Wednesday 28 May 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: R is for Rome

The Secret Victorianist was in Rome last week to visit the same sites admired by Byron and Shelley, but it was the reaction of a fictional character to the eternal city which was playing most on my mind. Dorothea Brooke, a central character in George Eliot’s 1871-2 Middlemarch, is less than impressed by Rome and its history when on her honeymoon tour.

Rome, Eliot argues, can only be appreciated when its viewers possess knowledge as well as ardour:

'To those who have looked at Rome with the quickening power of a knowledge which breathes a growing soul into all historic shapes, and traces out the suppressed transitions which unite all contrasts, Rome may still be the spiritual centre and interpreter of the world.’

This historical and specifically classical knowledge is precisely what Dorothea lacks. I have already posted about women’s lack of access to classical education in the nineteenth century and, as a result of this, even Rome – the centre of the classical world – becomes meaningless here in the light of Dorothea’s ignorance.

The Secret Victorianist in Rome
‘But let them [those with knowledge] conceive one more historical contrast: the gigantic broken revelations of that Imperial and Papal city thrust abruptly on the notions of a girl who had been brought up in English and Swiss Puritanism, fed on meagre Protestant histories and on art chiefly of the hand-screen sort; a girl whose ardent nature turned all her small allowance of knowledge into principles, fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick emotions gave the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or a pain; a girl who had lately become a wife, and from the enthusiastic acceptance of untried duty found herself plunged in tumultuous preoccupation with her personal lot.’

This passage contains a lot. The ‘gigantic broken revelations’ of Rome suggest the fragmentary nature of Dorothea’s intellectual awareness as well as the physical realities of the ruined city, made more obvious to one who can’t ‘trace out’ the past from the surrounding ruins. Meanwhile, Rome’s subsequent role as centre of the Catholic faith has profound implications for how a puritanical Protestant will respond even to its classical past, with Eliot highlighting the more lowly nature of Protestant histories and passing negative judgement on their corresponding aesthetics.

Dorothea judges everything in terms of morality – her ‘ardent nature’ is inseparable from her moral code, leaving her uncertain as to how to respond to Rome. And added to this her personal circumstances, as a bride, navigating a new life role, compounds her confusion.

Rome for Dorothea is an unreadable cipher, emphasising her comparative ignorance, and a city which is morally, as well as mentally, unsettling, given its Catholicism and the separation between morality and aestheticism found in the classical art she encounters (and in front of which Will Ladislaw first sees her). And along with both these things, this confusing city becomes a manifestation of Dorothea’s inner turmoil as she reassesses her life role, following on from her marriage.

Rome confuses Dorothea then not because she thinks too little, but because she thinks too much, making her painfully aware of the cacophony of emotions explored above:

‘The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions.’

Rome then for Dorothea is a ‘vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation’ – hardly a line the tourist board should be adopting any time soon.

What should be ‘S’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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