Associations of Force
Romola is by far George Eliot's least accessible novel, a fact that even the author herself recognized and admitted during the arduous writing process. The general conception has always been that it is the meticulously researched and often overwhelmingly descriptive historical setting that introduces the intensified level of distance and difficulty to the work. It was probably this that fellow novelist Anthony Trollope was considering when he cautioned George Eliot against focusing on too narrow an audience. In a letter responding to his charge, George Eliot wrote:
Of necessity, the book is addressed to fewer readers than my previous works, and I myself have never expected—I might rather say intended— that the book should be as ‘popular’ in the same sense as the others. If one is to have freedom to write out one's own varying unfolding self, and not be a machine always grinding out the same material or spinning the same sort of web, one cannot always write for the same public.
It is likely that George Eliot was conscious of something more complicated in Romola than the struggle of her readers with the novel's geographically and temporally remote setting. Indeed, there is something particularly demanding about the syntax-about the reading and comprehension of Romola at the most basic level. As I have argued, the sentence structure in The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner is one that demands the reader's awareness of subtle vibratory movements or the rhythmic pulse of the text. But the syntax of Romola, the novel that comes after these, is not just about heightened awareness, but about direct pressure.