a confession of the inherent volatility of empirical data derived as sense impressions. Building upon the work of Moira Gatens, I draw out the ways Eliot gave vitality to Spinoza’s philosophy of affect, the thinker with whose work she felt a particular and intimate resonance, in crafting the novel’s phenomenological contours. Romola allowed Eliot the scope to push to its farthest limit the implications of Spinoza’s corporeal imagination, and the result is a thrilling portrait of a fictive mind feeling itself at work in heightened sensory incarnation.
Through being attentive to the correspondences of psychic pain and decentralized perspectival geographies, I will argue that we take seriously the phenomenally descriptive in its own right as performing a different ontology of radical loss, and a different kind of literary criticism.
Sophie Frazer has a PhD in English from the University of Sydney, where she teaches literature and Film Studies. She is currently writing her first book, with the working title of Vision, Mourning, and Loss: Victorian Narratives of Optical Disenchantment.
This event will be held online via Zoom.
Contact: Liam Semler (firstname.lastname@example.org).